[This is the sixth piece in ’The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Mark Hailwood is a historian of early modern England and one of the founders of the many-headed monster.]
The posts that have appeared so far in this symposium have suggested a number of interesting directions for the future of ‘history from below’: a future that opens up new avenues for research through explorations of material culture, of the landscape, and of global connections and comparisons, with a critical but ultimately optimistic disposition regarding the possibilities of drawing together fragmentary evidence, potentially through the use of digital databases. All of this excites and encourages me. And yet, there is one particular problem that I think we all need to address if ‘history from below’ is to have a coherent future: how to define its subjects.
I’m not so much concerned here with who should ‘qualify’ as an appropriate subject for ‘history from below’ – I’m not sure prescriptive precision here is possible or helpful, but maybe someone would like to take this up in the comments section – so much as with the labels we use to refer to those that are generally accepted to fall within its remit. Let’s start with that classic statement of the ‘history from below’ agenda found in Thompson’s preface to The Making… ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’
How can we collectively describe these subjects? It seems to me that most of the labels historians use are in some way problematic. Usually we reach for a sociological label, seeking to define our subjects in terms of broad socio-economic groups. Straight away this raises issues with regards to gender: might we consider all women as ‘below’ in a patriarchal society such as early modern England, regardless of their socio-economic status? This isn’t the only problem with privileging a socio-economic label – which one to choose? Thompson and many historians of the modern era opt for class, and refer to their subjects as the ‘working class’. Let’s assume for a moment that this works fine for the Industrial Age (a dangerous assumption, as many would argue it is hugely problematic even here), but for the early modern historian there is a real problem with the term: it wasn’t used by our subjects themselves.
Of course, we might argue that it is, nonetheless, a useful analytical category for the historian, but as regular readers of the Monster will know a major part of the agenda for many of us studying early modern England ‘from below’ is to try to recover, as far as possible, the way ‘ordinary people’ (I’ll come back to this label too) saw their own world. If ‘class’ was an alien label to them, it would seem more fitting for us to search for an indigenous label that they themselves may have recognised.
To this end historians of early modern England often refer instead to ‘sorts’ of people, rather than ‘classes’, especially when referring to the ‘middling sort’ of people as opposed to the ‘middle class’. Again, though, there are issues here. Whilst early moderns did use the language of ‘sorts’, it is not clear that the ‘middling sort’ adopted this label for themselves, tending to prefer instead the label ‘the better sort’ of their particular parish. This was a category usually used to distinguish themselves from their poorer neighbours, who they referred to as the ‘meaner’ or ‘vulgar’ sort of people. We may be happy to talk about a ‘middling sort’, but if historians started to use the vocabulary of the ‘vulgar sort’ – or arguably even the ‘lower sort’ – to describe their subjects it would hardly seem to be striking a blow against the condescension of posterity.
The ‘poorer sort’, or even simply ‘the poor’, may seem a better option, but many of our subjects would have looked to make a distinction between themselves and the very poorest in society and would not have owned this label either. Indeed, many would have seen it as pejorative, something which has also been argued about another term favoured by Thompson – ‘plebeian’. It is a label borrowed from ancient Rome, of course, but one – it has been argued – that was first adopted as a term of sociological description in early modern England by Daniel Defoe in the early part of the eighteenth century, and was intended as a derogatory term for the lower classes. It hardly seems appropriate to adopt a label that was intended as an insult ‘from above’.
If we are struggling to find suitable indigenous terms, there are some less loaded analytical categories than class that we might think about imposing from outside. ‘Ordinary people’ is one I have already used above. My concern with this label, and likewise that of ‘common people’, is that it tends to assume a certain homogeneity amongst our subjects, but it also suggests we are looking for the majority experience in the search for history from below. For many, though, ‘history from below’ is about recovering the voices or experiences of the marginal, the nonconformist, the persecuted – those not in the majority. It seems to me the pursuit of the marginal and the pursuit of the ordinary are two very different agendas, and although both may constitute ‘history from below’ the subjects of such agendas are unlikely to fit within one label.
Perhaps the solution lies in another commonly used term, ‘non-elite’. It is certainly capacious, but there is something slightly unsatisfying about using a residual categorisation such as this – defining our subjects by what they are not, rather than what they are. It may also be problematic in another sense: the term non-elite can often be used to refer to anyone outside of a very narrow band at the top of society, and under this label there are many studies focused primarily on the middling sort and middle class. Such studies are important, of course, and widen our historical understanding, but if our study of non-elites is too focused on those in the middle of society we lose something of the imperative to write history with as much social depth as possible. ‘Non-elite’ does not necessarily encourage this imperative.
I’ll stop myself there, as I’m wary of making an overly negative contribution to the debate, which is really not my intention. All of the labels historians use to describe their subjects have issues, and need to be used with reflection – this is not a problem peculiar to ‘history from below’ – and I don’t think this problem will be solved by coming up with a flawless catch-all term. That said, I do think it would be useful for those of working on ‘history from below’ to have a conversation about these various labels to ensure that we are using them as critically and reflectively as possible.
So, please take the opportunity to comment below on your preferred term for the subjects of your study, and let’s see if we can find some common ground on what the most useful labels may be.
 See the introduction to Henry French, The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (Oxford, 2007).
 Although I believe it is a term used in a positive sense by John Taylor, the seventeenth-century London waterman. See Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet (Oxford, 1994). [I don’t have the page reference to hand at present, but I’ll update this when I do]