Posts Tagged ‘E P Thompson’

This is a two-part essay. In this first part I would simply like to emphasise or reiterate that conducting any investigation into what happened in the past, in any type of historical writing (historiography), choices need to be made. Whether the choices, and the reasons for such choices, are made consciously or not, they are not optional. I also argue that historians should be as explicit as possible regarding their choices. All historical writing involves subjectivity, and is even in some way always ideological. Yet if we want to say something with meaning and relevance, and not just produce another literary text, then we need to make clear the distinction between what we have chosen as our subject and perspective (and why) and what we believe to be the facts that we have used as evidence for our interpretation. This might appear to be self-evident but it is still only a minority practice.

Sicilian Vespers

Sicilian Vespers

In the second part, which I hope will follow shortly, I will try to illustrate some of these issues by contrasting two very different historical approaches to the same event – the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. These approaches are those of the famous British historian Sir Steven Runciman and the nineteenth-century Italian Michele Amari. They both produced books called The Sicilian Vespers. Although each wrote his work in the form of a conventional narrative, it would be difficult to find two more divergent interpretations and ideological presentations of seemingly the same event. Amari sees the episode as an early and popular revolution. Ordinary Sicilians tried to throw off the yoke of a brutal foreign ruler. On the other hand, Runciman portrays it as the result of just another Great Conspiracy between various kings, nobles and popes, each jockeying for more power. For him the Sicilian Vespers had some important repercussions to be sure, but it wasn’t much about ordinary Sicilians.

Part 1: Making Choices in Writing History

History is not a science, although in practice it is and should be a discipline. Historical research and the writing of history more resemble a craft skill. Such skills build on an existing body of knowledge. They can be taught and their refinement and mastery needs lots of practice. In the right hands the end-product can even on occasion become an art form. Yet spilling more ink questioning whether history is a science, an art or a skill, or a mixture of all three, isn’t going to get us very far. On a less philosophical level the question is in some way similar to epistemological debates that have raged for over two thousand years. How do we gain knowledge and what is the nature of truth?  We’re still no nearer to an answer than was Aristotle. The trouble starts when we start spelling words with an initial capital letter: Knowledge or Truth for example. The Germans have a wonderful word for this, they call it Verdinglichung. This literally means making something, usually an abstract concept or idea, into a real thing. In English it is usually called reification.

Regarding the writing of history, I would argue that there are indeed facts about the past as well as many historical statements that are either true or false, but there really is no reified ‘Truth’. Some post-modernists would even argue with the first part of this statement and suggest, following the lead of such French thinkers as Lyotard and Derrida, that there are no historical facts at all. I disagree. There will be just a little more to say on this subject later on. But this essay is not primarily philosophical and it certainly isn’t designed to address the question of post-modernism’s so-called challenge to the practice of writing history. For that I can do no better than recommend both Keith Jenkins’s book Re-writing History and Richard Evan’s In Defence of History. My subject is of a more workaday variety. It concerns how historians make and indeed have to make the choices they do. Why are these choices important? Why should they be made explicit?

Leopold von RankeRegardless of their political persuasion most historians today would no longer adhere to a strict ‘Rankean’ approach to history. This holds that we can find out what actually happened in the past (‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen’) only from a close study and critique of primary sources and documents. A real and true historical story will somehow emerge from the documents. Even those historians who strongly propounded this view didn’t actually apply it consistently and rigorously in their own work. In Britain, we might name Sir Lewis Namier and Geoffrey Elton; elsewhere Leopold von Ranke himself.

Events in the past are the same as events today: we need to interpret them if we what to draw out any relevance or meaning at all. In writing history the fact of the events’ remoteness in time, and sometimes in space, makes the historian’s job even harder. As Saint Paul once wrote to the Corinthians: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’ Unless we are content to write a mere chronicle, present an interesting antiquarian fact or simply write an entertainment (and there’s nothing the matter with any of these) interpretation is crucial.

How do historians come to their interpretations? Interpretations come about because of the choices historians make, both in conducting their research and presenting the results. Here four such choices will be highlighted and discussed: the choice of subject, the choice of perspective, the choice of method, and the choice of telling. You could extend this list, name the choices differently or shuffle what is included in each. Yet it remains undeniable that writing history can’t be accomplished without making choices. These choices are not optional. Consciously or unconsciously they must be made. To be sure, they don’t follow each other in a linear or sequential order. It’s not a question of first deciding on the subject and then on the perspective we will adopt; followed by what method we will adhere to and then, finally, how we wish to tell the story. The flows of influence are multi-directional and reciprocal. Very often, though not invariably, the choices are all made simultaneously – during the act of creation.

The Choice of Subject

What is the subject or topic that I wish to research and write about and why?  

