VoxPop2015: The People’s Conclusion

Mark Hailwood

It’s been a lively old summer here on the ‘monster, and as the dust finally starts to settle on our ‘Voices of the People’ online symposium it’s probably time for a few conclusions. The vast range of thoughts provoked by our brilliant contributors is beyond comprehensive and impossible to capture in a humble blog post, so there is no pretense here of providing a definitive summary of all the key points: for that, you’ll have to read the posts (and the #voxpop2015 hashtag on twitter). Instead, I’ll keep to highlighting a few of the themes that featured most prominently in your comments, both on the posts and on twitter; and that seem to me, therefore, to set the agenda for keeping the broader conversation about ‘history from below’ moving along.

History from below is… popular

peopleLet’s start with the vital statistics: since the start of the symposium in July, the many-headed monster has received over 20,000 views. Add to that the 80 comments made on the blog posts, and the countless tweets about the symposium that have used the hashtag #voxpop2015, and I think it is fair to say that VoxPop2015 has been – appropriately enough – popular. One endorsement went so far as to say that ‘ is the best thing on Twitter. If there was a Twitter fire, it’s the one thing I’d save; the rest could crackle away’ (@CBarnacles). Not an opinion of twitter we share, I hasten to add, but it’s a compliment we’ll take! A huge thanks to everyone who has participated in the event in some shape or form.

We might reasonably enough take this as evidence of the enduring and wide appeal of ‘history from below’, and participants in our conversation have ranged from community outreach officers in Indiana (@Coach3_us) to wood workers from the Yorkshire Dales (@FlyingShavings), although most of our comments have come from self-identifying historians of various stripes. That is not to say that the event has been carried out in a kind of virtual ivory-tower echo-chamber, as evidence from twitter reveals. Ann Bond, an independent historian, championed the event as ‘learned yet accessible & free to access. Boon to those like me no longer formally attached to an institution’ (@History_Ann); it has been enjoyed in the sunshine as a post-submission treat by recently completed PhD students Roisin Watson and Freya Gowrley (@roisin_watson & @Freya_Gowrley1); and enthusiastically received by undergraduate students too (as reported by Christine de Bellaigue: @cadebellaigue). Fully-fledged academic historians have been embracing the discussion as well, of course, with Jenny Hillman (@dr_hillman) asking ‘Is it just me or is anyone else totally confronting the type of ‘history’ they write thanks to ?’ The traffic on the blog and on twitter suggests the latter. 

History from below is… possible

But what, exactly, has the symposium shown? Most emphatically, it has proven the point that the recovery of non-elite voices from the historical record – whilst never straightforward – is not only possible, but can be done in a remarkably wide range of historical contexts. From the life story of a seventeenth-century London capper, to the nineteenth-century novellas of a teenage Breton farm servant, to the ‘philosopher plumber’ of a 1960s Tyneside shipyard, the voices of the people are lodged in the historical record. Even in those records that seem least likely to have captured anything of the way the world was seen ‘from below’ – for instance, the colonial archive – we have seen that it is possible to say something about the power structures that constrained the voices of the people, and to catch glimpses of how the less powerful could nonetheless find a way to exert their agency – even if it that sometimes meant resorting to silence rather than speech.

However you want to configure ‘below’ in any given society, its likely that some echo of the voices of the subordinate can be found. Contributors have strained to hear the voices of those subject to hierarchies of class, gender, race, sexuality, colonialism, nationalism, poverty, and historians of each should continue to compare notes – as they have done here – on the challenges they find and the techniques they use to tackle them. Indeed, several participants have highlighted the potential to broaden this conversation out yet further still to an even wider range of historical contexts: a comment by Bob Taylor called for more ancient ‘history from below’; on twitter Andy Burn (@aj_burn) helpfully provided links to two (1 & 2) recent discussions of ‘voices of the people’ in the medieval period; and Helen Rogers (@helenrogers19c) drew our attention to Ushashi Dasgupta’s discussion of ‘Voices from Below in Literary Studies‘.

