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THE SOURCES OF SOCIAL HISTORY

12
Mary Lindemann

Social historians exploit a variety of archival, manuscript, literary, and nonwritten sources. Indeed almost
every historical source is grist for the social historical
mill, thus a survey of the sources of social history must
always be incomplete. Enterprising social historians
over the decades have unearthed many new documentary treasures and devised novel ways of using old
sources. This brief survey concentrates, therefore, only
on the most common ways social historians have employed sources.

One type of social history prefers what might
be called qualitative sources, those that are either not
quantifiable or that do not lend themselves easily or
readily to quantification. Such were the sources of the
‘‘old’’ social history and of the narrative history that
related the stories of entire peoples or whole groups.
These authors usually based their judgments on the
evidence in elite writings, novels, and other prose
forms. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s splendid, multivolumed History of England from the Accession of
James II (1849–1861) and Jules Michelet’s The People
(1846) are classic examples.
Those historians who instead looked for the hidden mainsprings of history and searched for broader
structures criticized ‘‘older’’ histories as impressionistic. Whether these dissenters were historians working
in the Annales paradigm or were those driven by
‘‘grand social theories,’’ that is, the metahistorical narratives proposed by Karl Marx, Max Weber, E´mile
Durkheim, Ferdinand To¨nnies, and Georg Simmel,
they accepted the existence and action of major determinant processes in history and rejected analyses based
on the influences of ‘‘great men’’ and ‘‘great ideas.’’
This caused a turn to quantifiable sources as well as a
search for what the Annales historian Fernand Braudel
called the longue dure´e (long time frame). These scholars typically evinced a passionate curiosity about people, including peasants, women, the poor, transients,
and heretics, often neglected by old-fashioned historians and traditional histories that highlighted political, intellectual, and diplomatic matters. In addition
some, again like Braudel, suggested that the methods
of geography and geology and their sources, such as
measuring tree rings to determine climatic change or,
as Georges Duby and others attempted, a minute
analysis of field patterns to determine modifications
in agricultural practices, had to be brought to bear on
the historical experience.
The search for structures that lay deeply embedded in the society required attention to large sets
of data. Some of these sources had been employed
previously. Economic historians, for example, had es-

QUALITATIVE AND
QUANTITATIVE SOURCES
An old but still functional distinction is that separating quantitative and qualitative information. Social
historians who use principally quantitative materials
apply the methods of the social sciences, in particular
sociology, political science, statistics, and demography,
to history, thereby writing social science history. Quantitative sources are generally those that allow historians
to count or those that historians can analyze statistically. Historians who mine them work with large collections of data, frequently laboring in teams and using computers to correlate, aggregate, and evaluate the
data accumulated. Many historians focus on discerning broad structural shifts and documenting secular,
that is, century-long, changes. Their sources are habitually those generated by governments, for instance,
censuses and tax lists, as well as parish records, price
and wage data, hospital ledgers, and property deeds.
These historians practice what they like to characterize
as ‘‘history from the bottom up’’ and ‘‘history with
the politics left out.’’ Such scholars—as, for instance,
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie on the peasants of Languedoc, Georges Duby on medieval rural life, and
David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber on
Tuscans and their families—have typically dealt with
masses of people and are concerned mostly with uncovering the structural forces affecting or even determining people’s lives.