The subject the historian chooses to investigate might be a specific event, such as an illuminating court trial, a particular case of eviction from the land or, as is still often the case, a decisive battle. It might equally well be a period in history (even over the longue durée), a social or political movement or the history of an idea. How and why do individual historians make these decisions? The answers are as numerous as historians themselves. Although I would contend that there really is such a thing as ‘authorial intent’, we might never know what these intentions are unless the author explicitly tells us. That’s often the best we can hope for.

As the history profession has grown, and as more and more ‘pieces’ of the past have been examined, many historians (as every doctoral student will know) choose subjects or topics, or have them chosen for them, that attempt to ‘fill in gaps’ in our historical knowledge. Such gaps might be glaringly obvious or they might only appear or be created by the discovery of new or unresearched documentary sources. It is easy to scoff at or parody such endeavours. Do they not lead only too frequently to ‘knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing’? Perhaps.

For others, the choice of subject matter might just be driven by the fact that the topic has always been their own speciality or interest. There are many historians who, for whatever reason, have always specialized in the English Revolution, or the Third Reich, or the earliest Chinese civilisations. They would hardly dream about writing about something else. Others might see the possibility of shedding new light on an old question – by re-examining the existing documents or sources available on a specific event, period or movement from a fresh angle. Finally, and I mean this in no way as a criticism, yet others will decide upon their subject by looking to what will be most popular, what will sell. One only has to take a quick look at the History section in any bookshop to see that this is the case. The English-speaking history reading public is far more interested in the Battle of Britain or the American Revolution than it is in Concepts of Femininity in Ancient Greece or The Enclosure Movement in Cumbria. It’s sad but true.

E P Thompson

E P Thompson

Ultimately the choice of subject is driven by the questions the historian wants to ask and to answer. If I am interested, as was Edward Thompson, in how the English working class arose, I am much more likely to research 18th and 19th industrialization than the Norman Conquest – although the later may have a tangential bearing. It is well known that the same documentary evidence can be used to answer multiple questions. This doesn’t need to be demonstrated again. More important is that the choice of question, and therefore to some extent the choice of subject, is a subjective one. This is even the case when the questions themselves only occur to the historian during the research process and not beforehand. What unites nearly all historians is that they believe that the questions they are asking and the subject they are writing about are both important and relevant. Why otherwise would they bother writing about it? Surely this is the first reason why historians should be explicit about why they have chosen to explore a particular subject. If it doesn’t have an importance or relevance to how we live today then what is the point in anybody reading it? Except perhaps for distraction, escapism and entertainment? Maybe it’s just a ripping yarn!

The Choice of Perspective

What’s my point of view or perspective on this subject?’

Any historical subject, topic or event can be explored, probed and illuminated from a wide range of points of view, or from what I prefer to call different perspectives. As with the choice of subject, the choice of perspective is subjective – there is no such thing as an impartial perspective.

If one believes that how the vast majority of ‘common’ people lived in the past and how they experienced their lives is of most importance, then one could choose to write a history with a perspective ‘from below’. On the other hand, quite a number historians still subscribe to the view that history is driven not by economic or social forces but more by the acts of great people – even just ‘Great Men’. This is bound to (and does) lead to the perspective being that of the powerful or famous, and to a prevalence of military, diplomatic and political history.

Sir Steven Runciman

Sir Steven Runciman

What I think is critical is not which perspective is chosen – there is surely enough space for all – but rather that the choice is made explicit. What perspective is the historian taking on the subject and why? At least historians such as Sir Lewis Namier, Geoffrey Elton, and even (as we shall see in Part 2) Steven Runciman were quite explicit in this regard: little people don’t matter in history so we’ll not bother considering them at all.

So writing history certainly involves making choices about events or topics, as well as choices regarding how we want to interpret them. We might even accept that these choices are ultimately all ideological – or at least moral -choices. My own ideology or morality leads me to believe that what is important is how power and dominance impinge on individuals’ attempts to lead their own lives free from oppression. In addition, if it comes to the question of making a choice between Henry VIII’s struggles with the Papacy or how Henry’s policies affected great swathes of the English population, I will unashamedly plump for the latter. In my ideology Henry VIII was just another in an interminable line of armed thugs, concerned only with maintaining and extending their power or with their own sexual peccadilloes and dynastic reproduction. Why should I have any interest in him except insofar as his actions and decisions had very real repercussions for the English people in general? But you can take a different view – at least he makes a good television series!

The Choice of Method

Do I have an historical method and what is it?

