Overlooked Histories

History has not simply been written by the victors. It has also been written by those with access to literacy, writing materials and the luxury of time to think and write. This section looks at examples of ‘overlooked’ histories – that is, histories which have been suppressed, ignored or disputed. This might, for example, be due to a minority’s relationship and political standing in relation to a nation state’s idea of itself; it might be, as in the case of Gypsies and Travellers or lepers because they are frequently not seen as having either a place in their nation’s history nor a history of their own. Some historical events or details are forgotten or overlooked due to an absence of historical evidence or historical knowledge of particular events are only held by particular communities or individuals.

This can create a challenge for historians – how do we write the histories of those written out of history? As societies have become more open, diverse and democratic, both the groups as people seen as being part of history has expanded and the types of people writing history has extended. But, even with the expansion of expertise and interest their remain the challenges of evidence.  Many viewpoints, tales, personal accounts and intimate primary sources remained undiscovered, have been lost or simply ignored throughout history: there are multiple ways in which the archive can be ‘silent’. Though in a developed country in modern day, blogging, diary keeping, drawing and similar ways of recording events may seem simple and inexpensive, this has not universally been the case.


Case Studies


Women in history, women writing history

The nineteenth century not only saw the establishment of new universities and history as a subject within them; it also saw more generally the expansion of literacy and education across European societies – of women and girls as well as boys and men, and of the working classes as well as the middle classes - the rise of trade union and labour movements, and of different forms of women’s activism. Taken together they were both part of, and drove a whole host of changes in society that need not concern us here – the key point for our purpose is that women started gaining access both to universities, and over time, to academic positions within them; and not only did, smaller numbers, of working class people also gain places at universities, but there also emerged grassroots vibrant worker education movements, sometimes associated with, but also separate from, local Labour Party and trade union activities. The newer, red brick universities played a central role in this trend - LSE, founded in 1895, by the outbreak of the first world war where half of its faculty were women, was strongly associated with the Fabians – the research activist wing of the Labour Party – and also the Economic History Society and its journal– but these years also saw the emergence of a strong, separate worker education movement.

We can see how these changes started to feed into the kinds of work being produced by historians – within universities and on the outside – this was the era of Helen Cam, the medievalist, educated at London and working for much of her life at Girton; Eileen Power, another renowned medievalist started at Girton and moved to LSE and back to Cambridge. These were women historians, trained in a manner in which Ranke would have approved – they were not, however, historians of women.  Rather it was often activists within the first organised women's movement- the suffragettes, the suffragists and those involved in the international peace and socialist movements - of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who found that women were largely absent from standard history texts. This inspired them to write their own histories. Detailed studies of women's work, trade unionism and political activities were produced by authors such as Ivy Pinchbeck and Alice Clark – Clark’s investigation of working lives of seventeenth century women published in 1919, was based on a depth of documentary evidence of which Ranke would have approved, not only revealed the lives of ordinary women, but also, more controversially her charting of how the medieval subsistence economy to the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had adversely constrained the role of women in society. Here was the power of history demonstrating that ‘it has not always been like this for women’: the place designated for them in society in early twentieth century Britain was not ‘natural’ or somehow preordained, as asserted by many of the opponents of women’s suffrage. Rather, it was the product of socio-economic change and hence, could therefore be challenged and changed.

In this period Ray Strachey and Sylvia Pankhurst, both participants in the suffrage campaign, wrote histories of the movement that are now considered classic texts. With the fragmentation of the women's movement after the First World War, however, these pioneering histories tended to be lost from view, and while women continued to established themselves as academics across university departments, the sense of an explicit, feminist reading of history was lost from view.

It took the developments of the 1960s counter-cultural revolution to shift academic convention and . Right across the Western world two new key social movements were to insist on a new kind of politics and inclusion – one which did not simply focus on exclusions and injustices based around class, but also those perpetuated by sexism and racism. These were expressed through what is called second wave feminism, and a constellation of liberationist, Black Power and anti-racist activisms.

