Skip to main content

A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day



A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day

Alain Corbin, Jean Birrell (Translator)

ISBN: 978-1-509-51739-8 May 2018 Polity 160 Pages

Out of stock


Silence is not simply the absence of noise. It is within us, in the inner citadel that great writers, thinkers, scholars and people of faith have cultivated over the centuries.

It characterizes our most intimate and sacred spaces, from private bedrooms to grand cathedrals – those vast reservoirs of silence. Philosophers and novelists have long sought solitude and inspiration in mountains and forests. Yet despite the centrality of silence to some of our most intense experiences, the transformations of the twentieth century have gradually diminished its value. Today, raucous urban spaces and a continual bombardment from different media pressure us into constant activity. We are losing a sense of our inner selves, a process that is changing the very nature of the individual.

This book rediscovers the wonder of silence and, with this, a richer experience of life. With his predilection for the elusive, Corbin calls us to listen to another history.
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prelude
  • Chapter 1. Silence and the intimacy of places
  • Chapter 2. The silences of nature
  • Chapter 3. The search for silence
  • Chapter 4. The educations and disciplines of silence
  • Chapter 5. Interlude: Joseph and Nazareth, or absolute silence
  • Chapter 6. The speech of silence
  • Chapter 7. The tactics of silence
  • Chapter 8. From the silences of love to the silence of hate
  • Chapter 9. Postlude: The tragedy of silence
  • Notes
"Alain Corbin is one of the most imaginative historians writing anywhere. His series of brilliant studies of the senses includes his “auditory landscape” of the nineteenth century. Here, the search for silence, its sounds and meanings. This is a gem, beautiful and thought-provoking."
John Merriman, Charles Seymour Professor of History, Yale University

"Alain Corbin is renowned for pushing historical writing into new areas. In A History of Silence he goes further still: not only into the history of an elusive and many-sided concept, but into its philosophy, theology and literature too."
Robert Tombs, University of Cambridge

"The book brims with ideas: on painting as “silent speech”; writing as the interruption of silence; the cruel silence of God; and the gravid silence of forests, dead-calm seas and snowfall."
Times Higher Education

"Terrific. ... a mischievous historian of the senses, Alain Corbin dares to devote these eloquent pages to silence, a subject hitherto neglected by his colleagues. Far more than the 'mere absence of noise,' his book makes us feel the thousand and one precious qualities of silence that have enchanted writers and poets over the centuries."
Le Point

Owing a clear debt to the Annales school of French historiography, with its focus on the byways of social life, Corbin’s writings have been especially inspired by practitioners of l’histoire des mentalités. He has been described as a master, in particular, of l’histoire du sensible — the history, we might say, of the senses and sensibility. […]Silence can now be added to the list of histories he has tackled.”
David E. Cooper in Los Angeles Review of Books 

"A History of Silence is definitely beguiling, like an oasis of tranquility amid the maelstrom."
The Independent

"A quietly learned book for our loudly cacophonous age."
Michael Dirda inThe Washington Post