Silences of the People

Our next post in The Voices of the People symposium (full programme here) is by William Pooley, currently a Past and Present Fellow at the IHR and soon to take up a Lectureship at the University of Bristol. In another example of the kind of thoughtful reflection on the practice of writing ‘history from below’ that Tim Hitchcock called for in our opening post, Will asks whether ‘silences’ might have as much to tell as us ‘voices’, and addresses some of the methodological issues involved in pursuing and interpreting them.

Will Pooley

Are voices really what we should be looking for?

There is a cultural critique to be made here. In her post, Julia Laite warned against the danger of ‘rescuing’ historical voices who might not want to have been rescued. Many of the participants in this symposium will discuss humble individuals compelled to speak by external authorities. These people did not want ‘voices’, they wanted bread, security, or just to be left alone.

My post adds a more theoretical critique to this cultural one.

‘Voice’, after all, is a slippery concept, run through by an inescapable tension between tangibility and evanescence. It is somehow real, physical, and bodily, yet also unseizable and temporary. No historian working on the period before sound recordings can do anything other than read the writing of the people, or the writing about them. We study the pictures of the people, their material culture, perhaps their remains, or their genetics. And even when recordings or living people are available as sources, there is no way to fix their orality in satisfying and absolute permanence.[1]

Might it be fairer to say that many historians of popular culture (or whatever we would like to call what we do) study the silences of the people more often than their voices?

Two  rural workers bow their heads in silence as the church bells ring in this painting by Jean-François Millet. But what does their silence mean? Are they praying for the potato harvest, or, as Salvador Dali maintained, praying over the grave of their dead child?

Two rural workers bow their heads in silence as the church bells ring in this painting by Jean-François Millet. But what does their silence mean? Are they praying for the potato harvest, or, as Salvador Dali maintained, praying over the grave of their dead child?

Perhaps this is not as damning as it sounds.

Many anthropologists and folklorists have shown that silences in everyday life are far from devoid of meaning, and such silences were central to my project on the everyday cultures of southwestern France in the nineteenth century.[2] The voices I was interested in were those of the men and women who told stories and sang songs for the folklorist Félix Arnaudin (1844-1921) between around 1870 and 1914.

In the book I’m writing about these agricultural labourers, shepherds, farm-wives, and artisans, I am particularly interested in four types of silence that I would call phenomenological, cultural, coded, and indifferent. These types are not entirely distinct, but interfere with one another. Neither are they a complete list of possible silences, being simply the ones I found most compelling in my project.


In a book exploring what it feels like to have a body (or to be one), the philosopher Drew Leder has pointed out that our own body could most helpfully be called an ‘absent presence’.[3] For most people, most of the time, the body is absent from our conscious attention, even though it is always present. We notice our bodies when we are hungry, or in pain, or when we feel pleasure, shame, or embarrassment. This phenomenological ‘silence’ of the body was important to how I understood the lives of the men and women that interested me, as it reminded me that many of their most basic yet most important everyday experiences go unmentioned in their songs and stories.

Yet this phenomenological silence is also historical.[4] The categories of things that rural people in southwestern France at the time considered unremarkable and the things they considered discussible are not the same categories that operate in everyday life in the world I live in. There were surprisingly few mentions of the cosmetic aspects of the body that are so important to my communities – hairstyles and bodily upkeep – nor of injuries, of which there must have been plenty in working life. Absent, too, much reflection on faces and heads. On the other hand, the digestive system seems – to me – more present in everyday speech, especially in terms of its entrance and exit, gleefully mentioned in contexts that might seem wholly inappropriate for us.[5] People talked more readily of buttocks, legs, the strength of the lower body.


Cultural silences are of more obvious significance to historians. Some cultures have simply been sparer with their words, such as the Quakers.[6] In fact, this is a judgment several historians have passed on rural France, including David Hopkin.[7]

But it can be hard to say where such ‘cultural’ silences begin and end. I have already explored the point where silences we might think of as phenomenological can be historically specific. On the other hand, men such as Félix believed the culture of silence of ordinary labourers was somehow related to the silence of the empty landscape of the moorlands of the southwest. A local novelist called Edmond About wrote in similar terms of a ‘harmony’ between the quiet demeanour of the rural population, their simple clothes, and the deserted heaths.[8]

I think these ‘cultural’ silences are most meaningful at the points where they are specific: for example, the absence of explicit discussion of certain bodily experiences that I have mentioned, or the absences of emotional expression that Julie-Marie Strange has explored.[9]

Perhaps they even deserve another category when they become historical, when the sayability of ideas, feelings, and experiences changes in different contexts.


