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]

‘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.

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The Future of ‘History from Below’ Online Symposium – Part II

Mark Hailwood

It’s been great to see so much interest and enthusiasm generated around the subject of ‘history from below’ this summer. The online symposium on it’s future that we have been running here on the many-headed monster – which grew out of a physical version held between a group of early career historians at Birkbeck in April – has been a real success. So we thought we would bring you more.

In July we held a second event, in Cambridge, on ‘History from Below in the 21st Century’. This grew out of conversations I’d been having with Jon Lawrence, a historian of modern Britain, who helped to organise the workshop – and who used his pull to secure the participation of some of the leading historians in this field. In particular, we were keen to get a group together who worked on diverse time periods, to get a sense of the different ways medieval, early modern, and modern historians viewed the current state of ‘history from below’. Needless to say, the resulting conversations were fascinating, for although Brodie has rightly pointed out that ‘many of the most interesting discussions about history aren’t happening in wood-panelled seminars rooms’, some do.

But, in the spirit of democratising history that has been a key theme in the online symposium so far, we thought we would bring the discussions we had that day out of the seminar room and into this wider conversation taking place here on the blog. So each day this week we will be posting a paper from the Cambridge workshop. Here is the programme:

These posts will differ a little from those we have seen so far in the online symposium: they are full versions of the papers that were presented at the workshop, rather than custom-made blog-posts, so they are a bit longer, more heavily footnoted, and were composed for an audience of academic historians. They are, of course, packed with really interesting insights, and are well worth taking that bit of extra time to read.

Feel free, as ever, to leave your comments – we will encourage the authors to respond to direct questions, but we can’t make any promises that they will. Either way, that shouldn’t stop your own conversations developing in the comments section, so keep posting your thoughts, and let’s keep the discussion going…

The future of ‘history from below’ symposium: concluding remarks

Brodie Waddell

Since publishing our invitation to this online symposium four short weeks ago, we’ve had over 5,000 visits from nearly 2,000 different readers.  Even more importantly, we’ve had scores of substantive comments here and on other social media. More people seem to be joining the conversation almost every day. From our perspective, then, this little experiment has been a success that has far exceeded our expectations.

We would thus like to offer our heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of you who have contributed, commented, linked, shared, tweeted and read over the past few weeks.  You’ve conclusively proven one of the key points that I was trying to make on Monday – many of the most interesting discussions about history aren’t happening in wood-panelled seminars rooms or within the pages of academic journals.

But it doesn’t end here. The beauty of this form of scholarship is that the conversation needn’t come to a close at the end of the final paper. Instead, we hope that you will continue to contribute to the discussion over the coming weeks and, in fact, indefinitely. To this end, we’ve created a stable page that can be accessed through the ‘History from Below’ link on the menu bar below our banner. This includes the introduction to the symposium as well as links to each individual piece. Alternatively, you can see all the pieces in the series through the ‘history from below event’ tag. What’s more, we’ll ensure that contributors are alerted when people offer new comments on their pieces, so they have a chance to respond.

We are also very pleased to announce that there will be more pieces on the future of history from below published later in the summer. These too will be linked on the main ‘History from Below’ page. They emerge from a second workshop we held on this topic, hosted at Cambridge and attended by some of the most eminent scholars in the field. The forthcoming pieces will include contributions from John Arnold, Christopher Briggs, Emma Griffin, Julie-Marie Strange, Selina Todd, and Andy Wood. Check back soon for more details…

Thank you again for making this such an exciting event.

Brodie Waddell, ‘History from below: today and tomorrow’

[This is the tenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Brodie Waddell is a historian of early modern England and one of the founders of the many-headed monster.]

We’ve won.

At least on one battlefield, ‘history from below’ has been totally victorious. The men and women who pioneered this approach had to fight hard to gain academic recognition. But today, their work is part of mainstream historical research and their subjects – poor stockingers, radical shoemakers, East End gangsters, peasant women – are warmly welcomed into the pages of academic journals. Indeed, two of the most influential journals in the profession, Past & Present (1952) and History Workshop Journal (1976), were actually founded by these once marginalised historians.

Yet winning the battle is not the same as winning the war. As other contributors have shown, many crucial struggles are still on-going. For example, female scholars continue to experience a level of discrimination in academia that limits their personal options and professional advancement. Although feminists have succeeded in making universities much less unbalanced than they were a generation ago, women are still systematically underrepresented amongst academic decision-makers. In addition, other fronts that had once seen steady progress have turned into partial reversals or outright routs. Access to higher education in Britain and North America expanded dramatically through much of the twentieth century, but the recent spike in tuition fees in England and the long-term rise in the US has made university much less affordable for students from working-class families. Worse still, this has hit part-time students especially hard, leading to a 40% fall in part-time applications since 2010 in the UK. These and other setbacks, discussed in more detail by Samantha Shave, mean that today’s advocates of a truly democratic ‘history from below’ cannot simply welcome our triumphs in research and quietly get on with our own work. We must do more. Continue reading

Samantha Shave, ‘History for below’

[This is the ninth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Samantha Shave is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, working on the project ‘Inheritance, Families and the Market in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Britain’. She has recently published on paupers’ lives and poor law reform in the early nineteenth century.]

