[This is the first piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Richard Blakemore is an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter working on the ‘Sailing into modernity’ research project. His doctoral work and recent publications focus on early modern seafarers, especially those based in London during the civil wars. He also blogs at historywomble.]
If we want to get at history from below, where do we start looking? Traditionally social historians, at least of medieval and early modern Europe, have relied upon two kinds of records to recover the ‘voices’ of those people who did not deliberately create a lot of records themselves. The first kind is court records and other legal documents such as wills and inventories, contracts, and so on. Because many people encountered the legal machinery of the state in which they lived (which included, for much of European history, the church as well), and because states have tended to hold onto these documents, this is one place where we can catch traces and glimpses of our elusive subjects. The second is printed material, especially the printed material which circulated amongst the people ‘below’, such as pamphlets, newspapers, or ballads. Of course, neither of these sources offers a perspective that is uncomplicatedly ‘from below’. Law courts are usually dominated and directed by elites. Publications were often censored and may have repeated official as well as popular attitudes. We have to take account of these issues – but I have never really liked the simple above/below distinction too much anyway, and I think it is entirely possible that, in these sources, if we use them carefully, we can find the ‘voices’ of people from all directions.
If we use them carefully. Some of the conversation at the Birkbeck workshop questioned how to use these sources, and especially compared the two. It was suggested that there has been, and still is, a habit of seeing print as ‘soft’ and legal sources as ‘hard’. There are some basic reasons for this – legal documents present technical challenges such as knowledge of the relevant law, difficult palaeography, and perhaps language barriers. English court records were often written in Latin, for example. One point made at the workshop, though, is that printed sources are just as technical as legal sources if used carefully. All sorts of circumstances surrounding printed texts should be considered, including publisher, edition, location, price, and the physical characteristics of the printed object. I wonder if this original distinction has also been reinforced by our digital age; more published sources have been made available online, and court records online tend to focus on the most accessible (i.e. fairly easy handwriting, in a language many people understand). So, to some extent, as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, that distinction or distortion has been replicated and multiplied by modern technology. I think everybody at the workshop agreed that to chase those ‘voices’ we need to practice with great care, which includes being aware not only of our sources, but of the medium through which we access them.
Another, related topic was the approaches we choose. Social historians have often been quite anecdotal in their use of evidence. As E. P. Thompson put it in his wonderful Customs in Common (1991): ‘We commence with impressions: we ornament our hunches with elegant or apt quotations; we end with impressions’ (p. 24). Thompson himself was guilty of argument by ‘elegant or apt quotations’. At the workshop, Edward Taylor suggested we be more openly systematic, in a way more statistical, with our anecdotes, looking across many different collections of sources to see how ‘resonant’ certain ideas were. By more rigorous investigation we could locate those anecdotes in their wider cultural setting. One objection to this might be that the evidence we have is not itself systematic, or that we don’t understand that system, so imposing our own system might be disingenuous. I am sympathetic to Ed’s point, though. I feel that because this is the only evidence we have, we should make all possible use of it through different forms of analysis. You never know what interesting results could crop up.
In this discussion, one word which came up again and again, and to me captures nicely the central issue of ‘history from below’, was fragments. All we have are the fragments of the past, and while this is true of most history, the evidence is even more fragmentary when you are dealing with social groups who were illiterate or for whatever other reasons did not record their experiences for posterity. Or even if they did, that evidence may not have survived. Quite a lot of letters probably ended up as toilet paper.
This brings me to the ‘future’ side of my title. I read, not long after the workshop, that the six UK deposit libraries now have the right to collect electronic as well as published books. At the moment, I believe, this is mostly e-books, but ‘the libraries [are] also working to archive the entire UK web domain’, and it raises all sorts of questions similar to those we face when we look at our fragmentary evidence. Which online material will be selected and stored? Does the nature of it being online change it: are we in fact losing as well as gaining something? I like to illustrate this with the problem of correspondence. Will we, in the future, publish collections of emails instead of collections of letters? (Who owns the legal rights to email accounts anyway?) Aren’t emails, to steal shamelessly from Shakespeare, ‘too unadvised, too sudden;/Too like the lightning’ (lines 124-5)? Did the physical effort of writing a letter, or typing it on a typewriter, render its contents somehow more meaningful? I suspect it did. If you knew that a letter would take weeks or months to arrive, or might never arrive at all, to someone you only spoke with through letters, I think you made sure that what you wrote was worth reading. Obviously there are exceptions. Plenty of seemingly mundane letters survive. I still think the point holds, though. The act of creation, and to a lesser extent survival, confers meaning on our sources, communicates the meaning from their creator or their archiver. If everything is easy to create, and everything survives, how are we to critically pick out what has meaning and what doesn’t?
Another way of looking at this is a conversation I’ve often had with friends – usually over a pint – along the lines of ‘wouldn’t it be nice if facebook existed for the seventeenth century?’ Just think of the evidence there! Social relations, topics of popular conversation, self-representation, visual sources… And yet I’m not always convinced. These developments in modern technology force us to look back and think again about our fragments from the past. What a lot of social historians, historians ‘from below’, are trying to do is recover the everyday conditions of life in the past. Would these conditions be so fascinating if we had them at our fingertips? Isn’t the jigsaw puzzle of reconstructing these conditions out of fragments part of what makes it so interesting, at least for us researchers? I guess the crucial question is how much of a part? I don’t know, but it is worth thinking about.