Dead white men

Brodie Waddell

There has been rather a lot discussion on this blog of two pioneering historians: E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.

For those of you who are keen to hear more about these two, I’d like to mention a couple of events that will be of interest. For those of you who are tired of me blathering on about dead white men, I can promise that both of these events are actually focused on the impact of Thompson and Hobsbawm’s ideas – rather than on the men themselves – and that after this post I’ll shut up about them for a while.

The first event was a panel on the legacy of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). The talks and discussion were recorded, and the podcasts are now freely available here. I believe the slides will also be available for download at some point soon.

There were three panellists. Professor Sander Gilman (Emory) focused on the ‘Englishness’ of The Making and the problematic place of Jews in this story. Professor Jane Humphries (Oxford) presented a wonderfully incisive look at the how the ‘sentimentalist’ and ‘pessimistic’ interpretation of the Industrial Revolution has been recently reinvigorated by rigorous quantitative research, including her own book on Childhood and Child Labour British Industrial Revolution (2011). Last, and definitely least, I expanded on some of the ideas that I had presented in my earlier piece on the future of ‘history from below’, drawing on the wider discussion in our online symposium, particularly the contributions from Mark Hailwood and Samantha Shave.

Hobsbawm image_previewThe second event I’d like to mention is the huge conference on ‘History after Hobsbawm’ that will be held at Birkbeck at the end of April. It’s going to be quite an occasion – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many big-name ‘Munros’ from the world of history on a single programme. Although the event will partly be a celebration of Hobsbawm’s legacy, it also promises to be a forum for leading historians to tackle big issues such as nationalism, protest, class, environment, and so on. I won’t attempt to list all the speakers except to say that I’m particularly looking forward to the panels on ‘the crisis of the 17th century’ (Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Geoffrey Parker, John Elliott), on ‘Marxist and post-Marxist social history’ (Andy Wood, Jane Whittle, Lucy Robinson), and on ‘Frameworks of historical explanation’ (Peter Burke, Joanna Innes, Renaud Morieux). I hope to see some of you there.

Claire Langhamer, ‘Everyday love and emotions in the 20th century’

[This is the eighteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Claire Langhamer is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sussex. Her research and publications focus on aspects of everyday life in the 20th century, and in particular on the history of love. Here she asks whether the Mass-Observation Archive can help us to write the history of emotion ‘from below’.]

What I want to talk around in this post are the intersections between History from Below and the History of Emotion. What might a history of emotion ‘from below’ look like, how do we get at it and how might it re-frame our understanding of the period I am particularly interested in – the mid-twentieth century? I’m approaching the 1940s and 1950s as decades when the meaning and status of feeling seems to be particularly contested. Tensions between a need for self-discipline and desire for self-expression, anxieties about the impact of war and secularisation on moral standards, and concern about the future of the family, coalesced into a post-war discourse of emotional instability. Within this context the correct management of emotion was a political as well as a personal matter and became a marker of effective citizenship in a rapidly changing world. And yet, I want to argue, emotion itself could drive social and political change, acting as a vehicle for the operation of agency within everyday life. It was also increasingly seen as a legitimate basis upon which to assert knowledge claims about the world and carve out a place within civil society. Continue reading

Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Historicising the comfort of “things” in late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture’

[This is the seventeenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Julie-Marie Strange is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research and publications focus on inter-personal dynamics in working-class and poor families in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Here she contributes to our conversation about the relationship between material culture and ‘history from below’ by asking how the study of  ‘things’  can bring new or alternative perspectives on overlooked aspects of working-class lives.]

In The Comfort of Things (2008), the anthropologist Daniel Miller presented a series of ‘portraits’, stories of individuals and the things in their home that mattered to them, to challenge a narrative of consumption as corruption. Miller’s vignettes illuminate how objects embody people’s aspirations for sure, but, he also explores how the stories people tell about their things are intrinsic to their struggle to make their lives meaningful. For Miller, we appropriate objects to give meaning to social processes and relationships.[1] This post – a brief presentation of two case studies from late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture – makes a foray into how working people’s ‘stuff’ can be interrogated to explore the inter-personal dynamics of family life.

