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It is not easy to define ‘cultural history.’ The risk is great of failing to draw a clear distinction between cultural history and other histories, such as the history of ideas, the history of literature, the history of art, the history of education, the history of media, or the history of sciences. Should we, consequently, change perspectives and consider that all history, whatever its nature – economical or social, demographic or political – is cultural, insofar as the most objectively measurable phenomena are always the result of the meanings that individuals attribute to things, words, and behavior? In this fundamentally anthropological perspective, the problem is not so much to define the particular sphere of cultural history, differentiated from that of its neighbors, but rather avoid an imperialist definition of the category.
Between these two stumbling blocks, the road is narrow. The course followed in this research paper consists of marking the shifts that have characterized the historiographical practices designated, in their time or subsequently, as belonging to cultural history.
- The History of Mentalities
- The Founders of the Annales and the History of Mentalities
- The Golden Age of the History of Mentalities
- History of Mentalities or Historical Psychology?
- Success and Criticisms of the History of Mentalities
- From the History of Mentalities to Cultural History
- An Impossible Definition
- Plurality of Practices, Common Questions
The History of Mentalities
The very lengthy genealogy of cultural history generally stops at a certain number of precursors: the historians of the nineteenth century (Michelet, Burckhardt), Voltaire’s, Siècle de Louis XIV, the legal practitioners of the ‘perfect history’ during the sixteenth century, even Herodotus himself. The course is not without illusion, measuring the ‘anticipations’ of certain precursors according to a posterior state of historical science. So as to avoid this trap, it is preferable to limit the research to the twentieth century and to follow the different faces taken by the historiographical projects which intended to focus on the phenomena left aside by the classical forms of political, economical, or social history. The history of mentalities was the first among them.
The Founders of the Annales and the History of Mentalities
Unlike a given idea, the paternity of the category of the ‘history of mentalities,’ insofar as it indicates a particular area of history, is not to be attributed to the founders of the Annales, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. It is the invention of Robert Mandrou and Georges Duby at the end of the 1950s. The expression appears for the first time in the title of a university course in 1956 with the election of Robert Mandrou in the Sixth Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études to the chair of ‘Social History of Modern Mentalities,’ while at the same time, Georges Duby was opening a seminar on ‘medieval mentalities’ at the University of Aix-en-Provence. In 1961, when Robert Mandrou published his book Introduction à France, Modern, he presented it as a response to the ‘requests formerly made by Lucien Febvre in favor of the history of collective mentalities’ (while using another notion as the subtitle of the study, ‘psychological history’ which was also dear to Febvre). Thus, designated as the inspirer of this new form of history, Lucien Febvre, in fact, had rarely used the exact term ‘mentality,’ preferring the adjective ‘mental’ added to words like ‘equipment,’ ‘material,’ but above all ‘tool,’ or even, in the plural form, ‘habits’ and ‘needs.’ In 1942, in the Problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle: Religion de Rabelais, he characterized the ‘mental tools’ by expressing two essential statements: that the ways to perceive and reason are neither invariable nor universal, and that there is no continuous and necessary progress in the succession of mental tools. The book makes an inventory of the instruments and conceptual categories which are the different supports for thinking: first, the state of language, with its vocabulary and syntactic particularities, the tools and the languages available in the operations of knowledge, and finally the value and the credit attributed to each sense. From there, the conclusion: “So close to us in appearance, the contemporaries of Rabelais are already distant by all their intellectual properties. And even their structure was not ours.” Each time, the ways of thinking and feeling outline in a specific way, the limits between nature and the supernatural, or between what is possible and impossible.
Paradoxically, Lucien Febvre, taken to be the father of the history of mentalities, uses the term less often than Marc Bloch who uses it as much in the Société féodale (where we encounter ‘mental atmosphere’ or ‘religious mentality’) as in Apologie pour l’histoire ou le métier d’ historien. He prefers ‘sensitivity’ that defines the subject of ‘historical psychology’ which seems for him the only capable way of avoiding the culpable anachronism which equips men and women of the past, not only with knowledge and conceptions which were impossible for them, but also with feelings and emotions that were unknown to them. Febvre stigmatizes such an error in Amour sacré, amour profane: autour de l’Heptaméron (1944) by concluding: “In fact, a man of the sixteenth century should be intelligible not in relation to us, but in relation to his contemporaries.”
