Local history has a reputation for being narrow-minded and descriptive. Local historian are seen as amateurish, obsessed by detail, and offering simple explanations of the past. Some local history deserves a bad name, but Changing Approaches to Local History: Warwickshire History and its Historians shows that good local history adapts to new methods and ideas, evolves new interpretations, and is in constant flux. The time frame for the essays in this book is defined by the century in which the Dugdale Society (which publishes historical records for Warwickshire) has been active: 1920-2020. The range of evidence employed has changed. From its early days some members of the Society were interested in archaeology as well as documentary history, but a recent trend has made it normal to integrate the written records with town plans, rural landscapes and standing buildings, as can be seen in six of the chapters of this book. In addition material culture in the form of weapons and red uniforms has been connected to the records of the sixteenth-century Warwickshire militia.
In the 1920s history writing of all kinds was preoccupied with constitutions and laws, so that the most important issue in medieval Coventry was thought to be the division of the city’s government between the earl’s half and prior’s half. It was also argued that the city’s industry was controlled by a council that served the selfish interests of the merchants. Now we take a broader view of the city as an urban community; institutions mattered, but so did other things. A lively debate has arisen from the revision of the constitutional view of the English Civil War of 1642-60, once thought to have emerged simply from the rival claims of king and parliament to govern the country. The ‘rise of the gentry’ was succeeded by the ‘county community’, putting local society in the foreground of the analysis. Now religious divisions, social networks, cultural communities and state formation are given attention in explaining the Civil War, also called the English Revolution and the war of the three kingdoms. Alongside the gentry and aristocracy who were once thought to monopolise government and the disputes around it, the chapters in this book from all periods reveal townspeople organizing themselves, awkward peasants resisting authority, and popular involvement in political controversy during the Civil War. In nineteenth-century Birmingham women agitated for the freeing of slaves in the colonies, and the extension of the franchise at home, culminating in the campaign for women to have the right to vote.
It might be tempting to contrast the narrow antiquarianism of the 1920s with the more expansive approach of our own day. However the pioneers of Warwickshire local history could be as connected with the political and intellectual environment as their recent successors, and perhaps more so. Mary Dormer Harris, whose work is referenced in a number of the chapters of this book has attracted little attention outside the county, yet she was a formidable historical scholar, with commitments to socialism, women’s suffrage, and the adult education movement. Through the century historians of Warwickshire in their interpretations drew on ideas derived from the social sciences, Marxism, gender studies, post-colonial analyses and much else, including conservative and liberal approaches. The subject matter of all of the chapters in this book would have been familiar to the leading figures in the Dugdale Society in the 1920s, though they would not have expected to see such importance being attached to small towns, timber framed buildings, and women’s political roles. They would surely have been taken aback by the last chapter, in which a historian examines the literature associated with the tourist industry. Although these numerous works published mostly between 1850 and 1910 were peddling myths and legends, there is historical significance in the public demand for the assurance that the countryside of south Warwickshire provided insights into Shakespeare’s writings.
Dugdale Society members must always have been aware of the popular desire to be involved in the past which fuelled tourism and inspired the historical pageants like the huge event staged at Warwick in 1930. That interest is now stimulated by television programmes, popular history books and magazines, and the activities of the many local history societies in towns and villages. There are many informal and personal connections between the Dugdale Society and that wider public, and in coming years these links could be reinforced.
This blog post was written by Christopher Dyer, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Leicester. He has written, edited, co-authored and co-edited many books, including William Dugdale, Historian, 1605-1686: His Life, his Writings and His County (Boydell, 2009).