Understanding History 

The historical narrative that we are taught has been consciously constructed by the ruling class. This historical narrative is constructed so that those of the ruling class are seen as the driving force of history and those of us who make up the working class are merely dragged along. This narrative is not a new phenomenon: for centuries the church held the monopoly on what was historically significant and what wasn’t, today it is the landlords and the capitalists. 

This affects how history is not only taught but how it is thought about. We are led to believe that all of the peasants of Europe were devout to the church and didn’t think beyond what the parish priest or their lord told them. However, this isn’t strictly true. This narrative has been propagated by the contemporary writers of the time, the clergymen. So what was the worldview of the peasantry? 

Two books delve into this question. The first was by Carlos Ginzburg, an Italian historian, who wrote The Cheese and the Worms. This book is based on the transcripts of a trial of a miller named Menocchio in the 16th century. Being a peasant miller it would be expected that he would have a view that aligned with the church and his lord; however, we learn that Menocchio was not only literate but had read the Bible, possibly the Quran and several other books. Through the transcripts, he explains his worldview, notably how God created the universe. He explains that “all was chaos, that is earth, air, water and fire were mixed together; and of that bulk a mass formed — just as cheese is made out of milk — and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels.” 

Here we see a common miller showing critical thinking and taking the words of the bible and using what is common in his life, the making of cheese, to explain his worldview. The second book, Montaillou the Promised Land of Errors, by Emmanuel Le Roy Laurie looks at the French village of Montaillou in the 14th century. The book is based on inquisitional hearings of the peasants. The book examines often overlooked aspects of medieval social life, gender dynamics and property relations. We learn that there was a lack of church attendance and that even some of the farmers said that instead of burning heretics they should burn Bishop Fournier because he was demanding tithes in sheep. This last point is interesting as it was a clear class issue. The peasants did not simply accept that things were they way they were, but actively spoke out against them. 

Although these two books are considered in the realm of micro-history, they give important insight into the past, specifically the peasants under feudalism, an often overlooked class. These books also show us the monopoly on information that the church had as both use church documents from inquisitorial hearings as sources. Today those who write history are those who can afford to, and those who uphold the status quo get the publicity. 

The study of history is itself a political act. What is obscured and who is focused on matters with how we understand change in politics and society. We learn from history not just to learn what happened but how and why events happen and unfold. History has been monopolised into the hands of the ruling class. The working people who drive forward revolutions and build the societies that have developed across the world fade away with time. We all know the lives of Napoleon, Michael Collins and even revolutionaries such as Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. We don’t know the lives of the masons, the farmers, the tailors or the factory workers. History should be in the hands of the working class, not the landlords and the capitalists.