The future of history from below should, then, be based on a commitment to continue to talk across the boundaries of discipline, sub-discipline, and chronology that so often serve to compartmentalise scholarly fields – as well, of course, as those boundaries that divide academics from the wider public (more on which later). To make these conversations happen, history from below needs to convince people to take it seriously. For too long now this way of approaching the past has been dismissed by many as trite – a product of an outdated, overly-politicized, and ultimately rather naive project on the part of Marxist historians to blindly valorise the working man. Another key feature of this symposium has been to demonstrate that history from below today is characterised by anything but such an unthinking and dogmatic approach…

History from below is… reflective

There are no sacred cows or party lines in evidence here. The appropriateness of only pursuing history’s ‘small heroes’ has been challenged – in Julia Laite’s memorable phrase, we should study ‘assholes’ too. The very notion of ‘the people’ has been put under scrutiny, and few here accept that subordinate groups in any society spoke with a homogeneous voice: we all study ‘some people’, not ‘the people’. The idea that we are ‘rescuing’ our subjects from historical obscurity has been repeatedly questioned: is it really empowering for us to dig up their story of poverty or prostitution? Perhaps they would rather be left alone. And do we have a right to ‘intervene’ in this way? The ethics of ‘history from below’ have been debated at length here. The relationship between voice and agency has been queried: its not always through the act of speech that a historical actor makes their mark. Speech could be forced, constrained, distorted. Silence could be a weapon, a form of agency. It might not be though: it too could be a reflection of subordination. Little is taken for granted: no one here claims to have found the ‘authentic’ voice of the people, unmediated by the sources. Careful reflection is the default approach.


Menocchio: subject of Ginzburg’s famous micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms (so named because Menocchio thought the cosmos was a giant ball of the same).

Then there are issues of representativeness, which raise their head in a number of posts and comments. Bryan Ayala (@Coach3_us) hit the nail on the head in his comment: how much can we really say about an individual or their views from the fragments we are usually left working with? When we can say more about an individual, we then face the ‘Menocchio question’: what can that individual really be said to reveal about their wider culture; about bigger historical processes? Answers are attempted, but maybe the real answer is ‘nothing’: perhaps the point should be to demonstrate that history is chaotic, that individuals are unique and complex, and that attempts at wider conclusions and explanations are futile. Perhaps the past is just a chaotic maelstrom of cheese and worms. But where does that leave us?

History from below is… political?

All of these questions are crucial, and the fact that they have reared up during this symposium shows a capacity for self-reflection that history from below approaches have sometimes been accused of lacking. But it potentially comes at a price: where does all of this emphasis on complexity leave the politics of history from below? The tradition started out as a political project, after all, and for many that is crucial to its ongoing appeal (a useful overview of the tradition’s development can be found here). But what, exactly, is the political contribution of the history showcased here? We’ve produced as many questions as answers – can you build a political platform out of questions? There has been some debate between contributors as to whether political messages are something that we should be explicitly stating, not to mention whether it is possible to offer any clear – and uniform – definition of the political implications that might be taken from these posts anyway. The clearest attempt to do so comes from Tim Hitchcock’s post, and maybe his idea that we are looking to promote a ‘politics of empathy’ is something we can all agree on: whatever your politics, surely an exercise in trying to understand difference – bridging the divide between historical or cultural contexts to see the world through the eyes of others, if not necessarily to valorise them – is a valuable human endeavour. It is something history from below excels at.

For those to whom a political dimension is a must have for the future of history from below, another potential rallying point is a campaign to democratise history. History from below cannot just be a way in which academics approach the past: it is hardly in keeping with the spirit of recovering the voices of ordinary people to shut those voices out of contemporary history making. Admittedly, it’s the work of academics that this symposium has been showcasing, but in its nature as an open-access, free, online symposium it has looked to reach a wider audience. But we want to do more. Brodie Waddell has called for more of the sources of the kinds explored here to be made freely available online, to allow ‘ordinary’ people to investigate the history of ‘ordinary’ people for themselves. There remain various practical hurdles to making such sources freely available, but they are hurdles we should be working to overcome. But this process should not just be about opening up sources: it should be about opening up conversations. This does not just mean making academic work more easily accessible to non-academics, though this is important too. It means having a dialogue between academics and those with an interest in history outside of the academy, and learning from each other.

This conversation, of course, already goes on. See, for instance, the international History from Below network, and followers of this symposium may well be interested in a major event next summer that will commemorate twenty years since the death of Raphael Samuel, a pioneer in this field, and forty years since the birth of History Workshop Journal, an important journal central to this tradition: Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism: A Major Conference & Public History Festival. We at the many-headed monster also want to do more to promote a more democratic history conversation, and as such we plan to run a follow-up event to this summer’s symposium that will invite people from outside of academia to blog about their interests in, and approaches to, history from below. So watch this space – though we might allow ourselves a bit of a break from online symposium organisation first!

