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Popular History: Heritage and academic study

Updated Friday, 13th May 2005

Dr Peter Claus compares Thomas Hardy's treatment of a wife sale in "The Mayor of Casterbridge" with research into wife sales undertaken by historian E.P. Thompson.

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Scene from Mayor of  Casterbridge

We get some of our sense of what happened in the past from historians, but we get much of the rest from novels, drama, museums, gossip, and other forms of popular culture. Recently, some historians have begun to argue that we need to take popular forms of knowledge about history as seriously as we do those derived from academic research.

Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) deals with a real historical phenomenon: the sale of wives by their lawful husbands, a practice reasonably common in England between about 1700 - 1880. Wife sales are probably still best known through the opening scene in Hardy’s novel, but have been explored by the historian E.P. Thompson (1924 – 1993), who in an example of brilliant scholarship, explained the meaning of the wife sale - as a form of consensual divorce - within the wider context of plebeian or working class culture.

The Mayor of Casterbridge has also become part of popular history and the lost countryside of Wessex it evokes is also, like other Victorian settings, a favoured territory for television history. Take, for example, the 2003 adaptation of the novel directed by David Thacker, a £4 million ITV production which portrayed the opening sequence of Hardy’s novel reasonably faithfully.

Spectators to the wife sale looked shocked and expectant, the act itself appeared spontaneous, as was the ‘solemn and binding’ nature of the bargain. As a dramatic moment it was indeed a key, like it is in the novel, to the unfolding of the plot. The television version also presented ‘Hardy Country’ faithfully and proved to be everything we expect from a Victorian ‘heritage drama’; ‘realistic’ backdrops, ‘authentic’ costumes, and character types that meet our common expectations of what it meant to be Victorian.

The same could be said for the BBC television version of the Mayor in 1978 which was a high-budget affair written by Dennis Potter and filmed in Weymouth featuring Alan Bates as the character of Henchard. Whether we read the novel, watch television programmes, or seek ways to use history to place it into a deeper context depends very much on our perspective but also on some of our received notions of the past.



Scene from Mayor of  Casterbridge One historian's view of the wife sale
Against a background of a developing modernity, (industrialisation, secularisation, and urbanisation) Thompson raised wife sales as an instance of a ‘rebellious traditional culture’ among the masses, an illustration of ‘the disassociation between patrician and plebeian cultures’. This was a class-based experience which revealed to Thompson social relations among a strata of society who were previously treated with condescension. Wife sales were an attempt by the mainly rural poor to claim rights in the face of a rapidly changing economy. These ‘customs in common’, although conservative in form, anti-rational and non-progressive, were emphatically not customs shared with church and state authorities but responses to new economic needs among a fledgling proletariat.


There are consistencies between Hardy’s fiction and Thompson’s history of wife sales: a need for public witness, the use of a halter, the official role of the auctioneer to be performed, and the exchange of money, goods, or pledges. But there is no advanced public advertisement in Hardy’s account and the exotic sailor purchaser turns up from nowhere in the Mayor of Casterbridge. According to Thompson, the purchaser would invariably be prearranged - known to both husband and wife, and often known carnally by the wife. In many instances, the three would be from the same village and would travel into town together for the sale. Thompson only found one example (out of 218) where the wife had not given consent to this ritual, which after all had only one possible outcome. This then was a form of unofficial divorce and was an example of independent plebeian culture.

Thompson’s approach borrows from social anthropology and ideas of ritual which were current when the piece was first published. It stresses method, professional training and objective judgement. Thompson chose ritual as a way of ‘decoding’ wife sales, and adopted an interdisciplinary approach.

Limitations of Thompson's approach
But as the historian of social memory, Raphael Samuel (1934-1996), pointed out, Thompson's work on wife sales was necessarily a product of the 1960s and 1970s when it was researched. Samuel insisted that Thompson’s work ‘like any piece of historical reasoning and research . . . was a child or creature of its time. Politically it belongs, surely, to the liberal hour of the 1960s when multiple, or plural relationships were being widely canvassed as a release from the coils of matrimony’.

One divide in this debate between Thompson and Samuel was their approach to the ‘meaning’ of a document. Thompson saw the textual meaning as the product of an individual, whereas Samuel stresses its social construction, as the product of the interaction with the reader.

Samuel was content to regard multiplicities of meaning as an end in itself, each potentially as valid as the other. The more general point made by Raphael Samuel is that the production of knowledge is a social activity and is inevitably a product of the present.

Democratising historical study
Samuel, the founding spirit of the History Workshop movement and ‘history from below’, made much of incorporating unofficial knowledge into the canon of history. He wanted scholarship generated outside of professional history to be given due status as the product of what is essentially a social form of knowledge. So the genealogists, canal enthusiasts, railway buffs and amateurs featured in Samuel’s Theatres of Memory (1996) enjoy equal status as historians alongside academics working in universities.

He was in favour of taking amateur and professional historians as equals (but differentiating between their experiences) and by widening the base of history’s concerns. This leads the historian to other archives, to prioritise evidence differently and, to read historical evidence in a different way.

Heritage and History
Samuel maintained that history was an organic or social form of knowledge; its meanings open to the changing preoccupations of the here and now. He celebrated fellow historians who make their mark outside the historical profession, those ‘memory-workers’ seemingly oblivious to demands of scientific history. In collecting, displaying, re-enacting the past, they add to the sum of our ‘unofficial knowledge’, acting not on the laws of ‘science’, as such, but on subjectivity.

They rely more often than not on biography, juxtaposing the famous with notorious local characters, constantly looking for the ‘inside-dimensions’ of their subjects, for the sensational and the scurrilous. Samuel opposed the fetish for footnotes and cloistered seminars among professional historians, the dismissal of ‘antiquarians’, and those that express an unstructured passion for the past in the shape of ‘heritage’ and tradition. According to Samuel this disenfranchises a whole class of amateur historians who act as a foil to the narrow mysteries of the academy, but also miss a rich seam of historical knowledge.

‘Public History’ (a big subject in America and Australia) and family history continue to celebrate subjectivity, arguing that knowledge in any case is a social construction, a process of democratic scholarship and is the product of a thousand different hands, not of an individual, bringing a trained mind to the documents. From this perspective the heritage industry – even the television adaptations of Victorian drama, often accused of prettying the past – is an extension of history and not its nemesis. Hardy's view of the wife sale is as important in its own way as Thompson's.

Further Reading
EP Thompson Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture
(I B Tauris, 1993) - A collection that includes Thompson's article on the history of wife sales

Raphael Samuel Theatres of Memory Vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, (Verso, 1996); Theatres of Memory Vol. 2: Island Stories: Unravelling Britain (Verso, 1999) -the ground-breaking look at the way that we see the past.

Robert Hewison The Heritage Industry (Methuen 1987) - in contrast to Samuel's celebration of it, this view of theme-park Britain takes a dim view of the phenomenon.

Hilda Kean, Paul Martin, and Sally Morgan Seeing History: Public History in Britain Now (Francis Boutle, 2000) - a collection of essays on the current state of museums and other public representations of history.

Web Links
English Heritage
CADW [Welsh heritage]
Historic Scotland
Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland)





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