31

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

timated long-term adjustments in prices and wages
and located movements in standards of living. Still,
not everyone was satisfied with detecting and examining structures. Others were displeased with the fastidious and sometimes boring or clumsy prose style
quantifiers preferred. These scholars called for a return
to narrative as Lawrence Stone proposed in The Past
and the Present (1981).
Moreover macrohistorical movements or grand
structures seemed to rob people of their agency in
shaping history and denied them their own choices in
life. Structural history has an unfortunate tendency to
place people in socioeconomic ‘‘boxes,’’ where their
actions were constrained if not dictated by huge impersonal forces that they could not perceive, control,
or evade. Individual agency was lost, as was the political part of human experience. In reaction, some
historians insisted, for instance, that knowing the sizes
of families or households—understanding perhaps that
one family type, described by John Hajnal, had persisted since the late Middle Ages—revealed little about
what ‘‘went on’’ in those units. High levels of infant
mortality might be interpreted as demonstrating that
families invested hardly anything either materially or
emotionally into very young children and that little
true affection existed in families produced by marriages arranged by parents who based their decisions
primarily on economic considerations. To discuss feelings and emotions, historians consulted other sources,
including ‘‘ego-documents,’’ court rolls, administrative records, diaries, letters, and prescriptive literature
like advice manuals.
Of course the division between quantitative
‘‘lumpers’’ on the one hand and qualitative ‘‘feelers’’
on the other is artificial, as is the split between those
who supposedly look only for structures and those
who prefer to stress the ability of individuals to manipulate their own situations. Rarely do ‘‘pure’’ types
of any exist. Quantitative historians often turn to
qualitative sources if only for illustrations. Historians
who prefer qualitative or anecdotal materials always
have been plagued by nagging questions of typicality,
and few ignore the possibilities of counting when and
where they can. Many historians have gracefully combined the two types of sources to great benefit, as, for
instance, Stone did in his works on the aristocracy
and on family, sex, and marriage in early modern England. It is also important that some sources, especially court records, have been used extensively both
qualitatively and quantitatively in social history writing. Moreover, in the late twentieth century a renewed
desire to return politics to the social historical agenda,
a ‘‘linguistic turn’’ that emphasizes the methods of
textual and literary criticism, the rise of a ‘‘new’’ cul-

tural history, and microhistory, encouraged historians
to cast their source nets more widely and to adopt
unfamiliar ways of exploring old standbys, such as
wills, fiction, and court cases.
Besides the rough quantitative-qualitative split
discussed above, sources can be further divided into
four broad categories:
1. sources produced by government or administrative agencies, broadly defined;
2. nongovernmental sources or those created by
private groups and individuals, including businesses;
3. researcher-generated sources, including interviews
and oral histories; and
4. nonwritten sources and artifacts.
Many of these are deposited in archives and libraries,
but they may also remain in private hands. Artifacts
may not be ‘‘deposited’’ in any real sense at all, although of course archives, museums, and private collections preserve large numbers of artifacts. The first
two categories have proven the richest sources for social historical studies.

GOVERNMENTAL SOURCES
The governing process at local, national, and international levels begets a range of sources and vast quantities of material suitable for historical inquiries. Archives maintained by government agencies house the
bulk of these records. Although some scholars have
criticized such sources for revealing only the perspective of elites, almost all historians plow these fertile
fields. Despite frequent and extensive use by researchers over decades, their riches are far from depleted.
While the variety of these documents is immense, social historians have most regularly and thoroughly
mined tax rolls and censuses; criminal, civil, and ecclesiastical court cases; notarial records, especially wills;
parish registers; property accounts; guild and union
records; and police files. Obviously other sources that
some might consider purely political or even diplomatic, such as the records of city councils or the military, can also yield vital information for the social historian. Indeed the social historian who probes issues of
state and society, for example, ignores at his or her
peril the actions of governing bodies, such as city
councils and parliaments, or the inner workings of
political parties as they discussed and molded social,
welfare, economic, and cultural policies.
Historians and demographers who investigate
population movements regularly use tax rolls, censuses, and parish registers to amass information about

