Language History from Below

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is co-authored by Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty, a socio-linguist at the University of Augsburg and a historian at Bucknell University respectively. Their contribution shifts our focus onto the search for documents that record ordinary people speaking for themselves – or, at least, that seem to – a theme that will be developed over the next few posts. Here, Helmut and Ann introduce their ongoing project to collect the necessary sources to produce a ‘language history from below’ for early modern Germany – and it was a conversation about this project between the authors and Mark Hailwood, in a Pennsylvania bar, that planted the initial seed for this online symposium.

Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty

Our approach combines social-historical research with socio-linguistics in an attempt to apply to the early modern period methods associated with “language history from below.” This term was coined, obviously after “history from below”, to counter the standard top-down approach that has been the traditional focus of language historians exploring the development of New High German. In a tradition much like that of earlier generations of historians, whose focus has primarily been on elite actors, scholars examining sources produced almost exclusively by professional writers and printers has resulted in a teleological view of the emergence of a New High German written standard.

This view has recently come under attack, not least due to its judgmental approach to non-elite writing, which is normally much closer to actual speech than the texts of educated or professional writers. Working with nineteenth-century letters written by German emigrants to the United States, German language scholar Stephan Elspaß was able to show that linguistic phenomena considered “wrong” from a standard point of view were in fact based on alternative regional and social written standards.[1] In short, “right” and “wrong” language features can in many cases be more accurately described as “elite” and “common.”

Inspired by these findings, our experiment began with the question of whether enough sources could be identified to produce a language history from below for the early modern period. The question begged interdisciplinary cooperation from the beginning for reasons of simple practicality. Very little of what was written by non-professionals before 1800 has survived, and what has been archived in public repositories tends to be scattered about and hard to find, requiring deep trolling through larger collections in accordance with the methods of a social historian. Once identified, however, the sources can only be fully exploited for the history of language by someone trained as a historical linguist. Here we would just like to introduce some of the kinds of sources we are looking at and what we are finding out about them. Continue reading

The antiquarian listens: unexpected voices of the people

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Laura Sangha, Lecturer in British History 1500-1700 at the University of Exeter. Laura shows that whilst the voices of ordinary people were not thought to be as trustworthy as those of gentlefolk in the early modern period, they still played an important and often overlooked part in intellectual debates surrounding ‘science’, as the experiences of humble individuals were sought out and valued by intellectuals as evidence against which to test emerging theories.

Laura Sangha

The idea at the heart of this post is voices of the people in unexpected places. Whilst there are more traditional topics (such as poverty, crime or work) that provide opportunities for exploring and uncovering ordinary voices, I want to focus on an area that is traditionally thought of as the exclusive preserve of the elite. That is, the realm of ‘science’, or, if you are an early modernist: the areas of natural and mechanical philosophy. When we think of this domain, we envisage the gentleman practitioner, the well-educated, well-resourced intellectual elite, usually engaged in a conversation with someone from a similar background to himself. Yet I want to suggest that even here, in an area that initially appears to be completely cut off from the people, their non-elite contributions were sought out and valued, and the voices of the people resonate.

Ralph Thoresby, 1658-1725

I will be supporting this suggestion with reference to my current research into the life of Ralph Thoresby.[1] For those of you who are not familiar with the man, a brief introduction. Thoresby lived from 1658-1725, he was from a middling, trade background, but he was also an antiquarian, a member of the Royal Society, and the owner and curator of a museum in his home town of Leeds. His archive is very extensive and includes the diary that he wrote for the entirety of his adult life, as well as a large set of correspondence with friends, family, and the great and the good in ecclesiastical and intellectual circles. Thoresby was therefore a respected provincial practitioner, inspired by the Royal Society to the study of antiquities, natural curiosities and strange weather – the stuff of early modern science.

