THE FUTURE OF HISTORY FROM BELOW: 16 April 2013, Birkbeck, University of London

History from below

This workshop was organised to mark the 50th anniversary of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and brought together a new generation of scholars interested in examining British society from the perspective of whose voices were usually ignored, reproached or silenced. The aim was to explore ‘history from below’ might look like over the next fifty years. The organisers consciously attempted to overcome the traditional limits of periodization and contributions, therefore, ranged from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Each of the three panels consisted of three 15 minute ‘think-piece’ papers, in which speakers were encouraged to reflect on the importance and influence of history from below to their research methods and agendas. Each session also included one 15 minute combined response to all three papers by a discussant, and 45 minutes of questions and open discussion. The day was introduced by John Arnold (Birkbeck) who started by getting us to think about exactly what we mean by ‘history from below’. Do we literally mean history of those that have inhabited the lower echelons of British society or are we attempting to retrieve the voices of groups or individuals that have been marginalised in other ways, either politically, culturally, racially, or through prevailing gender ideologies. Having caused us to question the terms of our debate, he proceeded to outline various topics that were to crop up during the day including the histories of work, skill and poverty; the gendered nature of ‘history from below’; the tension between change and continuity alongside the influence of periodization; the issue of sources and their provenance, accessibility and dissemination via digitisation; the role of memory, custom and ‘invented tradition’; and, of course, the politics of these histories, both then and now.

In the first session, entitled grappling with the sources, Bronach Kane (Bath Spa) explored gender and agency in late medieval English church court records while Edward Taylor (Exeter) considered the use of online early print databases to investigate popular occupational stereotypes. David Hitchcock (Warwick) then offered his thoughts and outlined the evidential problems of studying vagrancy in England between the late-seventeenth and late-eighteenth centuries, 1650-1750. This panel encouraged vigorous discussion of the difficulties in interpreting these kinds of sources and threw up many worthwhile comments on the nature of legal and cultural artefacts, ultimately coming to the conclusion that similar caveats and dangers adhere to the uses of both. The second session examined questions of scale, particular whether or not it is possible to study global history from below. Tawny Paul (Edinburgh) discussed her work on gender and the economy in eighteenth-century Scotland and asked whether this could usefully be tied to global patterns or whether this kind of study was more productively focused on the intimate and local. William Farrell (Birkbeck) pulled together thinking on the pitfalls and possibilities of studying the global eighteenth century from below while Ruth Mather (Queen Mary) explored differing types of source material for the study of plebeian domestic life in late Georgian Britain. The third panel set out to examine new disciplines, approaches and possible sources for retrieving the history of those traditionally obscured by the study of great mean, women and institutions. Nicola Whyte (Exeter) reveal many interdisciplinary techniques for reading the material environment in her work on landscape history from below and this was built upon by Simon Sandall (Winchester) who developed this idea in a paper which explored memory studies and history from below through a case study of the Forest of Dean. Samantha Shave (Cambridge) then presented a history for below which described her fears over narrowing participation in the study of the past, voicing her fears that the study of history was retreating towards the traditional range of privileged practitioners and suggesting ways in which this current move might be countered. This actually chimed very well as an instructive contrast to the types of inclusive sense of the past described in Whyte’s and Sandall’s papers and generated much vibrant discussion about how we can best move forward with the study of history both from and for ‘below’.  

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