Let’s turn to the hoary question of historical method. If I were to write a history of the early sixteenth-century it would most likely be a history from below or a ‘micro-history’ of a particular place. You might wish to write a history of the place of women in early Tudor England or even the ‘mentalities’ of torture. While each of these perspectives comes with a definite ideological slant, does that mean that we can ignore the facts of ‘what happened’ in the past? That anything goes? That all history is just a text? That all history is historiography? Certain currents of post-modernist or post-structural thought suggest just this. Many, though not all, post-modernists will admit that there are such things as facts about the past, but such facts are deemed trivial. As the post-modernist ‘historiographer’ Keith Jenkins has written: ‘Such facts, though important, are ‘true’ but trite within the larger issues historians consider.’

I suggest that this view is in part just a question of semantics. We usually use the word ‘history’ to describe both ‘what happened in the past’ and the output of historians’ labours. This can indeed be a little confusing and unhelpful. But even if, for the sake of argument, we accept that it might be better to make a distinction between history and the past, this does not mean that facts, which are transformed into ‘evidence’ to support a particular perspective or interpretation, are trite. What happened in the past really happened, however we may chose to interpret it. The past is not a tabula rasa.

Rather than use a literary analogy, I think an artistic one is at least as useful. Children enjoy ‘colouring books’. These generally consist of general outlines of things that the child can then fill in as they desire. Imagine the outlines of a face. You can use whatever colours you choose, or no colours at all. You can fill in blocks of colour precisely following the lines or you can deliberately go over the lines. You could use a pointillist technique or even decide to colour only one eye. You can try to make the face represent a person you know or you could produce something that looks a bit like Munch’s The Scream. You might even want to paint in the background as a pleasant rural landscape or as a scene of ecological desolation. The number of possible choices you can make and the number of resultant works of art is truly enormous, but it is not completely limitless. If you choose to ignore the lines completely you can still create a painting, a work of art, but it won’t be a representation of a human face – however abstract. I’m sure we could debate whether this analogy is a good one or not. But as it relates to historical ‘method’ the point is this: If we write about the past, about history, without producing evidence based on facts about the past then we are not saying anything meaningful about the past at all. We are not writing history, we are writing fictional literature. Indeed this is precisely what some post-modernists insist all history is.

My contention is that this is wrong. While historical method isn’t only about the existence or otherwise of facts about the past, such facts, however hard they might on occasion be to establish, are absolutely necessary and indispensable. Without them then everything really is just a lot of signifiers signifying nothing. In this sense I am an English empiricist. So historians need to be explicit about their views on historical methods as well.

The Choice of Telling

How will I tell my history?

Once an historian has decided on the subject, articulated questions deemed worthy of answering, undertaken the required research and picked a specific point of view or perspective, the work is by no means over. He or she must also choose a way to tell the history.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Should it be presented using a conventional narrative voice? This was the natural choice of the majority of historians in the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century – and it is still a popular form today. Narratives have been heavily criticized and even somewhat marginalized in the Academy over the course of the last forty years. This has partly been the result of post-modernist criticism, which has (wrongly) tended to suggest that all narratives are master or meta-narratives – such as Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or even Marx’s Das Kapital. Such meta-narratives do not just use a narrative voice, they don’t just tell a story, they also try to explain the working-out or process of history over long periods of time. The causes and effects involved. Sometimes they even have a teleological slant – history is an unfolding of ‘progress’ or moving towards the inevitable victory of communism.

Yet the narrative form in no way implies a sweeping meta-narrative, nor does it necessarily lead to a conservative, bourgeois or reactionary history – as it has often been contended it does. It is equally possible to tell a radical and politically challenging story using a narrative voice. Many historians have done this to great effect. We could mention as examples the British Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, or even the French Annalists Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel.

Narration is only one way to tell history; there are many others. One could simply present an individual event or a person’s testimony. This can even be done without providing any historical context – one just lets the event or the testimony ‘speak for itself’. One can also play with time – reversing the conventional arrow of time or jumping from one time to another with or without any connections being made. Moreover, a historian can choose whether to present the story as a tragedy, comedy or farce. The possibilities of how to construct a telling of the past we want to present are endless, and all are welcome. In the final instance it is the readers who will decide on the success or otherwise of the historian’s endeavours.


Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

Consciously or unconsciously, and whether they like it or not, all historians have to make at least these four choices: the choice of subject, the choice of perspective, the choice of method, and the choice of telling. The only normative point I have made is this: whatever choices have been made they should be made explicit. What are the questions that the historian will attempt to answer? Why are these questions important? Who are they important to?  How will the subject of the history help to answer the questions? Why is the chosen perspective and method the most relevant? Being explicit is important because it makes it clear that, however relevant,  the story being told is simply the interpretation of the author.

I would argue that being explicit in terms of the first three choices is always to be welcomed. Perhaps this is less so when it comes to the choice of telling – except perhaps in a very cursory way. After all in a book on history who wants to know all the thought processes the writer has gone through in deciding how best to present the work? The reader can make up his own mind as to the success or otherwise of the choice. This is not to suggest that works of history are cluttered up with too much authorial intrusion. There of many examples of such an unfortunate tendency, particularly from the post-modernist school, where the past seems to disappear and we are left with a rather tedious litany of ‘I’s.

