John Arnold, ‘History from below – some medievalist perspectives’

[This is the twelfth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). John Arnold is Professor of Medieval History at Birkbeck. His research and publications focus in particular on medieval ‘belief’. Here he takes us through some of the ways ‘history from below’ approaches have played an important role in medieval scholarship on both England and France.]

“And so our interpretation of history will be both materialist with Marx and mystical with Michelet. It was economic life that was the basis and the mechanism of human history, but across the succession of social forms man, a thinking force, aspired to the full life of thought, the ardent community of the unquiet intelligence, avid for unity and the mysterious universe.”

[Jean Jaurès, Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française, Paris, 1911. Introduction. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/jaures/1901/history/introduction.htm]

‘History from below’ has tended predominantly to be an early modernists’ term; [1] and it is a very baggy term. Is it simply the same as ‘social history’; is it related to Alltagsgeschichte; does it make a particular claim about collective historical agency from ‘below’; or is it more concerned with the experience of ordinary people at the sharp end of historical change? The term’s capacious vagueness is perhaps the main point – and an indication of its anglophone origin, freed from the strictures of theoretical precision. But when one starts to think about its connotations for different period specialisms, issues of purpose and project become naggingly apparent. Medievalists and early modernists tend to share some sense that making ordinary (/subaltern/plebeian/lower sort/peuple menu/popolani …. etc etc, pick one’s own inevitably problematic term) people visible and audible is in itself an historiographical success worth pursuing, because the weight of the evidence – so we tend to say, though this bears further discussion in itself – submerges the majority of humanity in favour of the visible, powerful elite. That shared project immediately requires some further nuance however.

Early modernists have access to a much wider array of material than most medievalists, and the concomitant possibility of combining some degree of serial or statistical analysis with sociocultural interpretation has tended to place the bar rather higher for early modernists in regards to what ‘making people visible’ entails. That is, in crude terms, as a medievalist, at least prior to the late fourteenth century I can tend to get away with cherry-picking a few nice examples and reading them in considerable detail, without having to attempt to reconstruct recurrent patterns or detailed socioeconomic contexts for my protagonists (because such reconstructions are frequently impossible, beyond the broadest of brushstrokes). Whereas my sense is that early modernists tend to beat up on each other if they don’t provide full statistical demonstration of how ‘representative’ or otherwise their examples are, and arrange those examples in clearly labelled socioeconomic categories.

I want to return below to that tension between individual voice and structural context, but for the moment let’s just stick with the more basic issues about evidence and task. Medievalists of the fifteenth century may conduct their research in a similar fashion to early modernists of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, equipped as they are with taxation records, sturdy runs of legal material and the like, the occasional diary or letter collection or commonplace book, and the beginnings of relatively widespread cultural materials such as conduct books and contemplative religious books (circulating among the upper echelons of those whom the early modernists will come to call ‘the middling sort’).[2] At the other end of the spectrum, for early medievalists (ie those working prior to c.1100) the dearth of available evidence tends to make the job of reconstructing anything ‘from below’ more archaeological – and hence structural – than textual. And in each case, where ‘below’ begins is somewhat elastic, influenced primarily by the difficulty or otherwise of the task in hand: for early medievalists, saying anything about anyone who isn’t a king, prince or bishop can feel like a victory for ‘below’; for late medievalists, the civic elites are definitely ‘elite’, but quite a lot of the rest of the urban population (forming however still a minority of the total population) are at least ‘below-ish’, and non-noble/non-gentry rural dwellers (even if in fact among the richest of peasants) are even more ‘below’, because less immediately visible. I should not speak here for early modernists, but my sense is that the bar for ‘below’ moves ever downward, in an English context at least, the later one goes chronologically; unless this is mitigated by the unusual richness of a particular source, such that the degree of particular illumination and visibility make our sense of ‘rescue’ all the stronger, mitigating the desire to head ‘down’ the social scale as far as possible.[3]

Medievalists and early modernists – particularly anglophone early modernists – also tend to draw upon different inherited traditions.[4] For English early modernists of my generation and after (at least for those writing in ‘history from below’ mode) my sense is that this is of course predominantly Thompson, plus Hill, maybe Hobsbawm, and the by now somewhat de-politicized legacy of the British Marxist Historians group; with interventions from more anthropologically-inspired directions à la Peter Laslett, Alan Macfarlane and Peter Burke; plus of course a considerable legacy of 1970s onward ‘hidden from history’ writing, from feminist women’s history and more recently histories of gender and sexuality.[5]  For medievalists, some of this similarly applies. But other roots were there first. One came the legacy of the Victorian neo-medieval romanticism and the arts and crafts movement: William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball, for example. There are early works of serious historiography which in a sense respond to this vision of medieval peasant life, sometimes sympathetically but also in an attempt to ground it more firmly in the available sources: Charles Oman’s The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906), Eileen Power’s Medieval People (1924), with its chapter on a Carolingian peasant. These have fed into a long tradition of medieval local history, on which historians with wider agendas still draw.

