A fascinating and insightful study of a concept we take for granted


   Privacy: A Short History by David Vincent, Polity Books, US $24.95, Pp 204, March 2016,    ISBN 978-0745671130

Most of us guard our privacy zealously. We consider it our birth right. Actually, many societies and laws consider privacy very sacrosanct and protect it. We believe that all other societies look at privacy issues in the same way as we do. We also believe that it was always defined in the same way as we define it now. All societies do not define privacy in the same way as we do, nor did our parents or grandparents define it as we do. In Privacy, David Vincent shows that Western societies have been defining and redefining privacy forever. He shows that, in the same society, different social groups have defined privacy differently in different ages.

Vincent gives the following example to show how people in London defined privacy eight centuries ago. In July 1341, Isabel relict of John Luter complained that John Trappe “Skynnere,” who had a tenement adjoining her garden in the parish of St. John de Walbrok, had four windows  of which the glass is broken through which he and his servants could see into her garden. The judge ordered the defendant to repair his windows within 40 days. Isabel didn’t stop there. Next, she successfully complained that John de Thorp “Skynnere” has seven windows overlooking her adjoining tenement in the Parish of St. Stephen de Walbrok, less than 16ft, from the ground, through which he and his servants could see into the plaintiff’s tenement. Isabel was not finished yet. She then charged that John de Leche, fishmonger, had a leaden watch-tower on the wall of his tenement adjoining hers in the same parish upon which he and his household stood daily, watching the private affairs of the plaintiff and her servants. Isabel turned her attention to the fourth neighbor and complained that John Relict of Simon Corp had twelve apertures overlooking her adjoining tenement in the same Parish through which she and her servants can see the private business of the plaintiff. Following visits, all the cases resulted in 40 days’ notice to rectify the problems.

Vincent powerfully argues that the narrative of privacy is not a journey from absence to invention, from less to more, or even, from collective to personal. There are no beginnings in this history, only threatened endings. It is possible to locate values and behaviors that exist over long periods, interacting with but not fully conditional on changing physical ad normative contexts. Privacy identifies those features of privacy which are recognizable over the centuries and those which were specific to the aspirations and constraints of particular eras. Privacy was so deeply associated with the conduct of intimate social relations that its complete absence is difficult to imagine in any era of recorded history. There was surely never a time when individuals, families or groups did not sometimes claim the right to withdraw from public scrutiny into a space of their own.

Privacy is a fascinating and insightful study of a concept we take for granted. It is a very well-researched book and a hugely fascinating read. After reading this, you will never think of privacy the same way. It must be one of the books you plan to read this summer. Reviewed by Sarah Baker