The “social history” promised by the subtitle of Silence is pretty limited in scope. Author Jane Brox focuses particularly on two environments: prisons and monasteries. Despite a brief engagement with Thoreau and some short tangential passages about the development of silent reading, silence in Quakerism, and so forth, institutional penitence dominates the account.
The fourth of the five parts is dedicated especially to the social effects of gender on expectations of silence. An extensive discussion of female silencing and related judicial punishments leads into the women’s particulars of incarceration and monasticism. Implicitly, silence is given to be a sign of obedient virtue in women for the history treated, but there is no clear sign of how any masculine silence compares or contrasts with it (let alone the silences imposed on exceptional gender and gender resistance).
Brox’s prose is generally lucid and occasionally beautiful. The history is leavened with reflexive anecdotes regarding her research experience and significant digressions about architecture. A considerable portion of the book is given over to thoughts from and accounts of the twentieth-century celebrity monk Thomas Merton.
I learned some history in the course of this reading. It was surprising that I was a little less ignorant of the ancient and medieval aspects of monasticism than I was of the modern evolution of the US penitentiary. But in any case, I never really arrived at the understanding of the social role of silence that the subtitle indicated would be on offer.