Peter Burke’s Study of Popular Culture

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

In this guest post, British Historian and Professor Peter Burke provides background information and some of the key experiences that led to the writing of his ground-breaking book Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.

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Burke – Popular Culture in Early 2dI began writing this book in 1973. After publishing two consecutive books on elites, I wanted to write about non-elites, about ‘the people’. At this time I was in close touch with the British movement for ‘history from below’, since thanks to my friend Raphael Samuel I had become involved in History Workshop. I was in any case an admirer of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill, though I owe my own ‘discovery’ of popular culture as a topic for research to one of the leading figures of the ‘Annales School’ who later dropped from sight, Robert Mandrou, whose Culture populaire aux XVIIe et XVIII siècles (1964) I had read soon after it came out. It inspired me to read 16th-century Italian chap-books, of which the British Library has a good collection.

I originally meant to work on Italy again, but soon realized that it did not make sense to study early modern popular culture within a national framework. A regional study was possible, or alternatively, given the migration of folktales, an international one. I was very much attracted by the idea of attempting a view of early modern Europe as a whole, from Galway to the Urals, perhaps the result of being the grandson of 4 immigrants to Britain, 2 from Ireland and two from the Russian Empire. Anyway, that was what I chose to do. It meant learning more languages, from Swedish to Provençal, but that was a pleasure. Geoffrey Dickens, whom I knew from writing for a series he edited, was Secretary to the British Academy and helped me get a grant to visit Scandinavia and tour folk museums. The direct contact with peasant material culture was eye-opening, and the move to and forth between artefacts, books and discussions with curators and folklorists was illuminating.

Although I was not conscious of this at the time, this enterprise was in many respects a result of my teaching at the University of Sussex, learning how to read texts from joint courses with colleagues in literature, volunteering to teach art history and sociology without having any formal qualifications in these subjects, and reading anthropology and folklore on my own. Among my historian colleagues, I owed much to the example of Ranajit Guha and to conversations with him, which left their mark on the text. Thanks to all these experiences, I included a chapter on cultural forms in the book (a chapter that no historian who reviewed it, as far as I know, ever mentioned). The most acute review of the book came from Carlo Ginzburg, whom I met in the 70s and who was asked by the publisher to write a preface to the Italian translation of the book (I was delighted that he singled out my comparative approach for favourable comment, while criticizing what I wrote about Lévi-Strauss). I have also had some interesting exchanges with Roger Chartier, whom like Carlo I have known since the 70s) concerning his attempt to eliminate the concept of popular culture. He rightly points out the dangers of treating any text or artefact as popular, since in the course of its career it my appeal to very different kinds of people. On the other hand, closer to social history than Roger, I began not with artefacts but social groups, asking what kind of culture the subordinate or ‘subaltern’ classes had, whether or not it was shared with other groups (it was, especially in the first half of the period treated in the book, in other words 1500-1650). I never discussed these issues with Edward Thompson, whom I knew only slightly, but when I began to read his Customs in Common (1991) I thought that his critique of people who viewed popular culture as located in the ‘thin air’ of meanings, attitudes and values was probably aimed at me, among other people.

It would of course have been possible to spend the rest of my life in the study of popular culture, and I did return to the subject in the 1980s, in essays on early modern Italy, and later, writing about Brazil. However, I also wanted to move on to other themes. Retrospectively, I see the book as the first volume of a trilogy that attempted to view Europe as a whole, the second volume being The European Renaissance (1998) and the third Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe (2004). But I must say that the study of popular culture on which I embarked in the 1970s has affected all my subsequent work, on whatever subject.

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Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe was identified by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our publishing programme. To see the full list of titles chosen by our editors visit, History Editors’ Choices.

2 thoughts on “Peter Burke’s Study of Popular Culture

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of September 4th | JHIBlog

  2. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of September 4th | JHIBlog

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