It was the Women's Liberation Movement, or 'second wave feminism', from the late 1960s which challenged conventional ‘dead white male’ readings of history, and led to a new wave of research exploring and championing women's active role in the past. While women's history and feminist history are often used interchangeably this serves to play down the specific approach of feminist historians. Feminists argue that the power relationship between men and women is just as important as that between social classes in understanding social change, and that a recognition of conflicts between men and women leads to a re-interpretation of standard accounts of social movements and ideas, as well as opening up new areas of enquiry.

Sheila Rowbotham’s pioneering study, Hidden From History, inspired a new generation of female historians to carry out detailed investigations into varied aspects of women's lives, including employment, trade unionism, women's organisations, family life and sexuality. Such research sat within wider developments in social history and the social sciences that sought to recover the history of less powerful groups – loosely termed 'history from below', and often linked to the History Workshop movement and figures such as Raphael Samuel. These challenged conventional wisdoms about what should be seen as historically significant, and used new, or rediscovered techniques, such as oral histories or micro-history , to try to capture the voices, experiences and world views of those ignored by dominant histories.

In was a small intellectual step from writing women into history, to writing women into other disciplines. The first women’s studies program was introduced in the late 1960’s at San Diego State University. Over 600 signatures were received prior to this over establishing a women’s studies course. As demonstrated by the lack of women found in history texts the establishment of a course completely dedicated to women was a great achievement for a group that had previously been considered as being overlooked. The Women’s liberation group in particular had the greatest impact on the writing of women’s history and made a conscientious decision to rectify this. Especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s women appearing in history texts significantly increased. Not only has women’s role in academia increased by they’re also being recognised with a month dedicated to celebrating women and feminist movements.


The rise of ‘black’ history

It was not only feminists who challenged mainstream writings of history in the post-war world. A disparate movement springing from America and heavily influenced by its history of slavery, the American Civil Rights Movement and then the Black Power movement profoundly challenged the idea that American society was based on the equalities and liberalism stated in the Declaration of Independence. If this revealed the profoundly racist roots of American society, so too did the anti-colonial struggles and liberation movements of the global South. These simultaneously challenged the idea of empires as bringers of progress and civilisation, and brought to the fore a new wave of intellectuals whose thinking profoundly destabilised established, Western ways of understanding the world and its history. 

Key here were writers such as Franz Fanon – his 1952 Black Skin White Masks revealed how racism shaped white society as much as it did black- with his insight that “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation’. Similarly making a link between Western society and the people it subjugated, Edward Said’s ground-breaking Orientalism argued that the West’s understanding and treatment of other cultures was more revealing of Western society, values and preoccupations than it was a way into understanding the societies under their control.

Taken together these connected movements ranged from radical action to lobbying, and also to reclaiming and rewriting histories of America to include slavery, white racism and oppression, but also pride in their heritage and identity. ‘Race’ as a subject became an intensely controversial subject, one carrying an enormous emotional charge, but a charge which is different on different sides of the Atlantic, where different histories of slavery and empire and its legacy mean the subject carries different resonances in Europe as opposed to America. Just as the Holocaust continues to resonate in multiple ways today, ‘race’ carries enormous emotional power, particularly but not exclusively in the States – some of the books on the reading list demonstrate just how difficult a subject this continues to be in America. Look for example at the contrasting, and highly polemical differences between Race Is a Four-Lettered Word, and The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity.

Britain’s relationship with ‘race’ and hence Black history is both connected to that of the States, and is distinct, and often heavily embedded within understandings of empire and British imperialism. M. Dorothy George was the first modern historian to discuss the presence of Black people in London in the 18th century. Her 1925 book London Life in the Eighteenth Century contained six pages on the subject. We then has to wait until 1948 – the year that the Empire Windrush arrived in Britain when Kenneth Little became the first to look at the history of Black people in Britain as a distinct group.

