Learning history from below

Words: Jack Mason

History from below, otherwise known as people’s history, is a type of historical narrative that centres the ‘everyday’. The name originates from an article written in 1966 by historian and socialist campaigner E.P. Thompson: Frustrated with the elitism and intellectual exclusivity of history as a discipline, Thompson and his sympathisers articulated the feeling of a growing leftist sect of historians in the mid-20th century who thought that mainstream history nearly always erased the ‘common people’, regardless of the time period being studied. A few years after Thompson’s call for a new history, Marxist lecturers from Oxford’s historically left-wing Ruskin College founded the History Workshop Journal, which intended to offer socialist historians a space to examine the downtrodden masses of the past. 

Take the Tudors. Most people can picture Henry Vlll’s face from memory. Many could probably name some of his wives, and recount their grim fates. But few would be able to say anything about the lives of 99.9% of people living in Tudor Britain. What was life like for the average person – the workers in the cities, the farmers in the fields or those locked up in the prisons? Yes, we know about the lives of six women aristocrats, but what was life like for the average mother? We know that Henry Vlll’s naval fleet was impressive, but what was life like for the men who built his ships?

These are the questions that history from below encourages us to ask. 

The availability of source material goes some way to explain why the historical lens has traditionally been trained on the elite. Historian David Cressy estimates that during the 16th century, 90% of men and 99% of women couldn’t read or write, meaning nearly all of the surviving material from the period would have been written by well-educated, upper-class men, and reflected their way of life. But historians from below argue that if one delves into different pieces of source material and deliberately works to shift narratives towards the ordinary person, rich alternatives form. 

In his book The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson set out to ‘rescue the poor stockinger, the luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver’ and other ‘normal people’ from the erasure of the past. Using the minutes of working men’s clubs, broadsheets, pamphlets, letters and diaries, Thompson presented a humanistic social history – one that showed the 19th-century British working class as a complex people with different motivations. 

More recently, historian Thomas Sokoll wrote about the importance of history from below in his work analysing the letters of 19th-century workers addressing their overseer to negotiate economic rights. Their semi-literate requests included threats to return home if their financial situation didn’t improve – threats that were successful to the extent that they managed to create what Sokoll calls a ‘mini welfare state’.

These practices allow ‘common people’ to step forward from the historical background, demonstrating that they were more than a homogeneous lump: they were complex and opinionated historical actors, who took charge of their situations and pushed for change. 

These practices allow ‘common people’ to step forward from the historical background, demonstrating that they were more than a homogeneous lump: they were complex and opinionated historical actors, who took charge of their situations and pushed for change. 

Thompson and his followers were largely influenced by Marx, and therefore lent their focus to the more traditional working classes. But this doesn’t showcase the full potential of People’s History. A history that stresses the contributions of voices that have been silenced inevitably opens the door to the study of the historical actions of women, People of Colour, queer people and other marginalised identities: those who elites like to argue were barely present in history until the 20th century. 

In the History Workshop Journal’s first year alone, they published an article about Black mineworkers in Southern Africa during the late 19th century and their relationship with British imperialism, a two-part series exploring women’s domestic and work lives in Weimar Germany, and an essay looking at how 19th-century laws penalised gay men and lesbian women differently in Britain. To have these academic essays published in the 1970s was remarkable, and demonstrates how the inclusive nature of people’s history is what makes it radical. 

That’s why history from below is so important today. Campaigns are calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum, and history is the subject that needs the most substantial change. The narratives we are presented with in school and in public culture reflect the experiences and opinions of the elite. For example, the claim that imperial Britain was a force for good is not a total fiction – it was true, for some, like the rulers and the capitalists who benefited from colonisation, and theirs is the history we most often hear. 

In the effort to change the one-sidedness of history in schools, people’s history offers a viable and established alternative. Rather than focusing on the actions and attitudes of privileged politicians like Henry VIII and Churchill, history from below interrogates the consequences of British imperialism as demonstrated by the experiences of the normal people who lived under it, the consequences of sexism, homophobia and transphobia demonstrated by the normal people who suffered (and suffer) it, and the changes made to combat injustices like these – not just from the ruling class’s legislative position, but on an individual level, a community level and an organised level.

Today, if you walk into a book shop and head towards the history section, you’ll see texts like Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann, which tells the story of ten Black individuals who lived and died in 16th-century Britain. If you turn on the TV, you might see David Olusoga’s series Black and British: A Forgotten History, which covers the contributions and actions of Black people living in Britain as far back as the 3rd century. From a historiographical perspective, these works demonstrate the growing influence of people’s history. They show that it is, slowly but surely, achieving the aim of its original proponents: to make its way into what we consider ‘mainstream’ history. But until history from below is established in classrooms throughout the country, and future generations know as much about working people and marginalised people as they do about the kings and queens who ruled them, its full potential remains to be realised. 

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Jack Mason is a final year history student at The University of Edinburgh, due to begin a Masters degree in Contemporary History at Sussex. He is particularly interested in queer history and everything that comes with it. Follow him on Twitter.