Key Concepts

What is Cultural History?

Cultural history is not the history of culture – whether we think of culture in a strict sense (high culture…

‘For me, the sources from the past, primary or secondary, are not a prison. They are a magic thread that links me to people long since dead and with situations that have crumbled to dust. The sources set off my reflection and imagination, I stay in dialogue with them, and I love this. This liaison with the past is the heart of my vocation as a historian. The sources leave a space for speculation […] But I must always identify my speculations as such for my readers, and show them the bases for believing a certain thing is possible, probable, or contingent.’

Natalie Zemon Davis, A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet

Cultural history is not just the history of culture – whether we think of culture in a strict sense (high culture exemplified by the arts, music, theatre etc.) or in a broader sense, such as everyday social rituals (think of the English queuing!). As cultural historian Natalie Z. Davis wrote, there is always an interpretive space between historical sources in the past and the historian in the present. How we fill that space – whether from an economic, political, social, or cultural angle – determines what kind of historians we are.

Cultural history has been ‘trendy’ for some decades now, and I think it is one of the most fascinating ways to think about the past. But what is it? Everything – all objects, subjects, times, and places, can be analysed through a cultural lens. The methods of study cultural historians use make our analysis ‘cultural’, such as a concern with the symbolic and how we interpret it, as well as representation and how we create meaning.

This all sounds a bit vague – I know. Suppose traditional history would investigate Napoleon’s military strategy for the Battle of Waterloo. In that case, cultural historians might wonder how soldiers spent their time in the camp, what games they played, how they felt about the imminent conflict, what food was eaten, how soldiers washed their bodies (or not!). We’re all talking about the Battle of Waterloo – but in very different ways.

So, here’s a bit of background: a short history of cultural history, as it were.

For centuries, what was thought of as ‘history’ amounted to a list of names and dates: kings and queens, dynasties, battles, empires forming and declining, civilisations clashing. All very epic and, in my opinion, quite dull.

Where culture in a strict sense was concerned, Germans studied cultural history (Kulturgeschichte) two centuries ago. They focused on the classics, the canon of high art, its artists, and masterpieces. Historians’ main goal was to find patterns in culture and describe the ‘spirit of the time’ (Zeitgeist), taking these extraordinary individuals as their starting point, as in Jacob Burckhardt’s study of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1920s, social history started to gain importance, especially in France (Ecole des Annales). Historians influenced by Marxism focused on cultural encounters, which became even more central as intellectuals fleeing Nazism started to analyse the relationship between culture and society to make sense of their times in the 1930s. A social shift made non-elites the centre of the historiographical debate: ‘history from below’ was in. So, instead of Louis XIV’s biography, historians were curious about the kind of people who made the food served in royal banquets or sewed ball gowns.

Cultural anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss sought to map structures within cultures, and historians continued to focus on the culture of the ‘common people’ and their cultural artefacts, such as popular printed books, in the 1960s. The history of popular culture was influenced by 19th-century folklore studies (Volkskultur) and structuralism, and ‘cultural studies’ emerged as a discipline at the crossroads of history, anthropology, linguistics, and social studies.

With the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of women’s history, ‘new cultural history’ developed, focusing on gender. The intersectionality of today’s feminism and the rise of racial studies have shaped the ‘new cultural history’ and its political goals of decolonising historical practice and making it more inclusive. Moreover, the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1980s meant historians were increasingly interested in how we use language to create meaning, deconstructing concepts. Philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on how categories of thought are created paved the way to a post-structuralist approach to history, in which meanings are ever-changing.

Today, cultural historians try not to generalise about the lived human experience or fit these experiences into pre-conceived categories. Instead, we question the categories that guide our thinking, deconstructing assumptions and trying to be more aware of our own historiographical blind spots.

Culture cannot be understood as simple transactions between cultural centres and peripheries, nor as social interactions between the top and bottom classes. Instead, it should be thought of as complex webs of meanings and networks of relationships, constantly evolving and reshaping themselves. While historians in the past prioritised the study of ruptures (such as big battles or dynastic shifts), cultural historians today focus on everyday life and continuities, on symbols and their changes in meaning, looking for plurality rather than unity, and finding out missing voices in the historical discourse. It is the case of queer theory and gender studies.

This is why I am personally so passionate about cultural history. In my own dialogue with historical sources, investigating the history of the body, the methodologies of cultural history allow me to combine intellectual pursuits with political goals. By rethinking how we conceptualise the world, we can (hopefully!) reshape it and make our society fairer and more inclusive.

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