32

THE SOURCES OF SOCIAL HISTORY

the movement of peoples and to collect raw data for
calculations of mortality, morbidity, nuptiality, and
fertility. In the history of governance, however, the
census is a relatively recent phenomenon. At least theoretically censuses make a comprehensive accounting
of a specified population. The word ‘‘census’’ is of
Latin origin, and the Romans took what they called
censuses principally for computing tax burdens and
for purposes of military conscription. Modern censuses, those meant to include all or almost all of the
members of a given population, date from the eighteenth century and only became a normal and usual
function of government in the nineteenth century.
The U.S. census, for instance, began in 1790. Its purpose was explicitly political, that is, to calculate seats
in the House of Representatives. Some European
states had initiated censuses earlier, but they were
rarely inclusive. Social historians and demographers
use censuses to determine the movement of people;
the composition of a population; employment patterns; the relative wealth and poverty of a population
and its segments; racial and ethnic makeups; standards
of living; settlement patterns; and types of housing.
Despite the wealth of facts they contain, censuses have proven less useful for historians and demographers in determining mortality, morbidity, marriage, and birthrates. In the nineteenth century most
states mandated civil registers of births, marriages,
deaths, and in some cases disease occurrences. The
registration of the last pertained mostly to infectious
or contagious diseases, especially to sexually transmitted ones. Civil records deliver to medical historians
meaningful information about diseases, but they also
permit scholars to develop perspectives on vital statistics and compare them synchronically and diachronically. Governments generally prepare aggregate data
and publish it in printed volumes of statistics; in digitalized and machine-readable forms; on CD-ROMs;
and on the Internet. These aggregations then serve as
sources, rendering to researchers an abundance of analyzable material. Such database collections have also
been compiled for earlier times.
Scholars doing demographic, population, and
family reconstruction studies for periods before censuses and civil registers were introduced normally consult parish registers. Raw data for the quantitative
analysis of the size and the health of populations first
were generated in the sixteenth century, when some
Protestant parishes began keeping track of births and
deaths by recording christenings and burials as well as
weddings. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) mandated that Catholic parishes record similar occurrences. Even before such specialized registers existed,
the bills of mortality began recording deaths from

plague in Milan in 1452. The most famous of these
bills date from the great plague of London in the mid
1660s. Historians of the family have often used such
sources to reconstruct families and households. Louis
Henry pioneered the method of family reconstruction
in the 1950s to study fertility among French women.
Subsequently family reconstruction re-created entire
parishes and whole villages, as demonstrated in Arthur
Imhof ’s Die verlorenen Welten (1984) and David Sabean’s two volumes on the Wu¨rttemberg village of
Neckarhausen (1990, 1998). The application of statistical packages and computer programs has facilitated
and accelerated the task of family reconstruction.
Tax rolls, known as cadastres in the medieval and
early modern periods, and tax records, including property, income, excise, and sales, furnish equally sustaining nourishment for knowledge-hungry social and
economic historians. Historians who plot shifting patterns of wealth occasionally employ extremely sophisticated statistical techniques to discover and evaluate
the rise or fall of real wages and to determine relative
standards of living. They often work comparatively,
linking societies chronologically, geographically, or both.
The assemblage of prosopographies or collective biographies relies heavily on tax rolls as well as on censuses,
parish registers, and wills. Real estate records and
property plans, urban and rural, function in a like
manner, allowing historians to determine patterns of
landholding and uses and alterations in them over
time.
Social historians have exploited court records,
particularly criminal records, extensively and creatively and to many different purposes. Historians who
ascertained secular developments in crime, for example, the striking decline in personal offenses and the
equally striking rise in property crime after the Middle
Ages, turned to court records, both secular and ecclesiastical. For the early modern period these documents
are far more likely to exist for towns than for rural
areas. Some cities possess enviable series of unbroken
records. Amsterdam’s, for example, run from the late
sixteenth century through the early nineteenth century. These records have yielded valuable information
on issues far removed from crime by revealing the lives
of those who left little other evidence. Criminal acts
frequently occasioned extensive, probing investigations
that produced dossiers rich in details. In these records
historians often recover the voices of those who otherwise would have remained mute. Court cases have
permitted social historians to construct sophisticated
studies of prostitution, such as that of Lotte van de
Pol for Amsterdam, and equally fascinating treatments
of other aspects of everyday life in major urban centers. The deliberations and decisions of ecclesiastical

