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Response to Review no. 65

I am grateful to Hugh Cunningham for his critically engaged review of Popular Cultures; it is heartening to have one¢s work taken seriously. It is also flattering to be described as a potential successor to Peter Burke¢s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, although of course Burke¢s book was far more wide ranging than mine. I am glad that the reviewer found much to recommend in Popular Cultures. But it is the nature of such exercises that they focus on criticism rather than compliment, and I would like to take this opportunity to respond to some of Cunningham¢s more critical points.

There seem to be four main aspects of my book with which Cunningham takes issue: 1) my ¡postmodernization¢ of the early modern; 2) my dismissal of keynote works; 3) the issue of microhistory; and 4) what he sees as my neglect of change.

Let me start by saying that I find these criticisms useful, and plead – How should I put this? * partly guilty … but with extenuating circumstances to be taken into account!

First, the dreaded postmodernism. It seems that Cunningham is somewhat contradictory here; and I am more than a little puzzled by his attitude given the nature of his own recent work on the history of representations of childhood. At the start of the review he praises the insights of ¡post-modernization¢ when applied to the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries: by the end of the review he is criticising me for imposing a postmodern framework on an early modern world. This aside, he has a point. But it is an unsurprising one. Historians continually rewrite the past in their own image – as I was at pains to stress in the last chapter of Popular Cultures. Is the older historiography (which Cunningham feels is ignored: more of which later) any more ¡objective¢ than the newer historiography? In my defence, I should also point out that there is no reason that elements of postmodern culture should not have existed in the early modern period. One is continually struck by an early modern sense of fragmentation and multiplicity of meanings and usages, of a cultural playfulness normally associated with postmodernity. As David Chaney has observed, ¡the privileged qualities of postmodernism * parody/pastiche, depthlessness, allegory, spectacular show, and an ironic celebration of artifice * have all been central to the submerged traditions of popular culture¢. To ignore these elements would be to neglect many of the avenues opened by recent scholarship. I could also argue that I did not merely impose current cultural theory on an insensible past: the chapter on sexuality is a critique of the very fracturing that Cunningham accuses me of.

Yet postmodernism is just part of the issue at stake here. Although not mentioned by its reviewer, Popular Cultures is an extended application of the notion of ¡appropriation¢ – a term commonplace in cultural studies but in history circles most closely associated with the work of the French historian, Roger Chartier. Despite some limitations, it seemed to me to be an extremely helpful way of looking at early modern culture. Others, including Chartier himself, have applied this tool to aspects of culture or popular culture, but (as far as I am aware) mine is its first application to the cultural history of a whole nation. It is certainly the first general history of early modern England to use the concept of ¡appropriation¢ in any sustained analytical way.

The second criticism is that I have slighted some of the icons of British social history. In response to this suggestion, I should point out that in Popular Cultures I was arguing not just with Burke, Thomas, and Thompson – but with myself. In 1985 I edited and wrote a long introduction to a volume on early modern English popular culture, which (to simplify matters somewhat) was more strongly wedded to the popular/elite divide than I am now. This book was dedicated to Keith Thomas and Edward Thompson, contained chapters by several students of the former, and a contribution from Peter Burke, so it seems a little unfair of Cunningham to say that I have minimised the importance of their work. Since much of English cultural history in the last twenty years is in direct response to the pathbreaking work of these three (can there be a greater compliment than that), it did not seem appropriate for me to (as my reviewer puts it) embark on ¡hand-to hand engagement with these writers¢.

Third, Cunningham raises the issue of the local. I do not fully understand what he means here. He seems to be saying that my book lacks ¡studies of particular communities¢ and ignores the possibility that ¡there might be relatively self-contained cultures (whole ways of life) rooted in a particular environment¢. Of course a great deal hinges on that word ¡relatively¢, and we could argue at length about whether there has ever been a ¡self-contained culture¢. But I had hoped to convey some sense of local culture in every chapter of the book * it was something that I was certainly aware of and tried to weave into my analysis * as well as in more explicit comments about the fens, and ¡more localised cultures: the civic cultures of London or Bristol; the ritual peculiarities of particular towns or villages; or the customs and folklore associated with distinctive local economies.¢ (See pp. 208-10.)

As the review mentioned, I wrote Popular Cultures after I had been engaged in a detailed microhistory of three nineteenth-century Kent communities. One of the appeals of writing the history of a nation across three centuries was indeed the opportunity to write the broad sweep; I relished the contrast between it and my previous focus on the context of the local. Yet at the same time – having argued forcefully in Microhistories that the local is central to the nature of the historical process – I made a genuine effort to combine the macro and the micro. Readers will have to judge for themselves how successful this attempt has been. It is certainly amusing to be so firmly hoist with one¢s own petard with the reviewer¢s suggestion that what is lacking in Popular Cultures is the perspective of my Microhistories!

The final criticism to which I want to reply is the allegation that in my approach ¡there is no easily available explanation for change¢. Now I must take this charge seriously, because it is very similar to comments made about my earlier book, Microhistories, in the pages of this journal (see Reviews in History, Review 32). In my response to that review, I admitted that I was rather continuity-prone. I would add, in the context of Popular Cultures, that I am very suspicious of the tendency of many historians to impose an extremely contrived sense of change when they write the past. And that I am still far more interested in the persistence of continuity in the face of easily assumed transformation. However, it worries me if Cunningham read me as arguing for no change. I stressed ¡a recognition of culture as process¢ (p. 201). One of the themes of the book was cultural interaction, negotiation, and adaptation: my use of the term re-formation was deliberate. As I wrote on page 212, ¡Perhaps continuity is the wrong word to indicate the subtle re-forming and retaining which proceeded amidst change, but it is a useful counter to notions of dramatic metamorphosis.¢

Let me thank Hugh Cunningham again for his review. I hope that it is the start of productive debate about early modern English cultural history, and that it has persuaded its readers that Popular Cultures is a book worth owning.