[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;  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.