There is, of course, a rapidly growing literature on material culture and the ways in which historians might make use of it to understand the past, particularly ‘hidden’ aspects of history. What I’m going to focus on here is how things in working-class homes suggest insights into family relationships, particularly between children and their fathers. I’m focusing on fathers because they have typically been perceived by historians and contemporaries as on the periphery of family life in accounts that have privileged children’s relationships with mothers. Continue reading

Chris Briggs, ‘Household possessions of the 14th and 15th century peasantry’

[This is the sixteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Chris Briggs is Lecturer in Medieval British Social and Economic History at the University of Cambridge. His research and publications focus on various aspects of society, economy, and the law in England and Europe during the later middle ages (1200-1500). This post – along with the next post by Julie-Marie Strange, and Ruth Mather’s earlier in the summer – turns the conversation to a particular theme that was prominent at both of our ‘history from below’ events: the relationship between material culture and ‘history from below’. Here, Chris examines how this relationship might be developed in the medieval context.]

This post discusses an ongoing research project on the possessions of the medieval English peasantry, and considers how far and in what ways it should be considered an exercise in ‘History from below’. The paper begins by outlining what I see as the characteristics of ‘History from below’, both in general and with respect to the English middle ages in particular. I also ask whether history from below, a movement that was at its most confident roughly 50 years ago, can still be traced in the more recent and current work of English medievalists. Next I briefly describe my project on peasant goods and chattels, which is still at the stage of identifying questions, methods and sources. The final part looks at ways at which this work might and might not advance the history from below agenda. Continue reading

Selina Todd, ‘History from below: modern British scholarship’

[This is the fifteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Selina Todd is a Lecturer in Modern British History and Fellow of St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. Her research and publications focus on working-class and women’s history in modern Britain. Here she brings our conversation about ‘history from below’ through to the twentieth century, providing a survey of the recent historiography on modern Britain, and identifying some of the major challenges and future directions for ‘history from below’ in that field.]

Fifty years on from E.P. Thompson’s call to rescue working people from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, and myriad ‘turns’ later, history from below is flourishing in modern British scholarship. An emphasis on ‘ordinary people’ has replaced an earlier stress on the working class, and studies of collective protest are less numerous than those on everyday life. [1] But there is no sign that scholars consider Thompson’s original project ‘cliched’ or ‘tired’.

This post reflects on how history ‘from below’ has developed, the state it is in, and suggests some possible future directions. As the first section will show, we have reasons to be hopeful. But in the second section I argue that we need to historicise the material circumstances in which our scholarship is produced in order to fight for our future. In the final section I propose that we could use more studies of class, which might help us to restate the centrality of history ‘from below’ to understandings of modern Britain. Continue reading

Emma Griffin, ‘Working class autobiography in the industrial revolution’

[This is the fourteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Emma Griffin is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia. Her research and publications focus on the impact of the industrial revolution on the lives of the working poor. Here, she brings our conversation about ‘history from below’ forward into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and considers the light working class autobiography can shed on workers’ experiences of the British industrial revolution and argues that approaching this landmark historical development ‘from below’ can radically alter our perspective on it.]

The industrial revolution was possibly the single most significant event in our history.  But when we think about the men, women and children, who with their strong backs and nimble fingers did the most to power the industrial revolution, we tend to feel that there is little to celebrate.  The introduction of new working patterns which compelled men to work at the relentless pace of the machines.  Children forced into factories and down mines at ever younger ages.  Families squeezed into dark, disease-ridden cities.  And nothing but the workhouse for those who slipped through the net.  All the great Victorian commentators – Engels, Dickens, Blake – painted their industrial times in a very dark hue. And their dismal litany echoed throughout the twentieth century, as a succession of pioneering social historians – the Hammonds, Eric Hobsbawm, and of course E. P. Thompson – turned their attention to the devastating impact of the industrial revolution on the working poor.

Yet despite the frequency with which various versions of the bleak account of the industrial revolution have been retold, the claim that this period was worse than anything that has gone before has not received the kind of scrutiny it deserves.  In particular, it is remarkable that so little effort has been made to listen to what working people themselves had to say about their life and times.  Of course, it is usually countered that such an effort would be futile as working people did not leave behind much in the way of written sources.  But whilst it is certainly true that they wrote far less than their social superiors, it is not the case that they wrote nothing at all.  Less well known, but no less important, is a remarkable collection of autobiographies written by working people themselves.  And if we listen to these, we hear a story that is very different to the one that we are used to.

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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.

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