Claire Langhamer, ‘Everyday love and emotions in the 20th century’

[This is the eighteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Claire Langhamer is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sussex. Her research and publications focus on aspects of everyday life in the 20th century, and in particular on the history of love. Here she asks whether the Mass-Observation Archive can help us to write the history of emotion ‘from below’.]

What I want to talk around in this post are the intersections between History from Below and the History of Emotion. What might a history of emotion ‘from below’ look like, how do we get at it and how might it re-frame our understanding of the period I am particularly interested in – the mid-twentieth century? I’m approaching the 1940s and 1950s as decades when the meaning and status of feeling seems to be particularly contested. Tensions between a need for self-discipline and desire for self-expression, anxieties about the impact of war and secularisation on moral standards, and concern about the future of the family, coalesced into a post-war discourse of emotional instability. Within this context the correct management of emotion was a political as well as a personal matter and became a marker of effective citizenship in a rapidly changing world. And yet, I want to argue, emotion itself could drive social and political change, acting as a vehicle for the operation of agency within everyday life. It was also increasingly seen as a legitimate basis upon which to assert knowledge claims about the world and carve out a place within civil society. Continue reading

Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Historicising the comfort of “things” in late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture’

[This is the seventeenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Julie-Marie Strange is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research and publications focus on inter-personal dynamics in working-class and poor families in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Here she contributes to our conversation about the relationship between material culture and ‘history from below’ by asking how the study of  ‘things’  can bring new or alternative perspectives on overlooked aspects of working-class lives.]

In The Comfort of Things (2008), the anthropologist Daniel Miller presented a series of ‘portraits’, stories of individuals and the things in their home that mattered to them, to challenge a narrative of consumption as corruption. Miller’s vignettes illuminate how objects embody people’s aspirations for sure, but, he also explores how the stories people tell about their things are intrinsic to their struggle to make their lives meaningful. For Miller, we appropriate objects to give meaning to social processes and relationships.[1] This post – a brief presentation of two case studies from late-Victorian and Edwardian working-class culture – makes a foray into how working people’s ‘stuff’ can be interrogated to explore the inter-personal dynamics of family life.

There is, of course, a rapidly growing literature on material culture and the ways in which historians might make use of it to understand the past, particularly ‘hidden’ aspects of history. What I’m going to focus on here is how things in working-class homes suggest insights into family relationships, particularly between children and their fathers. I’m focusing on fathers because they have typically been perceived by historians and contemporaries as on the periphery of family life in accounts that have privileged children’s relationships with mothers. Continue reading

Chris Briggs, ‘Household possessions of the 14th and 15th century peasantry’

[This is the sixteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Chris Briggs is Lecturer in Medieval British Social and Economic History at the University of Cambridge. His research and publications focus on various aspects of society, economy, and the law in England and Europe during the later middle ages (1200-1500). This post – along with the next post by Julie-Marie Strange, and Ruth Mather’s earlier in the summer – turns the conversation to a particular theme that was prominent at both of our ‘history from below’ events: the relationship between material culture and ‘history from below’. Here, Chris examines how this relationship might be developed in the medieval context.]

This post discusses an ongoing research project on the possessions of the medieval English peasantry, and considers how far and in what ways it should be considered an exercise in ‘History from below’. The paper begins by outlining what I see as the characteristics of ‘History from below’, both in general and with respect to the English middle ages in particular. I also ask whether history from below, a movement that was at its most confident roughly 50 years ago, can still be traced in the more recent and current work of English medievalists. Next I briefly describe my project on peasant goods and chattels, which is still at the stage of identifying questions, methods and sources. The final part looks at ways at which this work might and might not advance the history from below agenda. Continue reading

Selina Todd, ‘History from below: modern British scholarship’

[This is the fifteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Selina Todd is a Lecturer in Modern British History and Fellow of St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. Her research and publications focus on working-class and women’s history in modern Britain. Here she brings our conversation about ‘history from below’ through to the twentieth century, providing a survey of the recent historiography on modern Britain, and identifying some of the major challenges and future directions for ‘history from below’ in that field.]

Fifty years on from E.P. Thompson’s call to rescue working people from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, and myriad ‘turns’ later, history from below is flourishing in modern British scholarship. An emphasis on ‘ordinary people’ has replaced an earlier stress on the working class, and studies of collective protest are less numerous than those on everyday life. [1] But there is no sign that scholars consider Thompson’s original project ‘cliched’ or ‘tired’.

This post reflects on how history ‘from below’ has developed, the state it is in, and suggests some possible future directions. As the first section will show, we have reasons to be hopeful. But in the second section I argue that we need to historicise the material circumstances in which our scholarship is produced in order to fight for our future. In the final section I propose that we could use more studies of class, which might help us to restate the centrality of history ‘from below’ to understandings of modern Britain. Continue reading

Emma Griffin, ‘Working class autobiography in the industrial revolution’

[This is the fourteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Emma Griffin is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia. Her research and publications focus on the impact of the industrial revolution on the lives of the working poor. Here, she brings our conversation about ‘history from below’ forward into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and considers the light working class autobiography can shed on workers’ experiences of the British industrial revolution and argues that approaching this landmark historical development ‘from below’ can radically alter our perspective on it.]

