[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.]
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.
We need more people writing history, more people studying history, and more people reading history. We need, in other words, more people doing history. This is the only way we can hope to build more than a mere ‘history of below’ and instead create ‘histories from below’ and indeed ‘histories for below’.
Fortunately, more democratic ways of doing history are not difficult to find. There are already vast numbers of people building histories ‘from below’, but most academics tend not to pay much attention to them. This piece is thus an attempt to highlight what I see as a few of the most promising routes forward, even if at first glance some might seem a bit ‘backward’. Of course this is merely a brief selection from a wide range and I’d love to hear suggestions from readers of other possibilities.
My first real engagement with local history came in 2009-10 when I spent at a year at the Borthwick Institute in York. My own inexperience and the somewhat eccentric external funding source made for an inauspicious beginning, but Chris Webb and Bill Sheils turned it into something with more potential by encouraging me to start by researching and writing a village history of the chosen settlement for the Victoria County History project. For those who are not familiar with the VCH, it is essentially a comprehensive attempt to publish a history of every parish in England, more than 10,000 in all. What makes it stand out from most local history is not only its all-embracing remit but also its combination of often sophisticated research and diverse readership. All its histories are expected to meet a very high academic standard and are based on extensive archival research. Many of its researchers also use unconventional methods such as archaeology, landscape history and oral history. Much of the research is done by local volunteers and community groups, but it is curated and edited by professionally trained historians. Finally, the VCH publishes its histories in ways that allow it to reach a remarkably broad audience of scholars, students and amateurs. Its famed ‘Big Red Books’ are valuable to both professional researchers and people doing local history, while the ‘England’s Past for Everyone’ paperback series addresses subjects such as the long history of ethnic minorities in Bristol. And, their new VCH Explore site offers geographically linked documents and images for free online. The project isn’t without weaknesses – for example, most of the older volumes neglect social history and research has currently slowed due to a lack of funding – but it nonetheless represents a remarkable achievement. In terms of its production, distribution and consumption, the VCH is a clear victory for a more democratic way of doing history.
The field of local history as a whole, moreover, is huge and healthy. For instance there are university-based projects and institutions such as the Warwick Network for Parish Research, Beat Kumin’s my-parish.org and the Leicester Centre for English Local History. More importantly, practically every town and village in the country has some sort of local history society, ranging from the unapologically antiquarian to the Bristol Radical History Group, which claims the support of ‘a much wider network of footballers, artists, techies, drunks, rioters, publicans, ranters, ravers, academics, Cancan dancers, anarchists, stoners and other ne’r do wells’. It is often these groups that fight to protect and promote important local historical sites which, because they aren’t pretty country houses, might otherwise be forgotten or destroyed. As Simon Sandall knows so well in the case of the Forest of Dean, the links between local memory and social activism stretch from the middle ages to today.
Local history, then, is an opportunity for academics, students and amateurs to work together to do history from below in a way that will be relevant far beyond the university.
Here too is a rapidly growing field. Lecturers may chuckle, but it is impossible to ignore the popularity of genealogy and family history. Turn on the television in Britain and you’re likely to see ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, ‘Heir Hunters’ or perhaps, even more pertinently for a social historian, ‘The Secrets of the Workhouse’. Head into a county record office and you’ll probably find yourself sitting next to an old couple loudly debating the birthdate of some long-dead ancestor. Although this form of history may appear to have little appeal to academics, proponents of ‘history from below’ should embrace it.
After all, most genealogists are unlikely to find many famous politicians or generals in their family trees. Instead, they will probably find themselves investigating the lives of factory workers, sailors, criminals, paupers, housewives and maybe even poor stockingers. If historians can help amateur researchers understand the context within which such men and women lived and worked, they can meaningfully contribute to the larger project of ‘placing the lives and agency of people most in danger of being forgotten in the centre of our regard’. What’s more, the energy and commitment of genealogists is part of the reason why social historians have access to ever more sources essential to their work. Many of the tools created by or for family history are now important to academic research and will become even more vital in the future. We should thank genealogists (and the Mormons) for providing a strong constituency for funding record offices and spurring the creation of innumerable microfilms of parish registers and other local archival sources that have proven invaluable for historians of demography, poverty, welfare and crime. Today, many of these are moving online through companies like Ancestry.com with its huge database of ordinary people, which despite being a subscription service is easily available to most non-academics via public libraries and archives. Although these sorts of databases frequently contain inaccuracies, they are a good starting point for tracking down obscure individuals who would otherwise be lost to the ‘condescension of posterity’. Nor should we forget that more rigorous online resources like the Old Bailey Online and London Lives derive much of their audience from people initially merely trying to fill out their family tree.
