Peter Burke: ‘If socio-linguistic concepts could be used to analyse behaviour that would be exciting’

Peter Burke is an authority on the social and cultural history of early modern Europe, and on the use of anthropological and sociological models in the analysis of past societies. Here he talks, among other things, about the mythology of community, the nature of space, and ‘code-switching’ (13-10-2011)

David Rosenthal: In your Languages and Communities book several years ago, you define community as being a dangerous yet indispensable term. Could you expand on that? [P. Burke. Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe, CUP, 2004]

Peter Burke: It’s easier to try to explain why I think the term community is dangerous than why it’s indispensable, so I’ll start at the easy end. There are two big problems with using the term community. One is the danger of idealising community, and that’s an obvious problem, so one can allow for it. Secondly there’s the problem – and this is trickier, because not everybody’s aware of it, historians, sociologists, whatever – of operating with too simple a dichotomy between community and society, Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft, and not attending to everything that’s in between, and there’s such a lot in between. So, in the first place, community, a small face-to-face group, people who interact all the time – when you don’t have it, you idealise it, it’s warm, it’s human, it’s personal, and then you forget how people can hate one another, can’t get away from one another, and, how the neighbours are always looking through the window and peering into your private life.
      I think that this is the case for the early modern period, as well. I was very much struck by a couple of sentences in the history of Italy, published in the middle of the 16th century by a Welshman called William Thomas when he praises Venice. Why? Because Venice is the home of liberty, “no-one shall ask why thee cometh not to church, to live married or unmarried, no man shall ask thee why”. It immediately made me think, this man has to have come from a Welsh village – there are no big towns in Wales in 1540. What was life like in Wales so that he so much idealises Venice? So, there is that side to it, immortally described by Robert Browning in the poem ‘Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister’? It begins, “Grr, there you go my heart’s abhorrence! Water your damned flower-pots, do! If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence, God’s blood, would not mine kill you!” So, here are, say, 20 monks, living on top of one another for 20 or 30 years, hates develop. In St John’s College, when I was an undergraduate in the Fifties, the undergraduate folk lore, probably true, was that the dean and the senior tutor had, in their youth, been in love with the same woman, whom the senior tutor had married. The dean never married and the two men disliked one another, but, in those days, you had to sit at high table, in the order that you’d taken your MA, so these two had to be side by side every night!  And, this lasts for 20 or 30 years. Imagine what it does.
      All this is more intense in the early modern period, because there are more communities. I tried to make a list, to myself, and there were families, obviously, villages, colleges, neighbourhoods, fraternities, guilds, and at the end of the period military groups – they didn’t have barracks but people would serve with one another so, again, the company, or something that size, would be a community. And on the other side only a few cities as big as Venice, where you’ve got the benefit of anonymity. There’s no problem for historians simply deciding they’ll use the term community, but without saying that it’s good or bad or, maybe better, saying it is, both good and bad in different ways.
      The other point, which is more important, is that you can’t simply divide Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, because of all those in betweens. What happens when migrants go to the city, and they’re doing this all the time in early modern Europe? Well, they’re attempting to set up community and, very often, it’s chain migration, so that people from the same village, people from the same family, they’ll go to the same place and work in the same job and try to live with them. And to the outsider it may look as if there’s a kind of ethnic ghetto, whether it’s literal, in the sense of the Jewish community in Venice, or metaphorical, let’s say Sicilians are thicker on the ground in one part of Milan than another. But, in fact, even though the outsider will go in and think, “Oh, this whole place is foreigners”, actually it’s only one house in three, or something like that, it’s much more of a mixture. And the people who live in that area may leave it for many hours a day, so they’re in and out of the community. In one place everybody knows their face, but you only have to walk a few hundred yards in an early modern city and you become much more anonymous. So people are living with these two social realities at once, but I’ve not seen any books that talk about the in between, and I think people tend to focus either on community or they look at cities as great anonymous areas and quote Georg Simmel on life in the metropolis, and all that.

DR: What you are implying is that there are multiple urban communities, and people feel greater or lesser senses of belonging, at different times, to one or another of them. At the same time they might also have a sense of belonging to a greater civic community.

PB: Yes. Florence is a community, at least, on one day in the year, the feast of St John the Baptist. We can’t interview the dead but it would be interesting to know whether people thought that they came from this parish or neighbourhood, first of all, and, only afterwards, from Florence. I like to test something similar on Italians when I meet them. I just give them an open ended question, where do you come from? And they never say Italy. They normally mention a particular city. My guess would be, in the early modern period, that people would give an even more localised response to that question: I’m from the Santa Croce part of Florence, rather than the whole thing. Besides festivals, when the community is threatened there’s a greater solidarity than usual, at least temporarily. Social history is the history both of social conflict and social solidarity, and you can’t imagine one without the other. Conflict with one group promotes solidarity in another, and solidarity goes with the sense of community, which was very well analysed, after all, by Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, with his concept of Asabiyya, which no Arabists seem to agree how to translate but it must be more like solidarity than anything.

