[This is the sixth piece in ’The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Mark Hailwood is a historian of early modern England and one of the founders of the many-headed monster.]
The posts that have appeared so far in this symposium have suggested a number of interesting directions for the future of ‘history from below’: a future that opens up new avenues for research through explorations of material culture, of the landscape, and of global connections and comparisons, with a critical but ultimately optimistic disposition regarding the possibilities of drawing together fragmentary evidence, potentially through the use of digital databases. All of this excites and encourages me. And yet, there is one particular problem that I think we all need to address if ‘history from below’ is to have a coherent future: how to define its subjects.
I’m not so much concerned here with who should ‘qualify’ as an appropriate subject for ‘history from below’ – I’m not sure prescriptive precision here is possible or helpful, but maybe someone would like to take this up in the comments section – so much as with the labels we use to refer to those that are generally accepted to fall within its remit. Let’s start with that classic statement of the ‘history from below’ agenda found in Thompson’s preface to The Making… ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’
How can we collectively describe these subjects? It seems to me that most of the labels historians use are in some way problematic. Usually we reach for a sociological label, seeking to define our subjects in terms of broad socio-economic groups. Straight away this raises issues with regards to gender: might we consider all women as ‘below’ in a patriarchal society such as early modern England, regardless of their socio-economic status? This isn’t the only problem with privileging a socio-economic label – which one to choose? Thompson and many historians of the modern era opt for class, and refer to their subjects as the ‘working class’. Let’s assume for a moment that this works fine for the Industrial Age (a dangerous assumption, as many would argue it is hugely problematic even here), but for the early modern historian there is a real problem with the term: it wasn’t used by our subjects themselves.
Of course, we might argue that it is, nonetheless, a useful analytical category for the historian, but as regular readers of the Monster will know a major part of the agenda for many of us studying early modern England ‘from below’ is to try to recover, as far as possible, the way ‘ordinary people’ (I’ll come back to this label too) saw their own world. If ‘class’ was an alien label to them, it would seem more fitting for us to search for an indigenous label that they themselves may have recognised.
To this end historians of early modern England often refer instead to ‘sorts’ of people, rather than ‘classes’, especially when referring to the ‘middling sort’ of people as opposed to the ‘middle class’. Again, though, there are issues here. Whilst early moderns did use the language of ‘sorts’, it is not clear that the ‘middling sort’ adopted this label for themselves, tending to prefer instead the label ‘the better sort’ of their particular parish. This was a category usually used to distinguish themselves from their poorer neighbours, who they referred to as the ‘meaner’ or ‘vulgar’ sort of people. We may be happy to talk about a ‘middling sort’, but if historians started to use the vocabulary of the ‘vulgar sort’ – or arguably even the ‘lower sort’ – to describe their subjects it would hardly seem to be striking a blow against the condescension of posterity.
The ‘poorer sort’, or even simply ‘the poor’, may seem a better option, but many of our subjects would have looked to make a distinction between themselves and the very poorest in society and would not have owned this label either. Indeed, many would have seen it as pejorative, something which has also been argued about another term favoured by Thompson – ‘plebeian’. It is a label borrowed from ancient Rome, of course, but one – it has been argued – that was first adopted as a term of sociological description in early modern England by Daniel Defoe in the early part of the eighteenth century, and was intended as a derogatory term for the lower classes. It hardly seems appropriate to adopt a label that was intended as an insult ‘from above’.
If we are struggling to find suitable indigenous terms, there are some less loaded analytical categories than class that we might think about imposing from outside. ‘Ordinary people’ is one I have already used above. My concern with this label, and likewise that of ‘common people’, is that it tends to assume a certain homogeneity amongst our subjects, but it also suggests we are looking for the majority experience in the search for history from below. For many, though, ‘history from below’ is about recovering the voices or experiences of the marginal, the nonconformist, the persecuted – those not in the majority. It seems to me the pursuit of the marginal and the pursuit of the ordinary are two very different agendas, and although both may constitute ‘history from below’ the subjects of such agendas are unlikely to fit within one label.
Perhaps the solution lies in another commonly used term, ‘non-elite’. It is certainly capacious, but there is something slightly unsatisfying about using a residual categorisation such as this – defining our subjects by what they are not, rather than what they are. It may also be problematic in another sense: the term non-elite can often be used to refer to anyone outside of a very narrow band at the top of society, and under this label there are many studies focused primarily on the middling sort and middle class. Such studies are important, of course, and widen our historical understanding, but if our study of non-elites is too focused on those in the middle of society we lose something of the imperative to write history with as much social depth as possible. ‘Non-elite’ does not necessarily encourage this imperative.