Here, these cultural silences necessarily touch on questions of power and domination, which I have found it useful to think of in terms of coding.

When subordinated populations have not been able to verbally express their grievances, because their protests were unsayable, or because they had no language to express what was wrong with the status quo, historians have decoded the rituals and bodily performances that allowed humble people to protest in more ways than words alone.[10]

I suggest going further.

Not only have subordinate populations often found indirect ways of expressing their grievances, but silence itself could be a threat.[11] I have written elsewhere about a storyteller from another part of France who was willing to tell a folklorist what he knew about a legendary curse, but proved less willing to share the secret of how to lift it. Ignorance it could be, but I argued it was defiance.[12]

I think it important to notice that in this situation, where a middle-class ethnographer tries to compel a working-class informant to speak about their culture, the easy association we sometimes draw between voice and agency is turned on its head.[13]


My project has also been interested in how silence expresses indifference.

One example concerns the dramatic environmental changes that took place in the region, as the open moorlands were replaced with a huge industrial pine forest.[14] Social elites at the time tended to assume that the local population was strongly opposed to the forestation of the moorlands, yet Félix found little trace of anger in the stories he recorded.

I am also very interested in the silences of one woman, a seamstress named Catherine Gentes. While many of Félix’s singers sang bawdy, sexual, and romantic songs, Catherine systematically played down the importance of love and sexuality in her songs. I argued this was because Catherine embodied a heightened sexual role in her community because of the cultural associations with seamstresses and women with disabilities at the time. By passing over sex in silence, I argue that Catherine sent a strong message about her indifference.

What, then, are the benefits to be gained from paying attention to these different silences? Let me just suggest two:

  1. By paying attention to silences we evoke the experiences and attitudes of a wider range of historical actors. We interpret the opinions not just of those who spoke out, or who acted, but also those who didn’t, and we try to think about why they didn’t. We find clues about social categories and voicelessness.
  1. We also gain a more expansive sense of popular agency. Fundamentally, this is a history where ordinary people are doing more. People ‘do things’ with silence as much as with words.[15] An important criticism of ‘history from below’, made by Jim Sharpe, for instance, was that it overplayed the importance of politics to the working population.[16] But if politics is more than what people say, and political motivations can be read into silences, perhaps there is room to revise this criticism a little. As Tara Zahra has pointed out in a challenging article on ‘nationalism’, indifference itself needs to be historicised.[17] Indifference is in some senses a choice, with political ramifications, as certain no-show voters brought rather forcefully in the UK’s recent general election.

It would be easy to call what I am doing perverse.

Even as historians are discovering that, in David Hopkin’s words, ‘the archives of the poor are not quite so empty as had once been assumed’, I am advocating attention to emptiness.[18] But I think the key point here is how much my interest in silences depends on what people did say. The game is always to use absences to interrogate and corroborate the voices we can hear.

Other critics might point out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

But I think there is also an answer to this well-known criticism. Most of the examples I have discussed are examples of silences that are explicitly framed by words. For instance, Félix was surprised to find so few stories embodying popular resistance to forestation. Both he, and other writers thought it worth noting how silent rural cultures were. I know which songs Catherine did not sing because Félix developed an interest in recording the absences in some of his singers’ repertoires. Even in the case of the bodily silences which I have called phenomenological, these absences are framed by a sea of words. The body parts or experiences that went unmentioned in the thousands of pages of everyday speech Félix scribbled down stand out against the backdrop of more commonly discussed organs and feelings.

Can silences mean anything and everything to different historians? Do we simply infer what we want from empty spaces?

I don’t think so. After all, we infer meanings from voices, too. Why not import critical methods about how we interpret intention, meaning, and emotion in words to how we do so with silence?

The question becomes: what types of silence do historians identify? Beyond the ones I have suggested, Jonathan Healey talked of ‘empirical’ silences and disclaiming knowledge as two possible categories during the workshop in May. What of censorship and self-censorship?

