Local history – or the biography of little places?


This essay considers the importance of local history to the study of history overall. It looks at what we mean by local history and considers whether the local view informs the wider perspective, or vice versa. It concludes with the view that both are necessary to obtain a complete picture, but also that local history, of itself, has the potential for universal interest.

Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, wrote famously that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’.[2] But that is to ignore the view, so ably put by Herbert Spencer,[3] that those who regard this to be so ‘overlook the truth that such great men are products of their societies. Without certain antecedents … they neither could have been generated nor could have had the culture which formed them’.[4]

The reality is that the history of the world is formed at an even more basic level. Many minor episodes and interactions between individuals meld into great events and shape great, or notorious, men and women. Those men and women do not stand in isolation either, but are made great because other people deem them so – they have followers. Local history has often been seen as the poor relation in the history family but, as Hickens says, “local history does not include all of those aspects of history considered to be worthless by others”.[5]

Local history is the study of both place and people and contributes an understanding of the detail of life essential to building a picture of the greater world stage. In fact, the distinction between ‘local’ history and something else (history?) seems somewhat bizarre. There are many different types of history that could be studied – political history, economic history, social history, religious history, history of war and conflict, cultural history, intellectual history, geographic history and ideological history. Every one of those has a local and a wider dimension. But that wider dimension is dependent on viewpoint. If you are watching Earth from Mars, then UK history is very local.

Local history is not family history. The widespread interest of today in researching one’s family, in order to draw up a family tree and learn something about one’s forebears, does not in itself contribute much to the bigger picture. Amateur genealogists have to be admired for their tenacity, but it is all too easy for them to fall into a trap of certainty regarding lineage without hard evidence, often repeating others’ gross errors in linking one person with another. The Internet is littered liberally with family trees tracing aristocratic lineage back to the Conquest and sharing of a common ancestor – but who did not exist. All the same, whilst family history per se may not be of interest to many outside the family, if that history is of one of Carlyle’s great men (or women), or focuses on the impact great issues of the past have had on that family – then it becomes of considerable use.

Local history significantly enriches overall history in two ways. Herbert Finberg, a founding father of the discipline of local history, declared “the business of the local historian is to re-enact in his own mind, and to portray for his readers, the Origin, Growth, Decline, and Fall of a local community”,[6] which may be termed local history per se; and it contributes to a greater understanding through the development of ‘national history localized’.[7]

As Antonius argues in de Oratore, it also contributes to the ‘telling of the whole truth’.[8] In a slim pamphlet from 1874, Durrie makes a telling point, via a quote: “The great object of local history, says Mr. Shattuck, is to furnish the first elements of general history, to record facts rather than deductions from facts.”[9]

Facts per se and myriad events are not the goal, though in order to study effectively it is necessary to focus on a great deal of detail to get a bigger picture. Sweeping generalisations simply will not do. But, it is the use of those facts, the story behind the facts, which builds the picture that makes history come alive and allows us to pull back the curtain of time. As Fustel de Coulanges points out, ‘history is not the accumulation of events of all kinds which occurred in the past. It is the science of human societies’.[10]

Local historians are faced with two issues about which much has been written but with little resolution. Firstly, there is the question of the direction of influence. Does the study of some local area or issue make a necessary contribution to the understanding of some bigger picture? Finberg thought not and suggested that treating local history as a contribution to national history was to invert the true relationship between them.[11] His image of the family, the local community, the national state and the supra-national society as a series of concentric circles, each of which requires to be studied with constant reference to the one outside it,[12] lends weight to his claim that ‘a study of the whole will do more to enlighten us about any single part than vice versa’.[13] But it is not as simple as that. Take the cause of Parliamentarianism and the English Civil War. There is no doubt these are among the great issues of the English past. But to understand them requires a study of how what happened locally. Both sides depended on a series of county committees for levying money and troops, but the counties differed in their allegiances.[14] In this particular instance the study of the parts serves to enlighten the whole, though still perhaps in the sense of Finberg’s concentric circles. However, the collapse in authority in England, described by John Morrill as ‘the mental shock which the very fact of a civil war creates’, as a possible component in explaining the revolution of 1648, as Finlayson suggests,[15] would require study at a local level in order to explain the whole.