In his book of 1961, Robert Mandrou does not dissociate the study of the mental tool from that of sensations, emotions, and passions which make up the mentality. Without separating these two dimensions, he distinguishes the common elements to all men (and women) in a shared time and place and those that are particular to each generation, each profession, each social group, or each class. For him, “all historical psychology, all history of mentalities is social history.” We should, therefore, once the common mental tool has been identified, describe ‘the mental horizons which are characteristic of the different social groups.’ The ‘history of mentalities,’ or of the ‘visions of the world,’ another term often used by Mandrou, was thus strongly anchored in the differences between social classes, defined more by the unity of lifestyle and the feeling of belonging than by a strict economical determination.
The Golden Age of the History of Mentalities
From the 1960s, the notion of mentality imposes itself to designate a history whose object is neither ideas nor socioeconomic realities. This ‘French’ history of mentalities reposes on a certain number of ideas more or less shared by those who practice it (see Le Goff, 1974). In the first instance, the object of the history of mentalities is defined by Le Goff as the opposite of that of classical intellectual history: “The level of the history of mentalities is that of everyday life and the automatic, which is what escapes individual subjects as it shows the impersonal content of their thoughts.” These ideas, which result from the conscious elaboration of a singular spirit, are therefore opposed to mentality, always collective, which regulates, without them knowing, the immediate perceptions of social subjects. Such an expression is not very far off the definition of collective representations in the tradition of the sociology of Durkheim as the accent is placed on the contents or the methods of thinking which result from the unconscious incorporation of unknown determinations in each member of a community, which set up their common manner of classifying and judging. Now, the second characteristic underlined by Le Goff: the possibility that the history of mentalities or the historical psychology ‘link themselves to another important trend of historical research today: quantitative history.’ Having as subjects collective, automatic, and repetitive actions, the history of mentalities should and must be serial and statistical. It is part of the heritage of the history of economies, populations, and societies that, on the horizon of the major crisis of the 1930s, followed by the mutations after the war, constituted the most innovative field of historiography. When, in the 1960s, the history of mentalities and the historical psychology defined a new, promising, and original area of study, they did so often by recapitulating the methods which ensured the conquests of socioeconomical history: the techniques of regressive statistics and the mathematical analysis of series.
From the importance given to series, and therefore to the establishment and treatment of homogenous data, repeated and comparable at temporal regular intervals, two consequences follow. The first is the privilege given to massive sources, widely representative and available over a long period, for example, the inventories after death, wills, library catalogs, legal archives, etc. The second consists of the attempt to articulate, according the Braudelian model of different times (long term, conjuncture, event), the long period of mentalities which often resists to change, with the short period of brutal ruptures or of rapid transfers of belief and sensitivity.
The withdrawal of witchcraft as a criminal act in France during the seventeenth century (see Mandrou, 1968), the transfer of attitudes before childhood or death (see Ariès, 1964, 1977), or the de-Christianization of France during the second half of the eighteenth century (see Vovelle, 1973) illustrate the articulation of the different periods of the history of mentalities. In each case, the problem lies in understanding how, in the long-term stability of mental structure, an essential transfer occurs: thus, the transformation of the representations of the world in the milieu of magistrates, the invention of childhood, and the concealment of death, or the indifference toward devotion practices, moral injunctions, and catholic beliefs.
A third characteristic of the history of mentalities in its golden age lies in its ambiguous way of considering connection to society. The notion seems, in fact, dedicated to erasing the differences in order to find the categories shared by all the members of a same era. “The mentality of a historical individual, a great man, is exactly what he has in common with other men of his time” writes Le Goff (1974), adding, as examples, “it is what Caesar and the last soldier of his legions, Saint Louis and the peasant of his domains, Christopher Columbus and the sailor all have in common.” Among all the practitioners of the history of mentalities, Philippe Ariès is no doubt the one who made the greatest attachment to such an identification of the notion as ‘common feeling’ or ‘general feeling.’ The recognition of the ‘archetypes of civilization,’ shared by a whole society, does certainly not signify the cancellation of all differences between social groups or between clerics and laymen. However, these differences are always considered inside a long-term process which produces representations and behavior which become common. Postulating the fundamental unity (at least tendentious) of the ‘collective unconscious,’ Philippe Ariès reads the texts and images, not like demonstrations of individual peculiarities, but in order to “decipher, beyond the will of authors or artists, the unconscious expression of collective sensitivity,” or to “find, beneath the ecclesiastic language, the ordinary set of common representations which are obvious” (see Ariès, 1975). The sensitivity and the collective gestures which are disclosed should be understood at the crossroads of biology and the mental, and at the meeting point of demographic realities (birth, death, etc.) and psychological investments (the forms of self-consciousness, the representations of life after death, the feeling of childhood, etc.). According to Philippe Ariès, mentality refers to ‘currents of the deep’ which govern, without them necessarily being aware of it, the most essential attitudes of men and women of the same period.
