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The History of the People


Until the twentieth century the writing of history served a broad political purpose, to explain and extol the political and military exploits of prominent people. That changed in the twentieth century with the development of social history as a major field of study. Properly speaking, since all activity falls within society and all human activity can be considered political, the distinction between social and political history is always somewhat artificial, but social history is usually conceived as the history of the lives of ordinary people (while often including their political activity). By far the most important influence on the development of social history was Marxism, which developed its own distinctive approach to the writing of political history. Since the welfare and development of the working class is central to Marxist political thinking, it was perhaps inevitable that Marxist historians should want to turn their attention to the ordinary people in the past. (Marxist history, however, is not synonymous with social history: its central concern is political development, so Marxist historians have written about kings and generals as much as any other historians have).

Social history has never been the exclusive preserve of the left, however. Some of the most popular writings in social history were the 1930s works of Marjorie and C.B.H. Quennell, A History of Everyday Things in England and, as these extracts show, the old whig tradition of history moved from constitutional history into social history in the very different political artmosphere of the twentieth century.

G.M. Trevelyan English Social History
W.G. Hoskins The Making of the English Landscape
Peter Laslett The World We Have Lost
E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class