Category Archives: Uncategorised

Exhibition Review – Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence by Benjamin Tree

Marfa Ilinitchna Riazantseva, 1937

Marfa Ilinitchna Riazantseva, 1937. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Photographs fortify evidence. They record, reveal, reproduce and validate information that can be shaped into persuasive inventories for prosecution. As a pervasive visual media, photographs have long corroborated evidence, from Eadweard Muybridge’s demonstrations of motion (1872), to their implementation in practices of criminal identification and surveillance. The Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence exhibition, currently on display at the Photographers’ Gallery, presents eleven such inventories of criminality and violence, tracing the application of photographic evidence from the early twentieth century to the current era of virtual, multi-medial and multitudinal photographic use. Continue reading

Faces of children: transgression and education by Alan Ross

Recently, I had the chance to see Jacques Feyder’s 1923 masterpiece Visages d’enfants at a genuine 1920’s palace of film, the Louxor cinema in the Parisian district of Barbès. The film had been freshly restored due to the inimitable Serge Bromberg (more on his efforts to preserve and publicise forgotten classics of the black and white era can be found at Lobster Films) who also accompanied the screening on piano.

I was amazed to see how seriously the director Feyder and his screenwriters Françoise Rosay and Dimitri De Zoubaloff had taken the concerns and preoccupations of their child protagonists. Continue reading

Meet the Social History Editorial Board: Associate Professor Vinayak Chaturvedi on Tennis in an Imperial World

Imperial Forest College Tennis Club (1933) Photograph by Bhagat Singh & Sons, Dehra Dun Private Collection of the author. [Brindhavan Bihari Chaturvedi, seated, far right]

Imperial Forest College Tennis Club (1933)
Photograph by Bhagat Singh & Sons, Dehra Dun
Private Collection of the author.
[Brindhavan Bihari Chaturvedi, seated, far right]

Vinayak Chaturvedi is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Peasant Pasts: History and Memory in Western India (2007) and the editor of Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (2013).  His book on the intellectual history of Hindu nationalism is forthcoming. Here he discusses his latest research project on tennis and its imperial connections. Continue reading

Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Madness, Part II

In the second part of Social History’s interview with Andrew Scull, the author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Madness (London, Thames & Hudson) discusses the treatment and care of the mentally ill in the 19th and 20th century and the impact of that history on attitudes towards mental health today.

Continue reading

Rediscovering Historical Criminology By David Churchill

half picThe study of crime and justice has long since stood amongst the principal sub-fields of social history. Crime history has produced some of the truly seminal work in social history at large, and innovative and exciting research is still pursued today. Yet in one respect, the social history of crime has never quite established itself – it has not gained recognition as a really vital sister discipline to contemporary criminology. Continue reading

Tackling Inequality: A Review of Atkinson’s Inequality: what can be done? By Andrew Gamble

Inequality has recently emerged as a central preoccupation in public policy debate. What has driven this is the mounting evidence that in the last three decades there has been a decisive shift towards greater inequality after a period in which inequality was declining. This ‘Inequality Turn’ in the 1980s is one of the most distinctive aspects of contemporary political economy. It was not predicted. Continue reading

The household inventory as urban ‘theatre’ in late medieval Burgundy by Katherine Anne Wilson

Figure 1: Map of Dijon 1574. Edouard Bredin. Archives municipales de Dijon, cote 4, Fi 956.

Figure 1: Map of Dijon 1574. Edouard Bredin. Archives municipales de Dijon, cote 4, Fi 956.

In 1413 Jean Aubert, resident of Dijon faced what many would consider to be their worst nightmare: both the untimely death of his spouse and a fiscal evaluation of his marital household. Then, as now, any emotional upheaval had to give way to an impersonal process, the drawing up of an inventory cataloguing and valuing household objects. Such a process may well have been made all the more distressing by the presence of witnesses in the form of heritors and neighbours and from watching objects with emotional attachments being reduced to mere numbers. The only trace of this sensitive moment lies in a rather dog eared, terse, and at first glance, potentially dull document which is but one of hundreds of inventories held in the archives of Dijon that describe objects room by room. 