There is a plausible case for saying that Thoresby himself was one of the people – though he was relatively well off, he did not attend either of the universities and was a long way from the intellectual heart of the country in the south east of England. But in this post my focus will be on the way that Thoresby’s scientific activities bought him directly into contact with (even more) ordinary people’s experiences and voices. Continue reading

Voices and Voicing in the Scottish Revolution, 1637-51

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Laura A.M. Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Birkbeck, University of London. As they have done in our previous three posts, issues of power and the authority to speak continue to loom large, but our next two posts show a different aspect of that relationship – highlighting contexts in which the voices of ordinary people in the early modern period could, in albeit heavily circumscribed contexts, be accorded a degree of value and legitimacy.

Laura A.M. Stewart 

In the spring of 1639, Scotland was facing an invading foreign army for the first time in eight decades. During the previous year, thousands of Scottish people had covenanted with one another and with God in defence of religion, kingdom, and king. This event had persuaded the government in London that Scotland was in revolt and needed to be restored to order through the use of force. Scotland and England had been joined together under one ruler since 1603, when King James VI of Scotland had acceded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I, but the Covenanters were not seeking liberation from British monarchic rule. Indeed, by seeking to repatriate some of the powers claimed by a London-based monarch, and thereby enable Scottish representative bodies to have a greater say in decision-making, the Covenanters offer parallels with current debates on the Anglo-Scottish union.[1] Unfortunately, the king in question, Charles I (1600-1649), did not believe he needed to be protected against ‘evil counsel’ by his Scottish subjects and he construed their religious covenant – with some justification – as an act of rebellion against his authority. Thankfully, Prime Minister David Cameron does not appear to have consulted the published works of Charles I’s polemicists on the perennial nature of the ‘British problem’.[2] For the second king of Britain, the best way of maintaining ‘one nation’ was to invade Scotland.[3]

In giving ‘mutual defence and assistance’ to one another as war loomed, the men and women of all social ranks who swore the National Covenant vowed never to ‘suffer ourselves to be divided’ and always to put ‘the common happiness’ before personal gain.[4] Historians have tended to think about the Covenant as a text to be read and signed, but many more people encountered it aurally and responded to it with voices rather than pens. My forthcoming book examines the communal swearing ceremonies that greeted the Covenant in parishes throughout the country. In some places, these ceremonies were emotionally charged events, in which entire parish communities gathered together to give voice to their faith. Leading clerics and politicians asserted in print and from the pulpit that the safety of the Scottish nation depended on the unity of its people.[5] Continue reading

Reading the Embattled Text: Muslim Sipahis of the Indian Army and Sheikh Ahmad’s Dream, 1915-1918

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Gajendra Singh, Lecturer in South Asian History at the University of Exeter. Gajendra explores another potential source of the ‘voices’ of subordinates – the letters of Indian Muslim soldiers written during the First World War – and again reveals the complex vectors of power that operated around a medium of communication that was on the one hand designed as a means of monitoring the speech of subordinates, but on the other provided a space for communication that frustrated and eluded such designs.

Gajendra Singh*

I ought to start with an apology. I feel conscious of writing to an audience that will contain many English/British social historians. For South Asianists, English social history (particularly the work of EP Thompson) provided first the model of how one could listen to and write (re-write) the ‘voices of the people’[1] and then, following a closer synthesis between postcoloniality and poststructuralism, the precise model that exposed the impossibility and hubris of such an endeavour. Further, the substance of this post is a distillation of some of the ideas that emerged from my previous work rather than an articulation of my current research. This previous work of mine focused on the war testimonies of Indian soldiers – of the 1.7 million Indian sipahis (or ‘sepoys’) that were enlisted by the Imperial Government of India to fight in the First World War. Traces of this Indian presence can be found in the Imperial propaganda and in the Imperial ephemera of the day.

This post will not, however, offer a further analysis of these Indian ‘presences’ in wartime imagery. I will instead discuss those spaces and moments when soldiers were not fighting, and in which they could write and share their war experiences in their letters. This post will relate the production and circulation of colonial Indian soldiers’ testimonies to the porous and impermanent nature of their identities. It will talk in particular about Indian Muslim soldiers’ identities and of their appraisal and re-appraisal of Islam in the trenches. And, it will end by explaining why, and what I mean, when I choose to read such texts as embattled.