The other main taproot for medievalists is French scholarship. Whilst medieval historians, like early modern historians, do tend to pursue their historical interests within the frame of modern national boundaries, for medievalists we do this with a keen sense of how arbitrary and in some cases unsuitable such boundaries really are for our study. For UK medievalists, it’s simply impossible to ignore France (and hence French scholarship) – because of the Norman conquest, the Hundred Years War, the Aquitaine, the importance of trade with the Low Countries, and the fact that lots of elite sources are in Anglo-Norman French even in the fifteenth century. And it’s also difficult to ignore French scholarship because of the legacy of Marc Bloch, as both Feudal Society and The Historian’s Craft are key works of training for aspiring medievalists. In short, the Annales tradition looms larger for us; and, it’s important to remember, it came first (that is, earlier than the British Marxist Historians group).

With the Annales though questions of individual voice and structural context return. As the quotation at the head of the piece reminds us, French scholarship is broadly speaking marxian: that is, even when not committed at all to a Marxist politics, it has nonetheless seen economic structure – or simply structure more broadly – as an essential element in understanding history. And this fed into one aspect of study, from Bloch’s Feudal Society (which is society in toto – from the elites to the peasants, thus incorporating a lot of ‘below’ in connection with ‘above’) to in a sense the beyond-economics-into-geography vision of Braudel’s Mediterranean. The French got into large-scale study, statistical analysis and the like in a big way; and this remains a key part of their ‘from below’ tradition, particularly for those producing the massive thèse d’état doctoral works (that they have only recently abandoned). Thus in works such as Marie-Therese Lorcin’s study of medieval wills in southern France, or Claude Gauvard’s study of late medieval justice, the aim is to look at as much of ‘below’ as possible, and to discuss it in aggregate, structural terms. At the same time, again looking to the quotation above from Jaurès, there is another tradition in French scholarship, coming from the inspired if sometimes somewhat loopy historiography of Jules Michelet on witchcraft, Joan of Arc, and the history of France (and its mystical Frenchness) itself. Here the notion of ‘voice’ is very strong: a voice that speaks out, that is a voice of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’, and that attempts to find its apogee in 1789 and all that. So this has also fed into the Annales work, notably in Ladurie’s Montaillou (peasant lives and voices from early fourteenth-century inquisition trial registers).

Anglophone medievalism hasn’t directly adopted the Annales model, but it can’t help but be at least a bit influenced by it. It raises for medievalists questions about the nature of social structure: that is, how the notionally ‘tri-partite’ society of those who fought, those who prayed and those who worked actually operated its divisions of labour; how it managed to function, given major differences in wealth, language, cultural outlook; and within that therefore, the role of the labouring order (the ‘below’ in our terminology) both in relation to the other two orders (particularly when thinking about things like politics and economics) and as a separate ‘culture’, thought of in structuralist anthropological terms (when thinking about things like religion and ‘folklore’). Thus we have influential works such as George Duby’s Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (1961; Engl. trans 1968) which looks at peasant life and change, within a structured economic perspective; and Jean-Claude Schmitt’s The Holy Greyhound (1979; Engl. trans. 1983) which delves into one ‘folkloric’ story from thirteenth-century France and places it in a wider cultural structure, drawing considerably on anthropology. Both are histories ‘from below’, but with what one is trying to understand about ‘below’ understood in very different terms.

I have sketched here some legacies for current scholarship, rather than the current scholarship itself. Recent medievalist work has followed contours that will be familiar to early modernists, particularly in terms of ‘culture’ coming into productive view along with ‘society’, and with elements of vaguely poststructuralist methodology now fairly standard (eg paying attention to the contexts – particularly the linguistic contexts – in which people make statements/claims/petitions/complaints in sources, rather than reading this unproblematically as direct evidence of experience).[6] In other words, the nature of the ‘below’ we may seek to recapture has been problematized; though at the same time, the kinds of sources via which we might attempt to glimpse ‘below’ has widened considerably.[7]

What I want to end with though is the question of the politics of looking ‘from below’. One issue relates to historical agency: do we conceive of our task as primarily looking at the experience of those without much agency, and how they tried their tactical best to survive the experience of history? Or are we primarily concerned with trying to think about moments and contexts in which ‘the below’ changed things themselves (whether wittingly and consciously, or whether by dint of their collective ‘gravitational’ effect on social, economic and cultural structures)? Are we looking at les paysans des l’ancien régime or les révolutionnaires de 1789? ‘Both’ we might well claim; and that’s probably the case. But what is the framework within which we understand the possibility of ‘both’ being the case? To put it more bluntly, are we still marxist (or at least marxian), which at least gives us an analytical framework within which a balance of structure and agency can be apprehended (à la Jean Jaurès, as above)? And if we are not, how then do we think these things through, beyond a kind of ‘well sometimes shit happens, and sometimes it doesn’t’ shrug?