There are dangers here. Dangers of attributing voices to people who did not want ‘voice’, and dangers of inference and interpretation. But what greater danger can there be for historians than our own indifference to the ways people in the past made meaning not only with words, but without them?

[1] A point that folklorists and anthropologists were making before oral history’s dramatic rise. See for example: Dennis Tedlock, “On the Translation of Style in Oral Narrative,” The Journal of American Folklore 84, no. 331 (March 1971): 114–33.

[2] Keith H. Basso, “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 26, no. 3 (October 1, 1970): 213–30; Richard Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few: Symbolism of Speaking and Silence Among Seventeenth-Century Quakers (Wheatmark Inc, 2008); William Samarin, “Language of Silence,” Practical Anthropology 12 (1965): 115–19.

[3] Drew Leder, The Absent Body, 1st ed. (University Of Chicago Press, 1990).

[4] Or ‘cultural’: here (as at other points) the categories I am suggesting blur.

[5] There is, of course, more than a touch of Rabelais to this. Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. (Cambridge, Mass., M. I. T. Press, 1968).

[6] Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few.

[7] See, for example: Alain Corbin, The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 66; David M. Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 101, 132.

[8] Edmond About, Maître Pierre (BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009 [1859]), 40–1.

[9] Julie-Marie Strange, “‘She Cried a Very Little’: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working-Class Culture, C. 1880-1914,” Social History 27, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 143–61.

[10] Of many examples, the ones that interest me have been: Alain Corbin, The Village of Cannibals : Rage and Murder in France, 1870, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992); Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth-Century Lyon,” Past & Present, no. 90 (February 1981): 40–70; Peter Sahlins, Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard University Press, 1994).

[11] James C Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); James C Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); Joan Newlon Radner, ed., Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

[12] William G. Pooley, “Can The ‘Peasant’ Speak? Witchcraft and Silence in Guillaume Cazaux’s ‘The Mass of Saint Sécaire.’” Western Folklore 71, no. 2 (2012).

[13] It’s a point I find in: Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[14] Jacques Sargos, Histoire de la forêt landaise: du désert à l’âge d’or (Bordeaux: l’Horizon chimérique, 1997).

[15] J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered in Harvard University in 1955, 2nd ed. (Oxford Paperbacks, 1976).

[16] Jim Sharpe, “History from Below,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke, 2nd Edition (Polity Press, 2001), 28–9.

[17] Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (April 1, 2010): 93–119, doi:10.2307/25621730.

[18] David M. Hopkin, Voices of the People, 8.

16 thoughts on “Silences of the People

  1. Awesome post, Will.
    Would you include, under coded or elsewhere, the alternate speech given for sensitive issues? I’m not sure if it’s part of your consideration, but a thought about sort of “fake” silences. Whereas in the historical record and to those “outside” of the code, the speakers would appear to be silent on the matter of X (perhaps a treasonous POV, or Queerness, for example) while those who understood the diverted language would know of and could participate in discussion. So especially in matters of deviance & defiance, an alternate lexicon or coy innuendos could provide safety and community underneath listening ears. I’m not sure if these affect your studied group, but I have enjoyed the discussion especially around reading the “silence” of Queer sources in my own work. Cheers!

    • Great question Stephanie – some of our posts next week pick up on this issue of ‘saying without saying’, or developing coded ways of communicating that fall between silences and more clear cut communication. I guess body language would be another key category that historians might want to interrogate – the wry smile, the sideways glance or raised eyebrow – that can carry meaning: I know there is a body of work now on gesture in early modern England, but my sense is that this would be something particularly difficult to recover ‘from below’.

      • Reading this post I was minded of an expression I heard whilst travelling in the Middle East which went something like – if you don’t understand my silence how can you understand my speech.

  2. Great post, Will. These are all excellent examples of how ‘the easy association we sometimes draw between voice and agency’ can be turned on its head. Still, I think the point raised on twitter by the anonymous @AHHEresearch account is important: ‘[Should] historians envoice – & differentiate between? – the silenced as well as the silent?’ Not all silences show agency – marxist, feminist and post-colonial historians have shown how many (most?) are products of fear, coercion or exclusion. That shouldn’t stop us from following your lead in paying close attention to silences, but it should make us careful about distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary silences.

