This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series
In chapter 5 of If Walls Could Talk, “Praying, Reading and Keeping Secrets”, Lucy Worsley says:
The closet was used for solitary activities – for praying, reading, meditating – or for storing precious art, musical instruments and books.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, as literacy spread, we come across a novelty: people willingly spending time by themselves. This new trend for solitude, linked to the rise of reading, called for new, small and private rooms.
…Closets, these new rooms for solitude, also developed out of a tradition of prayer… Indeed, the forerunner to the closet was the private oratory, like the one just off Edward III’s bedchamber at the Tower of London.
Apparently, literacy was what prompted so many people to seek solitude. (And I guess Christianity had something to do with it too). The spread of literacy also motivated improvements in indoor lighting – if people are not going to read (because they can’t) they don’t need particularly good lighting in the evening.
I find this major shift – from people not seeking solitude to seeking solitude – very interesting. If one never wants to focus on read or study, and in the absence of electronic devices, prayer and meditation may be the only activities one would especially want solitude in a quiet enclosed space for, and some people do not particularly want to pray alone or meditate.
But with reading – and composing one’s own thoughts to write down on paper – being alone in a quiet enclosed space becomes much more desirable.
According to Worsley, the ‘closet’ was only popular in England for a few centuries before falling out of use.
Secondly, the Pilgrim Fathers took closets over to America, and to this day personal possessions in the US are stored in ‘closets’. The shoe-filled walk-in closet in her tiny New York apartment represents Carrie’s hopes and dreams in Sex and the City.
Back in the British bedroom, though, the closet died out.
Wait, what? People in the U.K. don’t have closets??!! I had no idea. Do they all store their clothes in wardrobes? (In San Francisco, many people *cough* prefer having an extra bedroom over having a dining room, so rooms which were originally built to be dining rooms have a tendency to morph into bedrooms, and lacking closets, they often have wardrobes. Thus, in my experience, wardrobe = mod for converting non-bedroom into bedroom).
Until the rise of electronic devices, reading, writing, and study (and maybe prayer) were the main activities for people who wanted to mentally shut out their physical environment so they could immerse themselves in a particular mental environment. But now, in addition to reading/writing/study/prayer, we have: radios, recorded music players, television, electronic games, and more examples which I am probably overlooking. Not to mention that there is now more written content to read that ever before: in addition to books, newspapers, magazines, and letters, there is so much material on the internet, including blogs like this one. Though listening to the radio/recorded music, watching television, and electronic gaming can be communal activities, they are also often done in solitude. I suspect people today, especially but not exclusively in first world societies, are choosing to spend more time in solitary activities than every before (for example, I am writing this blog post in solitude).
What does it mean if people have shifted towards putting more time into solitary activity than before? I’m not sure. It’s something to think about (probably in solitude, since I don’t know whether or not I’ll ever have a conversation about this or not).