Why Local History Matters
Dr Jonathan Healey
Lecture delivered at the Oxford University Department for
Continuing Education, 14 November 2012
Dr Jonathan Healey is University Lecturer in Local and Social History at
Oxford University. He is based at the Oxford University Department for
Continuing Education and is a Fellow of Kellogg College.
My talk today is going to start with one of the two greatest publications in
the English language. I’m going to talk to you about what local history is,
and why I think it matters so much, not just as something that’s fun and
engaging – because merely waving your eyes at the internet can tell you
that – but as something that is academically important, and by this I mean
that it helps in the broad quest towards understanding the world, and the
human position within that world.
So, what are the two greatest publications in the English language? Well, I
don’t want to jump the gun on my colleagues in English, but I say stuff
Dickens: long funny names, poor people, pickpockets, whatever. And who
really cares about Milton? Shakespeare? Man dresses up as woman, woman
dresses up as man, they all live happily ever after; unless you are a king –
no, when you get near to power in Shakespeare, you die, and everyone
hates you, and it’s really really sad.
Nope, I’m not referring to any of these jokers. The first of my two greatest
publications in the history of English, well, history, is the greatest ever
periodical. It is, of course, the Westmorland Gazette.
Now, the ‘Wezzy Gezzy’, as it’s called in my part of the world, is just
wonderful. It’s a newspaper so local, that the county it’s named after doesn’t
even exist anymore. It’s a newspaper so rural that whereas you used to get
‘spot the ball’ competitions in most papers, Kendal’s greatest broadsheet
proudly peddles its own version. Instead of a melee of footballers in a
goalmouth scramble looking up at a missing ball, it shows a picture of a
field of sheep, and eagle-eyed readers are expected to judge the position of
the missing sheep-dog from the formation of the beasts.
But it’s not the ‘spot the dog’ that I most treasure about the Wezzy Gezzy –
it’s the wonderful local-ness of the headlines. Recent front-pages on the
newspaper’s website (yes, it has one) have included, ‘Car wing-mirrors
vandalized in Ulverston’; ‘Petrol leak at pump station’; and the now
legendary, ‘Chair destroyed’, which story explained: ‘An office chair was
destroyed after it was set on fire on the grassy area, off Maude Street,
Kendal this afternoon’. It is, as the editor somewhat defensively noted after
this story hit the nationals, a ‘low-crime area’.
Sometimes, though, things get a bit more serious. An ominous story a few
weeks ago had ‘Woman reports seeing body floating in the River Lune’,
although nothing has yet been found. Current theories suggest the object,
watched by the witness from a passing train, might just have been a treetrunk. Even the US election has featured, with the headline of Thursday 27th
of September asking, ‘Is the ghost of Mitt Romney’s ancestor haunting
Probably not, one suspects.
But there is a serious point here, which is that local things tend to be looked
down upon, particularly by those who live and work in the biggest local
community of all: metropolitan London.
I don’t think it is too much to say that – up to a point – when you put the
word ‘local’ in the title of something, it gives it a bad name. It conjures up
images of parochialism, obscurity, and irrelevance. A ‘local celebrity’ is
inevitably viewed as somewhat laughable; local news always less
interesting than national.
So what is local history? And is it really parochial – something to entertain
the amateurs while the professionals get on with the real business?
The distant origins of the
subject in England lay in the
medieval past, and probably
even earlier. People have
always lived in places, and they
quite often understood the
landscape they inhabited in
terms of its place in a grand
narrative of time. Rocks, bumps,
old earthworks, were ascribed
Brent Knoll (Somerset): ancient remains held local
meanings in which history
meanings for medieval people, even when their
shaded into legend and faith.
origin was hardly understood. Photo: Steven
The saints were a constant
presence in the landscape; as
were the actions of humans now gone, like the mythical ‘Old Man’, to whom
was ascribed old mineworks in the Derbyshire Peak District, for example.
In London, when the city moved under Viking threat back within the
Roman Walls, the area of previous settlement, just to the west of the new
city, came to be known as the ‘Old Market-Town’, or in the language of time
‘Ald-wych’: Aldwych. There is evidence from archaeologists that AngloSaxons co-opted pre-Roman burial mounds as part of their own spirituality,
suggesting they forged links with their local past. Come the high middle
ages, Christian writers would attempt to trace the stories and deeds of their
local saints. And it was not just saints either, who had a real presence in the
medieval landscape: on a visit to the south-west in 1113, a group of French
monks were told, proudly, by locals, that they were in ‘Arthur country’.