For other mentality historians, more directly located in the heritage of social history, the essential elements lie in the link between the differences between the ways of thinking and feeling and social differences. Such a perspective organizes the classification of mentality facts into divisions established by the analysis of society and then the superposition postulated as necessary between social boundaries that separate groups or classes and those which differentiate mentalities. This social cutting out is no doubt the most precise trace of the dependence of the ‘history of mentalities’ in relation to social history in French tradition. It was possible to understand it at a global and macroscopic level – and so in research aiming to characterize a mentality, a religion, or a ‘popular’ literature, opposed finally to that of the dominant or the elite – or in a more fragmented way, in reference to the hierarchy of conditions and professions. However, in both cases, the study of mental horizons reproduces the divisions proposed by the history of societies.
History of Mentalities or Historical Psychology?
Mentalities, sensitivities, visions of the world: the unstable plurality of vocabulary indicates, at the same time, both the difficulty in defining objects of a new historiographical approach and the will to link, in the same perspective, intellectual and psychological categories.
When Alphonse Dupront proposes, in 1960, at the International Congress of Historical Sciences at Stockholm, to constitute historical psychology as a whole discipline within human sciences, he gives it a maximal extension as it must be “the history of values, mentalities, forms, symbolics, myths.” Such a definition reduced the distance established by the founders of Annales between mentality and ideas, as the latter participate fully in ‘collective mentality’ of men of a period. The ideas, perceived through the circulation of words which designate them, situated in their social rooting, considered in their affective and emotional load as much as in their intellectual content, therefore become, just like myths or values, one of those ‘collective forces via which men live their time,’ one of those elements which Dupront, in words borrowed from Jung, called ‘collective psychic.’ An expression exists there which, while claiming to be loyal to the project of the Annales, surpasses the old oppositions by giving a fundamental psychological definition of mentality and by reintroducing the ideas in the exploration of the collective mental.
Such a perspective (without the word ‘mentality’) appears in the work of Ignace Meyerson, whose importance, perhaps underestimated today, was central for the renewal of historical studies of antiquity – in particular his book Les Fonctions psychologiques et les oeuvres of 1948. A first relationship lies in the assertion of the fundamental historicity of mental categories and the psychological functions. It is this essential historicity of psychological objects which allows Meyerson to define it as a ‘historical anthropology’: “The psychological functions have a history and they have had different forms throughout this history. Time and memory have a history. Space has a history. Perception has a history. The person has a history.” The work of historical psychology does not, therefore, consist of finding different modalities or expressions of functions considered as stable and universal. It attempts to understand, in their discontinuity and their singularity, the emergence and the economy of each of these functions. In this way, by applying the perspective of Meyerson to the question of the person in ancient Greece, Jean-Pierre Vernant writes: “There is not, there cannot be a model person, exterior throughout human history, with differences, variations according to places, transformations due to time. Research should therefore not establish if the person, in Greece, is or is not, but should research what the ancient Greek person is, how he is different, in the multiplicity of his features, of today’s person” (see Vernant, 1965).
On the other hand, Ignace Meyerson radically modifies the location and comprehension of the mental and psychological categories. To their immediate, existentialist, phenomenological grasp, he opposes their knowledge based on symbolic forms, works, and acts in which they are objectivized. Analyzing psychological functions via productions (institutional, religious, legal, aesthetic, linguistic) allows for the rupture with the idea of universal and abstract men, and with the universalization of a particular form of the personality.
Success and Criticisms of the History of Mentalities
How can one explain the infatuation, of historians and readers, in France and outside of France, for the history of mentalities, whatever be the designation, in the 1970s and 1980s? No doubt because such an approach allowed for, in its very diversity, the introduction of a new balance between history and social sciences. Contested in its intellectual and institutional superiority by the development of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, history coped by annexing the topics of the discipline which questioned its domination. The focus then moved toward objects (systems of belief, collective attitudes, ritual forms, etc.) which, until then, belonged to the neighbors but which fully entered into the program of a history of collective mentalities.
Adapting to the approaches and analysis methods of socioeconomical history while transforming the historical questionnaire, the history of mentalities (in its widest definition) was able to occupy the front part of the historiographical scene and constitute an effective response to the challenge launched by social sciences.