Although Little’s book mainly detailed the results of a sociological and anthropological survey into the contemporary Black community in Cardiff, there was a chapter containing a brief history of Black people in Britain from the late sixteenth century onwards, which also included an explicit exploration of changing racial attitudes – this then, was the first attempt to historicise racial prejudice, rather than seeing it as constant across society and across time. This book also created a template for subsequent works: a historical survey from 1500, a description of the events leading up to the Mansfield Judgement of 1772, the effect of scientific racism in the 19th century on the development of prejudice and discrimination, and much more detailed work on the involvement of Black people in political movements of the late 19th and 20th century. In the 1960s Edward Scobie developed Little’s work on the history of Black people in England with more detail.

These early works treated Black people as part of the British (or more precisely English) population, not separate from them, marking the British experience out as different to the American. And yet, such was the influence of American scholarship in this field that it often directed the subject matter and analysis of writings in the 1960s and 1970s. So, for example, the Nigerian Folarin Shyllon’s books Black Slaves in Britain (Oxford, 1974) and Black People in Britain 1555–1833 (Oxford, 1977), published for the Institute of Race Relations, had a very different tone from previous works. Shyllon, who was then based in the United States, made assumptions about the experiences of Black people in Britain which cited American writers about slavery and discrimination in the United States. 

The journalist Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984), marked a new direction in British Black history. The chronological structure was similar to that of previous writers but he took a wider view of the subject. Previous historians looked at Black people in Britain as if slavery and poverty were the only things that defined them. Although Fryer, who was a communist, wrote a great deal about slavery and political involvement, he looked beyond them to see how Black people were not stigmatised outsiders but were woven into English society as workers and founders of families.

The NAWSA, a combination of two rival suffrage groups in America realised that they could gain more support and leverage if they adopted a narrower view of suffrage that just involved enfranchisement of white women. Followed the idea of ‘educated suffragist’. That to have the right to vote, being educated was pre-requisite.    

Because of white people's fears about them wielding political power, African-American women found themselves targeted by a number of disenfranchisement methods. These included having to wait in line for up to twelve hours to register to vote, pay head taxes, and undergo new tests. In the South, African-American women faced even more severe obstacles to voting. These obstacles included bodily harm and fabricated charges designed to land them in jail if they attempted to vote.

 


Case Studies

Gypsies, Roma, Travellers and the ‘Gypsiologists’

The late nineteenth century saw a surge in scholarly writing on the Gypsy Traveller population, with the establishment of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1888. The Society’s journal published a mass of research and articles, which historians continue to consult in their research regarding the history of Travellers. Such a sudden outpouring of writing led to an assumption that these people had only just arrived, and quite suddenly, despite having been present in Britain, or Europe, at least since the late sixteenth-century. those who wrote for the journal fashioned themselves as gypsiologists. Their intention was to provide an account of the origins, language and customs of the Traveller population. 

Members of the Gypsy Lore Society: Image Source

Still today, the Society provides one of the most important research collections for any historian interested in the history of the Traveller population in the UK. The privilege of the gypsiologist - typically a white man - gave him the authority to conduct a considerable wealth of research; one writer compared the authority of the gypsiologist among his subjects to “Christ sitting in the midst of his disciples”. Such research would come to be of vital importance to the historian. However, Becky Taylor warns us that the work of the gypsiologist is to be regarded with caution having been “conducted through the heaviest of rose-tinted spectacles”. The gypsiologists were writing a history of the Travellers heavily laden with their very own fantasies and with an agenda. They sought to capture the account specifically of the ‘pure bred’ Gypsy, and this has a very evident influence on their research.

The gypsiologists’s Romantic envisioning of the ‘pure bred’ Gypsy included those who had the ability to speak the Romani language, live a ‘proper’ nomadic lifestyle, sporting a horse and wagon, followed marriage customs and the cleanliness taboos of the Roma people. Many did not live up to this stereotype. Their stories were therefore considered unworthy of publication and simply dismissed. Harte claims the gypsiologists left these people “to the mercy of policemen and the local authorities”. The dismissal of those who did not conform to the gypsiologists notion of what constituted to being a Gypsy Traveller left many, if not the majority, of their stories unheard and unrecorded. The exotic, Romantic story of Travellers therefore dominated historical writing.

