People's history

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A people's history, or history from below,[1] is a type of historical narrative which attempts to account for historical events from the perspective of common people rather than leaders. There is an emphasis on disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, the nonconformists, and otherwise marginal groups. The authors are typically on the left and have a Marxist model in mind, as in the approach of the History Workshop movement in Britain in the 1960s.[2]

"History from below" and "people's history"[edit]

Lucien Febvre first used the phrase "histoire vue d'en bas et non d'en haut" (history seen from below and not from above) in 1932 when praising Albert Mathiez for seeking to tell the "histoire des masses et non de vedettes" (history of the masses and not of starlets).[3] However it was E. P. Thompson's essay History from Below in The Times Literary Supplement (1966) which brought the phrase to the forefront of historiography from the 1970s.[4]

The term "people's history", popularized in the United States by Howard Zinn, first came to prominence in English in 1938 with the publication of the first edition of A. L. Morton's A People's History of England.[5]


A people's history is the history as the story of mass movements and of the outsiders. Individuals not included in the past in other type of writing about history are part of history-from-below theory's primary focus, which includes the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, the nonconformists, the subaltern and the otherwise forgotten people. This theory also usually focuses on events occurring in the fullness of time, or when an overwhelming wave of smaller events cause certain developments to occur.

This revisionist approach to writing history is in direct opposition to methods which tend to emphasize single great figures in history, referred to as the Great Man theory; it argues that the driving factor of history is the daily life of ordinary people, their social status and profession. These are the factors that "push and pull" on opinions and allow for trends to develop, as opposed to great people introducing ideas or initiating events.

In his book A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote: "The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners."[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ E. P. Thompson, "History from Below", Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 1966, pp. 279–80.
  2. ^ Wade Matthews (2013). The New Left, National Identity, and the Break-up of Britain. BRILL. pp. 20–21. 
  3. ^ When the State Trembled 1442660228 Reinhold Kramer, Tom Mitchell - 2010 "It was Lucien Febvre who first used the phrase 'history from below' when in 1932 he observed that Albert Mathiez, a founding member of the Annales tradition, had sought 'histoire des masses et non de vedettes; histoire vue d'en bas en non ..."
  4. ^ Black and MacRaild Studying History 2007 Page 113 "E. P. Thompson's essay, 'History from below', in the Times Literary Supplement (1966), was the real starting point, not only of the term, but of attempts to define it, to intellectualise about it, and to give it a coherent agenda...."
  5. ^ AL Morton Compendium of Communist Biographies, Graham Stevenson, Accessed Feb 2014
  6. ^ chapter: Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress

Further reading[edit]

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