Have you ever seen cloth woven by a weaver on a hand loom?
If you look closely you will see that it is made up of small threads interwoven with other threads. The threads are small, thin and seem fragile but when woven together they create a strong, beautiful piece of cloth. You must look close on a woven pice of fabric to see the individual threads, but they are there. And when you discover them, you begin to see all the colors and textures and weaving that went into creating the fabric. It truly is a work of art.
So, by now, you may we wondering, “Why is she talking about weaving in a history post?”
Let me explain.
When E.P. Thompson began his work on what became The Making of the English Working Class, he decided to find the little “threads” that wove the history. Instead of looking at the bigger picture of the English Industrial Revolution from 1790 -1830, he looked at the individual threads, and he started with the weavers.
Thompson says in The Making of the English Working Class, that “The conditions of most weavers, from the 1820s (and earlier in cotton) to the 1840s and beyond, are commonly referred to as “indescribable” or as “well known.” They deserve, however to be described and to be better known.” (44) And he does describe them. He weaves them together to give the reader a picture of the truly human cost of the Industrial Revolution.
Mrs. Hulton and myself, in visiting the poor, were asked by a person almost starving to go into a house. We there found on one side of the fire a very old man, apparently dying, on the other side a young man about eighteen with a child on his knee, whose mother had just died and been buried…I have no doubt that the family were actually starving at the time… (44)
Using first hand accounts of the ‘small threads’ that made up the story, Thompson pieces together a picture of the Industrial Revolution’s affect on those whose backs it rested.
He however doesn’t leave them powerless. He chronicles their agency, their place in fighting back. Thompson chronicles the advent of writings such as Corbette’s in his conversational tone that connected with workers, inspired them and helped to draw them together. Other radical writers and thinkers all coalesced together to fight back and bring the rise of the English working class.
So, why did Thompson decide to look at the ‘little threads’ of the English Industrial Revolution? Why did he not look at prominent figures, the bills in Parliament or the overall changes in the economy?
Because as a historian, his guide for historical research, the ‘framework’ from which he wove his story, was a theory. In fact it was a theory developed on class consciousness, marxian theory. Over the years, historians have not worked ‘outside’ or ‘irrelevant’ of the political and literary theory developing around them. Works by such theorists as Said, Marx, Foucault and Bhabha and even Saussure and Derrida affect historians work. Historians too join in the conversation on theory. You can see it in Thompson’s work as he analyzes, especially in his analysis of the radical journalists of the English Industrial Revolution. For historians, theory may open up a ‘pattern’ to follow or a way to look at language.
The way historians “do” history, the theory they follow, the ideas they concentrate on certainly vary over time. No discipline that remains static remains relevant. But ultimately, whatever theory they may follow or whatever time period or people they may study, historians remain weavers – they take the threads of history and create intricately woven fabrics of past time.
Please permit me a little aside here at the end. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a novel in 1854 entitled North and South. The novel is set in a northern English town during the Industrial Revolution. The BBC made a miniseries of the novel. It is a poignant story that shows the working conditions in textile factories in the first half of the 19th century. Follow this link for previews of the miniseries http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/northandsouth/. It is available on Netflix.