I’ll stop myself there, as I’m wary of making an overly negative contribution to the debate, which is really not my intention. All of the labels historians use to describe their subjects have issues, and need to be used with reflection – this is not a problem peculiar to ‘history from below’ – and I don’t think this problem will be solved by coming up with a flawless catch-all term. That said, I do think it would be useful for those of working on ‘history from below’ to have a conversation about these various labels to ensure that we are using them as critically and reflectively as possible.
So, please take the opportunity to comment below on your preferred term for the subjects of your study, and let’s see if we can find some common ground on what the most useful labels may be.
 See the introduction to Henry French, The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (Oxford, 2007).
 Although I believe it is a term used in a positive sense by John Taylor, the seventeenth-century London waterman. See Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet (Oxford, 1994). [I don’t have the page reference to hand at present, but I’ll update this when I do]
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This provides valuable food for thought. I’m working on an oral history project focusing on 20th century, and through my research would broadly categorize the participants and their families as ‘working class.’ Yet, there exists much variation in that term. Some held good, fairly well paying jobs that carried respectability perhaps marking them as ‘middle class’ while others struggled through low paying labor and bouts of joblessness marking them closer to ‘poor/lower working class/day laborers.’ However, among the majority they saw themselves as a higher social class than their economic situation would suggest. Are we better fitting them into a term understood broadly by readers/historians (working class) or utilizing a term they would label themselves but which readers might not understand the nuance of? Thank you for beginning (or perhaps continuing) this much needed conversation on history from below.
Wonderful to see our conversations in the pub about this tricky issue spilling out into the wider world. I’m looking forward to hearing what other people think and I’ll probably have more comments to add later, but I’m trying to write up an article right now, so I’ll limit myself to throwing in a few examples of my own…
Checking through the article I’m writing, so far I’ve used the following terms to refer to my main human subjects: ‘many people’, ‘labouring people’, ‘people’, ‘wage-earners’, ‘the inferior rank of men’ (quote from Charles Davenant), ‘substantial tradesmen’, ‘workers’, ‘poor’, ‘subjects’ (of the king), ‘the comminality’ (quote from Oliver Heywood), ‘people’, ‘parishioners’, ‘lowly inhabitants’, ‘many … of ordinary trade and of mean capacity’ (quote from parish vestry), ‘the poor’, ‘paupers’, ‘many people’, ‘the labouring population’, ‘contemporaries’, ‘less affluent men and women’, ‘the poor’. Obviously they don’t all refer to exactly the same people. Depending on the context, sometimes I’m referring to almost everyone in England at the time, sometimes to the working majority, sometimes to the very poor minority. But, I agree that often I feel like I’m forced to be vaguer than I would like thanks to the paucity of appropriate vocabulary.
If we call it ‘history from below’, that raises the question: below who/what/where? Below always has to be relative to something else. Could the study of marginal people be called ‘history from outside’? That’s still relative, because: outside what?
It seems like the discussion so far has been all about people. Does history from below always have to be about humans? Where, if anywhere, do animals fit in? Even if we’re mostly interested in humans, would comparison with animals help us to decide who counts as below?
What do people think of ‘subaltern groups/classes’? Too pretentious?
I wanted to write a short note in favour of Mark’s suggestion that we work ‘to ensure that we are using [labels] as critically and reflectively as possible’; but I also wanted to draw attention to the ways that work might overthrow some of the assumptions we make about wrong (or, to take the less definite and more comfortable word, ‘problematic’) terminology.
It seems to me that the usual argument that we should avoid using anachronistic terms — ‘plebeian’, ‘subaltern’, etc. — and seek instead ‘indigenous’ labels risks total absurdity. Are we to eliminate from our writing all words not used by our subjects? This mistake springs from a kind of historicism I find very troublesome. Are historians not — sometimes, unnervingly — put in the position of knowing more about aspects of their subject’s political and social organization than the subject him/herself? That is what Thompson assumed, and quite rightly would not have found a contradiction between that assumption and his ambition to rescue those people from posterity’s condescension. When we describe a term as ‘anachronistic’, more often than not we find it necessary to say something a little more than that, usually in order to show how a given term is anachronistic in a special kind of way, that is, linked up to a way of seeing the past that we find objectionable, politically opportunisitc, or simply unrigorous. We sometimes find it necessary to disown or eliminate a given ‘label’ because we want to disown all the baggage of tradition that we perceive it to carry: we want to make a clean breast of ‘all that’, so as to make a fresh start, to tidy our desks of other people’s stuff before we can get down to what in the context of that gesture seems to be ‘history itself’. But this very gesture — the gesture of the ‘fresh start’ and the advancement of ‘history itself’ as a sentiment — seems to me deeply troubling insofar as it implies that we are in a position to create a neutral language. Contained within that assumption is a wrong apprehension of language, and in fact a wrong apprehension of history because tacitly insistent on the premise that we live and write post-historically. In pretending we are in a position to create a new, more appropriate language to describe historical subjects, we happily abandon close inspection of the many traditions of historical inquiry which the ‘old language’ seems to represent. But in doing so we also abandon close inspection of traditions in historical methodology in which we continue to work, and so become less reflective about those traditions than if we had kept their language. We throw out the baby, but we’re still very much in the bath water.
