William Farrell, ‘Global history from below?’

[This is the fourth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). William Farrell is a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, exploring silk and globalization in eighteenth century London, which has resulted in several working papers.]

Could there be a meeting of global history and history from below?1 The participants at the Birkbeck workshop seemed sceptical I have to admit. The key works in global history have been Big History syntheses. The key works in history from below, on the other hand, have deliberately used a smaller scale.

Despite these signs of a dialogue of the deaf, I still think the potential for a ‘global history from below’ is there. We shouldn’t forget that micro-history is supposed to be a rich, empirical testing ground for arguments about wider social change. Equally, many of the articles in the Journal of Global History or Journal of World History do actually use a case study method. There should, therefore, be many places were these apparently contrasting traditions meet. Continue reading


Nicola Whyte, ‘Landscape history from below’

[This is the third piece in the ‘Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Nicola Whyte is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter whose research focuses on the interface of early modern social history and post medieval landscape studies. Her publications include Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2009), and she is currently part of an interdisciplinary team studying ‘The Past in its Place’.]

The field of landscape history and archaeology in Britain is a divided one. Fault lines separate proponents of the traditional, ‘empirical school’ from those who advocate more theoretically informed landscape research. I want to argue that this division is unhelpful for not only does it reduce interpretation to a set of binaries (objective/subjective, physical/cognitive, economic/symbolic), it also detracts from the importance of landscape research in addressing current concerns about environmental change and sustainability, and how research can engage people outside the university. In this brief piece I want to advocate an interdisciplinary approach to ‘history from below’ from a landscape perspective, which takes on board recent theoretical scholarship but retains empirical research at its core. Continue reading

Ruth Mather, ‘The Home-Making of the English Working Class’

[This is the second piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Ruth Mather is a doctoral candidate at Queen Mary, University of London, studying the links between working-class political identities and the home in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She also blogs about her adventures in research.]

I became interested in ‘history from below’ as an undergraduate through the encouragement of Professor Robert Poole, who introduced me to E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson’s book, which reaches its half-century this year, showed me a new way of doing history, one which didn’t patronise working people, or subsume them in a narrative of progress, but instead constructed a story about thinking, feeling people with their own ideas about their lives and their own strategies for living them. It’s important that our histories show the humanity of our subjects  – in my case the English labouring classes in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. This is not about glorifying poverty or writing hero narratives, but simply attempting to understand the messy, complicated details of the real lives of ordinary people.

I’m not alone in thinking this is particularly crucial at the moment, when a new history curriculum threatens to take us back to stories of great men and Whiggish progress and welfare recipients are demonised for political gain. However, other participants in this symposium will be discussing the continued relevance of ‘history from (and for) below’ in much more detail over the coming weeks, and it is not difficult to find excellent explanations of why ‘history matters’ more generally. So, having outlined why ‘history from below’ is important to me, I’d like to focus on the question of how we can find sources that can help to uncover the domestic lives of ordinary people as part of this wider project of uncovering voices that have been underprivileged in the historical record. Continue reading

Richard Blakemore, ‘Finding fragments – the past and the future’

[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. Continue reading

The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium

Brodie Waddell

Those of us who think that historical research ought to consist of more than the study of kings, ministers and generals owe a great debt to the pioneers of ‘history from below’ . Foremost amongst them must be E.P. Thompson, who published his epic The Making of the English Working Class exactly half a century ago. The impressive wave of work that followed will be well-known to many of you and, if nothing else, I think most historians would agree that historical scholarship would be poorer if not for the intervention of these spirited men and women.

But what about the next fifty years? Has ‘history from below’, and perhaps social history more generally, outlived its usefulness? What, if anything, can it contribute to contemporary scholarship and the wider world? How should it be adapted or reoriented in the coming years? What new tools or techniques could strengthen it? Where will it fit in the wider academic and social landscape?

On 16 April 2013, eighteen of us gathered for a workshop at Birkbeck to try to figure out some answers to these questions. As is usually the case with these events, the discussion carried on in the pub afterwards and, although we certainly didn’t come up with any conclusive answers, we all agreed this was a conversation that needed to continue.

To that end, Mark and I invited the participants to contribute to an online symposium on the future of ‘history from below’. So, over the next few weeks we will be posting a series of short pieces by historians early in their academic careers that attempt to offer some possible answers to these questions. We hope that this will spur further discussion and open up the conversation to the rest of the world. Please leap in with your comments, suggestions and critiques. We welcome comments not only from ‘fellow travellers’ but also – perhaps especially – from sceptics and critics of ‘history from below’.

The first post will be published here on Monday, July 8th, with further posts following every two or three days. Links to each piece will be added here and join the conversation on twitter via #historyfrombelow.