That’s enough from me – except to say that this conclusion is not intended as the final word on this symposium. It has been an attempt to draw out a few key themes that seem ripe for ongoing discussion. So please do offer your own thoughts below, or on twitter (using the hashtag #voxpop2015), and feel free to highlight themes I have missed, or misrepresented, or that you would like to ignite more discussion on, and let’s keep the broader conversation about history from below open and ongoing…

The Voice of the People? Re-reading the Field-notes of Classic Post-war Social Science Studies

Our final post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Jon Lawrence, Reader in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge. Jon discusses his ongoing project to write a social and cultural history of post-war Britain in which ordinary people take centre stage as the experts on their own lives and experiences. In the process he revisits a number of the issues that have run through this symposium: how to relate the individual voice to the collective voice and its wider culture; how to account for the influence of the archive on the voices that are recorded; the extent to which we can or should be looking for ‘authentic’ voices; and perhaps above all  Jon reiterates the enormously rich and rewarding avenues of enquiry that are open to those engaged in the reflective pursuit of history from below.       

Jon Lawrence

I often wonder what life’s for. Greavsey lives for work, but I don’t. I’m happy to go on as we are or get a packet and be the idle rich. I’m not bothered about sweating for a £40 a week job. I’m happy now. I could do with £50,000 but I’m happy as I am. Are you? How can you be? You’re far from home. You can drink but that’s not real happiness. You’re going to lecture and do teaching, the same things one time after another. That’s just talk. We put up with bad conditions. But we’re more free than you. We do something different each day. We can move about. We know how to have fun, we don’t try to worry or try to keep up with the Joneses.

‘Ron Morris’, October 1968[1]

I am currently writing a social and cultural history of post-war England based largely on contemporary voices as they were recorded by social scientists between the 1940s and the late 2000s. This extract is from a study of Swan Hunter’s Wallsend shipyard on Tyneside. I will say more about this man and the context in which he came to say these things later. For now I simply wish to offer this as an example of how rich such testimony can be; and also to plant the question: how should we treat a plebeian voice which is so obviously not just exceptionally eloquent, but also knowingly engaged in a dialogue with academic knowledge? Continue reading

Voices of the Disgruntled: ‘Green-Ink Letters’ in Elizabethan England

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Jonathan Willis, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Jonathan uses some rather intriguing letters found amongst the Elizabethan State Papers to raise some crucial questions about the relationship between eccentric individuals and the wider culture they belong to – what we might term the ‘Menocchio question’ .

Jonathan Willis

A few years ago, I stumbled across an interesting letter in the Elizabethan State Papers. I would say that it was ‘by accident’, but it wasn’t really, as I was actively looking for references to the Ten Commandments, as part of the monograph I’m currently writing on the reformation of the Decalogue. Still, I wasn’t exactly expecting to find what the calendar compliers described as ‘two letters to the Queen from Robert Banister, a great quoter of Scripture, yet mighty vehement against some Puritans who plagued him’, and which the caption on the letter itself (dated 1578) records as ‘two letters to Queen Elizabeth by Robert Banister a Religious mad-man, who seems to have concedid great indignation against the Puritans his prosecutors’.[1] Banister’s letters were written in black ink, but otherwise seem to fit the modern definition of a letter written by a card-carrying member of the green-ink brigade, which one website defines as:

a particular kind of letter writer, who claims that he is the victim of some injustice, or who composes long and vehement complaints against a person or an organisation, or who believes that a numerical calculation based on the name of the Prime Minister shows he’s an agent of the devil, or who is sure that invisible rays are being beamed into his house by his next-door neighbour to cause him injury, or who puts forward a thesis which, if adopted, will lead inevitably to world peace.[2]

Banister’s letters contained a request for the queen to grant him permission to publish a treatise designed to clear his name from puritan accusations that he was a member of the secretive radical sect, the Family of Love. Banister may in fact have been a familist – his letters are ambiguous. He refers scathingly to ‘the phamily of lewde love’, and claims that never to have been ‘acoynted with any of that sect’, but he also described the puritans as a ‘vile, & most faulse family’, and spoke repeatedly of ‘gods love’. What is clear though is that, familist or no, Banister was a rare Elizabethan antinomian – that is, somebody who rejected the authority of the moral law, or Ten Commandments. His attack on his puritan persecutors was based on the fact that they were pharasaical legalists, ‘English Jues … that spie moses motes in every eye’. Attempts to trace Banister in all the usual locations – parish registers, ODNB, ESTC, CCED, lists of university alumni, etc. – have so far proved fruitless. (If any reader has come across him in another context, I’d be very happy to hear about it!). Still, in a way Banister’s anonymity opens up as many possibilities as it closes down. It seems to suggest that, other than his extraordinary views, expressed in these startling letters, he was an ‘ordinary’ person. Continue reading

Making Sense of Misery: The Dialect Notebooks of a Teenage Breton Farm Servant

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by David Hopkin, Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. David explores another life story, that of a nineteenth-century female Breton farm servant, through a combination of historical records and three remarkable novellas written by his subject. The result is not only a fascinating examination of an individual life, he argues, but an insight into a collective commentary on the first-hand experience of hardship in the past. David has also written a book entitled Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France, from which this symposium borrows its name.

