On Wednesday, we really began laying the groundwork for my class "Love, Sex, and Marriage in Medieval Literature." If the students were hoping for porn, they were disappointed. The first two weeks of class are spent contextualizing the literature, which will begin in earnest on the third week.
Beginning Monday, we'll be looking at the writings of Augustine (the City of God one, not the one who converted Athelbert of Kent) and Jerome on marriage. Of course, they aren't really medieval, but they provide the intellectual foundation for medieval thinking on the subject. And so, in order to understand Augustine and Jerome, I made the students read from 1 Corinthians 6:12 - 7:40.
One subject we discussed was the issue of privacy. I wanted to make sure they didn't have unrealistic expectations about the role of privacy. So far as I can tell, privacy as a concept didn't really exist in the Middle Ages. The word privat already existed in Middle English, but it seems to have meant "private" in the way the Americans mean "private schools" -- that is to say, not of the state, rather than secret in some way. That secret side of privacy seems to have been found in a different form as modesty. Though modesty and privacy are arguably related, they aren't really the same thing. If there is any concept close to privacy in the medieval world, I think it must be privy (ME prive). One can see how the privy council idea, which seems to have originally been similar to the kitchen cabinet of American politics, developed into the idea of secret council. And (to get scatological for a moment), the use of the word "privy" for a toilet gets a lot closer to what we mean by "privacy" in the modern sexual context. Though we can cobble together a concept of privacy from various places, it seems anachronistic to me.
It would be wrong to say that the end of 1 Corinthians 6 refutes the idea of privacy; rather, privacy is completely alien to it. Paul talks about how God owns the body, how the body is part of Christ, and how the body becomes one with any sexual partner, including prostitutes. Paul assigns ownership of the body more to the spouse than to the self, and more to God than to the spouse. In other words, if we considered the body a kind of corporate entity, not only isn't it a sole proprietorship -- the self is the least of the major shareholders!
Flipping through television today, I saw some talking heads arguing about the "Right to Privacy," and it occurred to me that our concept of privacy is an oddity. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any society that even shared our concept of privacy, let alone enshrining it as a right. From our oldest literature, Gilgamesh, we have the idea of prima nocte, or the sovereign's right to sleep with a bride before her husband.
I wonder when the idea that we refer to as "privacy" really came into being. A quick Google and JSTOR search didn't yield anything about medieval privacy, though I'm certain if I dug deep enough I'd find that someone has researched it. The dearth of work on it, combined with my inability to think of any examples in world literature, is suggestive that it may not really have existed before the modern era.
So, where did it come from? Liberals might claim that it is an outgrowth of enlightenment about individual rights. Conservatives might claim that it is an outgrowth of the push for limited government. I think, though, that it is far more likely that the concept of privacy isn't particularly enlightened or virtuous; instead, it is probably a survival mechanism we have developed as the human population on Earth has grown. To give a rough sense of what this means, I've seen estimates that put the European population of 1000 AD at about 40 million (no citation ... I can't recall where I saw this). Today, the EU has roughly ten times that number. Think of it -- the average European today has one-tenth the space of his ancestors a millennium ago. Or, consider these figures on the global scale. When Paul was writing, the upper-end figures for global population was about 400 million, compared to about 6 billion today. In other words, we have, at best, one-fifteenth the space that someone at the Church at Corinth had.
Is privacy (sexual or otherwise) an innate human right? Or is it, as I'm beginning to suspect, a mechanism we have developed as we have grown more jealous of our space?