[This is the first piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Richard Blakemore is an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter working on the ‘Sailing into modernity’ research project. His doctoral work and recent publications focus on early modern seafarers, especially those based in London during the civil wars. He also blogs at historywomble.]
If we want to get at history from below, where do we start looking? Traditionally social historians, at least of medieval and early modern Europe, have relied upon two kinds of records to recover the ‘voices’ of those people who did not deliberately create a lot of records themselves. The first kind is court records and other legal documents such as wills and inventories, contracts, and so on. Because many people encountered the legal machinery of the state in which they lived (which included, for much of European history, the church as well), and because states have tended to hold onto these documents, this is one place where we can catch traces and glimpses of our elusive subjects. The second is printed material, especially the printed material which circulated amongst the people ‘below’, such as pamphlets, newspapers, or ballads. Of course, neither of these sources offers a perspective that is uncomplicatedly ‘from below’. Law courts are usually dominated and directed by elites. Publications were often censored and may have repeated official as well as popular attitudes. We have to take account of these issues – but I have never really liked the simple above/below distinction too much anyway, and I think it is entirely possible that, in these sources, if we use them carefully, we can find the ‘voices’ of people from all directions. Continue reading
Those of us who think that historical research ought to consist of more than the study of kings, ministers and generals owe a great debt to the pioneers of ‘history from below’ . Foremost amongst them must be E.P. Thompson, who published his epic The Making of the English Working Class exactly half a century ago. The impressive wave of work that followed will be well-known to many of you and, if nothing else, I think most historians would agree that historical scholarship would be poorer if not for the intervention of these spirited men and women.
But what about the next fifty years? Has ‘history from below’, and perhaps social history more generally, outlived its usefulness? What, if anything, can it contribute to contemporary scholarship and the wider world? How should it be adapted or reoriented in the coming years? What new tools or techniques could strengthen it? Where will it fit in the wider academic and social landscape?
On 16 April 2013, eighteen of us gathered for a workshop at Birkbeck to try to figure out some answers to these questions. As is usually the case with these events, the discussion carried on in the pub afterwards and, although we certainly didn’t come up with any conclusive answers, we all agreed this was a conversation that needed to continue.
To that end, Mark and I invited the participants to contribute to an online symposium on the future of ‘history from below’. So, over the next few weeks we will be posting a series of short pieces by historians early in their academic careers that attempt to offer some possible answers to these questions. We hope that this will spur further discussion and open up the conversation to the rest of the world. Please leap in with your comments, suggestions and critiques. We welcome comments not only from ‘fellow travellers’ but also – perhaps especially – from sceptics and critics of ‘history from below’.
The first post will be published here on Monday, July 8th, with further posts following every two or three days. Links to each piece will be added here and join the conversation on twitter via #historyfrombelow.
- Richard Blakemore, ‘Finding fragments: the past and the future’ (July 8)
- Ruth Mather, ‘The home-making of the English working class’ (July 10)
- Nicola Whyte, ‘Landscape history from below’ (July 12)
- William Farrell, ‘Global history from below?’ (July 15)
- Matt Jackson, ‘Relocating history from below: places, spaces, databases’ (July 17)
- Mark Hailwood, ‘Who is below?’ (July 19)
- David Hitchcock, ‘Why history from below matters more than ever’ (July 22)
- Simon Sandall, ‘History lessons from below?’ (July 24)
- Samantha Shave, ‘History for below’ (July 26)
- Brodie Waddell, ‘History from below: today and tomorrow’ (July 29)
- Concluding remarks (July 31)