The real origins of modern local history lay, however, not in such fanciful
meetings between legend and the landscape, but in the more systematic
writings of those who lived under the Tudors and the Stuarts.
Now, there are really many, many reasons why wealthy men in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed an interest in the histories
of the various communities of the realm; but I’m going to highlight just two.
Firstly, this was a period in which the landscape and topography of England
was undergoing quite drastic and possibly unprecedented change. Part of it
was economic, with vast shifts in fortune between towns: Coventry and
York were on the decline, and new centres of influence were emerging in
places like Birmingham and Manchester. The countryside was changing
too, though the writers of the age were much more interested in the stately
homes of the landscape than the enclosures, the disappearing villages, or
even the new crops that were springing up.
But perhaps the most important element was that understandings of the
landscape were changing: the Reformation effectively, at least as far as the
literate elite were concerned, purged the saints, the holy wells, the holy
trees, and the sacred stones from the landscape. As a result, such things
were interpreted not as spiritual and mystical landmarks, but as human
relics of the past: of the Romans, or of the Ancient Britons.
The second issue was one of pride: local pride. And it was pride that came,
oddly enough, out of government. The Tudor and Stuart state was one of
the most ambitious in history: it legislated about everything from the
length of apprenticeships to what clothes people could wear. It taxed the
English to unheard of levels, managed law courts that attracted a greater
proportional volume of business than at any other time in our history; and
it created the first national system of social security in the world. All this
depended on the co-operation of local gentlemen. These were the men who
managed the behemoth that was Tudor and Stuart government; and the
main arena they governed in was the county. This was where their law
courts sat, where they decided on how to divide the burden of taxation, and
it was the most important location for setting poor law policy.
And this role in government gave them real pride in their county. They
bought the new maps by Christopher Saxton or John Speed, and they took
an interest in the old monuments of their county. Perhaps they bought a
copy of one of the greatest works of English scholarship in the whole of
history: William Camden’s Britannia – a county by county compendium of
surviving relics of the
past that is every bit the
forerunner of the
modern-day guide for
the historical traveller.
At this time, the way
local history was
thought of was
essentially what we
would call ‘antiquarian’.
By this I mean that it
John Speed’s Map of Oxfordshire (1611): the explosion of
aimed to catalogue
mapping in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
surviving old things
reflected not just improved techniques, but growing local
and county pride amongst the English gentry.
rather than analysing
their place in the wider
human history of a place. And as the political conflicts of the seventeenth
century faded into history, and as the market for books and histories
expanded dramatically into the eighteenth and nineteenth, this was the
kind of local history that was produced.
The antiquarians shared a passion for preserving the surviving records of
the past: they were like collectors, throwing together a diversity of
artefacts: sometimes these were physical remains, sometimes they were
traditions, yet other times they came in the form of documents. Their
writing often did little to convey the motions of historical change;
sometimes it quite happily jumped from discussions of hillforts, to Civil
War destruction, to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, back through
medieval charters to the Romans. They focused also on the wealthy: they
were much more interested in the transition of ownership of a particular
manor than they were in the rhythms of daily life: of farming, of trading, of
birth, marriage and death.
Of course, such an approach was more suited to the culture of the Georgian
and Victorian ages than it was to the twentieth century, and so the last
hundred years or so have seen a great shift in the way scholars have
approached the local past. In fact, it is only really in the modern world that
‘local history’ in the sense that I mean it, and in the sense that we study it
here at Oxford, developed.
The origins of the study of this modern, scientific local history lay not just
with the antiquarian tradition stretching back to Camden and the Tudors,
but also with the development of the relatively new discipline of social
history, sometimes erroneously defined as ‘history with the politics left
out’, but really the history of the peoples’ everyday interactions with one
another, and how these have changed through time. Partly influenced by
socialism, often the Christian socialism of men like Richard Tawney as
much as Marxist socialism, but perhaps more fundamentally influenced by
democracy, the emergence of social history was the most exciting
development to hit the historical discipline in modern times. It meant a
dramatic challenge to the view that history comprised ‘kings and battles’,
or ‘past politics’; it wrote the ordinary man (and increasingly woman and
child) back into the human story.