The industrial revolution was possibly the single most significant event in our history.  But when we think about the men, women and children, who with their strong backs and nimble fingers did the most to power the industrial revolution, we tend to feel that there is little to celebrate.  The introduction of new working patterns which compelled men to work at the relentless pace of the machines.  Children forced into factories and down mines at ever younger ages.  Families squeezed into dark, disease-ridden cities.  And nothing but the workhouse for those who slipped through the net.  All the great Victorian commentators – Engels, Dickens, Blake – painted their industrial times in a very dark hue. And their dismal litany echoed throughout the twentieth century, as a succession of pioneering social historians – the Hammonds, Eric Hobsbawm, and of course E. P. Thompson – turned their attention to the devastating impact of the industrial revolution on the working poor.

Yet despite the frequency with which various versions of the bleak account of the industrial revolution have been retold, the claim that this period was worse than anything that has gone before has not received the kind of scrutiny it deserves.  In particular, it is remarkable that so little effort has been made to listen to what working people themselves had to say about their life and times.  Of course, it is usually countered that such an effort would be futile as working people did not leave behind much in the way of written sources.  But whilst it is certainly true that they wrote far less than their social superiors, it is not the case that they wrote nothing at all.  Less well known, but no less important, is a remarkable collection of autobiographies written by working people themselves.  And if we listen to these, we hear a story that is very different to the one that we are used to.

Continue reading

Andy Wood, ‘History from below and early modern social history’

[This is the thirteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Andy Wood is Professor of Social History at Durham University. His research and publications focus on popular protest, customary rights and social memory in early modern England. Here he takes us through the relationship between ‘history from below’ and early modern social history, and outlines a number of key principles and approaches that might inform that relationship going forward.]

History-from-below poses a question. Like Bertoldt Brecht’s Questions from a worker who reads and Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own, history-from-below asks us to describe the lives, ideas and experiences of those who lay ‘below’ dominant historical narratives. Like Subaltern Studies (developing at the same time, from the early 1970s) history-from-below focused on a disparate range of groups, spanning time and distance: workers, peasants, slaves, women, the marginalized, oppressed ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.

The history-from-below tradition grew out of the English Marxism of the CPHG (Communist Party Historians’ Group). It was the badly-behaved adolescent offspring of the CPHG, loosely grouped around History Workshop Journal and its attendant movement rather than around the journal Past and Present, which by the 1970s had lost its explicit political focus. Like the CPHG, history-from-below valorized resistance and largely ignored questions of subordination, social integration and hegemony. But unlike the CPHG generation, it was explicitly open to histories of women, gender, race and sexuality. It represented the historiographical expression of a broader shift at work within the British Left in the 1970s and 1980s, the urge – in the face of deindustrialization and the late-recognized halt in the forward march of labour – to create new alliances beyond the traditional labour movement. That political project achieved its clearest expression in Livingstone’s GLC (Greater London Council), in a resurgent CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) with its connection (via Greenham) to second-wave feminism and in the diverse range of groups attracted to the Miners’ Support Groups during the 1984-5 strike. Although this ‘rainbow alliance’ (the term originated with Jesse Jackson and was anglicised by the International Marxist Group as an ‘alliance of the oppressed’) was to be defeated, its historiographical expression in the fuzzy History Workshop tradition had its successes – as this symposium shows, nowadays it is hard to write social and cultural history without reference to some of the concerns of History Workshop, most of all the legacy of feminism and the lesbian and gay liberation movement. Histories of class, marginalized by the cultural turn of the last 20 years, are starting to reassert themselves too. I’ll come back to this resurgence towards the end.

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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…

Tudor history on TV, and a partial review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’…

Jonathan Willis

Early modern history has done pretty well out of the BBC lately. Earlier this year, in late May and early June, there was a season of programmes (apparently 5 documentaries constitute a ‘season’) based around the Tudor Court. We had an interesting and quite adventurous treatment of The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, which made the brave decision not to give top billing to a single authoritative historical narrator, or wrap up its argument with neat historical conclusions, but instead featured a real diversity of opinions from half a dozen historians and historical novelists. Diarmaid McCulloch presented a view of Thomas Cromwell which, while at first glance appearing to owe much to GR Elton, also contained a few tantalising hints of the major new biography he is working on (and which I for one am very much looking forward to reading). Thomas Penn told the story of Henry VII, Winter King, and Ian Mortimer presented a Time-Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. And finally, Melvyn Bragg made the case for William Tyndale as The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England in appropriately evangelical mode, in a strange piece of film which was shot like an episode of the late-lamented popular BBC spy drama, Spooks.
spooks002These documentaries were accompanied by re-runs of the Showtime series, The Tudors (which I don’t intend to dissect here!), and all in all I think that this sort of documentary interest in the period is, in the immortal words of Sellar and Yeatman, A Good Thing. Another recent onscreen foray into Tudor England has been conducted by David Starkey, in his four-part series Music and Monarchy, which began airing on 20 July and finished on Saturday 10 August: UK residents can still catch it on iplayer. Entitled ‘Crown and Choir’, the first episode looked at ‘royal music’ in England from Henry V to the death of Elizabeth I. I have to say, that as a historian who has written a fair amount about sixteenth century music, I had somewhat mixed feelings about watching this documentary. I like the fact that the history of music is something that people (and documentary-makers) seem to be increasingly interested in: in recent years the BBC has also given us Sacred Music and Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, both of which were interesting pieces of television. But music and monarchy? Starkey is of course primarily an historian of elites, and of court culture. But (and I hope that, given the recent online symposium on history from below, I am preaching largely to the converted) the story of music in the sixteenth century is so much more interesting than that, in terms of the broader role it played in popular culture and religion. david-starkey_2622826b