A household inventory may not seem the best place to start to provide insights into the biographies of people or their objects in the past, and it is right to approach them with caution, given their tendency to omit objects and be based to a certain extent on subjective judgments made by individuals. After all, how much would a modern household inventory really tell us about us or our own homes? A brief description of an armchair and its estimated value, does not necessarily convey the emotional or symbolic value that the chair might have held for a family, as it might omit the crucial information that it was a gift from a much beloved grandfather, and was the very armchair in which the children of a house had been nursed.

An Urban Theatre

However, what if we step back from the list of rooms and objects presented in the inventories and consider the dusty document as an autobiographical statement in its own right? By thinking about an inventory as a performative act, it becomes a window onto a bigger historical picture.

First, we can use the inventory to reconstruct the ‘theatre’ for the performance. In the case of the Aubert inventory, this ‘theatre’ was both the urban context of the town of Dijon and the Aubert town residence.[1] Today, Burgundy and Dijon are famous for wine and mustard. In the later middle ages, while Dijon exported wine and textiles, the town was important as one of the administrative capitals of the dukes of Burgundy and their state, the Burgundian Netherlands. Created over the period 1384−1477, the Burgundian Netherlands became the most powerful state in Northern Europe, a political, economic and cultural leader that English and French rulers sought to emulate. A good career and living could be made out of working for the Burgundian administrative machine: perks included tax breaks, fiscal bonuses and gifts. Many individuals connected with the Burgundian household were based in Dijon during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Jean Aubert was one of these men; he eventually carved out an impressive career serving three Burgundian dukes and their duchesses over 40 years. However, his Burgundian career was not unblemished, in 1404 he was suspended for fraud, but he was quickly reinstated after paying back the defrauded money. He like other Dijon elites, may well have lived in the wealthiest parish of the town, by the church of Notre Dame, where impressive stone residences lay just a stone’s throw from the ducal palace−a layout still visible in modern Dijon.

The Actors of the Inventory

Thinking about the urban context and the layout of the Aubert residence, allows us to use the inventory for a second purpose, to reconstruct the ‘actors’ of the performance, here the Aubert family. Although Jean Aubert’s biography can be recreated, several other ‘actors’ remain more elusive. His wife Guillemot, whose death prompted the existence of the inventory in the first place remains in the shadows. We know from the inventory that she was cared for during her final illness by a servant of the house, and several of the objects have a connection to her. Bench covers in the upstairs chamber of the house bear her initials and armorial bearings. The presence of a female servant also reminds us of other ‘actors’, household staff. A wealthy later medieval household would commonly have servants, and if it was the household of a guild master, it could also accommodate apprentices, who would live there for the duration of their apprenticeship.

A Local Audience: Urban Elites

From the well-known actors, to actors who stood in the sidelines, we can then move to consider the ‘audience’. For this inventory, the audience can be reconstructed from the list of the witnesses that are given at the beginning of the document. Four witnesses can be identified. It comes as little surprise that these individuals in part mirror Jean Aubert’s own biography, in that they appear as participants in town government, both as mayors and aldermen, and many also have connections with the Burgundian court. Given their own backgrounds, they must have been unsurprised at the layout and objects present in the Aubert household.

Inventory Objects As Actors

Yet, what of the objects listed in inventories? Can they ever be anything more than a static list of items? For the Aubert inventory, if we think of the objects as ‘actors’ in their own right combined with our knowledge of the ‘theatre’, ‘actors’ and ‘audience’ we can establish new insights on the operation of Burgundian state power and the ‘consumer revolution’ of the later middle ages.[2]

