History From the Bottom Up
Updated: May 15
"All history must be mobilized if one would understand the present."
- Fernand Braudel, French Historian
When I was in high school some forty years ago, what I was taught about the American Revolution was about the great men: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. And the great events: the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress, Lexington-Concord. It was the broad, sweep of history. Soon afterward, as a college student at the University of Michigan, I took a class on the history of the American Revolution. The class was different. It altered the viewpoint. We didn't focus on great men or great battles. We learned of them but within a totally different context. One of our readings was John C. Dann's The Revolution Remembered. The government had established a program of pensions and bounty lands for Revolutionary War veterans or their widows. Part of the application process was to describe what capacity they served. Many of these applications became lengthy accounts of an individual soldier's experience. Dann scoured through the National Archives to gather up several of these pension records. His book is not about generals or statesmen. It gives a first-hand account of the common soldier, many of whom were simple farmers or craftsmen, and tells the story of the war from their perspective. Another book we read was The Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley by Adrian Leiby. Hackensack lay between the Continental army occupying the Jersey Highlands and the British troops occupying New York City. This is the story of the Revolution at a local level. We glimpse the fierce division among the colonists between loyalty to the crown and support for the patriot cause. We glimpse a community torn by old political, geographical, social divides wrapped in the new clothing of Revolution. I began to understand that history was more than great men or great events.
Perhaps more pivotal in my maturity as a historian was having read Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. This is a biography of a village in the French Pyrenees at the start of the 14th century. This region was the epicenter of Catharism which was deemed a heresy by the Catholic Church. The area was subject to an inquisition and then a crusade by the French crown with support from the church. From the inquisition records, Ladurie pieces together an intimate portrait of the lives and beliefs of the people who inhabited this small village. This was my first true exposure to history from below. I haven't viewed history the same since.
Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning historian at the University of Pittsburgh, defines history from below as an approach to the past “that concentrates not on the traditional subjects of history, not the kings and the presidents and the philosophers, but on ordinary working people, not simply for what they experienced in the past but for their ability to shape the way history happens.”
Those who ascribe to the history from below school of thought seek to recover the voices of those who don't appear in traditional historical narratives: the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the poor, the oppressed, the nonconformists.
French historian, Lucian Febvre, in 1932, first articulated "histoire vue d'en bas et non d'en haut" (history seen from below and not from above). The phrase came to the forefront during the 1960s and popularized with non-historians through Howard Zinn's 1980 A People's History of the United States. (The book remains controversial even today. Critics have accused Zinn of swinging the pendulum the other way in that he overly idealizes his subject matter. Conservatives have railed against Zinn's book since its publication angry at his apparent critique of American exceptionalism.)
Febvre was one of the founding fathers of the Annales school of history in France. (Named after their publication entitled Annales d'histoire économique et sociale) It was from the Annales school that history from below emerged. There are three main themes to the Annales philosophy. First, they attempted to grasp the totality of historical periods or societies. They saw history as a cohesive whole that encompassed all of the human experience. Second, that there are factors outside of man himself, such as geography and climate, that have an effect upon history. There is an interdependence between internal and external forces. Third, they employed the analytical methods of other social sciences such as economics and statistics.
It was Fernand Braudel who became perhaps the most influential of the Annales school through his seminal work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Braudel, born in 1902, spent his school-age years in Paris. He graduated from the Sorbonne, and in 1923 became a history professor at the University of Algiers. It was during this time in Algeria that he became interested in the Mediterranean Sea and the Spanish influence in the region. In 1932, he was asked to establish the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil.
On his way back to Paris in 1937, he met Lucian Febvre who brought Braudel into the Annales school. When WWII broke out, Braudel was captured by the Germans and spent the duration of the war as a POW. While a prisoner, he began working on The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. He did not have access to a library or any records. Therefore, he compiled his notes from his prodigious memory. Initially, the focus of his work was on Philip II, the king of Spain during much of the 16th century and the height of Spain's power and influence. As he progressed, Braudel began to see a much larger picture. Philip II's policies were not isolated but connected to geographic, economic, and social conditions. He saw this particularly in the shift of Spain's foreign affairs from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean in the 1580s.
Braudel said, "History may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly and what appears not to move at all." The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, first published in 1947, is divided into three parts which represent beautifully his approach to history. The first is man's relationship to his geography and climate. This is the slow, imperceptible creep of history. The second is the change of social norms, culture, and history of different societies. Finally, there is the history of events and individuals. This is the traditional history that Braudel calls "surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs." It is only in the third part of his work that he gets to his original subject of Philip II. What Braudel achieved was the placing of human history within a larger context. This work would become the exemplar of the Annales philosophy, and he emerged in the post-war years as the leading voice in the Annales school of thought.
He emphasized the lives and contributions of marginal people - slaves, serfs, urban poor. He drew upon other social sciences and advocated for the concept of the longue duree - long term historical patterns. (His follow up work Civilization and Capitalism in the 15th-18th centuries is a prime example of this approach.) He had a profound influence on the study of history and set the stage for the shift from looking at individuals to world-systems. He once wrote, "the biographical method is in danger of misleading us...It is dangerous to fit historical judgment into the narrow frame of human lives, however, spectacular, however commanding those lives may be."
Today there is a cadre of historians who seek to expand upon Braudel's legacy. They seek to push the concept of "history from below", originally the history of peasants, artisans, and radicals, to the notion of "history from the bottom up", a more inclusive, more comprehensive view that brings in other groups - slaves, women, LGBTQ - into the field of vision of historians. At the end of the musical Hamilton, the cast sings "And when you're gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?" History from the bottom up is about telling the stories of those in the past who had no voice, about breathing life into the lives of ordinary people. History is not always about great men or great deeds.
There have been three great influences on my own personal approach to history. Barbara Tuchman inspired me in the writing of history. Will Durant showed me the broad, sweep of history. But it was Fernand Braudel and "history from below" that exposed me to the depth and complexity of history.
Further examples of history from the bottom up:
The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic: Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh
The Making of the English Working Class: E.P. Thompson
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th Century Miller: Carlo Ginzberg
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration: Isabel Wilkerson
In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692: Mary Beth Norton