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  4. Yes, this is really important. Looking at the examples I’ve used here, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on types of silence that are essentially positive, ways to read agency among groups who appear to lack it, but the underlying point has to be that there are reasons why some groups cannot speak freely, and that silence is often a strategy employed in situations of constraint. For me, the fear, coercion and exclusion are why silence is the only way some groups can exert agency in their own lives.

  5. In the modern period, the growing ethnographic, medical, or psychological fascinations with popular bodies does mean that historians are quite well-furnished with sources (albeit deeply problematic ones) to think about how ordinary people used their bodies to communicate messages that they could not say out loud.

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  7. Fantastic, thought-provoking stuff! I’m now extremely conscious that my response to your post has been created in complete silence (save for the tapping of keys) and that the permanent relic of my reaction omits quite a lot of what I was actually thinking when reading the paper through. The silent process of self-editing may be just as powerful as formal censorship, as I weevil out the things that may make me sound ignorant, or which I have difficulty expressing!

    I was most taken with the Millet artwork and the notion of ‘coded silences’, and thought this might also be an interesting way of thinking about the appearance and representation of noise. I’m thinking of the popular music that often accompanied enclosure riots, or the drumming, shouting and rapping of pots that went alongside a skimmington or charivari. It got me wondering about what these events would be without the noise (perhaps if they took place in the dead of night): tearing down a hedgerow may just be vandalism, while the skimmington may be reduced to nothing more than a violent affray, or sinister vigilante-justice. When you say that ‘silence could be a threat’, it seems to me that that’s also corroborated by the appearance of noise elsewhere, which saps some of the more subversive or threatening elements out of these actions. That said, one time where noise features prominently in a representation of the carnival is Bruegel’s ‘Carnival and Lent’ – here silence and noise really are in competition, with many of the ‘lenten’ characters closing or covering their mouths, gesturing, or engaging in prayer and reflection, while many of the ‘carnival’ characters are playing instruments, shouting, or in any case creating an almighty racket. Since silence and noise can never coexist at precisely the same time, I really like your idea of ‘framing’; perhaps there are also times when silence and noise are simply fighting to drown the other one out?

  8. This post by Will Pooley is terrifically thought provoking–as I think all the commentators on it so far agree. What I think is especially compelling–or rather one of the things among many that especially interested me–is Will’s comment that “the game is always to use absences to interrogate and corroborate the voices we can hear.” It seems to me that statement points the way toward a genuine dialectical analysis of the intersections of speech and silence. And it potentially complicates that old conundrum about whether silences are enforced or reflect their own types of agency by suggesting they may do both simultaneously. Enforced silences do interrogate heard voices, and while we as historians may sometimes have to speak those interrogations on behalf of those silenced, we need not assume those who are silent are not interrogators themselves. (As Will’s point about indifference, for instance, makes clear.) It is also true that such silences can collaborate with the voices we can hear. That, in itself, points toward agency, which is significant. But such silences can also corroborate the voices we can hear differently, from the point of view of an other whose understanding will gradually change the terms of speech itself. Although cold hard facts of violence and coercion certainly make it possible to vacate agency in individuals, what I take from Will’s post is the assertion that we should never presume that to be the case without a thorough investigation. We can and should create new historical methodologies for discovering agencies even when there is no voice in which such agency can be expressed–even perhaps when we can only ascribe negative agency, that is, an understanding of what the voice that is suppressed is not being enabled to say.

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  10. Another type of silence might be called ‘respectfully misleading’, in the context of the collection of accounts from the users, and their self-censorship out of respect for the known sensitivities or theories of the collectors. This might be seen as a variation of telling outright lies, but misleading by not saying things.
    R. S. Thomson, ‘The Development of the Broadside Ballad Trade and its Influence upon the Transmission of English Folksongs’ (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1974) demonstrated that the singers from whom Sharp and the other founders of the English folk song movement collected songs deliberately did not give them full accounts.
    This included not just removing from songs words that might offend the middle class spinsters who were collecting them, (e.g., in ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’) but also not mentioning printed sources when these were in fact being used, because that was understood not to be what the collectors wanted to hear. This seems to have contributed to the divergence between the folk song tradition in the USA, where printed forms were respected as sources, and in England where they were anathema, and hidden though used.

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