Gypsiologists became somewhat obsessed with capturing the story of the ‘pure bred’ Gypsy, looked upon solemnly as a dying race. This was undoubtedly tied in with ideas at the time about Social Darwinism. Breeding with ‘degenerate’ members of the community, ‘half-breeds’ or less, was seen to have tainted the community for the worst. The gypsiologists therefore saw it as their duty to ensure there were records of their lives. The exotic, ‘pure bred’ Gypsy of the gypsiologist however was far from the reality for most Travellers, many of whom lived in peri-urban or urban sites, for at least the winter months, living with and alongside working class communities. The history of the ‘degenerate’ population of the community was not considered worthy of publication. The gypsiologist was therefore able to distance himself from the reality of harsh poverty such as that experienced on Wandsworth Common. The image we get from the gypsiologists is therefore decisively inaccurate; as Becky Taylor wrote, “in attempting to record this world, gypsiologists in fact created another, one which bore little resemblance to the daily reality of Travellers”.

From the writings of the gypsiologists arose some of the most deeply rooted stereotypes concerning the lives of Travellers. One of the most enduring is the idea that Travellers are a separate entity from ‘normal civilians’ - living a very different existence. This is an entirely inaccurate assumption. There is much evidence to suggest that a Travellers everyday lives involved working alongside the rest of the population; in fact, they depended on this relationship economically for its provision of work and trade. The Romantic movement in particular emphasised this idea of Travellers living a separate existence, which was in their eyes far superior to the one lived by the rest of the population. They were viewed upon as the last pre-industrial society, still in touch with nature. Poet, Arthur Symons, believed Travellers “represent nature before civilisation… the last romance left in the world”.

Despite such romanticisms, this was a notion that came to set Travellers in stark opposition to civilisation, and many were also concerned that such a lifestyle would gain appeal from maligners. Industrialisation in the crowded cities meant that the countryside presented a peaceful retreat for many, and so the Traveller supposedly closely relationship with nature led to the idea that they were living an ‘easy life’, without the horrors of modern society impinging on their lives. They came also to be regarded with an air of suspicion, many believing that their way of live allowed them to evade the law with ease.

Adding to this, the State’s lack of information on their society meant that in the twentieth century they came to rely heavily upon the work of the gypsiologists. This only entrenched stereotypes and provided an ideological state for the tool in their repression of this society as an obstacle to a settled society; their lifestyles were seen as being completely incompatible with modern life. 

Gallician Gypsies being moved from Wandsworth common, 1911 © Simon Evans - Stopping Places - A Gypsy history of South London and Kent: 

The result of such selective history presents itself in the stereotypes that were, and still are, widely held concerning gypsies. Even today, the Travellers story remains largely absent from historical writing. Recognition of their losses as the second-largest group of people killed during the Holocaust, for example, went unrecognised until the 1980s. The historical writing of the Traveller provides a very interesting case for the consequences of a group written out of history.

Bibliography

Harte, J. “Romance and the Romany”. History Today, January, 2016.

Mayall, D. “British Gypsies and the State”. History Today, June, 1992.

