On 21 March 2016, the keynote lecture at the Social History Society annual conference was given by Steve Hindle, W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research at the Huntington Library in California. He is the author of The State and Social Change in Early Modern England (2000) and On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c.1550-1750 (2004).
In his talk, entitled ‘Space, Community and Economy in Seventeenth Century Rural England’, he presented his the findings of his ongoing project ‘The Social Topography of a Rural Community’ which focuses on the extraordinarily well-documented village of Chilvers Coton in Warwickshire.
“It is clear that the student who is ambitious or reckless enough to rise to the challenge of undertaking the reconstruction of a particular community enjoys the luxury – or is it a dilemma? – of being able to choose from a number of paradigms”, he said. And his own work sits at the intersection of the most significant three.
“First, the German tradition of Alltagsgeschichte, the history of everyday life. Often conducted through the painstaking analysis of the material evidence of economic transactions, paying particular attention to the incidental details disclosed by reading against the grain of the sources generated by the markets for land and of labour.
“Second, the Italian tradition, often described as anthropological, but in its original Ginzburgian formulation having much more in common with detective fiction, of microhistoria. Microhistory, in which the scale of observation is narrowed to make visible not only the most intimate details of interpersonal relationships, but also to allow the historian both to interrogate self-consciously the obvious strengths of, and the even more obvious gaps in, the historical record – and to tell stories about how stories were told.
“And third, the Angophone and Angophile tradition of local history, not in the antiquarian and often elegiac sense of parish history, but rather in the sense of the community study. Theorised by Alan Mcfarlane himself in 1977, informed as it is by the kind of empirical sociology which uses intensive and often systematic nominal record linkage and network analysis, to trace in one particular and particularised context the pattern of human interaction across and between a wide range of archival sources.”
Drawing on these three scholarly traditions, Professor Hindle took us on a journey to meet the inhabitants of the early modern village of Chilvers Coton – from the Silkweavers in the Heath End to the Widows of the Bowed Lane Crossroads.