Indian Wounded at Brighton, 1915. Q53887. Photograph Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

On the 11th July 1916, Captain G. Tweedy, the Chief Censor of Indian military correspondence in France, alerted his superiors to a slip of paper he had found hidden in an otherwise anodyne letter by a Punjabi Muslim sipahi. It was the nature of the concealed missive, as much as the fact that it was hidden, that alarmed Tweedy. It took the form of a message that had been relayed from the Prophet Mohamed, and the injunctions contained therein directed the Muslim soldiery of British India to put their loyalty to their faith before any loyalty to their Sahibs: Continue reading

Gossiping into the Archive: Authority and Speech in the Colonial Archive

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Emily J. Manktelow, Lecturer in British Imperial History at the University of Kent. Emily moves our discussion into a consideration of the particular difficulties of retrieving ‘voices’ from the colonial archive, and examines ‘gossip’ as a category of speaking that can provide the historian with considerable insights into the operation of power, authority and speech. 

Emily J. Manktelow

Catching the voices of those marginalised by the authority of the archive is an important and sometimes difficult project – as this online symposium has been pointing out. These problems can become even more daunting when the marginality of the object of our investigations is multiplied by differences not only of class, but of race, ethnicity, and subjugation as well. The colonial archive is a space fraught with complex methodological problems, which students of colonialism and postcolonialism have been grappling with for a long time. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was the title of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous 1988 chapter, which questioned whether we can ever recover the voices of the oppressed from a source-base compiled and created not only by the powerful, but as a means to power. Knowledge creation and collection were part of the colonial regime not only as an exercise in record-keeping and bureaucracy, but as a means to create understandings of selfhood and otherness that justified and consolidated the colonial project. The archive itself, then, is an exercise in oppression and marginalisation – what does that mean for those of us who use it? Are we simply replicating the regimes of power and authority encoded through the past?

You won’t be surprised to learn that historians of empires and colonialism have not fully ascribed to this view. After all, it would mean the euthanasia of our field. Rather, proponents of what is increasingly being called “critical colonial history” are constantly alive to new ways of thinking with and against the grain of the colonial archive – of recovering lost or marginalised voices, and of reading and understanding the “common senses” of the colonial past. This requires sensitivity and thoughtfulness (something which some of those engaged in more traditional imperial history seem sadly to lack), but can enrich our understanding of the complex colonial history that unites Britain (among others) with so many parts of the globe in diverse, and sometimes unsettling, ways. The archive is not something to be avoided in colonial history, but something to be interrogated, problematized, and questioned – not least because recent revelations have shown that the UK government has taken direct steps to obscure its availability and content, and hide documents (as many as 1.2 million files) from historians, victims, and the general public. The colonial archive is a place of authority and memory-making: not just in the past, but in the present too. Continue reading

Can the Sodomite Speak? Voicing Sodomy in Early Modern England

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Nicholas F. Radel, Professor in the English Department at Furman University. In the first of a batch of posts focused in particular on the power dynamics of voice and voicelessness, Nick examines seventeenth-century anxieties about allowing male same-sex activity a voice – and in the process picks up on the theme of Will Pooley’s post about the importance of attending to silences as much as voices when studying marginalised groups and individuals.     

Nicholas F. Radel

A few years back I published an essay on the 1631 trial of the Earl of Castlehaven whose title, like that of the present post, tropes Gayatri Spivak’s famous question about the subaltern in postcolonial society. In the essay I thought about the ways one particular servant in Castlehaven’s household, Laurence (or Florence) Fitzpatrick, was made to speak as a type of voluntary agent of sodomy when he presumably had little power to stage the monstrous inversions of social, civic, or moral order for which that particular sexual crime has been said to stand symbolically in early modern England. As the title of Cynthia Herrup’s superb work, A House in Gross Disorder, suggests, accusations of sodomy against the Earl did not arise primarily in response to his sexual habits with men but his mismanagement of house and patrimony. So what did it mean that Fitzpatrick, who had little control of either, was convicted of and executed for sodomy as well?