The second issue for the local historian is what does the word ‘local’ mean? If ‘history is who we are and why we are the way we are’[16] and a nation is composed of many identifiable but interlinked societies,[17] we should be able to use those concepts in order to build a picture that allows us better to understand how we arrived where we are. Can we realistically use geographical areas defined by topography or by land use, or an area delineated by some artificial boundary such as an administrative area, to research local history? The structure of parishes in England largely predates the Conquest, but they do not themselves necessarily characterize their inhabitants. Phythian-Adams suggests that looking at England as layer upon layer of ever-widening hexagons,[18] in line with the central place theory of Christaller,[19] is ‘beautiful’ though rejects it as much more complex than that. The use of the word ‘local’ implies some sort of geography but also includes societal groupings and this approach is preferred by Phythian-Adams.[20] But even then there is a difficulty. Just as defining a geographical location can be artificial, a societal grouping as that suggested by Margaret Spufford of a ‘number of contrasting neighbourhoods, or social areas, each extending over a group of parishes within approximately an eight-mile radius of a focal village centre’[21] is equally contrived, although unpublished research suggests that that a focus on market towns may have more validity.[22]

While local history is the study both of people and place, better still is to define it as people in the context of the place, or the place in the context of the people. For it is not possible to properly separate one from the other without losing part of the picture and ending up with simple geography, or geology or narrative biography. A very recent study, by Plaut et al, focuses on two US cities and suggests not only are our lives situated in a locality but that locality has an impact on shaping who we are.[23] (Although it takes a psychological approach, it is no less valid and would provide a useful base for an interesting interdisciplinary methodology.) It has also been argued that even very early influences on people in a locality are carried forward and not only continue to shape and define things for later generations[24] but those influences migrate along with people who move to new localities[25] – giving a new meaning to the old saw “you can take the man out of the village but you cannot take the village out of the man”. Empirical evidence from living in rural Scotland, central London and rural Shropshire suggest locality has some influence on thinking – the influence perhaps, not of the genius loci, but more of a genius plagae ¬– the spirit of a less defined ‘area’. From a history perspective, Jonathan Healey of the University of Oxford has detailed how economic prospects were dictated by location, for example by the localization of industry. He suggested for example that simply because the cloth towns had more contact with the outside world than agricultural villages, they were more likely to come into contact with new ideas from the outside, using the example of how the textile working areas of the North embraced the Protestant Reformation and the cause of Parliamentarianism more quickly than the agricultural ones.[26]

A useful way of looking at the difference between local and more general history is the analogy of a magnifying glass and microscope. Great events realistically can only be looked at through a magnifying glass – one of those large ones that allow more detail to be seen but only focus at a particular distance. Local history is more akin to looking through a microscope. The field of view is much narrower, but by rotating the lens assembly, one can look through different layers in increasing detail to see what is there.

In asking ourselves whether local history ignores the great issues of the past and contributes nothing useful to our understanding of them, we are perhaps making the wrong enquiry. The best answer to the old question of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a needle’ is that it depends on what size clogs they wear. That question was used as a way of dismissing scholasticism. Perhaps the question, what is ‘local’ in local history is itself meaningless and the answer is simply: whatever is relevant, appropriate and fits the topic or question being studied. John Beckett, of Nottingham University puts it well when he asks that ‘if we spend so much time trying to justify, or find evidence in support of, a theoretical construct, are we in danger of losing sight of the essence of local history which is the study of the place?’[27]

We have seen how local history, using Finberg’s concentric circle analogy, is influenced overall by the wider impact of the great issues of the past. We have also seen that local history can be used better to inform both the meaning and reasons for the great issues of the past. And whilst local history would benefit most from the rigor of academic discipline – validating, referencing, questioning, challenging – it must never lose its key appeal: that is to be of interest and interesting to both researcher and reader. As Cicero put it, ‘for what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?’[28] Weaving requires both warp – the great issues – and weft – the local view – in order to produce a rich tapestry.

In the case of this current PhD research project, the bounds of people and place being studied are entirely determined by the existence of the Cleobury Mortimer Poor Law Union and it makes sense to study the constituent parishes for the period prior to the formation of the union.