As social history began to make its presence amongst the academic
community felt, local history began to gain traction too. Reading University
appointed a research fellow in local history as early as 1908, while the
University of Leicester created the first professorship in the subject in
1964, the honour going to HPR Finberg.
The pioneering position of Leicester is no coincidence, for there had, over
the middle decades of the twentieth century, developed there a culture of
scientific enquiry into the history of English local communities, and they
had opened their department of local history in 1947. The key personality
here was W.G. Hoskins, a Devonian economic historian who was then
pioneering the in-depth study of both local communities and the
development of the English landscape. His greatest work, The Making of the
English Landscape, hit the shelves in 1955, and remains one of the most
wonderful works of history today, even if many of its arguments are long
out of date.
But his legacy at Leicester was perhaps equally important to us today, for
the in-depth study of English communities, particularly looking back to the
medieval and early-modern past, became embedded in the academic
mainstream in the 1960s and ‘70s. We now call it the ‘Leicester School’, and
in its most hardcore form it tended to focus on the economic and social
structural history of individual places. But really the influence was far
wider-ranging than that, for even many historians who would never
consider themselves ‘local’ historians (and I would put myself, partly, in
this category), did local history. They wrote county studies of the impact of
the Civil War, of the Reformation, or of crime, or of sexual behaviour and its
regulation. In fact, if we were to take a tour of some of the introductory
textbooks I set my students of British history here at Oxford, the striking
thing is how often the people who wrote them began their careers with
some kind of local study.
Teaching social history, I set textbooks by Keith Wrightson and Jim Sharpe,
both wonderful, lively and thoroughly scholarly books. Sharpe’s first work
was a study of crime in Essex; Wrightson began his career with a doctorate
comparing puritanism in Essex and Lancashire and then moved on to
produce two highly influential village micro-studies, one looking at
Whickham on the Newcastle coalfield, the other – the most influential –
looking at social relations in the Essex village of Terling.
Nor is this confined to social history, either. When I teach the Reformation,
I set them Christopher Haigh’s English Reformations. Haigh is one of the
most important and radical revisionist historians of the sixteenth century:
his first book was on the Reformation in Lancashire. Or Diarmaid
MacCulloch: now one of our most highly respected academics, whose
History of Christianity TV series won huge acclaim in 2009, making a
successful transition from BBC4 to BBC2. His first book was an excellent
study of Tudor Suffolk.
And scholarship of the British Civil Wars of the middle of the seventeenth
century is dominated by people who have done local studies. Take John
Morrill, again, one of the greatest historians of the period alive today, and a
revisionist of huge academic importance. He began his career with a study
of the Civil War in Cheshire. In fact, I was really heartened to read an
interview with Professor Morrill, in which he explicitly described his
doctorate as being in local history.
So why is it that local history has had such a profound impact on academic
history in the second half of the twentieth century? What is it about the
discipline that has allowed it to launch so many scholarly careers?
One of the reasons is purely practical: in the short timespan that you have
to complete a doctorate, the local study is achievable; national surveys of –
say – crime would simply be impossible. But this is not the whole story.
Local studies are important also for two more scholarly reasons. First, they
reflect the social reality that our lives are lived out in particular localities:
our place in the geography of the world is a major determinant of our lives
in that world. Second, local studies allow a degree of depth that simply isn’t
possible in more wide-ranging studies. It allows us to get ‘under the skin’ of
a historical community, to understand peoples’ relations to one another in
much more detail than if we had simply seen them is part of a faceless mass
of national statistics.
Taking the first of these, the point that local history is important because, to
our daily lives, locality is importance. Historians have recognized that even
in a society as nationally unified as England was (at least from Tudor times
and quite probably from much further back in time), where you lived was a
critical determinant of your social life. If you lived in London, for example,
your access to print, and to the consumer goods of the opening global
trades such as coffee and tea, were much greater. But your physical place in
the geography of the world also meant you were more likely to live in
overcrowded accommodation, much more likely to die of the plague,
indeed, much more likely to live a shortened, sick existence than if you
lived in the countryside. Your location dictated your economic prospects: in
Devon the economy was dominated by cattle, Norfolk by sheep and corn. If
you lived in Yorkshire you wove worsted, if in Lancashire you made fustian.