2ndEarlOfCastlehavenIn the proceedings of the trial Fitzpatrick was labeled a “voluntary prostitute” (Cobbett, State Trials, vol. 3, col. 420). His confession of sexual acts with the Earl were assumed to imply his agency and consent to a crime that was, so the story goes, usually identified as an offense observable in others but rarely imagined as a subjective position from which one might act or speak. As regards his sexual actions, Fitzpatrick surely was not a subject but rather a young man subjected to the Earl and the social system that privileged his betters. Fitzpatrick himself seemed to understand as much, for in his forlorn speech from the scaffold he says that “he was not only sorry for [his sins], but also resolved never to come into my lord’s house again; but it was through frailty, and because he was not furnished of another place” (State Trials, col. 422). Nevertheless, because the justices depended on Fitzpatrick’s testimony to corroborate the charges of sodomy against Castlehaven, they seemed to privilege his confession (which was probably unfairly obtained) with an agency the otherwise disenfranchised underling wouldn’t have had. Of course, this agency was imposed on Fitzpatrick, but in my reading the Castlehaven case provided evidence that sodomy, by which I mean for the purpose of this post illicit male same-sex activity, could be imagined and represented as speaking on its own behalf, in its own voice. Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

The Marginal and the Monstrous: The ‘Voices’ of Prostitutes and Traffickers in Modern History

Our second post in The Voices of the People symposium (full programme here) is by Julia Laite, Lecturer in British History at Birkbeck, University of London. Reflecting on her own work on prostitutes and traffickers in the early twentieth century, Julia addresses a number of themes that will recur frequently throughout this symposium: the value of the microhistorical approach and the capacity of digital technology to support the work of close contextualisation; the importance of self-reflecting on ‘history from below’ writing as a genre and methodology; and the ethics of recovering the ‘voices of the people’.      

Julia Laite

When Lydia Rhoda Harvey steamed away from the shores of New Zealand, enroute to Buenoes Aires where she would, according to her traffickers, ‘see gentlemen’, what did she think? What did she say? What did her traffickers, Antonio Adolfo Carvelli and Veronique White, say to her? To each other? Is it possible to guess, and if so, do I want to and should I?

'A collection of voiceless photographs from the Carvelli/Harvey trafficking case, London, The National Archives, MEPO 3/197

A collection of voiceless photographs from the Carvelli/Harvey trafficking case, London, The National Archives, MEPO 3/197

My new book project examines the story of Carvelli, White, Harvey and the other women who were trafficked alongside of her, as well as some of the police officers, campaigners, and social workers who were directly or indirectly involved in the case. The project didn’t start out as a global microhistory, but as I got further into my research on the subject of trafficking, I became increasingly convinced that examining it in this way would allow me to capture, more effectively than any other way, the complexity of trafficking as a historical subject. Debates rage in the historiography over whether trafficking is most meaningfully described as a form of migrant labour or as exploitation; scholars examine it either from a national or an international perspective; they examine either state action or philanthropic campaigning; they examine the formation of law or the way law looks in practice (though this is actually not very well covered). Histories of trafficking are methodologically transnational (by their very nature), but scholars are coming to realise that they are also very locally contingent. Trafficking also tells us a great deal about power: state power, patriarchal power, economic power; but it also reveals complex voices of people caught up in, facilitating, or fighting ‘the traffic in women’.

A microhistory is an excellent lens with which to capture this complexity; but while also focusing on these individual voices. And so I have spent some time thinking—at times agonizing—about what it means to capture the voices of ‘ordinary’ people in such an extraordinary case; people who were thought of as marginal and monstrous in equal measure: as abject victims, as despicable ruffians. I’ll share some of this thinking here, in the form of four interrelated questions that have been troubling and captivating me as I have gotten deeper into the project, and into my historical actor’s lives. The first is,

How can I listen? Continue reading

Sources, Empathy and Politics in History from Below

Our opening post in The Voices of the People symposium (full programme here) comes from Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex. Tim addresses the recent high profile debates about the role academic history writing has to play in our society, arguing that ‘history from below’ has a particularly important contribution to make – and outlines an agenda for how it can do so.

