Intentional Wandering: How to find Hidden History
Hello everyone, this is Gary Girod from the French History Podcast. The theme of this year’s conference is Hidden Histories & I’m sure by now you’ve heard quite a bit about little-known historical stories. In the short time I have I want to explain how you can uncover the past and discover hidden history. If you’re a podcaster looking for an uncovered topic, a history major scrambling to pick a thesis or dissertation or just a history buff who wants to learn how you can go where no one else has gone, then this is the talk for you. I argue that we as historians can’t have too rigid a focus on a topic and instead we need to go down the rabbit hole, go off on every tangent and follow every loose thread because if we dive deeper into obscurity the stories that we find can be world-changing.
Most major events have already been thoroughly covered, and each has its own Wikipedia page. Modern historians have the task of uncovering unknown episodes of history or presenting a unique take on history. As historians there is almost no way to tell what topic will be ground-breaking. Two of the most famous examples are from Robert Darnton and Fernand Braudel.
Robert Darnton is an American historian of Revolutionary France. Darnton’s early career examined publishing on the eve of the French Revolution. After working at this for a while, Darnton realized that a lot of contraband literature entered France through publishers in Switzerland. For most historians the great Enlightenment thinkers were far more important and interesting than the publishers themselves, and so these were largely ignored. But when Darnton visited the archives in Switzerland he found stacks of scandalous materials by hack writers who were just as published as the great Enlightenment thinkers, if not more so. Darnton discovered that the entire literary corpus of pre-Revolutionary France wasn’t Voltaire, Rousseau and high-minded intellectuals. Instead, the average Parisian was reading what was essentially smut, that slandered the French aristocracy, gossiped about illicit affairs and other low-brow material which aimed to discredit the Ancien Régime. His discovery formed the basis of his book, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, which is one of the all-time great books on Revolutionary France and is on every French history graduate student’s comps list. Darnton was researching the publishing process of 18th century writers and by going down this tangent he radically altered a century of historiography on the social history of the French Revolution.
The next person I want to talk about is Fernand Braudel, a French historian and arguably the greatest of the Annalistes, one of the most prestigious groups of historians ever. Braudel was in graduate school and looking for an interesting topic and supposedly told his advisor he was going to write a dissertation on Philip II of Spain and the Mediterranean world. His advisor then suggested that instead of writing about Philip and the Mediterranean world, why not write about the Mediterranean world and Philip. This suggestion led Braudel to write a three-volume magnum opus that is among the greatest works of historical inquiry of the 20th century.
As is the case with most great books, many historians have their own copy which collects dust on a shelf. If you haven’t read it, what makes it so incredible is that Braudel was writing a novel history, wherein he flipped the script on previous historiography. Most historians looked at human activity, either in the form of great individuals, the masses, institutions, organizations and nations. Braudel researched how the world impacted people and his findings were truly incredible. Some of the highlights were the difference in culture between valleys, hills and mountain towns. Braudel showed that places with low elevation produced more food, were better irrigated, and were more easily accessible, leading to larger populations and transference of culture through migration or conquest. In contrast, people living in mountainous areas had less access to food and thus smaller populations. Meanwhile, the rough geography made them harder to conquer and mountain-peoples became bastions of older cultures while those living in valleys and river basins developed hybrid cultures of numerous peoples.
Another great discovery was the effect of animals on populations. Braudel looked at the conquests of the Arabs into Spain and southern France and contrasted this with the Turkish conquest of Anatolia and the Balkans. Why did the Arabs fail in their conquest of France, while the Ottoman Turks succeeded in conquering the Balkans? There are a number of geopolitical and economic reasons, but Braudel argued that one major reason was camels. The camels that the Arabs used looked something like this [slide], which is the one-hump Somali camel. These camels are adept are going long distances in hot conditions and were crucial in the Arab conquest of the Middle East and Spain, which has a similar climate. Europe north of the Mediterranean has a temperate climate which these camels are ill-suited for. Thus, the primary pack-animal and cavalry of the Arab conquerors couldn’t match French horses. In contrast, the Turks used two-hump camels similar to the modern Bactrian camel. These camels are used to cold, harsh conditions found on the Eurasian steppe. They are also adept at climbing. This was crucial for the Turks since Anatolia and the Balkans are rocky and often very cold. Using these camels, the Turks could travel long distances, across inhospitable terrain and chase down their foes even when they hid in the mountains. Thus, one of the reasons why the Turks succeeded in Europe and the Arabs failed was due to the difference in their camels.
I’ll bring up one more example because this is so important. Another concept that Braudel purported was the expansion of a biome across space. That might sound like graduate school gibberish but it’s really simple. We can easily accept that the Spanish Empire stretched from Europe, a number of islands off northwest Africa and into the Americas. Just as nations can spread and create hybrid political institutions in areas they conquered, when two eco-zones come into contact they influence each other. When the Spanish went to the Americas they took with them seeds and animals, notably horses, to the lands they conquered, and brought American crops such as maize back to Europe. Through the Columbian Exchange the Spanish changed much of North America’s ecology to better suit themselves, and Braudel argued that as the Spanish Empire expanded the Mediterranean World expanded, most prominently in Mexico.