33

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

courts disclose the dimensions of religious dissent of
course but also broader morals, common attitudes,
and daily routines. Historians have made astonishing
discoveries in the annals of the various Catholic inquisitions. Heavily exploited in quantitative terms to
trace, for instance, the numbers and characters of the
persecutions of heretics, such documents also have
been useful in building microhistories.
Microhistory arose as a reaction to a prevalent
trend in social history, that is, the practice of studying
large groups by evaluating masses of material and
seeking to define overarching structures. Historians
who practice the abductive method of microhistory
turn instead to examining a few extraordinarily revealing documents, often those that record unique
or sensational events, such as the incidents of early
modern cannibalism studied by Edward Muir. These
scholars seek to reinsert individuals and historical
agency into history by revealing the contours of European popular culture. The most famous examples of
a successful microhistorical approach are Carlo Ginzburg’s story of a heretic miller in The Cheese and the
Worms (1980) and Natalie Zemon Davis’s brilliantly
retold tale of The Return of Martin Guerre (1983).
Police files function in many of the same ways
as court records. Police records per se developed when
governments began to recast police forces as executory
agencies and created policemen in the nineteenth century. Police records reveal much about those people
society defined as criminals, yet their utility far exceeds that objective. Police agents also infiltrated trade
unions and kept a watch on other groups considered
suspicious or deemed deviant. Therefore much knowledge about early unions, such as the Trade Unions
Congress (TUC) or the seemingly innocuous friendly
societies in Britain, derives from police reports filed
on groups and individuals.
Notarial records are of inestimable worth in
reconstructing everyday lives. Notaries were legally
empowered to compose, witness, and certify the validity of documents and to take depositions. In addition they drew up wills and marriage agreements.
Their archives are voluminous but usually poorly indexed and thus cumbersome to consult. Notarial records, especially wills, have helped count and calculate wealth and family arrangements; document
trends in religious beliefs, as Michel Vovelle traced
the progress of dechristianization; prove affective relationships within families; follow the movement of
property and goods among kin; and analyze the role
of gender in familial and business relationships. The
possibilities for the historical exploitation of notarial
records are by no means exhausted by this list. Late
twentieth-century studies used notarial records to

observe the dynamics of migrant communities in
early modern Europe.
Finally, the records of guilds and unions can be
included among administrative or governmental sources.
Unions differ from guilds in that they represent laborers rather than all the members of a particular
craft. A new phenomenon in the nineteenth century,
labor unions generally kept their own records, which,
along with the accounts of political parties, sometimes
were placed in government safekeeping. At the end of
the twentieth century many unions and political parties maintained their own archives distinct from government collections. Guilds (and unions, too, to some
extent) were multifunctional organizations that exercised cultural, philanthropic, and religious functions
as well as economic ones. Their records not only reveal details about economic structures and production
methods but also trace religious, social, and cultural
trends among nonelite groups. Those interested in the
history of industrialization and the rise of free-trade
practices have used guild materials and in particular
disputes among apprentices, journeymen, and masters
to follow subtle shifts in the business world, especially
during periods of economic upheaval, depression, or
boom. These records have been equally useful in documenting the early history of consumerism. The right
to produce new commodities, such as umbrellas in
the seventeenth century or porcelain in the eighteenth
century, had to be negotiated among the various craft
guilds. But guilds also formed defenses against new
entrepreneurs, like the porcelain manufacturer Josiah
Wedgwood, who worked outside the craft system.

NONGOVERNMENTAL SOURCES
Historians generally seek the more or less official records described above in archives and libraries, yet nongovernmental material frequently reposes in archives
and libraries as well. Personal papers, memoirs, business records, and clipping files or scrapbooks are often
deposited for preservation in archives even though they
properly belong to the category of private and personal records. Newspapers, magazines, prescriptive literature, and fictional works are found more frequently
in libraries than in archives, although many archives
house extensive runs of newspapers.
Social historians have quarried newspapers for a
multitude of reasons. Obviously newspapers, a novelty
of the eighteenth century, help determine what happened. Yet the definition of ‘‘what happened’’ differs
for the social historian as compared to the diplomatic
or political historian. The social historian might be
more interested in articles on society and culture or