The historian might claim that in some small way his or her history illuminates a truth about the past or a general historical pattern, but it can never be the Truth. As was mentioned earlier, almost no historian believes that history simply materializes unmediated from the sources themselves – without any act of interpretation. Yet there are many who present their work as though it does. As though their interpretation is the correct one, sometimes even the only one.

One final point: ‘Original’ history, as every doctoral student will know, should attempt to make an ‘original contribution to knowledge or understanding’ – difficult though this aim often is to achieve in practice. But writing history often has other purposes: to educate or to entertain. Many of the best histories, and certainly many of the most read, make no claim at all to be offering radically new insights into, or interpretations of, events in the past. They use no new primary sources and rely heavily on work that has been done by others before. Of course they can’t avoid interpreting things, and to that extent they need to make their choices explicit too.  It is a wonderful thing that such histories exist in such profusion today; whether in the form of books, articles or even little historical snapshots or vignettes. In many cases these more popular histories are more accessible, and often better written, than many of the rather turgid and impenetrable tracts produced in the Academy.


In a recent article  I touched on the issue of the Enclosure of the Commonsboth in France and Britain. In Britain enclosure was a brutal affair that stretched over many centuries. George Orwell once put it thus:

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

In the previous century Karl Marx had already summed up what the enclosures were all about:

We have seen how the forcible seizure of the common lands, accompanied for the most part by the transformation of arable into pasture, began in the fifteenth century and lasted on into the sixteenth […] The advance that has been made in the eighteenth century is shown in this, that the law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people’s land was achieved, although the great farmers continued to use their petty private methods in addition. The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons; in other words, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people’s land, which thus became their own private property […] a systematic seizure of communal landed property helped, side by side with the theft of the State domains, to swell the size of those great farms which, in the eighteenth century, were called ‘capital farms’ or ‘merchant farms’, and ‘to set the country folk at liberty’ as a proletariat for the uses of industry.

The 17th Century Diggers were just one of numerous protests against the Enclosures

To be sure there was much protest, resistance and even rebellion at both the local and national levels. We can find numerous court reports, aristocratic complaints about resistance and rebellion, as well as pamphlets and writings from, for example, the Levelers and Diggers of the 17th century. E. P. Thompson and many other historians and economists have consistently tried ‘to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver, the utopian artisan ….. from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Yet much of the evidence regarding what actually happened, and what the people affected by the Enclosures felt, does not come directly and unmediated from the ‘common’ people themselves. It doesn’t come from those whose livelihood was being taken away, from those who were being forced into the horror of the Poor House or into the equally brutal squalor of the urban factory.

I always find it humbling and moving when we can hear the actual words of those being oppressed; even more so when the testimony comes in poetic form. I would like to share two poems that do just this. The first in from the 17th century and is called The Goose and the Commons. We don’t know who wrote it, but it is an early and rare eye-witness account of the English enclosures:

                 The Goose and the Commons

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

John Clare – The Peasant-Poet

The common people may be mute in much of written history, but when they speak, as in this poem, we find that they were in no way unaware of what was happening to them and who was really responsible, even though their horizons might have only been local.

The other poem is from two hundred years later and comes from the ‘peasant-poet’ John Clare. Clare described his writings as ‘the voice of a poor man’.  As the historian of the Commons J. F. C. Harrison points out: ‘John Clare, the peasant-poet and son of a cottage farmer in Helpstone, Northamptonshire, is perhaps the only voice of an actual victim of enclosure. Helpstone was enclosed by an Act of 1809 when Clare was sixteen.’ The poem is called The Mores (‘Moors’):

                 The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow

Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between

To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity

And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers

Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave

And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men

Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won

Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass

While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye

Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day

Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed

And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds

In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray

Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –

Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight

Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung

As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh

And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.

I will not offer a close reading of this poem, I leave that to you. Of course the poem is about the impact of the enclosures on both people and the countryside, but it also is quite clear regarding who gained. A reader of the poem once observed that ‘privatization of the common land appears in itself as unnatural, as a crime against the animals, birds, insects, trees, flowers, rivers and streams themselves.’ Clare was indeed an early ecologist; he even called his works a ‘language that is ever green’. I leave the final word yet again to E. P. Thompson:

Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.


John Clare, A Champion for the Poor: Political Verse and Prose. Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2000;  George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, 18 August, 1944; Karl Marx, Capital. Volume 1, London, Everyman’s Library, 1974;  J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present, London: Flamingo, 1984; E. P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1975 ; Ronald Paul, A language that is ever green, Moderna Sprak, 2011.