All of these incredible ideas have had a pronounced impact on historiography, from environmental history, animal history and the study of borderlands. Whereas Darnton stumbled upon new sources, Braudel asked new questions and conducted research to answer questions which no one had asked before. He pursued every small detail, every seemingly insignificant quandary, including the importance of one hump vs. two humps in camels and the result was a work that changed history forever.
So, how can we learn from these two examples and uncover new histories? There are three major takeaways from these two stories. First: your new work always builds off of your old work. Darnton was already established in Revolutionary French studies when he got the idea of writing about illicit publishers. Braudel was already a scholar in his time period when he decided to reorient his focus. New ideas aren’t going to fall out of the sky, or emerge from thin air. When you work long enough on one topic and know it inside and out, you naturally start to see details and themes that others might not. This is a comforting thought for me, because it means that just reading history, even if it feels like the same thing, can open up new horizons on the material.
The second takeaway is: know what you don’t know. Identify some part of your area of study that you don’t know much about and learn about. Simple questions like, “what type of pack animals did Arabs and Turks use?” or “who published the French contraband writings during the 1780s?” often leads to novel ideas and sources.
The third takeaway is: be willing to change your mind about everything. This includes changing your ideas on a topic and your perspective on the topic itself. Before Darnton the common belief was that Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and other great thinkers published tracts on freedom and liberty, which inspired the people of France to rebel. While there is some truth to that, Darnton discovered that sex scandals and the cuckolding of nobles discredited the old order and was possibly just as influential in the early upheaval. Likewise, don’t be afraid to change your perspective on a topic, such as when Braudel shifted from Philip and the Mediterranean to the Mediterranean and Philip.
As a late-stage Ph.D student speaking to future history students, I find that the best indication you might have a good dissertation topic is when no one is writing a book about your topic, but it is constantly mentioned in chapters or footnotes. I’ve come across a fair number of cases where dozens of authors have written on an established topic and make reference to how it was done, or some obscure figure involved, or seemingly unimportant incident, but when I look up those things there is no scholarly study. If you ask the small questions no one else is asking, you can find answers that are larger than anything you imagined.
I’ll use my own research now as an example. When I was an undergrad I wrote a thesis on The Red Clydeside. For everyone who isn’t Scottish and thus doesn’t know, The Red Clydeside refers to Glasgow in 1914-1919, during which radical far-leftist agitators in the munitions industry challenged the government. It is a fantastic episode in history. In 1915 Glaswegian women who were tired of being evicted while their husbands were off fighting, organized and whenever a landlord or even policeman came to evict them they would all rush out and beat them up with rolling pins.
In 1917 the British government arrested some of the revolutionary leaders and imprisoned them in the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle.
It all ended in January 1919 when Glaswegians marched in the tens of thousands on city hall, during which the police violently attacked them. Afterwards, the British government was so paranoid about a communist revolution in Scotland that they put machine guns and armored vehicles on the streets of Glasgow. I was fascinated, but I was young and I had nothing interesting to say about it.
In graduate school I took a course on writing a professional paper. The task seemed difficult since I’m a European historian living in Texas and can’t afford to just travel over to Europe to do original research, so I decided to build on my work about munitions workers, though this time I focused on women in Glasgow and Paris. In the process I discovered a number of similarities, as in 1917 Paris the women marched from factory to factory forming syndicates and were only stopped when the French government literally sent in the cavalry to break them up. I had some ideas but not much beyond what Laura Lee Downs had already done.
In graduate school we’re told to turn the papers we write for classes into articles, so I kept working on WWI-era munitionettes. That’s when I realized that I spent so much time looking at what was there that I had missed what wasn’t and that was the male radicals. That’s when I asked, “Why didn’t male and female munitions workers work together for higher wages, better conditions and to end the war? How is it that these male far-leftists, who claimed to represent universal class struggle, either failed so badly to attract women, or hardly tried?” I decided to conduct my own research and I discovered that these munitions workers didn’t see the women as their allies but as a threat to their livelihoods and lives. Munitions workers before WWI were skilled craft workers, while most women entering the factories had no experience, so factory owners used methods and machines that required little skill, much like what Henry Ford did with the assembly line in America. Male munitions workers saw companies using unskilled women to deskill work, which would mean these craft workers would have to compete with masses of unskilled laborers. Because of this men blamed women for getting sent to the Front. Skilled munitions workers were exempted from military service but since skilled munitions jobs were dying out many of these elite laborers were being sent to the Front. These two things had been studied before but what I added to the historiography was how radical left-wing labor leaders in Glasgow and Paris refused to organize women, forcing them to organize themselves or join the moderate trades unions. In 2019 my finished article was accepted and published in Labor History, one of the two top journals in the world for the field of labor history.
In conclusion, whether you are a professional historian, a podcaster or a casual history lover take my advice: go down the rabbit hole. Go on tangents. Ask silly questions. Your curiosity is your greatest strength and will lead you and those around you to fascinating topics.