All By Myself

Solitude was treated with suspicion in the Middle Ages. For most people it has only been a possibility in recent times.

Interior with Woman Reading, by Carl Holsøe, Danish, early 20th century. 23 Photo © Connaught Brown/Bridgeman Images

In modern western society, time for oneself, alone and in private, is taken for granted. Since the late 19th century, access to solitude has been central to understandings of privacy, which was defined in an influential article from the 1890 Harvard Law Review as ‘the right to be let alone’. But this was not always the case. 

In medieval Europe, when life was a far more communal experience than it is today, solitude was considered ‘the worst form of poverty’. The Latin word solitudo, from which the modern English word solitude derives, implied a negative, uncivilised condition. The word lonely, which appeared in English in the early 17th century, was barely distinguishable from solitary for a further two centuries. Solitude was certainly familiar to monks, nuns, hermits and anchorites, but this was a particularly pious sort of isolation, designed to facilitate communion with God. It was not something that ordinary people should have access to.

The asceticism that some of these religious lifestyles embraced also reflected something fundamental about medieval views of solitude – it was a punishment. In the first century AD, Seneca argued that ‘solitude persuades us to every kind of evil ... everyone is better off in the company of somebody or other no matter who, than in his own company’. His views were cited throughout the Middle Ages and are emblematic of the suspicion with which medieval authorities regarded even temporary isolation.

Despite this overarching suspicion of being alone, it does seem that medieval people experienced the desire to be by themselves, at least some of the time. This is best reflected in the trope of the lovesick protagonist who flees to a chamber in order to indulge (often very dramatically), in their emotions. Troilus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde speeds ‘un-to his chambre ... faste allone ... every dore he shette’ from whence he proceeds to ‘[smyte] his brest ay with his festes’. But even Troilus, a Trojan prince, cannot take this privacy for granted and has to dismiss ‘a man of his or two’ from his chamber to obtain his solitude.

This reminds us of a problem which has faced people for much of history. Finding space to be alone was a challenge for rich and poor alike. Larger households would be filled with staff, while in the houses of those lower down the social scale, there was simply not enough room. The lack of privacy caused by all these bodies jostling for space was compounded by the nature of premodern architecture. Until corridors came into fashion during the 18th century (which in itself affected only the wealthiest households), houses were designed en enfilade, with rooms running onto each other. Household traffic was not contained within corridors, but rather moved through rooms, meaning that doors could (and did) swing open at compromising moments.

As the early modern period progressed, medieval suspicions around the concept of solitude diminished. Historians associate this transition with rising literacy and an expanding print culture, which facilitated silent reading. The Protestant imperative to private reflection also normalised temporary solitude (albeit for the purposes of communion with God and nothing else). There were, still, many in the 16th and 17th centuries who were nervous about it; 16th-century protestants, for example, fretted about which lustful sins the devil might tempt the solitary individual with. Yet overall, there is evidence that a transition from idealising rather than fearing solitude had been made by the end of the 17th century. 

In William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700) a husband and wife negotiate her right to solitude. The wife argues that she should have the right to:

dine in my Dressing room when I’m out of Humour, without giving a reason. To have my closet inviolate; to be sole empress of my tea table ... and lastly … you shall always knock at the door before you come in.

But private rooms were, again, a luxury reserved for the wealthy and, even though architecture started to favour specialised rooms for sleeping, eating and entertaining, in the 17th and 18th centuries most people still found securing true solitude a difficult task. 

It was in the 19th century that the celebration of solitude reached its apogee, encapsulated by the work of the Romantic poets, such as Byron and Wordsworth. The Romantics rejected the Enlightenment commitment to sociability, arguing that prolonged solitude fostered rather than shackled creativity. When Wordsworth ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’ he was celebrating solitude as a means of connecting with the self, finding inspiration in nature. Yet the Romantic focus on the great outdoors reminds us that, for many, going outside was often the only way of securing personal privacy. Even in 19th-century middle-class residences, to have one’s own bedroom was unusual. In 1911 three quarters of the English population still lived in one- or two-roomed dwellings. It was only as the family shrunk throughout the 20th century that fewer bodies in the house made the separating of boys from girls and children from parents more achievable.

The history of solitude reminds us that even the things we take for granted as universals have a past and a context. In the case of solitude, this context is both physical and ideological. For centuries people struggled to carve out space for themselves in crowded dwellings, just as they wrestled with how solitude affected the human condition. Medieval philosophers, accepting Aristotle’s philosophy that ‘whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god’, could never have understood Virginia Woolf as she extolled the virtues of being alone: ‘How much better is silence … How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird ... Let me sit here for ever … myself being myself.’

 

Martha Bailey is a historian specialising in the history of ideas in medieval and early modern Europe.