Chests are but one example of this. Chests now are rather unfashionable, if they appear in a house, they may well act as a coffee table and some useful extra storage−it is unlikely that a modern residence would own or display more than one. However, in the later middle ages they were a staple of house furnishing and storage. Rooms frequently contained multiple chests, in a variety of sizes with or without decoration. They were used functionally, for storage of almost everything we can think of: clothes, jewels, cloths and documents are but some of the items we find listed in chests in inventories. They also appear as plot devices in popular literature of the period. Lovers in Boccaccio’s Decameron could find themselves in the rather undignified position of being concealed in a chest when a suspicious husband returned home earlier than expected. But they, among other objects like textiles, devotional portraits and books are also representative of bigger historical narratives. The first is the growth of the Burgundian State. One of the chests in Jean Aubert’s residence bears the arms of Margaret of Burgundy, wife to Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy. As researchers we might ‘read’ this chest as purely reflecting Jean Aubert’s career in her household. But if the chest has an agency of its own, it might be also be considered as an ambassador from the Burgundian dynasty, a dynasty that achieved authority and power partly by plugging themselves into town elites through the giving of occasional gifts. Chests recorded in inventories can also help us think further about the ‘consumer revolution’ of the later middle ages. Chests can reveal a changing world, where more products were available than ever before. But with more objects, different choices had to be made about their presentation and storage. Chests concealed and preserved objects that were not for everyday use, they facilitated choices about which textiles were to be used to furnish beds, which cushions were to be used and on what types of furniture and what was to be worn, and when. They, along with other objects in inventories, are a reminder that the purchasing trends and patterns of the ‘consumer’ revolution’ were driven by the desire of these urban individuals to act and perform in an urban theatre and by the ambiguities and uncertainties of their everyday lives and careers. It is in these ways that medieval and modern household inventories can become more than a simple list of objects, instead revealing an ‘urban theatre’.

Dr Katherine Anne Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Chester.

Her full article on ‘The household inventory as urban ‘theatre’ in late medieval Burgundy’ from Social History 40:3 can be accessed at:


[1] E. Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (London, 1990).

[2] B. Latour, Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor–Network–Theory (Oxford, 2007).

Historians reflect on Piketty and Inequality by Jim Tomlinson

Mad Bankers Disease - Norwich Grafitti 2011

At the annual Economic History Society conference at the end of March 2015 four economic historians (Martin Daunton, Avner Offer, Jim Tomlinson and Keith Tribe) offered perspectives on Piketty’s (2013) Capital in the Twenty-First Century. All of the contributors welcomed the book’s focus on inequality as one of the key issues of our time.

They also welcomed Piketty’s view that historical evidence was crucial to understanding how current inequality levels had developed from the much more egalitarian distributions of income and wealth achieved in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Avner Offer described Piketty’s ‘rich descriptive account’ as a ‘stupendous achievement’, but the overall tone of the discussion was largely critical. This criticism focused on the underlying ideas behind the book, some of its key conceptual underpinnings, and its politics.

The book’s title is a self-conscious reference to Marx’s (1867) Capital and the comparison with Marx’s work is instructive. Like Marx, Piketty sets out to establish the fundamental ‘laws of motion’ of modern capitalism, but (like Marx) what is really established are tendencies, but without adequate account of the counter-tendencies, and how their operation might undermine the prediction of greater inequality. Thus Piketty’s key ‘law’ is ‘r>g’, where the rate of return on capital is greater than the growth rate, and so capital enjoys an increasing proportion of total returns. But, as the book argues, for the years from World War I down to the 1970s, this tendency was offset by a low level of ‘r’ due to war followed by capital destruction and then high taxation, whilst after 1945 ‘g’ was exceptionally high due to much of the world catching-up with the GDP levels of the USA. These counter tendencies appear as highly contingent, rather than derivable from Piketty’s ‘fundamental laws’.

While Marx is invoked by Piketty, his definition of the key term ‘capital’ is not Marxist; it’s not about a social relationship. But neither is it about the physical capital that serves as a factor of production in neo-classical growth models. Rather, his ‘capital’ is actually wealth, the sum of all assets, real and financial. This definition has a number of implications. It means Piketty’s argument is a hybrid, adhering systematically to neither Marxist nor neo-classical norms, though owing more in practice to the latter. This definition also means that housing, the fastest growing source of wealth in rich countries in recent decades, is hugely important in the data Piketty presents, but the significance of this fact is never dealt with in any depth in the discussion.