DR: The terms that I keep coming across in relation to community are agency, identity and, perhaps above all, space. I wonder what you think of this toolkit of terms. Old wine in new bottles, or is the field going somewhere new?

PB: In the case of space, I think we are getting something new, because it’s historians talking to geographers, or reading their books more than before, and also, with luck, talking to architects and architectural historians. What interests me is the way in which the built environment, including the spaces that are left when you build – which are, in a sense, constructions, because, they’re in between the buildings – shape the social lives of people who live in them. Working in a Cambridge college is an ideal place for thinking about this, because, you’ve got these buildings that were constructed so many centuries ago, for particular purposes. We’re trying to live differently, but sometimes you feel a bit of a pressure from the space on you, to behave in one way rather than another, as in the case of Italian piazzas. This encourages a certain kind of sociability. The buildings are giving you cues what to do. You can resist but it’s an effort, and there is a line of least resistance. And if you don’t have these spaces people don’t meet.
      The term ‘identity’ has been overused so much in the last ten, even twenty years, that it makes one suspicious. I think it’s once again an indispensable concept, but a dangerous one and people don’t think enough, maybe, that it’s got an inside and an outside. Not enough attention is given, perhaps, to the way which we identify other people, as opposed to how we identify ourselves. Maybe that’s an excuse for, what I think is a horrible neologism, self-identity, because identity is surely about the self. I can see the point of saying, collective identity or individual identity, because it’s contrasting it with something, but self-identity seems to be just pleonastic. Anyway, it’s definitely valuable to have a spatial turn.  In the case of identity, it is partly old wine in new bottles, but not entirely.

DR: The other concept is agency, a master trope of recent social history, as one historian has put it.

PB: Do you think we should be talking, especially, about collective agency and the extent to which that depends on the shared sense of identity, as when a crowd starts to behave almost like a person? Or, to take a more permanent case, the identity of people living inside an institution, sometimes making collective decisions, holding a meeting, voting, and so on.

DR: Yes, but one of my concerns is to what extent one needs to be careful about attributing agency to early modern actors, the vast majority of whom have very few resources and are economically and politically marginal – and also to what extent deploying a notion of community helps them grasp agency.

PB: But where you have action, you must have agency. Ritual seems important here, not only as an expression of community, but as a way of constructing it. So when I was trying to interpret the first days of the Masaniello revolt in Naples, I thought it was interesting that the whole thing started with a ritual, because that’s something that everybody knows, which means you know what the next move is and that coordinates things. Soldiers knew that and that was why they started to train people to drill, so that in the stress of battle, they would still be coordinated and all the musketeers could step back one pace and let the pike man come forward or the next people who have loaded their muskets, and so on. It’s not an accident that, in the army, esprit de corps was taken so seriously in early modern times, and still is.

DR: Do you think this allows people to have some influence over the conditions under which they live?

PB: But that’s only one kind of agency, because it’s already agency if you’re firing guns and killing people and winning or losing battles, but in the case of rebellion, well, some rebellions have been successful, others not, so where they were successful at least for a time conditions changed. If we’re talking about the English civil war, at least in the late 1640s and 1650s things had changed very dramatically.

DR: In your work on popular culture, the arc between, say, 1500 and 1700 is that agency, in that broader sense, diminishes. Does that still stand up for you?

PB: Depends on how late in time one continues with this, because, in the 18th century, there’s plenty of subversive movements and of course there were the revolutions of the late 1640s in so many parts of Europe. The comment I most want to make is that this is all about more or less, rather than presence or absence. So it’s not that the lower orders or the subaltern classes have no agency, but that there are times when they can do more, and, times when they can do less, and I’m not sure that the whole of Europe is step in the 17th century. Of course, writing a general book about Europe, I was desperately looking out for something to say about change, in a general way. I still believe in the withdrawal from popular culture. There’s a whole literature now where people have taken up the term, sometimes to bash it, and sometimes to use it. I don’t believe it’s exactly the same chronology all over Europe. Even in the book I said that in eastern Europe things happened later than they happened in western Europe, but, yes, it is a big change. For me it went back to that passage in Castiglione’s Cortigiano where a Milanese nobleman admits to wrestling with the local peasants. That surprised me, so it made me start to think about this, and there is quite a lot of evidence that there would have been a social and cultural mixing – of course, not on equal terms, except when you’re wrestling it has to more or less on equal terms, unless they always let the noble man win! But you can be hierarchical and close at the same time, which, I think, is very common in the early part of the period. It takes us back to space. You have all those cities where the richest and poorest people live only a few yards from one another, in front of the grand canal and at the back, whereas in the 19th century you’ve got these bourgeois suburbs where people are spatially cut off. Social relations can’t be the same in the two cases.

