I’ve been thinking lately about why certain historical periods seem to get all the attention. For the topics I’m most interested in – emotions, fashion, the city and gendered spaces, consumption – much of the recent scholarly attention focuses on the early modern period. Some of the most exciting work – the studies that try to reconceptualise history and look for new ways of examining how people’s minds, lives, living spaces and communities worked – seems to be happening there. While I love reading great books and articles that are outside my period – the more different and apparently random the better sometimes – I do wonder, as a contemporary historian, why so much of the innovation seems to be happening in much earlier centuries.
Some of the reasons are obvious enough. Early modern people are much more distant from us in time and we know that in many ways they are strangers to us. Many of the categories and concepts that we take for granted today – childhood, marriage, love, fashion, family – were unknown or understood in completely different ways. And that is to say nothing of more abstract concepts like equality, governance and the state. It must be fascinating to be able to shed light on the workings of these distant minds and communities, who looking superficially at the words, images and artefacts they have left behind, seem to be like us, but aren’t. Then there is also the question of sources; while there is a saturation of historical documentation of every kind for the twentieth century – the limited and partial record for earlier periods forces historians to be more inventive, piecing together studies from fragments of text and images, formulating new questions and imagining new ways of interpreting the past.
Maybe I’m just envious because Renaissance Florence or eighteenth-century France sometimes seem to offer so many more possibilities for asking new, interesting and relevant questions than the more familiar 1950s, but I do also think that it’s as much a question of approach as historical period. It’s the same probing ‘why’, ‘how’ and simply ‘what was it really like’ that motivates some of the best work on living under dictatorship in the twentieth century. Again we know that these societies – whether fascist Italy, Soviet Russia or the GDR – were different to ours in fundamental ways and we want to understand what everyday life was like, and how it was understood by those who lived through it.
But the more I research post-war Italy, and particularly its popular culture and records of ‘ordinary life’ – magazines, advice columns, diaries, memoirs – the more I realise that it too was much less like contemporary society than I think is often assumed. It’s a deceptively familiar society in many ways, because it looks and feels so much like our world. In the mid-1950s, Italians had democratic government in which women had the vote, a free media and civil society; they had television, department stores and cars. The vocabulary in popular magazines is almost identical to today, but closer readings reveal that words like ‘love’ ‘jealousy’ and ‘marriage’ (to take examples from my own research) didn’t have quite the same meanings. To really appreciate the role of cars and television in 1950s society, you have to understand their newness, particularly in rural society where mass communication and transport were still sparse up to them. I think the message I have taken from some of the best early modern cultural history is that it’s not just about how a society looked, but about how its people understood it and understood their lives within it. Italy in the 1950s and 1960s was a society undergoing rapid social and cultural change; millions of people made the transition from rural to urban, with all the trappings that came with a more ‘modern’ lifestyle. The way in which many people made sense of their world and their place within in was shifting rapidly within the space of a few years. A period of such rapid socio-cultural change deserves to be interrogated just as deeply as others, despite its superficial familiarity. And even though I might borrow perspectives and approaches, like the micro-historical, from historians of earlier periods, I think I will stay a contemporary historian for now.