A History of SilenceFrom the Renaissance to the Present Day
A History of Silence
From the Renaissance to the Present Day
Translated by Jean Birrell

Silence is not simply the absence of noise. It is within us, in that inner citadel which great writers, thinkers, scholars and people of faith have cultivated over the centuries. Today, when noise is everywhere, distinguished historian Alain Corbin goes back to a time when speech was rare and precious.

Silence, prerequisite for contemplation, reverie and prayer, is that private space out of which speech emerges. It characterises 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 which is changing the very nature of the individual.

The aim of this book is to rediscover the wonder of silence, and with this a richer experience of life. Drawing on works by writers, artists and thinkers who treasured silence over the centuries, it is an invitation to meditation and to introspection. With his predilection for the elusive, Corbin calls us to listen to another history.

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  • April 2018
  • 184 pages
  • 138 x 216 mm / 5 x 9 in
Available Formats
  • Hardback $64.95
  • 9781509517350
  • Paperback $19.95
  • 9781509517367
  • Open eBook $19.95
  • 9781509517398
Table of Contents



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


About the Author
Alain Corbin is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Paris I, Sorbonne.
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"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

"Alain Corbin is one of the most imaginative historians writing anywhere. Corbin’s 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

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