Social and Cultural History – and why the difference matters

Last post I tried to explain how our present assumptions can colour interpretations of the past, how bias is inescapable, and how that’s OK. My feeling as a historian is that one ought to be as upfront about these assumptions as possible; one ought to own one’s bias. This, incidentally, is why theory is useful – one way to approach academic theory is as a body of work that has done the hard work of talking through its biases, which gives you a framework to start from. But I digress.

In this post, I want to talk about some of the differences between Social and Cultural history, and how they pertain to my project. I’ll do so with reference to two examples: Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties that Bound (1986), and Georges Duby’s The Three Orders (1978). My aim is to enliven the differences between two very different approaches to the past. If you’re not a trained historian, these differences may be invisible to you, and you may (quite legitimately) ask, why these different methodological approaches even matter. Hopefully the following will convince you that it matters very much.

Hanawalt’s Social History

The Ties That Bound is a book about English peasant families between 1200 and 1500. Hanawalt’s sources are some 3000 entries in manorial court rolls, each of which document a single case before the court. They encompass accidents, murders, thefts, burglaries, land and property disputes, as well as records of various fines, including entry fines paid to take over land, marriage fines, and ‘heriot’ (death fines).

Hanawalt tries to read these sources ‘against the grain’ – that is, while acknowledging that the sources were made for one reason, she attempts to use them for a different one. By reading them in aggregate, she attempts to draw out commonalities in the lives of English peasants across the country and over three centuries.

It produces an admittedly rich picture of English peasant life. She is able to draw conclusions about peasant households, childhood, friendships, marriage, parenting, ageing, treatment of the elderly and dying. By combining it with archaeological evidence, she is able to situate their lives in space and on the land, and build a vivid image of peasant lives.

In the end, she is able to use this picture to make a key intervention into a historical debate. She argues against other historians of the English peasantry who argue that the household was large, multi-generational and ‘porous’ (i.e. able to absorb non-kin). While this image may have been accurate for the Continent, her research suggests that English households were smaller and more similar to the contemporary nuclear family than previously thought.

Hanawalt is a social historian. Social history is a little bit like building a jigsaw that’s missing a significant number of pieces and without reference to the image on the box. The ultimate aim is to be able to describe what’s going on in the finished puzzle, or to be able to draw connections between two or three puzzles to make conclusions about what’s not actually depicted in any of them. Social history cares about retrieval – at heart, social historians think that the aim of history is to recover and reconstruct the past.

Duby’s Cultural History

The Three Orders is a classic of Medieval history – its key idea is still familiar to me from first year medieval history lectures, twenty years ago. Duby’s sources are quite different to Hanawalt’s. They are French, for a start. They are also concentrated in the years 900-1300, so they are from a different period. In the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, what we know as feudalism was still getting established. Many of the manorial courts that produced the rolls that Hanawalt could draw on didn’t exist in the institutionalised way they did by the thirteenth century.

Duby draws on mostly ecclesiastical records written by bishops and monks. There are poems, books, introductions to translated works or interpretations of scripture. Duby traces the invention and development in France and England of a “trifunctional system” for explaining the world, one that sorts people and activity into three “orders”: those who fight, those who pray, and those who labour.

Duby argues that the schema of the three orders was established by the powerful to justify their power. It drew on already-existing interpretations of the bible to establish a threefold hierarchy of mutually-dependant roles. Rather than being a simple description of how Feudalism worked, this description of hierarchy was constructed to oppose a threat to established ecclesiastical power.

For example, the first instance of the model came from a sermon in which a Bishop was excoriating a heretical catholic sect. The heresy was imagining a world without hierarchy, which was a radical proposition in 12th Century France. Later, the ideology of the Three Orders was mobilised to try and keep rapacious knights in check or ban clergy from carrying weapons – both efforts to defend the existing order against change.

The trifunctional system was not a model that was imagined, developed then implemented by feudal elites. Instead, it emerged in opposition to challenges to the power of the church, and as it successfully beat back those challenges, the ideology became a justification for the uses and abuses of Medieval power. Was the Three Orders an accurate picture of Frankish life? We will never know. But it can tell us something about the people who articulated it, the people who challenged it, and the fact that it was broadly successful as a tool of governance tells us something about Medieval culture.