What has always particularly interested me however is a parallel historiographical issue about ‘below’: where we stand in regard to it. My sketch of Annaliste tendencies above depends in part on Jacques Rancière’s critical study The Names of History (1993). Rancière argues there that the Annales tradition had lost its original desire to allow the ordinary people to ‘speak’ critically and confrontationally in history: it had smothered them firstly in statistical analysis, such that they were always a collective, amorphous mass; and then secondly (as in Montaillou) by structural anthropology, taking any challenging or ‘heretical’ statement and ‘giving it the colour of the earth and the stones … rendering it indiscernible from its place’. As I reflected some time ago in a monograph concerned with how we might make visible and audible the subjects of medieval inquisitorial inquiry, the issue is about our position as well as theirs: there is more than one way in which posterity can condescend to the past, including the assumption that ‘we’ are on ‘their’ side, and that we thus understand them.[8] The question is, what do we want from ‘below’?


[1] We seem to have inherited it from a piece EP Thompson published in the Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 1966 on themes in labour and social history; though it is the title and not in main piece, so may in fact be the work of a subeditor rather than the great man himself. Wikipedia seems to think that Georges Lefebvre invented the term, but I don’t think this is the case – although it is clear (as discussed above) that French Marxian traditions of social history writing predate the postwar British Marxist Historians group, and that that sense of ‘from below’ does have a particular association with French scholarship.

[2] On the large expansion in manuscript reproduction, on paper rather than parchment, in the fifteenth century see Daniel Hobbins, Authorship and Publicity before Print (2009); on medieval preaching as ‘mass media’ see D. L. d’Avray, Medieval Marriage Sermons: Mass Communication in a Culture Without Print (2001).

[3] One thinks in a late medieval context of Margery Kempe, fifteenth-century mystic and author of the first English language autobiography; the substantial body of work around her is a victory for ‘below’ of a sort, though Margery was daughter of the mayor of Bishops Lynn, and in fact socially pretty elite; and in an early modern context, one wonders quite how ‘below’ the famous Mennochio was, with his books and ideas, compared to others in his locality… Similarly, do we read Amanda Vickery’s work on female diaries as ‘history from below’?

[4] And we all need to remember the development of economic history (very often pursued as social history rather than purely focused on economics) in the early years of the twentieth century, in UK and US history in particular.

[5] And, yes, race; but whilst this has of course been key in US historiographical traditions, I don’t see it as having had a major influence in the UK

[6] In some ways, the old-fashioned medievalist tradition of ‘diplomatics’ – pulling critically apart the formulae and received rhetoric of genres of source – have made this kind of methodological move fairly easy to embrace

[7] See for example Barbara Hanawalt, The Ties that Bound (1988) which used coroners’ rolls to reconstruct village life and gender in fourteenth-century England; Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris (2002), which uses the canonization materials related to King Louis IX to reconstruct the lives of the very poorest in society; Daniel Lord Smail’s The Consumption of Justice (2003) which uses trial records to analyze emotions and popular culture in medieval Marseille; Cordelia Beattie’s Medieval Single Women (2007) which looks at poll tax records and other classificatory documents to demonstrate the complexity of female ‘identity’ in late medieval England.

[8] Inquisition and Power (2001).

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3 thoughts on “John Arnold, ‘History from below – some medievalist perspectives’

  1. Difficult to say we are on their side, even when the heretics seem so appealing for their resistance to authority. I have had a half-remembered line from the crusade against the Albigensian heretics as a kind of motto for years: “he would not bow his stubborn neck to the yoke of obedience”. But when I read about those same heretics now I am far from feeling a fellowship with their perfects and dualism.

    You mention archaeology and history, but can literature also not give us windows on the world from below: troubadours and saltimbanques leaving their testimonies?

  2. You’ve given us a lot to think about here, John. As you say, one of the central questions is ‘what do we want from “below”’ and perhaps the search for otherwise lost voices is one of the key drivers that keeps us going back to it.

    But why do we care about the voices of ordinary people? Well, I think you may have alluded to part of the reason in your discussion of Michelet. He, you say, was looking for ‘a voice that speaks out, that is a voice of “truth” and “justice”, and that attempts to find its apogee in 1789 and all that’. Although I don’t think many historians would admit this today, we probably unconsciously continue to do this. Perhaps it’s partly from the Christian tradition (‘Out of the mouths of babes’, etc.), but whatever the origins I believe we continue to feel that the voices of the weak and disenfranchised provide special insight into greater truths.

    Now, as you note, we’re all good cultural historians and we carefully pick apart the rhetoric and contexts of such utterances. Still, I’d be surprised if the search for the voice of innocence and truth doesn’t continue to influence the way we do history from below.

  3. Pingback: Green Paper Blues: A Shiny New Bureaucracy for University Teaching | the many-headed monster

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