DR: If someone asked you to write a book about community in early modern Europe today, how would you frame that? 

PB: I’d simply start with solidarities and conflicts, and then move on to some of the other points you mentioned. And I would be interested in the myth of communities, the effect on behaviour of people thinking they have something in common whether they do or not.

DR: I wonder to what extent one could find that mythology through literary and dramatic texts. That seems to be an area that’s under researched.

PB: You could do that, and maybe it would be most clear at the negative level, that is, who thinks who is not part of the community. One of the texts I decided to look at, I can’t quite say analyse, I didn’t give it enough space in Languages and Communities, was that Dutch play, Gerbrand Bredero’s The Spanish Brabanter. So it’s migrants from the South speaking the same language as Amsterdamers, but with this southern accent and being disliked by the locals, thought of as totally foreign and not knowing how to behave because they’re not as reticent as Amsterdamers. Maybe they’re really papists. Maybe they’ve been influenced too much by Spain. So one side of it is Bredero thinking of himself as part of a community of real Amsterdamers, and he’s writing for people who think of themselves like this, but the evidence comes out most clearly about whom he’s excluding. The exclusion implies an inclusion which doesn’t have to be discussed, because that’s the sort of thing you should take for granted. There was a famous article about the myth of community by someone who made a study of Banbury in a anthropological, sociological way. [M. Stacey, ‘The Myth of Community Studies’, The British Journal of Sociology, 20, 2, 1969, 134-47]. This shows that people will over-stress solidarity and they won’t even want to tell the outsider that there are all sorts of cracks and splits inside what they want to present as a unified community. Sometimes people use the language of community and maybe not even consciously leave lots of people out. So, you say there’s nobody here, when you mean nobody of your social class that you could visit.

DR: If we are thinking about taking the study of community forward, one element, or at least tool, that seems to offer something fresh in the humanities is the increasing digitisation of materials – the ability to mine large amount of digitised text, for example.

PB: But even digitisations only make it possible for us to do faster work that some people were trying to do slowly before. In the 1970s, there was this lexical laboratory in Paris were people were counting the number of times Rousseau used one word in the Contrat Social rather than another one and one can parody this, because there was one text from the French Revolution where the most common word was bougre and this was obvious enough when you were reading the text, even though you didn’t know exactly how many times the word had been used! From the community point of view, if one can be searching Pepys’s diary, or something like that, it would be much faster than before. One could work out how many interactions he had with people of the same social status, higher, lower, and whether he writes about those in different ways, but again it’s something that you could have done all the time, only it would have taken you years more. So, digitisation encourages that style of research, because it’s become easier, so the balance changes, rather than something totally new.

Fabrizio Nevola: Thinking of the example you gave of the Dutch play, in a sense a computer would entirely miss that, because it would find only the incidences of occurrence. Unless you were looking for the absence, the computer wouldn’t notice it. So it takes a real reader to notice absence and see that absence has a point to make.

PB: Yeah, and I don’t even know whether the computer picks up very easily when a reference is hostile, rather than a neutral or friendly, though it might via association of words. [On experiments in this direction, see interview with Ian Gregory]

FN: I suppose to the question about text mining I would have added the geospatial work, the GIS type computing, so that you add the specific points where things are said or done. It’s the interaction that seems like an interesting innovation. What some research seems to be doing – and it’s quantity but it’s also managing quantity and complexity of data that I wouldn’t even think about trying to do as an individual – is show the clustering of emotion or banking or action words in relation to place, and that can throw up meaning which is spatially located to do with how people behave in space. So, as you say, when I’m in the quad, in any college, there’s engrained in that space an understanding about how people used it when it was built, 400 years ago. But all we have is the walls that tell us that, and if we can feed into those walls the words from that time about how people would talk about that space, we actually get an extra layer. So that’s where I wonder about the novelty. I suppose I’m asking you whether you think that might be the case or is it just more of the same?

PB: Well, it’s a case of analysing, carefully, what contemporaries thought about something, which, again, is what historians have been doing for a long time. It’s doing it in a more fine tuned way, and fine tuning is always welcome. I suppose I don’t think of it as a great revolution for its historical consequences, however great a revolution it is technologically. And, there’s been this quantitative history, which goes back even before the big computers, because there was all this price and population history done in the early 20th century. So long before the personal computer and long before digitisation, there were these ambitions. Historians always need to ask themselves, when they’re talking about some trend, well, roughly how many people are involved in this? Is it a big percentage of the population, or a small one? A hundred years ago, they didn’t think quantitatively, so I think quantification was a breakthrough, but it’s a breakthrough which has got a longer history.