34

THE SOURCES OF SOCIAL HISTORY

in advertisements and letters to the editor than in socalled hard news. Of course newspapers reported on
political issues that bore on social history directly or
indirectly, for example, parliamentary debates on the
implementation of social insurance schemes or oldage pensions. Other historians have looked at advertisements to document, for instance, the rise of a consumer culture, the proliferation of goods and services,
the growth of pharmaceutical and patent medicine
businesses, and a burgeoning book trade. The rise of
the penny press has much to say about changing tastes
among the reading public and about rates of literacy.
The history of fashion, too, can be pursued in newspaper columns. Few social historical topics cannot but
be enriched by a thorough survey of contemporary
newspapers and magazines.
An early type of what might be called a generalinterest magazine that lacked pictures and advertising
was the moral weekly that appeared in manuscript in
the seventeenth century and in print in the next century. Journals, like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s
Spectator (1711–1712), the most famous and the
most widely imitated of the many moral weeklies,
had literary pretensions. But more important for the
purposes of the social historian, they also critiqued
conventional morals and society. Akin to the moral
weeklies but more practical in content, the publications of the many ‘‘beneficial’’ and ‘‘purposeful’’ organizations of the mid- to late eighteenth century
were explicit attempts to stimulate improvements in
agriculture, business, and commerce as well as manners and morals. Titles like The Patriot (Der Patriot)
in Hamburg (1721–1723) were generally moral in
tone and content. But the Deliberations (Verhandlungen und Schriften) of the Patriotic Society founded
later in Hamburg (1765) focused on practical proposals for the best ways to relieve the poor, raise silkworms,
or build and maintain urban hospitals. In the Netherlands The Merchant (De Koopman) discussed economic morality and proper commercial behavior in the
1760s but also detailed schemes for reawakening a flagging commerce and animating declining industries in
the republic.
Journals shade over into another source that social historians have exploited quite lavishly and sometimes slavishly, prescriptive literature. This literature
includes all publications that prescribe behavior, like
catechisms, sermons, advice manuals, and articles in
newspapers and journals, for instance, women’s magazines. Prescriptive literature touches on practically
every topic of concern to social historians. For example, women received advice on household management, on style, on ‘‘getting and keeping a man,’’ on
sex, on the proper expression of emotions, and on the

choice of a career. Newly enthroned experts, such as
physicians, addressed a plentitude of advice literature
to parents about how to raise their children. Easy to
find and use, such material provides a surfeit of information on social standards and behavioral expectations. Prescriptive literature is, however, less serviceable in determining what people actually did than in
determining what they were instructed to do. Thus
advice literature may produce a false picture of reality
unless combined with other sources.
Social historians once used novels, poems, plays,
and other forms of fiction as illustrative material or
as contemporary ‘‘witnesses’’ of their times. These
sources fell out of fashion as the new social history,
with its tendency to emphasize masses or large groups
of people and nonliterate persons or nonelites, took
firm hold. In the early twenty-first century, however,
under the impact of the new cultural history and after the ‘‘linguistic turn,’’ social historians returned to
belles lettres, reading them as texts, often deconstructing them into their component parts, pinpointing
where concepts and phrases originated, and identifying the extent to which they represented a cultural
heritage that linked popular and elite cultures. Immensely influential both as a theoretical work and as
an example, Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of Franc¸ois Rabelais identified a culture of the grotesque that elites
and nonelites shared.
Not only governments and organizations such
as guilds assembled and maintained documentary
collections. Various other organizations, voluntary,
philanthropic, and mutual benefit, for instance, preserved their records as well. Moreover personal papers and ‘‘ego-documents’’ are indispensable aids if
sometimes also lucky finds for historians in general
and for the social historian in particular. Many social historians have expressed considerable skepticism
about the value of government-generated sources for
writing an informed and reliable history from the
bottom up and therefore search for more personal
and immediate materials in less-known and lessfrequented archives.
Commercial records are invaluable in composing economic and business histories and in investigating the lives of laborers through personnel records.
Historians have emphasized the utility of such sources
in constructing collective biographies (or prosopographies, the technical term for early modern collective
biographies) of several social classes or status groups.
Yet much there is worthy of the attention of anyone
interested in the development of business cultures or
the involvement of business in matters of welfare and
social insurance or for scholars studying patterns of
production and consumerism.