Tim Hitchcock

The purpose and form of history writing has been much debated in recent months; with micro-history, and by extension history from below, being roundly condemned by historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage as the self-serving product of a self-obsessed profession. For Guldi and Armitage the route to power lies in the writing of grand narrative, designed to inform the debates of modern-day policy makers – big history from above.   Their call to arms – The History Manifestohas met with a mixed reception. Their use of evidence has been demonstrated to fall short of the highest academic standards, and their attempts to revise that evidence sotto voce has been castigated for its lack of transparency.[1]

Regardless of the errors made along the way, of more concern to practitioners of ‘history from below’ is Guldi and Armitage’s assumption that in order to influence contemporary debate and policy formation we should abandon beautifully crafted small stories in favour of large narratives that draw the reader through centuries of clashing forces to some ineluctable conclusion about the present. I have no real argument with the kind of history they advocate – and the success of recent works such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital, suggest that it can both do justice to the evidence, and contribute to modern policy debate. And I am sure with a couple of decades’ hard work (there were 19 years between the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and Das Kapital), Guldi and Armitage will produce a book that lives up to the hype.

But, they fundamentally misrepresent the politics of history writing, and of micro-historical analysis in particular. And what they seem to miss is a simple appreciation of the shock of the old. The lessons of history are very seldom about ‘how we got here’ with all its teleological assumptions, but more frequently about how we can think clearly about the present, when we cannot escape from it. Continue reading

Introducing… “The Voices of the People”: an Online Symposium

This post is an introduction to our online symposium, ‘The Voices of the People’. For more information on this event see our symposium homepage.

Mark Hailwood

The doors of the ivory tower are being dismantled, and it’s no bad thing that historians are being forced out of hiding. Indeed, debates about the role that professional academic historians should be playing in wider society seem as pressing as they have done for many years – not least because research funding has come to be increasingly linked with the requirement to demonstrate that the resulting research has ‘impact’ on the economy, society, culture, or public policy, ‘beyond academia’. Historians are finding their voices, and are starting to intervene in public debates with greater regularity.

'Is it safe to come out?'

‘Is it safe to come out?’

The resulting interventions have not been without controversy, as the recent exchanges in History Today over the historic role of Britain in Europe have shown. In fact, much of the public debate involving historians is really a debate between them about the type of history we should be doing. The History Manifesto, a recent high profile open access publication, called for historians to focus their efforts on the analysis of ‘big data’ and very long-term trends so as to make their conclusions more applicable to contemporary policy questions. Yet the authors of the manifesto, and the Eurosceptic ‘Historians for Britain’ collective, have been criticised for leaning towards over-simplified ‘big stories’ and clear ‘lessons from history’ at the expense of the complexity and nuance that many see as central to what the study of history should really be about (something our own Laura Sangha has written about on this blog recently).

But debates about the type of history that is best suited to bridging the gap between academics and a wider public need to be about more than just the scale we adopt: there is also the issue of what – or who – that broader public history should be focusing on. Great institutions, great men, and national stories of war and conquest, have long dominated our collective sense of the past: the historical experiences of ordinary women and men, it is fair to say, have not. It is telling that The People’s History Museum in Manchester, the UK’s principal museum for working class history, has lost government funding because it is not considered to be a ‘national’ museum: the history of ordinary people is not part of the national story. Telling too that the Prime Minister, in a speech to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, saw human rights as ‘the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons’. No place here for the Trade Unions, Chartists, Suffragettes – and countless other grassroots movements across the world – that have fought for the rights of ordinary citizens: for Mr Cameron it was the barons wot won it. Continue reading