However, there were many critics of its principles and methods. The first came from Italy. In 1970, Franco Venturi denounced the obliteration of the creative force of new ideas for the benefit of simple ‘mental structures’ ‘lacking dynamism and originality’ (see Venturi, 1970). Some years later, Carlo Ginzburg magnified the criticism (see Ginzburg, 1976). He refused the notion of ‘mentality’ for three reasons: first, for its exclusive insistence on ‘elements which are inert, obscure, and unconscious of a determined vision of the world,’ which lead to reducing the importance of rationally and consciously expressed ideas; second, for the ‘interclass’ character, which unduly assumes the sharing by the whole society of the same ‘mental equipment’; and third, for the alliance with the quantitative and serial approach, which, all together, reifies the contents of thought and attaches itself to the most repetitive expressions and ignores singularities. Historians were thus invited to privilege individual appropriations more than statistical distributions, to understand how an individual or a community interpreted, according to its own culture, ideas and beliefs, and texts and books circulating in their society.
In 1990, in the book with the provocative title, Demystifying Mentalities, Geoffrey Lloyd, historian of Greek philosophy and science, hardened the indictment once again. The criticism lies within the two essential principles of the ‘history of mentalities’: on the one hand, allocating to a whole society a stable and homogenous set of ideas and beliefs; on the other hand, considering that all thoughts and all conducts of an individual are governed by a unique mental structure. The two operations are the very condition allowing a mentality to be distinguished from another and permitting the identification within each individual of the mental tool shared with his contemporaries. However, such a way of thinking erases, in the repetitions of the collective, the originality of each singular expression and it encloses within an artificial coherence the plurality of belief systems and ways of reasoning that a same group or a same individual can successively mobilize.
Lloyd therefore proposed to substitute for the notion of ‘mentality’ that of ‘styles of rationality’ whose use depends directly on the contexts of discourse and the domains of experiences. Each of them lays down their own rules and conventions, defines a specific form of communication, and supposes particular expectations. This is why it is quite impossible to bring back the plurality of methods of thinking, knowing, and arguing to a homogenous and unique mentality.
The case was well pleaded but is it really justified? On the one hand, the history of mentalities did not only detain the single globalizing definition of the notion, as it inherited it from Lévy-Bruhl (1922), author of La Mentalité primitive, ou des psychologues (Charles Blondel, Jean Piaget, and Henri Wallon). If Lucien Febvre surely was tempted by the ‘interclass’ definition of mentality – in particular in Le Problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle – and Philippe Ariès after him, Marc Bloch and Robert Mandrou were very attentive to the social differences which command, in a same society, different ways of thinking and feeling, or diverse visions of the world.
On the other hand, French historians have not always ignored the possible presence, within the same individual, of several mentalities, distinct or even contradictory. Le Goff strongly expresses it: “The coexistence of several mentalities at a same time and in a same spirit is one of the delicate but essential elements of the history of mentalities. Louis XI, who, in politics, revealed a modern ‘Machiavellian’ mentality, in matters of religion revealed a very traditional superstitious mentality.”
The critical examination of the contributions and limits of the ‘history of mentalities’ should neither reduce the diversity of it nor simplify the expressions of it.
From the History of Mentalities to Cultural History
The path of the history of mentalities is, therefore, made up of paradoxes. While it claimed to be clearly differentiated from other historical practices, it was never able to define clearly and unanimously its objects, methods, and concepts. It was during the years when it underwent the most criticism and when expression itself retreated for the benefit of other categories that the multiplication of works which explore the topics it designated were seen. It is no doubt due to the plasticity of its definition and the diversity of its uses that this history, omnipresent and inaccessible, was able to durably characterize a form of historiographical work. It is, therefore, no longer possible today, in a time when the notion of ‘cultural history’ has become dominant, even sometimes supreme. This is what must now be examined.
An Impossible Definition
The difficulty in defining cultural history lies fundamentally in the even larger difficulty in defining what the object ‘culture’ itself is. The innumerable meanings of the term can be diagrammatically distributed into two families of meaning: one which designates the works and gestures which, in a given society, avoid economical or symbolical urgencies of daily life and are submitted to an aesthetic or intellectual judgment, and one which aims at ordinary practices through which a community, whichever community it may be, lives and thinks out its relations to the world, to others, or to itself.