Cleobury Mortimer, the surrounding villages and their inhabitants over time may have had but a minor impact on global history, but their stories are no less interesting. There is no doubt that the treatment of the poor and the changing legislation to deal with them, their problems and the problems they caused others, are collectively one of the great issues of our past – and one of the great issues of our present. The operation of the poor laws operated at, and the treatment of the poor took place at, local levels. To obtain a fuller picture we need to investigate the various ways in which quite localized areas reacted to the Poor Laws and how they implemented them. Research projects such as this have the potential to contribute significantly to our understanding of the great issues of the past, by allowing us to look at a local level in the context of the national framework.

[1] M. W. Beresford, ‘Herbert Finberg: An Appreciation’ in Joan Thirsk (ed.) ‘Land, Church and People; Essays Presented to Professor H.P.R Finberg’, Agricultural History Review, 18, suppl. (1970), vii
[2] T. Carlyle, ‘Lecture 1 – The Hero as Divinity’ in On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History, (London: Chapman and Hall, 1840) p34
[3] English sociologist, philosopher and political theorist (1820-1903)
[4] H. Spencer, ‘The Social Organism’ (1860) in Essays, Scientific, Political and Speculative Vol I, London: Williams and Norgate, 1891)
[5 V. Hicken, ‘The Continuing Significance of Local History’ in Walton, C.C., ed., ‘State and Local History in Libraries’, Library Trends, 13 (1964) pp. 153 – 164
[6] H. P. R. Finberg, ‘The Local Historian and his Theme, An introductory lecture delivered at the University College of Leicester, 6 November 1952’, reprinted in H.P.R. Finberg and V.H.T. Skipp, Local History: Objective and Pursuit (Newton Abbott: David and Charles), 1967) p. 9
[7] ibid, p. 32
[8] M. Tullius Cicero, de Oratore (revised edn., Cambridge MA, 1989) Book II, 62
[9] D. S. Durrie, The Importance of Local History (Madison WI, 1874)
[10] N.D. Fustel de Coulanges, Histoire des Institutions Politiques de l’Ancienne France, l’Alleu et le domain rural pendant l’époque mérovingienne, vol. 4 (2nd edn. Paris: Hachette, 1914) p. iv
[11] Finberg, ‘The local Historian and his Theme’, pp. 12-13
[12] ibid, p.39
[13] ibid, p.9
[14] R. Hutton, the Royalist War Effort: 1642-1646, (London: Longman, 1982) ch. 10
[15] J. Morrill, (ed.) Reactions to the English Civil War, 1642-1649, (New York: St Martin’s, 1982) p.16 quoted in a review by M.G Finlayson, The American Historical Review, 90 (1985) p.676-7
[16] attributed to David McCullough as part of remarks delivered on February 15, 2005, in Phoenix, Arizona, at a Hillsdale College national leadership seminar on the topic, “American History And America’s Future.”
[17] C. Phythian-Adams, ‘Local History and Societal History’, Local Population Studies, 51 (1993) pp. 30-45
[18] C. Phythian-Adams, ‘Local History and Societal History’, p.30
[19] Walter Christaller, Die zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland (Jena, Germany: Gustav Fischer, 1933)
[20] C. Phythian-Adams, Re-thinking English local history, (Department of English Local History occasional papers, fourth series, 1), (Leicester, 1987) p.32
[21] Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities : English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974) p.57
[22] J. D. Goodacre, Lutterworth in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a market town and its area, (PhD Thesis, Leicester, 1978); D. Fleming, A local market system: Melton Mowbray and the Wreake Valley 1549-1720, (PhD Thesis, Leicester, 1981) – both quoted in Phythian-Adams, Re-thinking English Local History, p.23
[23] V. C. Plaut et al, ‘The Cultural Construction of Self and Well-Being: A Tale of Two Cities’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20 (2012) pp. 1-15
[24] C. Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (reprint edn., London: Penguin Books, 2012)
[25] D.H. Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: OUP, 1989)
[26] Jonathan Healy, Why Local History Matters, Lecture delivered at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education, 14 November 2012
[27] Professor John Beckett, review of A Lost Frontier Revealed: Regional Separation in the East Midlands, (review no. 879) URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/879 Date accessed: 24 October, 2013
[28] Marcus Tullius Cicero , Orator ad M. Brutum [120]

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