Why cultural history? 1: History and political agendas

In a recent post on gender history Jon Jarrett was referring to a question that Guy Halsall raised a few years ago: does every form of history nowadays end up becoming cultural history? I think it’s certainly true that current research on medieval history is particularly prone to ending up as cultural history (and I’ll explore why that is in a separate post). What I want to discuss now is another aspect of this: the fact that for most historians (and certainly medieval historians) writing cultural history is the most effective way of having any political impact.

Jon’s remarks came together in my head with something else I’ve recently been reading: a chapter by John Tosh, ‘The history of masculinity: an outdated concept?’, in Sean Brady and John H. Arnold (eds.), What is masculinity? Historical dynamics from antiquity to the contemporary world (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 17-34. (This is the proceedings of a conference I went to at Birkbeck College in 2008, and I also have a chapter in the book).

Tosh is very much a modernist, although he just about acknowledges the existence of early modern history. His main argument is that the cultural turn that the studies of masculinity and gender has now taken means that the field has lost the political edge that it had in the 1970s, when it formed part of the “men’s movement” with (p. 25) “its quest for a good past and an inspiring role models”. In contrast, Tosh claims: “Analysing the masculinities of the past as cultural constructs…conveys the unfortunate impression that historical scholarship has little or nothing to contribute to today’s agenda.”

This depoliticisation is an issue that Judith Bennett also worries about in her analysis of women’s history, History Matters. But I think in both cases, these very distinguished historians seem to be ignoring the extent to which the political situation has changed since the 1970s.

As a medievalist, Judith Bennett has a particularly difficult time making the claim that the socio-economic history she studies still speaks to modern feminist concerns (although her discussion of women’s work is relatively effective in doing so). Tosh (p 22) speaks of how women’s history retains a non-academic audience, but if you look at Amazon’s 100 best-selling books on women’s history, there’s only one that’s specifically on the Middle Ages (Judith Herrin’s Women in Purple at number 98).

As for the history of masculinity, Tosh gives two examples of topics where he feels that a greater emphasis on lived social experience would make the subject have more political impact and more appeal to non-historians. One is that imperial history should look more at the experience of British colonial emigrants. The second is that studies of fatherhood (by which Tosh effectively means nineteenth century fatherhood) should focus less on prescriptive texts and more on practice. He quotes approvingly a study by David Roberts on 168 governing class Victorian families.

Both these topics may prove fascinating studies in themselves, but it’s hard to see how they are going to affect contemporary male practice. Tosh talks (p 31) about how the “nature of the imperial commitment” affects “how the British evaluate their imperial record today”, but the argument about the aftermath of the British Empire is normally conducted at a far more pragmatic level. Did those ruled by Britain actually benefit from this (as Niall Ferguson, among others is prone to claim)?

Again, Tosh’s views that what contemporary debates on fatherhood really need is examples of Victorian practice seem odd. In the 1960s and 1970s it may well have been the case that past examples of non-conforming fathers were an important resource for men trying to invent a new way of living. Forty years later, if you want to see non-conforming fathers, whether they’re house-husbands or gay three-parent families, they’re all around you.

Tosh’s reference to “a good past” as well as role models, however suggests that what is still significant is not simply individual examples, but socially widespread ones. Or in other words, what he’s looking for is societies with a different culture of masculinity, which is where someone like me comes in. My book on Carolingian masculinity is unashamedly a work of cultural history, but it is also one that has an (admittedly muted) political agenda: to show that the culturally dominant forms of masculinity in a society are not eternal, but historically variable.

I still remember at one of the first seminars on women’s history I ever went to someone saying that the real enemy of the history of women and gender was evolutionary psychology: an emphasis on male and female behaviour as eternal and fundamentally unchangeable. In order to combat that you don’t just need examples of individual “non-conforming” men, because they can be written off as (evolutionarily unsuccessful) aberrations. You need to show that entire societies officially subscribed to the belief that women were “naturally” more lustful than men were, or that boys should be dressed in pink.

I’ve been talking about gender and women’s history here, but in fact I’d argue for a wider claim. To the extent that medievalists want their work to be politically relevant, they have to focus on cultural history, rather than political history or socio-economic history. The number of counter-examples is surprisingly small. How many political events are there from 500-1500 that still have important effects on today’s Europe, for example? I think you could argue for the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the rise of Islam and the Crusades, but after that I’d say that you’re rapidly down to events of relatively minor impact, as compared to say the Reformation, the French Revolution or World War I.

Similarly, how much can people in the twenty-first century West usefully learn about alternative social and economic structures from the examples of pre-industrial societies, or ones with widespread illiteracy, or where messages could move at no more than 30 km a day? That isn’t to deny that studying such societies is of interest, but that it is hard to show the political relevance of such research.

In contrast, there is far more continuity in some aspects of cultural history. Ideas on women (or gay people) that date from thousands of years ago are still widely influential. Augustine’s views on just war are still being debated by non-historians; how ethnic identities develop or are created is a live topic. If (western) medievalists do want to influence current political debates, then, whatever their personal research interests, they may have to become cultural historians in order to do so.

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2 thoughts on “Why cultural history? 1: History and political agendas

  1. Hi Magistra

    I have been following your blog for some time now and find it thoroughly stimulating.

    As one who is trying to bring forgotten history to light through fiction, I think your observation is so right and applies to all who seek to make the past politically relevant in the present: the need to focus on cultural history.

    I also have a counter-example of a non-political event with major culturohistorical significance (did I just make up a new word?), in my area of interest (which also happens to correspond to the period covered by Herrin’s book Women in the Purple which you cite).

    I am talking about the reigns of several Roman (Byzantine) empresses (Irene, Theodora and, I suspect, Eudokia Ingerina, wife of Basil I) in the late 8th-9th centuries, who really turned the tables on a dying regime ancien (manifest through the doctrine of iconoclasm).

    Their actions gave rise to a tremendous flowering of culture and learning both in Byzantium and, I suspect, in the West, in one way or another. The main cultural events from a modern perspective are probably the development of written language for the slavic peoples and the reestablishment of universities and interest in learning (Justinian had shut practically all of Christendom’s universities down in the fifth century).

    From the Roman perspective it was probably more about keeping the flame of Christianity burning in eastern europe (through the restoration of icon worship and suppression of heresies and infidels to the east).

    Thanks again for a great blog!

    Achilleas Mavrellis

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  2. I think I am coming at ‘doing’ the history of masculinities from a somewhat different perspective, at least from that of John Tosh. What I am doing (or attempting to do!) is apply gender (and postcolonial) theory to a cultural history of longer-lived political systems and structures, rather than to specific social or ‘cultural’ practices. I’m certainly not focusing on masculinity in an attempt to find male role models from the past, nor am I primarily interested in the actions of individual men (or women, for that matter), although that of course forms the raw matter of my evidence. My approach to the application of gender in the study of history has been much influenced by the work of Joan Scott, and I really want to resist the, to my mind, very artifical division of ‘cultural’ history from ‘political’ history. (I’m probably preaching to the converted here…)

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