European Social History

European Social History is the academic study of the lives of Europe's ordinary, or common, people.

Prior to the 19th century, there was no such thing as European social history because, by definition, the "lower orders" were of no historical interest. Neither was the bourgeoisie considered history-worthy. History was about the upper classes, dynasties, wars, churches and great men. Women were of even less interest than peasants. Joan of Arc, the heroine of France, was as much a cautionary figure for brave and active women as she was a role model for them.

In comparison to, for example, American social history, European social history is extremely rich for two reasons.

The first is the great antiquity of European history, which has been documented as far back as 1300 BCE, by records from the Palace of Knossos in a script called Linear B. Although the Roman empire in the West collapsed in 476 CE, early Christian churches, particularly monasteries, served as centers of learning and record-keeping. Priests and monks often served as clerks and scribes to the nobility, who tended to consider learning effeminiate; women were generally considered incapable and unworthy of formal education.

Second, few European countries have been subject to foreign invasion and the destruction of their indigenous institutions, either by invaders or their own hand, to the same extent as many other cultures, including Africa, China and the entire American hemisphere. Therefore, Europe has a very modern, industrialized, consumer-based, liberally democratic culture co-existing alongside artifacts of much earlier eras, such as a vestigial secular aristocracy and state clergy. Britain is an excellent example of this: In 2011, the country has a hereditary queen, and her son and grandsons are in line for the throne while the Archbishop of Canterbury is head of the Church of England, the national church. Russia, which is part of Europe, is an exception: The ferocity with which Russians exterminated their royalty, nobility and priesthood after the 1917 revolution means that modern Russian social history is relatively simple compared to, for example, modern German social history.

European social history, the study of the different classes that make up society and how they interact and conflict, came into its own with Karl Marx, who saw class conflict as the driving force in history. By the 20th century, the lower classes, including the bourgeoisie and the urban proletariat, were sufficiently important that social history was extended backwards. As a result, historians began rewriting and reinterpreting history back to the ancient era. At first, this revisionist analysis centered upon class because the economic reality of much of human history has been that, to a significant extent, wealth is a product of alienating the producer – the slave, the peasant, the poor, women in general – from their work, and profit was considered to be inherently exploitative.

Very quickly, this economically deterministic understanding of social history gave way to a vibrant exploration of Europe's past. Historian Peter Stearns wrote in 1975: "There is no field of history undergoing more exciting changes than social history over the last decade. Knowledge of family life, work and leisure, as well as demography and social protest, grows each year. New areas are being opened up, as in the study of criminality in the past." He was even then making a vast understatement.

Historian Olivier Zuns said, "For the first time, historians could divide the social structure into an infinite number of segments and explain the positive role of diverse communities within the society at large." Interest in this rich social structure did not and does require ideological commitment. You do not need to be a Marxist to be interested in labor history or a feminist to be interested in how the historic undervaluation of women and the traditional assignment of their labor to their husbands (an English and American common-law principle known as coverture) affect and distort economies today.

Social history concentrates on the mundane, such as the impact of improved sanitation or reinvigorated trade routes, and those who have been traditionally excluded from power, such as peasants and laborers of both sexes, the enslaved and the colonized, women of all classes and gay people. For this reason, social history has become politically polarized and is considered to be leftist and condemned as revisionist. Nevertheless, two of Europe's greatest historians, Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, were social historians, and social historians have deeply enriched more traditional historical fields such as economic, political, diplomatic and military history.

European Social History: Selected full-text books and articles

European Society in Upheaval: Social History since 1750 By Peter N. Stearns Macmillan, 1975 (2nd edition)
Social History in Europe By Kaelble, Hartmut Journal of Social History, Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall 2003
Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History By Olivier Zunz University of North Carolina Press, 1985
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "Retrieving European Lives"
Authority, Identity and the Social History of the Great War By Frans Coetzee; Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee Berghahn Books, 1995
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