Historians of welfare and poverty have seemingly now found the sources which, in the words of Tim Hitchcock, provide a more ‘democratic’ history from below (Down and Out, p. 239). The voices of the poor are being found in court records, ballads, threatening letters and petitions for poor relief, to name just a few sources, and we are putting them at the centre of our analyses. The word ‘democratic’ here has always struck me though; it makes me wonder whether, whilst we have been busying ourselves with this task, history itself has – as a discipline – become less democratic? I asked the workshop at Birkbeck to think about whether there is a ‘history for below’. Indeed, the central contradiction here is that we produce histories of those who have either been silenced or marginalised or ignored, that we strive to re-create social worlds from, ‘enforced narratives’ (Carolyn Steedman, Feminism and Autobiography, p. 25), but those people in similar positions today are being increasingly denied the opportunity to study and write history at university.

We need to consider how people decide to study history, and how recent changes to the curriculum could leave a generation uninspired to take the subject further. Those who are not put off by ‘fact and date’ history may attempt to study the subject at university. That’s if they want to get into a phenomenal amount of debt. There are small reductions to fees for those with household incomes below £25,000 per annum, and a few charity-like pockets of money issued by universities, but the overall debt for any student who started university in 2012 from a working household will be huge. With fees at an average of £8,770 a year, the average student could graduate with over £50,000 of debt over the course of their degree. The immediate consequences of the fee rise can be seen in application figures. UK applicants to university were down 8.7% in 2012, and a further 6.5% for admission this year. Worryingly, last year applications from people aged over 19 years old declined by 11.8%. Continue reading

Simon Sandall, ‘History lessons from below?’

[This is the eighth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Simon Sandall is a lecturer at the University of Winchester whose recent publications focus on custom, law, community and popular politics and popular protest in early modern England. His forthcoming book will be titled ‘Custom and Popular Memory in the Forest of Dean, c. 1550-1832’.]

Now, as much as at any time in the recent past, the study of labouring people and non-elites is crucial, not only in rescuing them from the ‘condescension of posterity’, but in forging a broader understanding of the historical context in which we enter the twenty-first century. As social services are being slashed, the terms of unemployment and disability benefits rendered untenable, sections of poorer communities pejoratively stereotyped in the name of austerity, the culpability of the super rich whitewashed, and Michael Gove’s attempts to hide any historical evidence to the contrary, this context is sorely needed.

Add to this the fact that a significant proportion of the British public draw their knowledge of the past from centre-right newspapers and other media, nuanced and critical histories ‘from below’ are clearly needed to restore balance to some of the more heated debates that pervade the current political climate. While the criteria of the Research Excellence Framework look to be developing an increased focus on wider dissemination of funded research, we should be thinking carefully about the nature of these studies and their impact. Gove’s current drive emphasises a simplified, top-down, political narrative which nods towards the benefits of British influence in the world, the development of stock trading, the banking industry, together with the associated rise of capitalism and industrialisation. As historians, our duty is surely to complicate these teleologies and work to emphasise the reality of contingency and agency, to advance our understanding of those in the lower echelons of societies past. At almost every one of these historical junctures, there have been passionately defended alternatives. A closer focus on the experiences of particular communities and broader histories from below reveals, also, that at each of these key transitional moments it has generally been the poor that have suffered to advance the interests of the rich and powerful. Continue reading

David Hitchcock, ‘Why history from below matters more than ever’

[This is the seventh piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). David Hitchcock is an IAS Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick and will be taking up a post at Canterbury Christ Church University in October. He has published on vagrancy in early modern England and blogs at Post.Hoc.]

As I write these words, Sohel Rana, the owner of an illegally constructed clothing factory and living complex in Bangladesh called the ‘Rana Plaza’, is probably sitting in a Dhaka jail. I have not the slightest clue what he’s thinking. But I hope he has time for a few regrets. Rana will be now be immortalised as the man who stood in front of a building that was literally cracking down its seams, and assured tenants and workers that it was perfectly safe to stay inside. Factory line managers in Rana’s clothing manufacturing operations on the top floors insisted that their workers continue their shifts, and clothing workers make up the bulk of the over 1,100 dead people in this particular tragedy.

As I write these words, Governor Rick Perry, the architect of modern Texas’ stunningly under-regulated industrial landscape, lambasts anyone but himself for the shameful practices at the West Texas fertilizer plant which recently exploded, levelling a town (which it was conveniently located right next to) and causing a 2.1 scale earthquake. The plant had not been inspected in twenty years. Fifteen people died, most were fire-fighters or first responders trying to control the blaze and to save others.

I’m choosing to begin this post on ‘History from Below’  with recent news stories about factory disasters on opposite ends of the world for one reason: to separate wheat from chaff. These kinds of stories should make you angry, they should make you think about why those factory workers felt they had to obey, and stayed at their posts in a factory that was literally crumbling around them, they should invite you to explore the sad history of industrial production, of ‘developing nation’ factory workers, and of brutal, naked economic exploitation in places like Bangladesh. I hope you want to understand why a place like Rana Plaza was openly permitted to exist. I hope you want to know what life was like for the approximately 1,150 people who died because they were not permitted to escape from an imploding building. Continue reading