On balance, watching this first episode of Music and Monarchy I was pleasantly surprised. Starkey, for all his controversy and confrontational style as a commenter on current affairs, is a compelling and captivating storyteller, and it’s pretty clear that he is passionately interested in his subject. The tone strikes about the right balance: it isn’t overly simplified or patronising, and neither is it loaded with too much technical jargon. Occasionally Starkey allows his effusiveness about the music to cloud what could be a more rigorous analysis, but this is popular TV, not an academic lecture. He talks to a small number of musicians and academics, including the multi-talented David Skinner, and includes lots of long, sumptuous performances of pieces of early music in the venues in which they were (or at least in which they could possibly have been) performed. All in all then, this documentary too, to my surprise, is probably A Good Thing. Except… For 50 minutes of ‘Crown and Choir’ I broadly enjoyed what I was watching. But for the last 10, I pulled out my hair, and if my train carriage had had opening windows I might have thrown the iPad I was watching out of one of them. This is for two main reasons.

Bad Thing #1. In large part, the interplay between music and monarchy (and religion) was dealt with well, but in the final ten minutes what had functioned quite successfully as a lens turned suddenly into a pair of blinkers. Elizabeth I saved church music, we were told (partly right), but not only that, she did it singlehandedly, solely by maintaining a chapel royal of equivalent musical magnificence to her father, Henry VIII. Inside it, Elizabeth composed for herself a warm and dazzling sacred oratorio; beyond her chapel was merely a cold and frosty Protestant wasteland. Now that is just plain wrong. Even if we leave aside the complex musical picture in the Elizabethan parish church, which may well have still contained an organ, a choir, or at least a couple of paid singers, what about the musical livings she preserved elsewhere, and the university college and cathedral choirs up and down the country? True the chapel royal was probably the best resourced choir in Elizabethan England, but its musical reputation was maintained in part by poaching singers and composers from other musical establishments, such as the composer and organist William Byrd from Lincoln Minster.

Bad Thing #2. Where the parish church was briefly mentioned, it was as a cold, austere, whitewashed box, devoid of all visual and oral ornament. Cue a group of aged parishioners slowly and tunelessly droning out the ‘Old Hundredth’, a musical oxymoron; ‘all people than on earth do dwell, sing to the lord with cheerful voice’! That, Starkey observed, was as good as it got: the best that the man in the street (or at least the parish church) could aspire to. Again, leaving aside the complexity of the parish situation, which I would characterise as a vibrant and amorphous fusion of traditional and innovatory musical forms, the problem with this sort of approach is that it harks back to an outdated musicological approach that equated musical ‘quality’ with historical significance. Congregational metrical psalmody might not be the sort of music that features on the glossy CDs produced by modern choirs like the Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars, but that does not mean that it lacked value or importance (interestingly, the bibliography of the book that accompanies the series references rather dated literature on this topic, such as Temperley’s 1979 Music of the English Parish Church). For the first time, ordinary men and women were invited to play an active and participatory role in parish church worship, by joining in and singing praises together in one resounding voice. Starkey even misses a trick here in terms of his focus on music and monarchy. Such was the popularity and success of congregational song, that in the 1570s the government produced a series of metrical anthems, to be sung to familiar tunes to the glory of both God and the Queen. These works were most obviously to be sung on the ‘Crownation Day’ celebrations of 17 November, and far more people sang them than ever even heard Byrd’s beautiful motet, O Lord, let thy servant, Elizabeth. The reason that the vernacular sacred oratorios of Handel proved so popular in the eighteenth century, one might surmise, is at least in part because by that point the English had been singing themselves Protestant for the best part of two centuries. The reformation had effectively turned every parish church into a choir, albeit often a not very good one.

I don’t feel professionally qualified to comment on the rest of the series, and anyway this is supposed to be a blog, not a monograph. I’m now three-quarters of the way through, and broadly I think that his perspective is an interesting one, and that the documentary is a Good Thing – it might even inspire some people to find out more. But just as the story of popular religious music cannot be told without paying some attention to the interventions of kings and queens, so the musical legacy of kings and queens cannot be properly told without paying some attention to popular reception. And ‘reception’ in this context should not be envisaged as a passive process, but as a means by which people helped to shape the Protestant nation of which they themselves were part.