The first order of meanings leads to building the history of texts, works, and cultural practices like a history with two dimensions, as Schorske suggests: “The historian seeks to locate and interpret the artefact temporally in a field where two lines intersect. One line is vertical, or diachronic, by which he establishes the relation of a text or a system of thought to previous expressions in the same branch of cultural activity (painting, politics, etc). The other is horizontal, or synchronic; by it he assesses the relation of the content of the intellectual object to what is appearing in other branches or aspects of a culture at the same time” (Schorske, 1979). We must, therefore, consider each cultural production in the history of its genre, discipline, or field as well as in context of its relationships with the aesthetic or intellectual productions and the cultural practices which are contemporary to it.
The latter leads to the second family of definitions of culture. It strongly relies on the meaning that symbolical anthropology gives to notion – and in particular Geertz: “The culture concept to which I adhere [.] denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life” (Geertz, 1973). It is, therefore, the entirety of languages and of the symbolical actions of a community which constitute its culture. From there, for historians, the attention is transferred to collective expressions where a cultural system is expressed in a paroxysmal way: rituals of violence, rituals of passages, carnivalesque festivals, etc. (Davis, 1975; Darnton, 1984).
What the different approaches try to consider today is the paradoxical articulation between a difference – the one by which all societies, in varying methods, separated a field characterized by particular experiences and delights – and subordination – those which make the aesthetic and intellectual invention possible and intelligible by noting it in the social world and in the symbolical system particular to a time and a place.
Plurality of Practices, Common Questions
According to historiographical traditions and heritage, cultural history favored different objects, fields, and methods. Making an inventory of it is an impossible task – and partially futile. More significant, perhaps, is the pinpointing of the common questions to these very diverse approaches.
A first stake is the necessary articulation between singular works and common representations. There are several ways to conceive this: by concentrating on the particularities of each social space where works develop and circulate (guilds, the court, the academies, the market), by situating them in relation to texts and ordinary practices with which they are in ‘negotiation’ (to use a term which is dear to ‘New Historicism’), or, using Elias’s method, by understanding how aesthetic conventions refer to psychological economy and structure of personality in a time and a place.
A second question, very widely shared, lies in the relationships between popular and learned culture. The ways of perceiving them can be dealt with by using two large models of description and interpretation. The first, trying to abolish all forms of cultural ethnocentrism, treats popular culture as a coherent and independent symbolical system, which is organized according to irreducible to logic, that of well-read culture. The second, concerned remembering the existence of relationships of domination and inequalities of the social world, understands popular culture by its subordination and its weaknesses compared to the culture of the dominant. Therefore, on the one hand, popular culture is considered as a symbolical independent system, enclosed within itself, and on the other, it is entirely defined by its distance opposed to cultural legitimacy. For a long time, historians fluctuated between these two perspectives. Then, the work carried out on religion or literature treated as specifically popular and the construction of an opposition, repeated through time, between the golden age of a free and vigorous popular culture and the times of censorship and constraints which condemn it and dismantle it. Distinctions that are so clear are no longer accepted without doubts today, which leads us to consider all the mechanisms which cause internalization by the dominated to be of their own illegitimacy and expressions via which a dominated culture manages to save something of its symbolical coherence. The lesson is valuable for the confrontation between the elite and people in the old Europe (Ginzburg, 1966, 1976) and for the relationships between the dominated and the dominant in the colonial world (Gruzinski, 1988).
A final challenge for cultural history, whatever be the approaches and objects, lies in the articulation between practices and discourse. The questioning of ancient certainties took the form of a ‘linguistic turn’ which reposed on two essential ideas: (1) the language is a system of signs whose relationships themselves produce multiple and unstable meanings, beyond all intention or all subjective control; (2) ‘reality’ is not beyond discourse but is always built by discursive practices (Baker, 1990).
Opposed to such a position, numerous are the historians who, following the distinctions proposed by Foucault between ‘discursive formations’ and ‘nondiscursive systems’ (see Foucalt, 1969) or by Bourdieu between ‘practical sense’ and ‘scholastic logic’ (see Bourdieu, 1997), marked the difference between the logic of practices and that which governs the discursive production and which underlined the irreducibility between the reality which was (or is) and the discourse which intend to organize it, censure it, or represent it.
The fundamental object of a history attempting to recognize the way in which social actors give meaning to their practices and discourse is, therefore, found in the tension between the inventive capacities of individuals or communities and, on the other hand, the constraints and conventions which restrict – more or less tightly according to the position that they occupy in their domination relationships – what is possible for them to think, express, and do. The acknowledgment is valid for well-read works and aesthetic creations as well as for ordinary practices – which is another way of expressing the double definition of the objects of cultural history.
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