David Hopkin

Virginie Desgranges, born 1868, lived a short, peripatetic life along the Normandy-Brittany border. Her frequent moves were the result of her family’s rapid social decline. Her grandfathers were customs officers but her own father, who died when she was ten, was a rag-and-bone man, while her mother was first a servant and then a day-labourer. For a while the couple ran a bar. Virginie had one older brother, who briefly followed his father’s profession before joining the Atlantic fishing fleet. In 1881 he and his mother spent a month in prison for robbing a neighbour of her bed-sheets. By that time Virginie had already left home and was working as a farm-servant. When she died, aged eighteen, she was employed as a servant by her uncle and aunt in the village of Pleine-Fougères, about ten miles from Mont Saint-Michel.

Poor, rural, young, female, mobile – by every measure Virginie’s is a voice from below. Given her social marginality it’s debateable whether she could make that voice heard in her lifetime, let alone in the historical record. Back in Pleine-Fougères her voice would have been in dialogue with others – her family, her neighbours, her employers, the marketplace singers and the various other people she encountered. Some of the parameters of that discussion were set by what we might call, for want of a better term, the oral tradition. It was because she was a participant in and recorder of that tradition that her voice has been preserved. Continue reading

Captured Voices

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Helen Rogers, a Faculty Member of the English and Cultural History Department at Liverpool John Moores University. Here Helen continues our current focus on how to put the fragments of ‘voices’ we can find in the archive into context to recover a fuller picture of the ordinary individuals behind such voices – drawing on her work on nineteenth century prison inmates, Helen advocates a combination of biographical reconstruction and prosopography that she terms ‘intimate reading’. 

Helen Rogers

History from below, writes Tim Hitchcock in this series, ‘is in essence, a politics of empathy and voice explored through a conversation with the dead.’ His proposition that we must read historical documents ‘against the grain’ if we are to recover experiences and voices from below from the records made by the powerful is one of the best descriptions of our practice. We need to listen out for the voices of the dead if we are to have a two-way conversation and allow them to challenge us about how we view the present and ourselves as well as our forebears and the past. But what if the dead ‘don’t want us to listen’, asks Julia Laite, and instead hoped to keep their secrets hidden? And what if it was not ‘voices’ they wanted, adds Will Pooley, but ‘bread, security, or just to be left alone.’

These questions resonate with me for I spend my days communing with the dead as I investigate how prisoners responded to punishment, Christian instruction and philanthropic intervention in the 1830s and 40s and whether these influenced desistance from crime or continued offending. When they left gaol, we can reasonably assume many strove to keep a low profile and some, though not all, will have remained indifferent to the moral education they had received inside. Since they left little or no first-person testimony I encounter their voices – and bodies – in the penal records that measured and described them, occasionally noting their words or abbreviations of them. Reduced to ‘offenders’ in the penal archive, I seek to recover their agency and humanity by examining their crimes and misdemeanours in the context of their ‘whole lives’ or what I can reconstruct of these from myriad sources. But can we derive historical meaning out of a single life plotted through the ten-yearly tabulations of the census returns or records of births, marriages and deaths? What interpretative weight can we place on incidental anecdotes and fragments of ‘voices’?

Great Yarmouth, Tolhouse (Gaol, House of Correction and Magistrate Court), photographed by Thomas Ayres, late 1800s, c. Norfolk County Council

Great Yarmouth, Tolhouse (Gaol, House of Correction and Magistrate Court), photographed by Thomas Ayres, late 1800s, c. Norfolk County Council