Sometimes, such differences influenced social life more broadly. Cloth
towns had more contact with the wider world than agricultural villages, so
they were more likely to come into contact with new ideas from outside. In
the North, it was the textile-working areas that embraced the Protestant
Reformation and the cause of Parliamentarianism more quickly than the
agricultural ones. One historian of the Civil War, David Underdown, has
even suggested that minute differences in local ecology could create
profound ones in local culture. It’s a question, he argues, of chalk and
cheese. In the chalk hills of his area: Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset,
agriculture was based on large co-operate arable fields, under the thumb of
the local gentleman. Such communities, which were clustered in proper
villages, tended to be close-knit and conservative. In the cheese country,
where farms were scattered across the countryside, and there were few
complex co-operative fields, attitudes were more individualist: people were
more capitalist, more free-thinking, and more likely to embrace religious
radicalism and the parliamentary cause. So Underdown argued.
So location is of crucial significance, but my second point is just as
important: and it is in essence that local history is a method as well as a
subject. It is a way of seeing.
It is a microscopic way of seeing: it allows us to peer deep into past
societies and to see their very DNA. At the beginning, I described the
Westmorland Gazette as one of the two greatest ever publications in the
English language, and I’m sure you’re eagerly wondering what the second
is; well, I can now – exclusively – reveal that it is a small book, written by a
small farmer from Shropshire at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The man in question is Richard Gough, and the book is his history of his
village: Myddle. It uses the parish church as its hook, taking each pew in
turn and telling the stories of the family that occupied it. We learn of their
lives, their loves, their crimes and their foibles. It is wonderfully detailed.
Yes, it is parochial, but by being so it can probe deeper than any widerranging history. Its aim is to describe human nature, as shown by the lives
of Gough’s neighbours; you’ll have to read it yourselves to judge whether it
succeeds, but I think it is safe to say that it provides one of the most vivid
and startling pictures of life in any pre-modern society I know of. Its glory
is in the detail, in the fact we can get to know the characters it describes.
In fact, Gough’s History of Myddle is a distant precursor of what is now a
well-worn academic form: the micro-study. In the last thirty or forty years,
historians have begun to recognize the very real academic value of looking
at the past through a microscope. Individual court cases, one-off events,
and the lives of obscure men and women have been the subject for some of
the most influential of historical studies. And here the key influence here
has not so much been local history, but anthropology. It may perhaps not
be obvious at first, but anthropologists and local historians are really
academic bedfellows. They both employ the microscopic approach. They
both probe deep into local communities to see how they work. It’s just that
anthropologists go and live in the local community of their study, local
historians have to relive it through documents.
Perhaps the most influential anthropological work for social historians has
been Clifford Geertz’s classic study of a cockfight in Bali. He employed a
technique known as ‘thick description’ in which a particularly striking
event, in this case a Balinese cockfight, is picked over in exhaustive detail,
drawing out the significance of the tiniest of actions or turns of phrase.
Historians picked up on this, and some of the most widely-read social and
cultural histories have employed something akin to Geertz’s ‘thick
description’. There’s Natalie Zemon Davis’s classic short book on The
Return of Martin Guerre, which analyses an extremely peculiar but wellknown incident of marital complexity in sixteenth-century France. Or Carlo
Ginzberg’s study of the cultural world of an individual miller in sixteenthcentury Italy, The Cheese and the Worms, which introduced the strange and
attractive cosmos of poor Menochio to historians. Or Robert Darnton’s
essay on what appears to be a ritualized execution by apprentices of their
mistress’s cats in pre-Revolutionary France, ‘The Great Cat Massacre’. All
these classic texts deploy close analysis of a particular event in a particular
place to excavate much wider themes.
And of course there is Montaillou. Some of you may have heard of, or even
read Montaillou, by the great French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. It
is a study of a small village in the Pyrenees around the start of the
thirteenth century. The village was one of the last centres of Catharism, a
medieval heresy strong in the south of France, and as a result it suffered
heavily at the hands of the Inquisition. But what was a dreadful tragedy for
the villagers presented a great opportunity for Ladurie, for he was able to
use the Inquisitor’s interrogations to reconstruct in great detail the social
and mental worlds of the peasants of this remote corner of Languedoc.