35

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

A number of private groups, such as philanthropic and eleemosynary societies, for example, the
Coram Foundling Hospital in London, clubs, ladies’
charitable circles, suffragette groups, friendly societies,
benevolent associations, and international leagues like
the YMCA and YWCA, construct, staff, and maintain
their own collections. Such sources form the nucleus
for institutional histories but expedite or make possible other kinds of historical inquiries as well. Benevolent societies can reveal much about laborers’ quotidian experiences, for example. An investigation of
clubs might demonstrate how networks of sociability
evolved and contributed to the creation of a public
sphere, such as that postulated by Ju¨rgen Habermas,
or reveal the social and philanthropic activities that
women dominated.
A wide range of what might be called nondeposited sources is also available. To some extent these
include things that have not been identified as sources
or whose existence is unknown to the historical community. Some ingenuity is required. Michael B. Miller,
for instance, found and catalogued many of the business records of the Parisian grand magasin (department store), the Bon Marche´, stored in the building,
and he marshalled them into a history of marketing,
consumerism, and bourgeois culture in late nineteenth-century France. Poking around in old edifices,
attics, barns, and outbuildings has produced unsuspected cornucopias. Serendipity is not to be scorned;
some of the most mesmerizing historical finds have
been accidental. Judith Brown’s lively account of a
lesbian nun in seventeenth-century Italy (Immodest
Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,
1986) rested on just such a fortuitous discovery. Historians sometimes judge it expedient to advertise in
national or local newspapers or in more specialized
journals to locate previously unsuspected caches. The
diligent prying of historians has brought to light casebooks of physicians, surgeons, and midwives; bundles
of letters and diaries; and annotated almanacs that had
been left to molder away in attics or basements.
In the late twentieth century historians paid increasing attention to what Dutch and German scholars call ‘‘ego-documents.’’ These are not traditional
biographies or autobiographies but rather the writings
of ordinary people, often those living on the edge of
respectable society, who never intended to publish
their manuscripts. The term sometimes is expanded
to include contemporary narratives written about such
people. A good example of such a contemporary account is F. L. Kersteman’s De bredasche heldinne (The
heroine from Breda, 1751). A number of these have
been uncovered, edited, and published and have aided
social historians in lifting individuals out of the mael-

strom of history by endowing ordinary lives with
agency, dignity, and texture. Admittedly these documents have clarified the actions and thoughts of the
idiosyncratic and the marginal more than those of the
average person. Nonetheless, such works are equally
precious for comprehending the choices ordinary people made and understanding why they embarked on
their courses of action. Ego-documents have demonstrated how the rigid categories constructed by historians preoccupied with studying large groups and
big structures might be less confining in practice
and how even the menu peuple (lesser folk) exercised
volition.

RESEARCHER-GENERATED SOURCES
Not all scholars, however, look at sources held in archives, libraries, or private hands. Many social historical documents are generated by researchers themselves. Interviews, oral histories, and photographs are
excellent examples of common researcher-generated
materials. Another such source might be the databases
historians have built up from raw numbers that are
evaluated either by the researchers or by others for
further, often different forms of historical analysis.
Interviews and oral histories seem for the most
part restricted to recent historical events and circumstances where the subjects are still alive and talking.
Oral historians have sought ways to recover the lineaments of ordinary lives, probing aspects of sexuality
and emotions, for example, that written records might
fail to reveal or even conceal. Historians studying nonliterate societies employ anthropological techniques to
reclaim knowledge about groups that left behind few
or no written traces. While it is true that sometimes
the oral recitation of legends, epics, and tales permits
the historian to delve far back in history using sophisticated methods of recovery and regression, most
oral histories focus on those who articulate their own
stories. Not all oral histories or interviews, for that
matter, are primarily researcher-generated. Oral history projects, the most famous of which is the American Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s that chronicled the memories of former slaves, assemble teams of
interviewers to collect oral histories on tape, as interview notes, or from questionnaires. The tapes or transcripts are then deposited in archives and made available to others, who often use them for purposes entirely
distinct from those the original collectors envisioned.
Another example of a generated source is the
database. Databases are usually compilations of statistical materials or raw data that can be quantified. The
material is arranged to make it easy or easier to search