Taylor, B. Another Darkness, Another Dawn. (London: Reaktion Books, 2014)

Taylor, B. “Britain's Gypsy Travellers: A People on the Outside”. History Today, January 6th, 2011. Accessed February 28, 2016. http://www.historytoday.com/becky-taylor/britains-gypsy-Travellers-people-outside

Further Reading

http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/155822

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2016/01/25/non-jewish-holocaust-victims_n_6500948.html

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/15/acceptable-racism-gypsies-Travellers-prejudice

http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/stereotypes-and-the-state-britains-Travellers-past-and-present


Lepers in Medieval Europe (11th – 15th Century)

According to Elizabeth Ashworth, man has been exposed to leprosy for four-thousand years. Historians have argued over documents that supposedly make reference to leprosy from as early as ancient Greece. The word leprosy itself stems from the ancient Greek for ‘scaled skin’. However, Leprosy first made an appearance in Europe during the early stages of the 11th century and by 1050 its victims were an unsurprising sight in both rural and urban areas. The affliction, known today as ‘Hanson’s disease’, caused the destabilisation of bone structure, resulting in the loss of the nose and fingers amongst other horrific symptoms such as blindness and skin deformity.

It was not uncommon for people to mistake other skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and various forms of cancer for leprosy. Thus, as a result of this medieval ignorance, sufferers of these would often face the same prejudice as lepers.

Thought to be a disease brought back from the Crusades in the Middle East, it was initially regarded as condition for the elites of medieval society. Those who suffered in the early stages of its widespread discovery were often treated with compassion, believing the crippled patients to be undergoing the same torment that had befallen Christ. Whatever the belief, according to Herbert Covey ‘no other human, since the periodic outbreaks of plague and the rise of the HIV epidemic, has provoked stronger social responses’ than those seen towards lepers.

Religious Reaction

With leprosy came a myriad of complicated reactions. If this was truly suffering inflicted by God then was it punishment, or was it perhaps a means through which one could swiftly ascend through the tortures of purgatory having already suffered its horrors? Fear of purgatory ran through the heart of religious devotion in Western Europe. Therefore many were grateful for the chance to be able to reduce their time within its entrapment. Charitable donations would often be made to lepers in the hope that through these good deeds the givers would go straight to heaven after death. However, others perceived the suffering of lepers to be divine punishment for their sins, treating them as unclean. As the pervasiveness of this disease grew, so did this latter route of thinking and the segregation of lepers from the rest of society became a common occurrence.

Segregation from Society

As public opinion of lepers developed over time sufferers were forced to carry a clapper, and later a bell, in public. This would warn others that the leper was coming, giving those around enough time to avoid this person whom they believed was highly contagious. The Mass of Separation forced lepers on the street to undertake vows that prevented them from entering churches or market places as well as inhibiting them from accessing a water-well without gloved hands. Furthermore, according to Ashworth, lepers were also unable to inherit.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Lepers, 1568

Leper Houses

One solution for containing lepers was the construction of leper houses. Not only did this quarantine lepers, segregating them from society, but it also allowed them to be treated in a specialised establishment. There is estimated to have been over 1900 leper houses in Europe. Inhabitants of these houses were forced to take a vow of chastity in order not to succumb to sexual perversion as some believe the disease was sexually transmitted. Most of the leper houses would have stood at the edge of towns, however after the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII reign the majority of these were torn down.

For more information on Leper houses, as well as the mixed reactions that came with leprosy, watch this lecture by Carole Rawcliffe: Leprosia: The Lost Leprosy Hospitals Of London -

Treatments

Various treatments for leprosy were practised during the middle ages. One popular remedy was drinking or bathing in the blood of a virgin or child. This was an act that was symbolic of purity and was perhaps an attempt to declare one’s innocence in the eyes of God.  Other strange remedies included exposing the patient to bee stings and the use of snake venom.

Spiritual care was often regarded as being equally important to medical care and lepers in houses were required to pray in an attempt to cleanse themselves. In most cases, the lepers would be inaugurated into the religious conviction of the house in which they were treated.

Decline of Leprosy

After the Black Death had passed in the 14th century, people were far more aware and concerned about contagion. Thus, lepers, more than ever, were excluded from society and treated poorly. However the disease itself was actually already in declined, most likely due to greater immunity within European populations. Ashworth claims that by the 15th century leprosy had all but disappeared.

Bibliography

Ashworth, Elizabeth, ‘Leprosy in the Middle Ages, 22 July, 2010’, http://elizabethashworth.com/2010/07/22/leprosy-in-the-middle-ages/ (date accessed 29th February 2016).