Montaillou is one of the great canonical works of medieval social history,
but it is also a brilliant example of the local historian’s art, of the historical
microscope as a way of seeing the past.
I hope I’ve convinced you that local history, in the sense of the scientific
pursuit of the human story of particular places, is of academic importance.
But I want to leave you with a thought that is rather more political.
Sometimes I worry about the future of social history, or at least the social
history I’ve grown to love: the history of the ordinary, the everyday; the
real struggles and triumphs of ordinary people through the ages. Today’s
academy is increasingly in a thrall to the discourse, to the literary
representation of things rather than the things themselves. Social history
has taken a ‘linguistic turn’, which has taken it deep into the back alleys of
the published world: too often, to the English early-modernist, the printed
output of a select group of London authors is taken as indicative of the
culture of the age. I worry, too, that our own society’s obsession with
celebrity represents the turning of our backs on the democratic: on the
ordinary men, women and children who make up our world, and who
really make it work. In a recent talk by Philippa Gregory, a hugely
successful author of historical fiction, she was challenged on the grounds
that her stories about aristocratic women essentially wrote out the vast
majority of humans from history. She responded that the lives of peasants
were less interesting than those of the aristocracy.
And how many times do we watch Who Do You Think You Are? to find that
the focus is not on the lives of the farmers, the coalminers, and the textile
workers, but on some obscure connection to royalty or some great man. It’s
all, I think, a symptom of our celebrity obsession: the rich, the famous and
the powerful are somehow more interesting than the grassroots: the real
people who till the fields, raise and educate the children, manage the
businesses and work the shifts that actually keep our species going and
This worries me, not just because it cuts against my own historical
interests, but because it is profoundly anti-democratic. So, every time you
watch The Tudors (which, in fairness, is nowhere near as bad as it could
have been), or David Starkey, or follow some celebrity’s family roots into
the dark corridors of power, or read an historical novel about aristocrats;
think about the ordinary folk who are being written out of the story by our
own modern prejudice against the everyday. Think of the peasants who
grew the grain that made the King’s ale, of the poor northern clergyman
whose world is turned upside down by the break with Rome, of the
ordinary women who can no longer venerate their saints. When you visit
some National Trust stately home, almost always the house of an aristocrat,
think not just
the King or the
thinking of the
houses of the
Corfe Castle (Dorset): A famous castle, slighted during the Civil War. But
the village of Corfe also contains some wonderful vernacular buildings –
testimony to the many local people who lived their lives in the shadow of
the great castle. Photo: Jim Champion
drove past in
the nearby village, notice the memorials to the churchwardens, or the box
for donations to the poor, in the parish church. Think about the village that
was cleared to make way for the landscape garden; notice the ancient lanes
that generations of peasants drove their animals through; look closely at
even something as mundane as the fields themselves. Look at the field
boundaries, are they straight, or do they curve, or do they appear utterly
random? Maybe some of the pasturelands still have the earthworks of the
medieval ridge and furrow, an old field system that was worked over by
generations of peasants trying to make a living in a world without much
technology, where organic farming was the only way, where everything
was recycled. This is human history: it tells a story as important as kings
and their battles, as aristocratic women, as royal bastards. It is our story:
our story as a species.
But as I worry about this, I’m also hugely heartened. Because although the
academy seems to think that the study of the printed words of Londoners
can pass for social history, there are literally thousands of people out there
writing local histories which are profoundly democratic. Some of them are
simply writing their family tree: constructing new personal identities full of
generations of ordinary farmers, and weavers, and shopkeepers, and
coalminers. Genealogy, for all the concerns that academics have about its
rigour (and many family historians are sadly not very rigorous), is a
profoundly, and wonderfully democratic pursuit. But also, there has never
been more local history available. Local history websites, and publications,
are of hugely varied quality of course, but they are there. And this gives me
huge hope, for I am now confident that if the academy turns its back on the
people, in favour of the rich, the powerful, the literate and metropolitan,
then the people themselves: the most dedicated local historians there are,
will keep the flame burning.
If academics, even social historians, forget that most people in history have
not been Kings, Queens, or celebrities; then we local historians might be the
only ones holding on to this knowledge.
Local history is not just a wonderful tool for understanding the past, it is
the people’s history: this is why it matters.