So, family history, with its millions of practitioners, wealth of resources, and thoroughly democratic focus on the ‘common people’ of the past, will be another fruitful field to cultivate the future of history from below.
History need not always be taught to a lecture theatre or seminar room full of young people. In fact, the pioneers of ‘history from below’ spent much of their time teaching quite different types of students: E.P. Thompson wrote The Making whilst working for the Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire’s industrial towns; Eric Hobsbawm spent his entire academic career teaching evening classes at Birkbeck College; Raphael Samuel founded the History Workshop movement amongst the trade unionists of Ruskin College. So, whilst it would be a mistake to discount the value of educating each new cohort of teenagers that arrive in our universities every autumn, it would be even more of a mistake to ignore the importance of ensuring that older students, working students and poorer students also have the opportunity to study history.
Happily, the institutions in which Thompson, Hobsbawm and Samuel taught are still carrying on this work. I feel privileged to work at a place like Birkbeck, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute, and still offering entirely evening classes primarily to part-time students with other work or family commitments. Despite the dangerous impact of the fee increases mentioned above, I believe that these long-established institutions – alongside others such as the Open University – will be a key part of the future of this approach to history. Even historians in traditional universities can broaden the range of students they reach by participating in their institutions’ Access Programmes and the like. Yet, this may soon be only a small part in a much larger educational landscape thanks to the explosion of online open education options in recent years. This should not be endorsed uncritically. As noted by Dave Hitchcock and many others, some of the most popular models are serious flawed. However, I’m convinced that this form of teaching has much offer both to potential students who would otherwise lack access to the academic study of history and to those of us trying to pass on scholarly knowledge to a wider range of people. There’s no doubt that Massive Online Open Courses aren’t as good as the real thing, but they still can be valuable to huge numbers of people. Many are offered freely or cheaply, and they fit well with the many other educational resources that are now available, including an outstanding series of lectures on the social history of early modern England by Keith Wrightson.
As with online education, this is something that I think the progenitors of ‘history from below’ would ultimately welcome. By publishing historical material online and making it freely available, we can instantly radically widen our audience of possible readers and users. This begins with primary sources. Whereas previously academics might publish an edited volume of sources that could reach the few people able and willing to search for it in a university library, it is now possible to ‘publish’ collections that can be discovered with a quick google search and then be easily explored through browsing or keyword queries. Those most frequently mentioned on this blog – the Old Bailey Online, London Lives, the Text-Creation Partnership, the English Broadside Ballad Archive, etc. – are only a tiny proportion of the total. Indeed, one of the most important current tasks for those involved is to come up with ways to integrate and index all of this material, something that Sharon Howard has been doing informally for years at Early Modern Resources and recently as part of a team at Connected Histories. Alongside well-known paid services, these open-access primary sources make it possible for students, scholars and interested amateurs to directly engage with the history of the poor, the criminal and the disenfranchised.
Primary sources are now being joined online by an enormous wealth of secondary sources in the form of working papers, doctoral theses, out-of-copyright books and open-access journals. This too is expanding the reach of research, allowing practically anyone to benefit from the scholarly work that previously would have been available to only a tiny minority. Historians who believe in the value of a more democratic readership thus ought to actively participate in open-access publishing where possible. This doesn’t mean recklessly uploading everything you produce and endangering your career. What it does mean is, for example, submitting to journals with relatively ‘green’ open-access policies and then taking advantage of them to make your work available through online repositories. If your research into ‘history from below’ can only ever be read by people with an expensive subscription to a major academic journal, you are probably not doing justice to your subject.
Finally, blogging is one of the quickest and easiest ways to disseminate historical research in a genuinely ‘open-access’ format. This is a topic that deserves much more discussion than I can provide here – see, for example, Sharon Howard’s recent thoughts – but we must acknowledge that this is one of the few forums where academics and non-academics meet on a relatively equal footing. Many of my favourite early modern bloggers are not based in universities and I’m almost certain that most of this blog’s readers – as well as many its commenters – are not professional historians. So, by ‘publishing’ this way, we can create opportunities for scholars, enthusiastic laypeople and the wider public to read, discuss, create, collaborate and share across vast distances in a way that was never possible when Thompson was writing his masterpiece.
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This suggests that the future of history from below is all around us. It is going on today in meetings of village historical societies, in family history workshops, in online course chatrooms, and in the comments sections of amateur history blogs. It is also going on in many places that I haven’t talked about, and I’m keen to hear from you about all of the possibilities that I’ve missed. What they have in common is their role in empowering people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in history to learn and think and speak about the past. In short, they are all part of a more democratic way of doing history, the very essence of history from below.