Keith Wrightson


On his book Ralph Tailor’s Summer

Cover Interview of December 23, 2011


All historical events leave echoes, but they do not resonate with equal force or share the same capacity to persist.

Phillip Abrams defined an “event” as, “a happening to which cultural significance has successfully been assigned.”  Accordingly, most historical writing is focused upon canonical events that have become regarded, in particular societies or cultures, as historically significant.

William H. Sewell goes further to suggest that, “historical events should be understood as happenings that transform structures.”  Such meaningful and transformative events echo loudly from the start.  They are the great events that become accepted as the chronological landmarks and reference points of history as we conventionally understand it.

Most actual events, however, are assigned no such larger societal meaning and lack such transformative power.  They may have been of no less importance to the people who lived them, but they fade, fall into the shadows, become devalued and irrelevant in the grander scheme of things.  The Newcastle plague of 1636 was such an event.  Surprisingly soon it was forgotten in the official history of the city it devastated.

I am interested in such lesser, gradually forgotten, events; and the historically insignificant people who lived them.  I find both much more engaging than the conventional historical agenda.  It is more of a challenge to recover the texture and meaning of these moments and these lives.

This does not mean that I am unaware of the significance of “great historical events.”  They are an essential starting point in anyone’s historical education.  But they are a very limiting end point. I want people to have the opportunity to move on and consider other histories.  They are no less interesting and significant.

I have always been more fascinated with the more obscure narratives of what was going on between and around the great events.  I think the real meaning lies there, in the sense that they can reveal the complexities and ambiguities of former states of being.  People lived their own lives in ways that intersected only partially with the grand narratives of historical change. I am drawn to the more ordinary agents of history.  I am intrigued by their very different time lines.  I want to tell their stories.  I think that helps us, in Peter Laslett’s phrase, to “understand ourselves in time.”  This book is another small contribution to that project.