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Overview of Doing History Through Private Life

Digital History TOPIC ID 65

Each generation writes its own history - a history that reflects its needs and concerns. During the tumultuous 1960s, historians focused on protest and the powerless, the dispossessed, and people at the margins of society - especially slaves, women, workers and racial and ethnic minorities.

Today's history needs to reflect the preoccupations of our time. We live in an age preoccupied with issues of identity and intimacy. We need a history that places those concerns in historical perspective. What I am going to suggest to you is that the history of the family or manners or sports is as worthy of study as the 30 Years War.

In the past, scholars mistakenly assumed that the history of private life was a chronicle of trivial changes in fashion and custom. After all, who needed to know when the bathtub was invented or when people began to eat with forks? But the history of private life is anything but trivial. Over the past 500 years, every aspect of our life has undergone profound transformations: our holidays, our manners, our relations with loved ones. These changes reflect a fundamental shift in human sensibilities - in our emotions, our moral outlooks, our sense of self, our psychic make-up.

Few of us think we are making history when we go about the daily business of our lives. But history is not made exclusively by great men. It is also made by ordinary people in the everyday course of their lives. Some of the most important cultural transformations are the result of countless individuals in their daily lives: the emergence of the modern family; the rise of the modern concept of privacy; the growth of individualism. All were the products of actions by countless nameless individuals.

Today, we look to private life for our deepest satisfactions. But our assumption that individuals are most likely to find happiness in the private sphere contrasts strikingly with the values prevailing in earlier societies. In the ancient world, the private domain was considered wholly inferior to the public world of politics and the military. In later periods of European history, privacy was also viewed negatively. What was private was considered shameful. About 200 years ago, however, a fundamental shift took place. It could be seen in the development of portraits, diaries, love letters, novels, and mirrors. Private life became the key to human happiness.

Most of us would regard the growing valuation of private life as a sign of progress. But in fact it is not an unmixed blessing. Many of the problems of contemporary society are due to an overload of expectation on private life, which it is incapable of fulfilling.

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