This absence is very important for how we think about the overall trends in wealth distribution. Piketty focuses most of his attention on the top ten per cent of the distribution, but he does note how housing wealth especially has been re-distributed to what he calls the ‘patrimonial middle class’, those lying between the top ten per cent and the mid-point of the distribution. As he notes: ‘In historical terms, it was a major transformation, which deeply altered the social landscape and the political structure of society and helped to redefine the terms of distributive conflict.’[1] But this insight is not followed through to look at the way in which property ownership below the top ten per cent has buttressed the ownership at the top. To put the point in another way, in a country like Britain because of the spread of owner-occupation, the median voter is now a property-owner, and this must be seen as crucial to understanding modern property-distribution and the politics linked to it.(The recent explosion of buy-to-rent just adds another layer to this property-owning group).

Despite assertions about the importance of politics, Piketty has strikingly little to say about what has driven the rise in inequality, especially in the US and UK, since the 1970s. How has the underlying tendency of ‘r>g’ been allowed to re-assert itself? Piketty points to ‘changing social norms’ without explaining the mechanisms of change. He also argues that tax competition has, in Britain and the US, led to a ‘race to the bottom’ in income and wealth taxes. This has some force, but it doesn’t explain why such a race has not dragged most European countries down as well. A key feature of Anglo-American capitalism, which is mentioned but not well explained, is the rise of the ‘super-manager’; the corporate boss who combines enormously high salary with stockholding in the same company. The modern super-rich are decreasingly rentiers, but instead use their dominance of corporate hierarchies to extract large rents. Again, this is a particularly strong feature of Britain and America which has had much less impact in continental Europe, and so an explanation is unlikely to be yielded by postulating general ‘laws of motion of capitalism’.

Piketty proposes a global wealth tax as a solution to growing wealth inequality, albeit he accepts this is a ‘Utopian’ idea. Plainly a more sophisticated analysis of possible options is required. A key question is the ‘room for manoeuvre’ in the tax system, in the light of the political constraints. Here Martin Daunton was pessimistic, because of his perception that, in Britain at least, big property had built powerful ‘ramparts’ of smaller property-owners around itself, which meant that direct assault through higher income and wealth taxes was unlikely to be politically successful. Others accepted that some degree of pessimism about the politics of raising the standard rates of tax was appropriate, but pointed to the possibilities of acting to challenge many of the regressive tax expenditures embodied in, for example, tax breaks for pensions.

Away from these pragmatic discussions, Avner Offer stressed that Piketty, like so much of contemporary discussion, was still constrained in his thinking by an unwillingness to offer an ethical critique of inequality, rather than one stressing its ‘dysfunctionality’. The underlying thought was the pernicious impact of neo-classical economics individualistic assumptions, and the failure to recognise that in most of everyday life what mattered was our numerous, diverse obligations (to family, friends, profession, country etc), not the calculation of self-interest.

By contrast, Keith Tribe emphasised the importance of the development of a distinct tradition of welfare economics in Britain from the late nineteenth century (Sidgwick, Marshall, Pigou) which had made the key arguments for redistributive tax policy. In his view this tradition in economics still had much to offer in thinking through how inequality can be analysed and addressed.

Finally, on the question of Piketty and history, there was agreement that whatever the strengths and weaknesses of his own historical argument, he had set an agenda for the historical investigation of inequality which desperately needs pursuing. As Pat Hudson stressed in the discussion, the specific historical circumstances which made economic growth the centre-piece of much economic history in the 1950s and 1960s (not least the Cold War) have passed away, and a new focus is greatly needed which gets closer to the determinants of popular economic welfare.

Jim Tomlinson is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow.

You can read Jim’s full assessment of Capital in the Twenty-First Century in Social History 40:1 at:



[1] T. Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century translated by Arthur Goldhammer, (Cambridge, Mass., 2014), 262.