All labels can be exposed as incomplete, anachronistic, or false insofar as they are used by a given historian as a ‘label’. The very word ‘label’ implies to me that something is wrong with the historical method of the person using it; or, conversely, if a given term in the writing of one historian can be accurately described as a ‘label’ by someone reading their work, then that in itself would seem a specific kind of judgment not just about the validity of that label but in fact the validity of the historian’s method. Why does a sociological label ‘class’ seem incomplete? Thompson would say: because the discipline of sociology itself is marked by a positivism which is totally uncomprehending of class as a historical and social phenomenon. Thompson makes the term ‘working class’ mean something by filling it out with examples and different kinds of reflection. It is not so much a ‘label’ as a category which comes to mean something concrete only in the course of his book about it. That is, change is of its very nature. Would we be inclined to view as ‘problematic’ any term that means different things at different points in our historical narrative? That in itself is deeply problematic, because it implies a method uncomprehending of sophisticated use of language in the writing of history. After all, Thompson’s ‘working class’ is a ‘label’ which refers to a multifaceted phenomenon in a state of *change* — if we insist on its being a ‘label’ in the sociological sense, then it is going to lack sufficient definition. If we insist on its being a ‘category’ in the dialectical sense of that word, then its lack of definition is precisely what makes it more accurate than other terms. Moreover, Thompson’s ‘working class’ is a category referring to a group of people gradually acquiring consciousness of themeselves as part of a ‘working class’. As a result, he uses the term speculatively. For him the ‘working class’ is not a label, a structure, or a category, but something ‘which happens’. So, any objection to the term ‘working class’ has to take issue with Thompson’s entire method. If we object only to the ‘label’ then we have made no serious objection to the method. One sees this in stupid sociological critiques of Thompson’s Marxism, and indeed in many of the dismissals of ‘class’ as a viable ‘concept’ in social history of the late 20th century, where the ‘class’ being undermined as a useable historical ‘label’ bears no similarity to the ‘class’ being talked about by Marxism. Sociological descriptions of ‘class’ as a purely objective category pre-empts the explicit description of its redundancy.
Of course, I totally agree that early modern historians face specific challenges here. But we cannot rescue ourselves from historical tradition, or hope to write more accurately about historical change, by changing up the terminology. It is how we use our terminology which counts. Instead of pondering how to find a magic word which will both remain stable and well-defined and also describe complex historical identifies, we should recognize that this project is doomed to failure. Instead, it is the viability of a method which insists on such ‘right labels’ which we need to be criticizing with some urgency.
Very good points. Just a couple of relevant examples from my own work:
I’ve published an article that makes arguments about the 1640s based on Newton’s laws of motion. It would be absurd to dismiss this as anachronistic just because no-one knew about them at the time.
In my book, I’ve criticised and rejected the words ‘royalist’ and ‘parliamentarian’ in studies of civil war allegiance, but I haven’t tried to replace them with supposedly more neutral terms. Instead I’ve tried to show how identities emerged from actions, and how people at the time struggled to find adequate words for the identities they chose for themselves, had imposed on them, or tried to impose on others.
Perhaps it’s helpful to think in terms of ’emic’ and ‘etic’ concepts: emic refers to concepts used by contemporaries, etic to concepts we as historians impose upon the past. Both types of concept have uses but those uses are different, revealing different aspects of a particular problem. Thus, in thinking about social groups emic concepts are clearly required to understand contemporary conceptions of the social order, but etic concepts may be more appropriate to understand the particular structure of that society The argument would be not that there were classes in early-modern England, but that the concept of class is helpful to understand the particular nature of early-modern English society. Indeed, I would agree with the point made above that setting this problem up in terms of ‘labels’ is not helpful, and we should instead begin with the concepts and methods we use to think about history from below and that will, in turn, help us decide on an appropriate vocabulary to talk about the subjects of such research.
On a different note, what about Kathryn Gleadle’s use (for a later period) of the term ‘borderline citizens’? The ‘citizens’ part perhaps should be changed, but it conveys the subordinate but still active position which characterized the subjects of history from below.
Thanks for some great comments here. Rather than replying to each in turn I’m going to try and collect my thoughts in one (albeit rather lengthy) response, as the points I want to make are inter-related.
