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Laslett: The World we have Lost

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Laslett: The World we have LostHow accurate is our popular image of life in the past? Many misconceptions have passed into popular consciousness, from which it can be surprisingly difficult to dislodge them. For example, it is widely believed that, because Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is fourteen, this must have been a common age for young women, at least in the upper echelons of society, to leave home and marry. Many people believe that, except if they went off to fight in wars, our ancestors mostly stayed in the same villages all their lives. It is widely believed that people lived in extended families, with grandparents living under the same roof and uncles and aunts in neighbouring houses. It is also often assumed that people in pre-industrial times lived in a more or less permanent state of malnutrition.

Peter Laslett was a Cambridge historian who decided to look into the truth of these assumptions, making systematic use of statistical analysis. Laslett had made his name as a historian of political thought, but he turned to this new field with great enthusiasm, eventually helping to found the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. His approach to statistical work was not to use it simply for quantifiable economic enquiries but to answer general and genuine historical questions. In 1965 he published The World We Have Lost, which was made up of a series of essays questioning particular assumptions about life in pre-industrial England. His findings overturned much conventional wisdom. He found, for example, that girls did not generally marry in their early teens, but rather they went out into service before marrying at much the same ages that young people marry today. Most people did not live in extended families; people by no means lived their whole lives in the same villages – and so on.

Laslett was a passionate believer in spreading the benefits of higher education to all, and he was instrumental in the foundation both of the Open University and the University of the Third Age. Something of the same concern for ordinary people lay behind his work on the history of population and society: he felt indignant that academics should spend so much time studying the deeds of the prominent and should take so little interest in the most basic facts of the ordinary life of our ancestors – how long did they live? How did they treat their children? Did they get enough to eat? Nowadays we know a lot more about these issues (and take a lot more interest in them) than when Laslett was embarking on his work; for that alone, Laslett deserves much of the credit.

 

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