Andy Wood, ‘History from below and early modern social history’

[This is the thirteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Andy Wood is Professor of Social History at Durham University. His research and publications focus on popular protest, customary rights and social memory in early modern England. Here he takes us through the relationship between ‘history from below’ and early modern social history, and outlines a number of key principles and approaches that might inform that relationship going forward.]

History-from-below poses a question. Like Bertoldt Brecht’s Questions from a worker who reads and Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own, history-from-below asks us to describe the lives, ideas and experiences of those who lay ‘below’ dominant historical narratives. Like Subaltern Studies (developing at the same time, from the early 1970s) history-from-below focused on a disparate range of groups, spanning time and distance: workers, peasants, slaves, women, the marginalized, oppressed ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.

The history-from-below tradition grew out of the English Marxism of the CPHG (Communist Party Historians’ Group). It was the badly-behaved adolescent offspring of the CPHG, loosely grouped around History Workshop Journal and its attendant movement rather than around the journal Past and Present, which by the 1970s had lost its explicit political focus. Like the CPHG, history-from-below valorized resistance and largely ignored questions of subordination, social integration and hegemony. But unlike the CPHG generation, it was explicitly open to histories of women, gender, race and sexuality. It represented the historiographical expression of a broader shift at work within the British Left in the 1970s and 1980s, the urge – in the face of deindustrialization and the late-recognized halt in the forward march of labour – to create new alliances beyond the traditional labour movement. That political project achieved its clearest expression in Livingstone’s GLC (Greater London Council), in a resurgent CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) with its connection (via Greenham) to second-wave feminism and in the diverse range of groups attracted to the Miners’ Support Groups during the 1984-5 strike. Although this ‘rainbow alliance’ (the term originated with Jesse Jackson and was anglicised by the International Marxist Group as an ‘alliance of the oppressed’) was to be defeated, its historiographical expression in the fuzzy History Workshop tradition had its successes – as this symposium shows, nowadays it is hard to write social and cultural history without reference to some of the concerns of History Workshop, most of all the legacy of feminism and the lesbian and gay liberation movement. Histories of class, marginalized by the cultural turn of the last 20 years, are starting to reassert themselves too. I’ll come back to this resurgence towards the end.

So what bearing does any of this have on the new social history of early modern England? The answer is very little. The social history of early modern England was born at a time of massive conflict within Stuart historiography over the significance of the English Revolution, in which Marxists (Christopher Hill, Brian Manning) and other progressivists (Lawrence Stone and, rather earlier, R.H. Tawney) were pitched against a narrowly focused empiricist school of revisionists which emphasized short-term and (with the exception of John Morrill) high-political factors against ideology, economic causation or long-term consequences. The new social historians explicitly avoided engagement with this debate, leaving the field of politics to triumphant revisionism. Marxism was out: unlike the History Workshop movement, the early modern social historians took their inspiration from social anthropology and classical social theory. It was not until the cultural turn of the 1990s that early modern historiography was to be touched by the other forces that had influenced History Workshop – second-wave feminism and the lesbian and gay liberation movement. And, unlike in the History Workshop tradition, this new historiography of gender, sexuality and the body was largely conducted apart from questions of class, exploitation and social structure.

But there was always an edge to the new social history of early modern England. Unlike the cultural historians of the 1990s, the new social historians of the 1970s and 1980s understood power as located in social structure: if they were hesitant in applying class-based categories, there was a continuous attention to issues of structural inequalities of wealth and power. This was a social history with a grittily materialist sense of economics. The political sympathies of most early modern social historians, of course, lie with the Left. The large majority, I imagine, habitually (albeit critically) vote Labour and not a few of us once carried party cards in our pockets. Unlike history-from-below, though, those sympathies were understated: the closest we get to any explicit statement of political commitment comes in Wrightson and Levine’s dedication of their study of the mining village of Whickham to the people of the Durham coalfield, past and present (the book was researched during the 1984-5 strike) and in Jim Sharpe’s stated desire to write about people who weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths.

In this respect, history-from-below connected directly with the sympathies of many of the first generation of the early modern social historians. Their hearts were with history–from-below; but their heads were elsewhere. This is evident in style as much as content. The early modernists tended to write in a cooler, more detached and ‘scholarly’ register than was current amongst the History Workshop historians. For the best writers amongst the early modernists, this gave a particular sharpness to the occasional, well-placed flash of explicit commitment. Wrightson’s work is the exemplar of this style: concluding his study of the deeply polarized Essex village of Terling, he feels ‘a shudder of pain’ that ‘vibrates across the centuries’.