Covey, Herbert, ‘People with leprosy (Hansen’s disease) during the Middle Ages’, The Social Science Journal, 38, (2001) 315–321.

Demaitre, Luke, Leprosy in premodern medicine: a malady of the whole body, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

Historic England, ‘The Time of Leprosy: 11th Century to 14th Century, 2015’, https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1050-1485/time-of-leprosy/ (date accessed 1st March 2016).

Rawcliffe, Carole, Leprosy in Medieval England (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell P, 2006).


Destroyed Documents – The Norwich Library Fire

Firefighters attempt to control the fire at the Norwich Central Library

Often it can be local history that is seriously overlooked – and can suffer the hardest from document destruction. Documents that are not deemed to be of national importance may be in private hands or may not be kept to the highest safety standards, and the latter is certainly the case with the Norwich library fire which took place twenty-two years ago.

On 1st August 1994, thousands of historic documents were damaged or destroyed in a fire that burned for four hours at Norwich Central Library.

Norwich Central Library held more than two million documents including the 800-year-old Norwich City Charter and manuscripts dating back as far as 1090. While such items were kept in fireproof containers in the library, many became soaked and ruined as fire crews put out the blaze. The American Air Division Memorial Library, a part of the building holding records of Norfolk-based US servicemen who were in and around Norwich during the Second World War, was also completely destroyed.

These records and documents were irreplaceable parts of history, but perhaps overlooked because they only related to a local area. It is even more significant to consider that much of the history contained at the old Norwich Central Library will always be overlooked now that the original manuscripts and documents have been lost forever. The director of Norfolk library services, summed up the importance of these documents and the devastation felt, saying that the loss to the people of Norfolk was on the same scale as if the National Gallery in London had gone up in flames.

The local community obviously identified with these comments as food companies donated refrigerated lorries to freeze-dry waterlogged manuscripts in attempts to save them, and thousands of people donated old books and pictures about Norfolk to replace the lost records. It seems at least for local people that the significance and destruction of Norwich Central Library will never be forgotten – and will never become history that is overlooked.


In what sense is the history of Peasantry a history of the overlooked?

What is the perceived stereotype of a medieval peasant? Peasants are seen as backward, uneducated or stupid and unable to comprehend governmental or legislative process. They are always seen to be the point of starvation; rife with disease and scarce in luxury. Their hobbled and poorly built dwellings sink in the muddy fields they work on with ineffective tools and outdated farming techniques, and all while the richer echelons fleece them for a disproportionate amount of their produce as rent dues. Rags were the only fashion; clothes were made in the community and passed around until they fell apart, where they would then be fixed to some new attire in need of a patch. Village community and family was held in the highest regard, everything was shared and exile was a fate worse than death. Summed up the popular view is that peasant fleeting lives passed hand in hand with constant oppression from the church, gentry, aristocracy, bandits and the state, giving rise to many tales such as that of Robin Hood or William Tell.

Yet an important keystone to the aforementioned stereotype is that hardship was regional. The little ice age had a strong effect on the high-laying areas of Europe such as the Italian Alps, but it had little to no notable effect on the lower lands. Very few wars drew the entire population of Europe into conflict and famine was far from constant, after times of hardship there were often periods of vigorous recovery and rural prosperity that could last for extended periods of time.[1]

Strategies and tools for agricultural work were constantly evolving; from the late medieval period onwards the advantages of manuring was recognised and utilised; ploughing had become commonplace in the French countryside in the second half of the fourteenth century; the number water powered grain mills was constantly increasing and crop rotation was slowly being edited and improved. For example, leguminous plants (pea plants) were introduced to the rotation, supplanting the peasant diet with protein, and allowing a more effective nutrient recovery in worked soil.[2]