The strategy I have developed is to weave biographical reconstruction with prosopography, or group biography. By viewing individual lives in the context of their social networks and the circumstances and characteristics they shared with others, we can speculate not only on the possible causes and outcomes of their actions, but also what was plausible and probable. I call this approach ‘intimate reading’: getting up close and personal with our subjects through immersive reading and extensive contextualisation.[1] Record linkage lets us explore the relationships binding individuals and groups, and their interactions – no matter how unequal – with officialdom. Intimate reading is smaller in scope than the ‘distant reading’ methods practiced in the digital humanities, and is concerned with excavating ‘deep’ data on specific individuals rather than ‘big’ data on large amorphous groups. But while the voices of the convicted were only rarely recorded, intimate reading may reveal how they made their mark in other ways, as we can see by following one boy in and out of the penal system.[2] Continue reading

‘Sometimes in one place and sometimes in another’: Agnes Cooper in Southwark, 1619

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Laura Gowing, Professor of Early Modern British History at King’s College London. Whereas the petitions and letters under consideration in recent posts often provide only tantalising details about the lives of the individuals behind them, our next batch of posts consider ‘ordinary’ individuals about whom we can say rather more. Here Laura is able to use depositional evidence to reconstruct the fascinating life story of Agnes Cooper of Southwark, but she leaves us with another crucial question to consider: was there anything empowering about the fact that Agnes was able to leave her life story to posterity?

Laura Gowing

In November of 1619, a fifty-eight year old woman found herself in a desperate position. Single and short of money and work, she had just been evicted from her lodging, and her Southwark parish, determined not to support her, drove her over the parish boundary to her birthplace near London Bridge. It was not an uncommon dilemma in early seventeenth-century England, where the poor law determined a ‘settlement’ for poor relief in the parish where a person had been born or had last spent a year. But Agnes Cooper was unusual in that her struggles left several pages of records, including this long and precise story of her working life.

In the recuperation of the ‘voices of the people’, those of women are often hidden: by low levels of female literacy before the 18th century, but also by being elided into a broader sense of ‘family’. Agnes lost her birth family young, and, like a surprisingly high proportion of Tudor and Stuart women, never married; instead she moved from household to household, working where she could, until she could work no longer. Her story begins in the parish where she was born and spent most of her life.

Agnes Cooper was (she told the scribe):

about the age of 58 years born in the parish of St Olave, Horsleydown Lane daughter of William Cooper by trade an embroiderer.

St Olave’s ran by the river from London Bridge to Bermondsey; it was a large parish, full of multi-occupancy houses and textile workers. Agnes’s father was one of the more skilled.

She went on: Continue reading

Amplifying the Voices of the People

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. Brodie reinforces the message that has emerged from our last few posts: that the voices of the people do survive in abundance in the archives of the early modern period. They may do so in ways that are mediated or formalised, yes, but he argues that this should not blind us to the enormous importance of these valuable historical documents. Brodie finishes with a rallying cry that echoes that of Helmut Groser and Ann Tlusty: these documents are too significant to be allowed to remain buried in archival repositories, or worse to be lost altogether to the vagaries of record survival. Instead they should be digistised and made freely available as a matter of priority to promote the ongoing renaissance of history from below.  

Brodie Waddell

As a historian, digging up the dead is part of my job. I arrive at the archives as a grave-robber intent on plunder. I riffle through their clean, grey cardboard boxes searching for a peculiar treasure – tatty papers recording dead people’s words in stark black ink.

I’m privileged enough to have the time, the funds and the training necessary to make such plundering expeditions a routine part of my professional life. As a result, I regularly emerge from the archives with prizes like the letter below, which lay among dozens of other papers in a box labelled ‘QS/4 box 134’, carefully preserved in the storeroom of the Devon Heritage Centre.

The letter, written in 1693, was sent from a widow named Elizabeth Snow to the county magistrates:

To John Elwell Esquire & the rest of the Honourable Bench,

Most Honoured Gentell men I hope your worships will take this my humble pittishon [=petition] in Consideration that I being here Commited form [=from] the bare [=bar] to this prison and am not able to paye the fine but must here pireish [=perish] without your mercyfull Consideration to take of[f] my fine for I have not one penny in the world to helpe my selfe with out of the Cherryty [=charity] of good people to relefe me for I have maintaind a Crippell Childe this 16 yeares and never had but one penny a day towards it[.] this being in great malish [=malice] sworen against me undeserving I hope you will for the Lords sake pitty my miserable Consdishon and relefe me out of this misry which shall be bounde in dewty Ever to pray for you all most Honnerable gentellmen which am a poore distressed widdow

Elizabeth Snow

I don’t know why she was imprisoned and I don’t know whether she was successful in her petition for release. In fact, I don’t know anything about Elizabeth apart from the claims in this letter, though further digging in the archives would probably reveal more. Continue reading