The 1990s saw the emergence, largely untouched by the cultural turn, of a second generation of early modern social historians. This new generation remained wedded to an understated yet powerful materialism: whether dealing with women’s experience of London (Laura Gowing), crime (Garthine Walker), urban marginality (Paul Griffiths) or the lives of the harried rural poor (Steve Hindle), questions of power were ultimately located in material context and social structure. Unlike the first generation, these younger historians paid closer attention to gender: in the work of all four of those whom I have named, gender is there as a source of identity and as a structuring force in social relations. What remains unclear in much of the work, however, is the issue of the relationship between gender and social structure. It is clear that they are intimately connected, but the nature of that interconnection requires much closer attention. Here, the early modernists can still learn from the history-from-below agenda.

Just as class is bisected by gender, so gender is bisected by class. This is transparently clear in the work of many of the gender historians associated with the History Workshop movement – most prominently, Leonore Davidoff, Catherine Hall, Barbara Taylor and Sally Alexander. It is also there in Anna Clark’s inspirational 1995 work The struggle for the breeches: gender and the making of the British working class. Although Susan Amussen made an early attempt to probe the gender/class relationship, the first generation of early modern social historians tended to take ‘gender’ as synonymous with ‘women’, or at least at its best as a descriptive rather than an analytical category. In the second generation, the only early modern social historian to explicitly engage with the interface between gender and class is Alexandra Shepard. We will come back to Shepard’s achievement in a moment.

Any focus on the gender/class interface needs to be located in two sites: in the household and in the locality. The two are intermingled: from his antipodean perspective, Dave Rollison sees English society as comprised of overlapping ‘households in a landscape’. I want to pursue Rollison’s integrated vision. Both household and locality take us to senses of place: as situated in streets, lanes, villages and towns – and also as located in social structure. Thanks to the first generation of early modern social historians, we know a huge amount about the structure of the poorer and middling household: its size, composition, fluidities, age of first marriage, nuptiality, life-cycle, mortality. It is widely stated that the household was a unit of production, reproduction and patriarchal socialization. Brilliantly marrying the structural and the cultural, Shepard shows how the increased number of poor people who never married meant that, by the late seventeenth century, there had emerged several generations of men who never became heads of household and who, as living-in workers or as servants, remained subordinated to a patriarch. Shepard’s achievement was to how patriarchy might work against poorer men and so successfully to unite class and gender. Much more needs to be done here: we know that the household was meant to be a unit of patriarchal socialization, imprinting the crisp certainties of patriarchal ideology in the minds of wives, children, apprentices, servants and living-in labourers. But there were other ways in which the household socialized early modern people, and these did not always correspond to the patriarchal model.

A history-from-below approach might allow us to see the plebeian household as a key site within which distinctly subaltern values might be inculcated: subaltern in the sense that they inhabited social structures which privileged elite authority, but which yet constituted a defensive rampart within which life was rendered liveable for ordinary people. This involves a rethinking of the households of the ‘lower sort’, conceptualizing them as much more than the site for the recitation of a patriarchal dominant ideology. Of course, the plebeian household could fulfil that function (although exactly how requires closer study). But it had other roles: it was the site at which a lower-class habitus was created, linking one generation to the next, entangling production and reproduction in the generation of culture. The household was where working skills were learnt and labour relations were given cultural meaning: those skills (shepherding, cobbling, weaving, ploughing, quarrying, mining, and so on) gave poorer children skills that were both useful in the labour market and which could be a source of pride and independence. Alongside productive skill, other crafts were reproduced within the household: nursing, caring for the vulnerable, medical knowledge, washing, cuisine, looking to animals, mending and making do, story-telling, brewing, music-making, passing down jokes and stories and folklore. Importantly, not all of this was gendered. The household was a creative place where hands and minds learnt to be clever and quick. Here, too, there could be sources of pride: Garthine Walker has shown how the accusation of being an ‘idle housewife’ could deeply damage the standing of plebeian women. This sense of the lower-class household as the final bastion of plebeian autonomy found its expression in the language of male rioters who continuously drew on their need to defend their households against enclosure, high food prices or oppressive taxation. Very like the working-class households of 1930s Britain or the peasant and proletarian households of early Francoite Spain, the early modern plebeian household was the last rampart of subaltern pride, identity and strength. It was something worth defending: it was where basic communal values known as ‘neighbourliness’, ‘kindness’, ‘gentleness’ and ‘favour’ were drilled into the minds of the young. So, the lower-sort household could indeed be a site of socialization: but those values were not always (or even mostly) the top-down imposition of straightforwardly patriarchal ideals – they were something more complex, blending ideas about household authority with notions of communalism, duty, love, belonging, identity, skill and place.