While milk, cheese, eggs, butter and bacon were all rare luxuries; poultry and boiled veg made up the staple diet with gruel (to later be replaced with bread). Also on occasion, meats such as pork and beef were eaten. Although the peasant diet was very basic, a lack of luxury should not be confused with the onset of starvation. In relation to this it should also be noted that peasant communities also had an established tradition of vibrant festivals, marriage (As depicted in Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Peasant Wedding’ below) and localised celebrations, often involving excessive drinking and eating. These festivals, such as the ‘beating of the bounds’ ceremony or the Carnival, were common and the European populace would live in anticipation of their arrival.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, depicting one of many celebrations encountered in the peasant lifetime.  Image Source

Peasants were not educated but neither were they ignorant or stupid; to be a peasant was to live in a complex mosaic of laws, obligations, customs and inheritance patterns that had to be constantly managed. Peasants were quick to defend their perceived rights, establishing a range of strategies from petitions and appeals to acts of non-cooperation or reprisal (such as striking, rioting or theft) to maintain a balanced standing with their lord. The Church did wield a significant amount of influence over the community, particularly through the collection of tithes, but this does not mean the church stripped the peasants of all their possessions in payment. The systems that bound peasants to secular or ecclesiastic figures in operation could be lenient, and the rural community would always be very quick to protest if they felt they were being unfairly treated.

Now the question must be asked; why does the peasant stereotype present such a simplified form of the actuality? All four approaches outlined in the introduction are applicable here, and as such all four will be discussed. Firstly, written sources are rarely produced by peasantry as almost all were illiterate. The majority of available literary sources are ecclesiastic or legislative in nature, which for the most part would reflect the peasantry as a common-people that had to be instructed or controlled. Archaeological evidence is heavily relied on for insights into peasant life, yet it can be very poor in areas such as food and clothing where the subject matter is quickly destroyed by the elements. As such there are significant gaps in knowledge of the lives of peasantry which hinder further investigation into the topic.[3]

Another instance of how history can be overlooked is where academics have omitted the subject’s study as they believe it to be of lesser importance. The study of peasantry suffers from this dogma when compared to many other historical instances such as the actions of rulers or the church. As Eric Wolf states study of peasantry or rural history is significantly lacking as ‘the development of civilization has commonly been identified with the development of cities’, because rulers are associated with living in these ‘special centres’. The political emphasis on the history of cities reduces the role of the common peasant worker to one of secondary concern. [4]

Finally, the focal study points of history are often points of conflict or progression, and this often shapes our construction of history. For example, this can be seen when observing periodisation, the Long Nineteenth century is classified as starting with the French Revolution and ending on the onset of the First World War, instead of within the parameters of the actual nineteenth century. Examples of other study focal study-points are 1066, Agincourt (1415) or the civil war and interregnum period (1648-1660). The advent of new social histories is now contesting this dominance of history on ‘great events’. But the current emphasis on political or religious events in medieval history culminates in the peasantry often being featured in the historical spotlight at times of war where they are beset with heavy tax burdens, widespread dislocation and famine. Peasantry is overlooked because very few historians are willing to (or able to with sufficient evidence) move outside of the established boundaries. Peasantry is a broad term applied to a class which has existed from the middles ages to the modern era, across all the diverse nations of Europe. In order to truly separate the history of peasantry from the annals of the overlooked more focused study of peasantry should be done in specific nationalistic or ethnic areas, in more concentrated time periods. This study must also be done outside the lens of great events, without the view that other historical instances are more important and study must be done with an open mind, disregarding the modern popular image of a universal European peasant.

[1] Scott T., ‘The Peasantries of Europe: From the Fourteenth to Eighteenth Centuries’, (London: Longman, 1998), pp23-26

[2] Duby G., ‘Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West’, (Great Britain: Robert Cunningham and Sons Ltd, 1968), P104

[3] Rösener W., ‘Peasants in the Middle Ages’, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), p85

[4] Wolf E. R., ‘Peasants’, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p1


Publisher’s dispute over the ‘Comfort women’ textbook.