Posted by: Johan Normark | August 9, 2009

The history of silence

One of Sweden’s most popular (and best) historians is Peter Englund. Englund recently became the new permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. The academy annually decides who will be the laureate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He usually writes about history from the 17th century and onwards. His most famous book concerns the battle of Poltava (1709), when the Swedish king Charles XII was defeated by the Russian tsar Peter I. Sweden’s history as a major European power ended more or less with this battle. Now, why do I bring up this Swedish historian here? It is because in 2003 he released a book called Tystnadens historia och andra essäer (The history of silence and other essays). It consists of several essays that have a cognitive approach which I find interesting since my future project is heading in that direction.

In the first essay Englund argues that sound was interpreted differently in medieval times than today. Bird song, wind and rain were not background noise as it is today. Animal sounds became a kind of audio-related landmarks that made it easier to orient in darkness and fog. I have experienced similar cognitive phenomena during my work on ancient roads in the Maya area. The white road’s reflective surface makes it easier to move around at night without a portable source of light. One side effect of the extensive road networks at Chichen Itza, Caracol, and Coba could be that theys allowed better communication during the dark hours as well.

The medieval rural acoustic horizon is considered to have been broad and it grew as new lands opened up for agriculture. The bells in the church towers bridged an area where otherwise only fragmented sounds could be distinguished. Chime was considered to scare away evil spirits and dispel thunderstorm. During the French Revolution church bells were seized and the Church’s acoustic power decreased.

When it comes to the soundstage in the cities, the situation was different. It ranged rarely more than a few tens of meters since the facades of houses absorbed most of the sound, or intensified it to a din. People were drawn to the sounds of the city. The smell also played a role with bakeries, etc. People’s voices dominated in the cities and this depends largely on a lack of literacy so news was therefore spoken out loudly. The noise level was never constant and varied with the time of the day, weather and season. When the noise became a problem people came to reassess and refine the silence. Englund concludes that the great problem with noise is not that it removes the silence, but that it has made it impossible to hear the “small” sounds, such as the fact that even falling snow make a sound.

However, even the sun has its spots. Something bothers me in Englund’s first essay and it does not relate to cognition. It is his sweeping generalizations between “European culture” and “Indian [Amerindian] culture” that bothers me.  He claims that “Indians” appreciated the silence, but he does not give us any specific examples. I can give examples that disprove his generalized statement. The title for the Aztec ruler was tlatoani and it means “he who speaks.” The title of the Classic period Maya rulers (700 years before the Europeans arrived) was ajaw and it means “he who shouts or proclaims.” These titles do not really indicate people who appreciate silence. Englund believes that people in old Europe (unclear where and what time he intends) searched for loud sounds such as carnivals and the like. This would differ from the “Indians” according to him. However, there are countless of images from the Maya area where we find processions with trumpet-like instrument, drums, etc. It can hardly have been quiet during these processions.



  1. Tsystnaden? That is a great word for silence.
    You always have interesting perspectives. I think you are correct that Englund underestimates the Maya when he implies they were looking for silence. Tall temples? Great artworks? Pottery that whistled? Sports arenas with sound effects? The Popol Vuh just bustles with social interests. It’s not Englund’s specialty to know about “Indians”.

  2. I believe Englund refers to some stereotypical Indians (such as those found in western/cowboy movies). He does for sure not refer to Mesoamerica but “Indians” cover an area from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, a greater distance than from Scandinavia to South Africa. No one would give Scandinavians and South Africans the same ethnic or cultural label.


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