Different approaches, different assumptions

I love to abuse a metaphor, so this is the point where I’d usually try and relate cultural history to a jigsaw puzzle. But cultural history is such a radical shift away from the act of retrieval and recovery that the metaphor doesn’t work. Cultural history approaches the past like a film reviewer approaches a film: it assumes that its subject is a compelling artifice, and then tries to think about the relationships between how it was made and what it says. It approaches its sources with an eye for tropes, composition, and meaning.

It also accepts that the film is all you’re going to get – it doesn’t assume the existence of draft scripts, directors’ cuts, or production receipts. Social history loves to recover lost histories from sources never intended to capture them – to reconstruct everyday peasant lives from sources chronicling the least ordinary days in those lives, for example. Cultural history acknowledges that such extrapolation is fraught, if not impossible.

Recall the Biddick quote from my last post, in which she acknowledges that the sources historians use to talk about the medieval past are themselves part of a “twelfth century English project of emplacement.” Despite our best efforts at calibration, we cannot avoid becoming party to that project when using those sources. They will always be “a desired representation of powerful, historical, disciplinary practices.” Whether or not medieval sources can provide evidence of how peasants lived, they can provide evidence of the knowledge and power that asserted themselves on peasant lives. This power and knowledge cannot be tuned out, or uncomplicatedly bent to other purposes.

Cultural history acknowledges that the jigsaw can only be put together one way, and instead of trying to extrapolate between several jigsaws, it instead tries to reconstruct the forces that made the jigsaw possible – that chose the image, manufactured the puzzle, marketed it, sold it, and decided that building one might be a fun thing to do.

So what? Why does this matter?

This may seem like a rarefied academic distinction, and in some ways it really is. People on the whole seem to prefer social history. Perhaps they are attracted by the possibility that there are universal truths about the past. Perhaps they are comforted by the recognisability of historical subjects as humans just like them. Such histories can offer a compelling narrative arc, a line of progress from the past to a possible future. Maybe people just like stories.

Cultural history offers few easy stories. It insists that we understand the past as contingent, devoid of larger, historical metanarratives. In cultural histories, historical change is uncertain and inconsistent. It is produced by serendipity and crisis, or just by thousands of small, pointless acts that build up to something bigger in aggregate. No single idea from any point in the past is better or worse than any other, it’s just different because of the unique historical and cultural circumstances that created space for it. It’s hard to feel like you’re the product of progress when you read cultural history.

But Cultural history offers one hope that social history struggles to offer – the hope of change. Social history arranges people in discrete categories and time in predictable trajectories that are very hard to deviate from. By placing work in the context of an immutable, timeless class struggle between capital and labour, Marxist histories offer no way out beyond revolution or acquiescence. Class either persists eternally, with no escape, or it is finally eradicated, and history itself is over. For the Whigs, we are already well along the path to a liberal utopia.

Histories that treat the idea of work as a historical constant will always struggle to imagine futures that are different to the past. If they are right, then all the evils in the world today are just part of progress, and we should put up with them. In short, the Marxists are pessimists who offer no way out, and the Whigs are optimists who would blind us to the things we should be trying to change. Teleological historical narratives have convenient ‘whys’ ready to answer all historical questions: because class. Because progress. Because human nature.

By contrast, for cultural history, no imaginable future is inevitable or impossible. Approaching the past as contingent can open up all sorts of new ‘whys’, with limitless political possibilities. Duby is able to ask why the hierarchical Catholic Church took root during the Frankish Renaissance, rather than the more egalitarian heresy that Adalbero of Laon opposed in the 12th century. Elizabeth Potter was able to draw out why Boyle’s Law of Gases became law, rather than other competing but compelling scientific interpretations. Elizabeth Anderson is able to demonstrate why a 200-year-old interpretation of the free market as a force for egalitarian redistribution, has survived in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is not.

We need more ‘whys’ because they allow more complex problem solving and more diverse possible futures. If one approaches the past as contingent, rather than as the product of grand narratives, it allows one to remain alive to both the circumstances that allowed ideas and practices to flourish, as well as the unrealised possibilities that almost were. Asking why things happened one way instead of another can help us recognise in turn the contingency of the present moment, and thus, at the very least, recognise that the present does not have to be this way. It might even start to give you a way out.

Header image by Fahrul Azmi on Unsplash

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