That sense of place was also apparent within the plebeian community. Here, too, the history-from-below tradition rewards renewed attention. Work by Mary Chamberlain, Alun Howkins and Raphael Samuel on rural workers in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England points to the ways in which senses of locality were central to ideas about mutual responsibility, entitlement, a hostility to top-down charity, an acceptance of aid from neighbours, a site of friendship and belonging: early modernists ought compulsorily to have to read Lark Rise to Candleford and the poetry of John Clare.

Recent work by Wrightson and Tadmor has started to reveal something of the contours of neighbourliness in early modern society: it suggests something similar to the world of pre-enclosure Lark Rise. Again, there is much more to be done. What ordinary people called their ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘country’ was the spatial unit within which they lived their lives, a location defined by credit, kinship, trade, gossip, marriage horizons, litigation, custom, transport and marketing. It could also lay the basis for political organization: enclosure and food riots often ran across these interconnected patterns of association and mutual dependency. The same was true of rebellion: in 1536, 1549 and the failed plots of the mid-1580s and mid-1590s (which deserve an integrated study) we catch glimpses of such extra-village organization. And it is explicit in the clubmen movements of the mid-1640s.

Neighbourhood was where lads and lasses learnt about community: about its social and geographical bounds (the turn of a field wall here, a standing stone there, an old stone cross down by the river, demarcating places where generations of inhabitants had observed the bounds of the manor, parish, ward or borough), its economic functions (where one could go nutting or gathering berries; where firewood could be taken; where cows could be pastured). Seeming trivial in our culture of post-modern relative plenty, such rights were essential to the fragile domestic economies of labouring and smallholding families. They also informed their sense of rights and entitlements. More work has been done here but, critically, it needs to be linked back to households as sensitive sites of affective and social relations.

Central to the history-from-below agenda is the category of agency. I don’t want that category to escape our clutch as easily as class was allowed, in the 1990s, to slip away. The world I research – English society between roughly 1500 and 1770 – was one characterized by vast and growing disparities of wealth and power. Okay, the middling sort is always there. And we know all about the emergence in the later seventeenth century of a consumer society, of politeness, luxury and bourgeois respectability. But so much of that was an urban, literate and middle-class experience. The marginal poor of Augustan England saw little of this polite and commercial world – unless it was as a whipping, incarceration in the Bridewell, conscription into the military, or forced deportation as indentured labourers to the New World.

And if the archives generated by their rulers yield occasional flashes of the assertiveness, autonomy, dignity, entitlement and mutual responsibility of the poor and marginal –  that is, if they yield to us the possibility of inverting social hierarchies and writing a history of early modern England from below – then let’s take it. Some of that history will be about deference, clientage, patronage: it will be about social integration, and the story of how, despite everything, the centre held. That’s an important story that has to be told, which has hardly yet been mapped and on which I am currently working. It is our duty to so some of that mapping. But some of the story will also be about the capacity of ordinary people to shape the world around them. It will be about agency: an agency that, I think, deserves to be celebrated.

The past does more than weigh upon the minds of living. For those of us with the enormous privilege to spend our working lives studying it, the past imposes duties – duties of empirical recovery, of clear conceptualization and of the recognition of achievement on the part of subordinated people in the past. Sometimes, that achievement might be huge: after the rebellions of 1549, the gentry of the affected regions stepped away from village conflicts. Or the achievement might seem to us to be small-scale: for example, the continued assertion, over generations, of the right to take firewood in a few acres of woodland. But for those involved in such struggles, these things mattered. In the current political circumstances of spending cuts, Coalition attacks on the entitlements of poorer people and a seemingly endless post-colonial military assault on other cultures and peoples, the postmodernists’ rejection of historical materialism seems now to be tragically naïve. These are the worst of times – but they may also be the best of times. Just as social relations are becoming increasingly brutal, social structures are becoming more obvious. It may be that this is another good time to be a social historian.


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