36

THE SOURCES OF SOCIAL HISTORY

and retrieve information. Large-scale projects, such as
demographic studies extending over centuries or investigations of family size and composition, require
enormous databases. Examples include the Demographic Database in Umea˚, Sweden, an outstanding
source for the study of mortality, morbidity, and fertility trends; and the database built by the Cambridge
(England) Group for the History of Population and
Social Structure for analyzing small groups, such as
the household and the family, over time.

life, provide information for historians who study material culture as well as urban and rural lifestyles. Furniture; conveyances, such as carriages, automobiles,
and airplanes; household items, such as dishes and
cooking utensils; clothing; and even knickknacks illuminate the physical conditions of life among a range
of social groups or classes.
Architecture, too, is important. Open-air museums contain real buildings or replicas that represent
the types of housing people inhabited and often exhibit the physical layout of villages and neighborhoods. When older sections of cities and villages still
exist, these living museums are critically important for
giving historians a viscerally real sense of place. Nothing conveys the feel of a medieval city better than a
stroll down one of its serpentine streets. The vistas of
Georges-Euge`ne Haussmann’s Paris convey the culture
of the European belle epoque, as do the paintings of
Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the
last two decades of the twentieth century cultural historians ‘‘read’’ monuments, memorials, and hallowed
sites for their historical content in efforts to construct
histories of memory and commemoration. Likewise the
concepts of display, representation, and self-fashioning
have required historians to interpret statues and paintings as well as texts for information on how, for instance, regal figures like Louis XIV devised their special
images of kingship and exerted authority.
The intriguing subject of social space and its
construction leads historians to look at the layout of
roads and places, especially where public spectacles
such as executions and fireworks were staged, and to
seek information on how class, status, and gender determined the allocation of space. Historians have also
investigated the political implications of public spaces
and performances, among them Lynn Hunt in her
study of class and culture in the French Revolution
and Mona Ozouf in her investigation of revolutionary
festivals.
This brief survey of the sources of social history
by no means exhausts the topic. Rather, it merely
highlights the fact that almost no document is without its use for social history. Social historians have
been and will continue to be imaginative in their application of sources and unflagging in their attempts
to unearth new ones.
Social history once was termed the history of
the ‘‘inarticulate.’’ In fact, through discovery of new
sources and innovative uses of familiar ones, social
historians have advanced a host of topics previously
considered unresearchable. Consequently the field has
moved from areas with abundant records, such as
protests, to cover a much wider range of topics and
groups, many of which have gaps in data. For in-

NONWRITTEN SOURCES AND ARTIFACTS
Photographs are another form of evidence that is
sometimes researcher-generated but that, like artifacts,
is not written. Most archives and libraries have large
photographic and iconographic collections of photographs and other pictorial material, such as paintings,
drawings, posters, lithographs, woodcuts, medals, and
icons. Social historians have used iconography for a
wide variety of purposes. While many historians are
content to employ pictures as illustrations, others have
used them more subtly and creatively in forging their
arguments. There depictions become evidence and
proof. Caroline Bynum’s study of female saints, Holy
Feast and Holy Fast (1987), uses iconography portraying holy women and Christ figures to link physicality
and medieval religiosity. Robert Scribner’s For the Sake
of Simple Folk (1981) made woodcuts an integral part
of his portrayal of the faith of ‘‘simple folk’’ during
the Reformation. Photographs have provided analytical material for many modern historical studies on
family life, street culture, industrialization, technology,
and the commercialization of leisure among others.
Other nonwritten sources—moving pictures, films,
advertisements, playbills, and fashions—can be employed similarly, although all require the mastery of
techniques peculiar to the specific medium. Pictures
are no more transparent than other media.
Maps and collections of maps are less integral
to most social historical inquiries, although zoning
maps, street plans, and field divisions have been effective in discussions of housing configurations, the
construction of community, local patterns of sociability, agricultural change, and even the structuring of
patronage-clientage axes in neighborhoods. Medical
historians have deployed maps to demonstrate the relationships between diseases and socioeconomic factors, such as poverty.
Other nonwritten sources fall into the category
of artifacts. While artifacts may be found in libraries
and archives, they are just as often not. Museums,
especially those devoted to representations of everyday