Harry Smith’s suggestion of the terms ’emic’ and ‘etic’ is really helpful here, as this distinction lies at the heart of the issue of defining the subjects of ‘history from below’. I think that George is right to question the seeming preference amongst many early modernist for an emic – or indigenous – language of social description: often ‘understanding the past on it’s own terms’ is cited as a mantra without fully stating why this is important, and it would be analytically crippling to abandon any terms that we might impose from outside. That said, I think ‘history from below’, or indeed any history, should be interested in both ’emic’ and ‘etic’ terms, rather than necessarily privileging one over the other. Indeed, it seems to me from createdculture’s above comment that the dissonance between the terms subjects used for themselves and those that might seem more applicable from a historical/sociological point of view creates a really interesting historical question to explore rather than a problem to necessarily be solved by finding the ‘right’ term to use.
Here again I agree with George that any attempt to find a ‘right’ and new terminology that is neutral, fixed and free from ‘baggage’ is doomed to failure – I hope this wasn’t seen as my intention. My motivation in starting this conversation comes from a sense that some of the terms used by ‘history from below’ do not have _enough_ baggage (or to put it more positively, are not reflected on sufficiently) – with the exception perhaps of class, which George makes a number of important contributions to. The language of ‘sorts’, for instance, seems too readily embraced, and categories such as the ‘common people’ or ‘the poor’ used inter-changeably when they do not carry the same meaning. As Brodie rightly points out in his comment, the use of a range of terms in a given piece of historical writing often reflects the fact that the author is referring to different groups of people at different times, which seems entirely sensible – but this isn’t always made explicit or done with precision.
With that in mind, let me pick up on a few of the terms (or ‘labels’) that have been discussed/suggested above. First a comment on the term ‘label’ itself – I don’t see it to be as problematic as some of the commentators above, and was using it simply to mean a descriptor of the people we are trying to study. I agree that concepts and methodology are more fundamental to the project of history from below, but I still think it is necessary for us to talk about the best (least problematic) ‘labels’ we can use for our subjects: it is often a practical necessity to clarify or classify the (albeit often vague) parameters of who we are interested in in a given piece of historical research. Will raises the term ‘subaltern’ – I think the value of this term is that it foregrounds power, rather than just socio-economic status, in defining our subjects, and as such could help us to overcome the gender issue I raise. On the flip-side, to me it invokes societies with more straightforwardly binary power structures (e.g. some of the peasant societies studied by anthropologists), whereas early modern England had a rather more complex structure of power. Was a local village constable a ‘subaltern’? They may have been relatively poor, illiterate even, and at the bottom of the state bureaucracy they were subordinate to many, but they still wielded some power over their neighbours. I’m not sure about ‘borderline citizens’ – as Harry suggests, the citizen part would only apply to certain contexts, and for me ‘borderline’ again suggests the marginal rather than the majority experience. It may be fitting in a given context and in the way Gleadle uses it, but I’m not sure it could be ‘rolled out’ for more general use.
This brings me to me final comment (I promise! Well, at least for now). We might, perhaps, follow Gavin’s example and reject labelling our subjects and emphasise instead the complexity of group definition – both for historians and contemporaries. Instinctively and philosophically I have a lot of sympathy with such an approach, and with abandoning any attempt to find terms of definiton with broad applicability. Perhaps the best approach is to focus on narrow and specific definitions that make sense in a certain context. On the other hand, the failure to agree on some broad terms or labels with which to define the subjects of history from below will hamper those attempts to draw comparisons across time and space that have been suggested numerous times in this symposium as an important future project. What the best terms are to use for such projects is still, I think, a conversation that needs to continue.
Thanks Mark – we need a discussion on this!! I was told by an academic not to use ‘labouring class’ and ‘labouring classes’, in an article about poor relief in the early 19th century, because it was ‘too loaded’. I didn’t see a problem and used it anyway. I do think there was such a thing as ‘class’ by that point. People knew their ‘place’ and had to fight to transcend it, and the consequences included stigmatisation, social exclusion and punishment. And I also think we need to question what is meant by ‘loaded’.
If we deny a group their/a collective identity, isn’t that problematic too?
Here’s my attempt at defining the ‘below’ in ‘history from below’: People who were not regarded as having any legitimate voice or power in their own societies. Or, to use slightly more technical language, people who lacked legitimate historical agency. This seems to fit nicely with the points Dave H made in his post on Monday about the importance of voice and agency.
In the medieval England this would include both lowly peasants and wealthy, educated heretics. In the early modern period, both poor servants and merchant’s apprentices would count. Until twentieth century, this would encompass labourers, paupers, domestic servants, most immigrants (e.g. Jews, Irish, West Indian, Asian, etc.) and of course practically all women. Several groups might fall into this category today: children, the unemployed, asylum seekers and (to return to Gavin’s point) animals.
The main problem that I foresee with this definition is that it isn’t a tidy label that we can use regularly in our writing, but perhaps that’s an advantage as well.
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