Celebrating the ordinary

History records great leaders, big thinkers, and creators.  Stories of the past are filled with people who made a difference and changed the world, or part of it.

But what about everyday life?  What part did the majority play in shaping society?  After all, they were the majority.

Without the people who have no name, the world would be very different for those great leaders, big thinkers, and creators.

Photo in The National Archives

Photo in The National Archives

Today we have so much focus on individual trials and triumphs.  We champion so-called ‘ordinary’ people through TV talent shows, big-brother surveillance, and viral links on the Internet.  The ease with which we contact people and visit places is astounding.  Everywhere is just around the corner (until a volcanic ash cloud goes and spoils things, at least).

Status updates and opinions hit us throughout the day.  It’s clear to see that opinions vary wildly.  24-hour news doesn’t just report world events, it asks “What do you think?” and “Send us your views” so your comments can be shared with the world.

But what of the past?  Individuals didn’t have this kind of access, but those individuals still existed.  They still had opinions.  They still needed to make decisions.  Thoughts and choices would have been just as varied and confused as they are today, even if most people were faced with fewer choices than we do.

I mention this today because it makes a difference to opinions of the past and to our own situation today.  We can’t just view the past as a bunch of facts.  We can learn dates and get a grounding from events in days gone by, but we cannot tell with accuracy what much of life was like for ‘ordinary’ people.  Known documentation just doesn’t cover it fully.

Nevertheless, this shouldn’t stop our search for greater understanding.  Getting a view of how people were in the past can help us understand how we are today.

I’ll leave you with a thought from an academic at Durham University, Julian Wright, who argues we should put the ‘little people’ at the centre of historical analysis:

“It is no paradox to say that, by focusing on the stories told by the ‘little’ people, historians may in fact come closer to realising their one big, motivating idea: the notion that we have a duty to rediscover and represent human existence in all its complexity.” – from Thinking About Almost Everything.

What do you think?  Send us your views! 🙂