37

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

stance, it is hard to document how children experienced childhood, or to pinpoint the frequency of
adulterous behaviors, though qualitative evidence of
divorce cases provides clues. The discovery of new

sources and the clever exploitation of older ones have
allowed social history to remain fresh and innovative
and have reduced the sense that some areas of life will
be forever veiled to the historical gaze.

See also Printing and Publishing (volume 5); and other articles in this section.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Mass., 1968.
Braudel, Fernand. La Me´diterrane´e et le monde me´diterrane´en a` l’e´poque de Philippe
II. 2 vols. Paris, 1949.
Brown, Judith C. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. New
York, 1986
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food
to Medieval Women. Berkeley, Calif., 1987.
Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.
Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Translated
by Cynthia Postan. Columbia, S.C., 1968.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century
Miller. London, 1980.
Habermas, Ju¨rgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry
into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.
Hajnal, John. ‘‘European Marriage Patterns in Perspective.’’ In Population in History.
Edited by D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley. Chicago, 1965. Pages 101–143.
Hajnal, John. ‘‘Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System.’’ Population Development Review 8, no. 3 (1982): 449–494.
Herlihy, David, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and Their Families: A Study
of the Florentine Catasto of 1427. New Haven, Conn., 1985.
Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley, Calif.,
1984.
Hunt, Lynn, ed. The New Cultural History. Berkeley, Calif., 1989.
Imhof, Arthur E. Die gewonnenen Jahre: Von der Zunahme unserer Lebensspanne seit
dreihundert Jahren, oder von der Notwendigkeit einer neuen Einstellung zu Leben
und Sterben. Munich, 1981.
Imhof, Arthur E. Die verlorenen Welten: Alltagsbewa¨ltigung durch unsere Vorfahren,
und weshalb wir uns heute so schwer damit tun. Munich, 1984.
Laslett, Peter, with Richard Wall, eds. Household and Family in Past Time. Cambridge, U.K., 1972.
Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. The French Peasantry, 1450–1600. Translated by Alan
Sheridan. Berkeley, Calif., 1987.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from the Accession of James
II. 5 vols. London, 1849–1861.

38

THE SOURCES OF SOCIAL HISTORY

Michelet, Jules. The People. Translated by G. H. Smith, F.G.S. New York and Philadelphia, 1846.
Miller, Michael B. The Bon Marche´: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store,
1869–1920. Princeton, N.J., 1981.
Muir, Edward. ‘‘The Cannibals of Renaissance Italy.’’ Syracuse Scholar 5, no. 3 (Fall
1984): 5–14.
Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French Revolution. Translated by Alan Sheridan.
Cambridge, Mass., 1988.
Pol, Lotte C. van de. Het Amsterdams hoerdom: Prostitutie in de zeventiende en achtiende eeuw. Amsterdam, 1996.
Sabean, David Warren. Kinship in Neckarhausen, 1700–1780. Cambridge, U.K.,
and New York, 1998.
Sabean, David Warren. Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700–
1870. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.
Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558–1641. Oxford, 1965.
Stone, Lawrence. Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500–1800. New York,
1977.
Stone, Lawrence. The Past and the Present. Boston, 1981.
Vovelle, Michel. Pie´te´ baroque et de´christianisation en Provence au XVIIIe sie`cle: Les
attitudes devant la mort d’apre`s les clauses des testaments. Paris, 1973.

39


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