DR: In our interview with Ed Muir, he was sceptical of quantitative history. He was talking about network analysis. His position was that it simply tells you, here’s a quantity of connections. It doesn’t tell you how much importance one person would place on a particular connection, at a particular time.

PB: I thought that networks, and microhistory, would come up. Network is an alternative to community, as an interesting concept, because networks are more open and everybody has got a different one, rather than, everybody that’s inside the community has the same experience.  It’s as if each of us lives in a different virtual community but they overlap to a degree.

DR: I wonder when a network becomes a community.

PB: Well, once again, this is not going to be a clear conclusion, but I think it is a valuable addition to the arsenal of concepts, because it is a more open concept than community. Microhistory, meanwhile, reveals all sorts of cracks where, from outside the village, it seems more or less the same.

DR: When we talked about micro history with Tom and Elizabeth Cohen, one of the problems, as Elizabeth saw it, is that microhistory has had a quite limited success in linking up the micro study to the bigger picture.

PB: Some historians are more concerned with the problem of microhistory than others, and, usually the ones in Paris have raised it to a greater theoretical level, like the volume that Jacques Revel edited, where people are talking about the problems at a theoretical level unparalleled in the North American or English microhistorical literature [J. Revel, ed.,  Jeux d’Échelles: La Micro-Analyse à l’Expérience, Gallimard, 1996]. How do you move between scales? I think it’s a bit like the wave/particle problem. There’s a kind of cynicism which is built into microhistory without people necessarily wanting it, because when you scrutinise individuals they all seem to do things for personal and local reasons, rather than because they really believe in some great movement. There’s a marvellous case of somebody that nobody ever quotes as a microhistorian, Jack Plumb, who, on one occasion, was asked to write a chapter in the Victoria County History for Leicestershire, because he was a Leicester boy. He couldn’t refuse, and he wrote a study unlike everything else he did. It’s like a piece of Annales history – it’s a political history of Leicestershire over the longue durée, it goes from the 15th century to the 19th. And what does he argue? That all the political conflicts in the county were the rivalry of two families, Gray and Hastings: one was white rose, the other was red rose, one was cavalier, one was roundhead, Whig and Tory, Labour and Conservative. So he’s reducing everything to family rivalry. But when you look at things at a much more general level, it appears that ideals like liberalism and conservatism matter to people. So this is a problem. It’s not just that historians haven’t bothered to try to connect, it’s a more serious problem than that.

DR: And taking these ideals seriously is then to insert these people into larger communities of discourse.

PB: Yes. Maybe code switching would help solve the problem, that is the same people at times think locally and think family rivalry, but that doesn’t stop them, at other times, thinking with idealism, against absolute monarchy, or whatever.

FN: Code switching is something that you’ve used in terms of language.

PB: Yes, but I’m thinking you could extend it to behavioural goals. And language is a wonderful litmus paper for revealing these things more clearly. Once you start to think about it, you can investigate other kinds of behaviour, but the language thing is more obvious. Somebody is speaking in dialect one minute, or more spectacularly is switching between French and German, just because somebody else has joined the group. It happens all the time. In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, if I go to a party, I know I don’t have to worry as I do in England whether people notice that I’ve joined the group, because I hear the language switch into English, and that means they know I’m approaching.

FN: Is linguistics an area that is doing new things that historians can helpfully borrow from, and do new work with? Is that something that I detect from the Languages and Communities book?

PB: It’s the second time around, in the sense that, in the Forties and Fifties, when Levi-Strauss was living in the United States and talking to linguists, they inspired the structuralist revolution. He keeps saying, I learned this from Trubetzkoy, or whoever. But that was the universalising linguistics. Now it’s the particularising socio-linguistics. I have to say that I think the socio-linguists are making a historical turn more obviously than the historians are making the linguistic one. Of course, they talk about the linguistic turn, but what they mean is doing intellectual history and focusing on concepts, which isn’t the same linguistic turn at all. There’s also a geography of this. In England, very few people seem to be interested in the social history of language and I’ve virtually never been invited to speak about it, except once in Sheffield at a conference organised by linguists, not by historians. But take a small country, it can be Finland, it can be Hungary, and people are aware of the language question and they think it’s perfectly interesting for historians to be talking about it. 

FN: Because it’s a kind of community thing there isn’t it? Because it’s community under attack, in a way, a small language community. Whereas, in Britain, there’s this sense, if you’re reading popular stuff by David Crystal, for example, that English has become a hybrid language and therefore the study of dialect, or of things that talk about locality, isn’t something that is done so much.

PB: I’d have expected the English to be more interested because of the tie up between language and class, historians being interested in class. I think the most exciting thing would be if some of the socio-linguistic concepts turn out to be adaptable in situations outside language. Actually, it’s not the first time it’s come up: Ranajit Guha, in a book of 1983, The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India talks about code switching between violence and non-violence – the crowd can go either way.


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