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  • Introduction

This volume celebrates the achievements of Dame Olwen Hufton, who has done more to shape how the history of ordinary people is written than any individual now living in Britain. She had no smooth trajectory from Oxbridge College to Oxbridge Fellowship. As she was the first to acknowledge, her career reflected the extraordinary opportunities opened up to women of relatively modest origins by the National Education Act of 1944. Born in the north of England in 1938, she studied history at Royal Holloway College, London, and graduated from the University of London with a Ph.D in 1962. She spent twenty years at the University of Reading, where she wrote her pioneering work on poverty in eighteenth-century France. Her 'international' career began relatively late, first at Harvard, where she taught comparative European History and built up the Women's Studies Programme, and then at the European University Institute at Florence in Italy, where she met scholars and graduate students from across Western Europe. It was only after these experiences that she made her way back to Britain to a Leverhulme Research Professorship at Merton College, Oxford, where she stayed until retirement.

This brief curriculum vitae, however, gives little sense of the intellectual odyssey that accompanied her professional ascent. Olwen was remarkable for the way her own experiences inspired her historical questioning. She often recalled how, when she was a small child, her mother bartered tea for butter during the days of rationing; this encounter with the constraints and choices of household management in a period of scarcity left an indelible mark. As a student in the early 1960s she studied under Alfred Cobban, the historian of the French Revoution, and was attracted by both the Annales School and British 'History from Below', which helped her conceptualize her interest in material realities and how they related to social, political, and cultural history. Her approach, however, was rarely conventional: against a backdrop of radical feminism and student revolt in 1968, for example, she lectured on women in the French Revolution but, instead of concluding that bread riots were emancipatory, showed how the Revolution's approach [End Page 1] to religion disrupted networks of sociability and undermined traditional welfare provision.

From the earliest work on the poor in eighteenth-century Bayeux, through her current work on how the Counter-Reformation was financed (by women as well as by men), to the exploration of time in the lives of women in the late twentieth century, Olwen has always been concerned with lived experience and immediate dilemmas. All her writings are perhaps inspired by a distinctive quality that is encapsulated under the banner of the 'art of survival', a theme that also engages the contributors of this volume. They seek, too, to emulate her chronological and comparative sweep by offering topics which extend from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

If it is no longer possible to refer to 'the people' without remembering that the term includes both women as well as men, or to consider social change without pausing to ask whether it affected women in the same ways as men, this fundamental shift in orientation is largely due to Olwen and a generation of women historians who fought hard to make women's experience part of history. The history of women and the conceptual tool of 'gender' are some of the most significant historiographical innovations of the last quarter of the twentieth century, transforming forever how historians conceptualize class and politics. Few would now dissent from the proposition that early modern Europe was a patriarchal society, or deny that nineteenth- and twentieth-century European Christianity had become feminized. It is hard now to remember how large such claims seemed when they were first made; or how revolutionary it was to argue that relations between people in earlier times were governed by issues of power between the sexes. Patriarchy, after all, was a term too politically charged even for many feminists of the 1970s and 1980s.

At the same time that women's history was developing, social historians revealed a more various and complex vision of the 'people'. They investigated the lives of prostitutes, smugglers, poachers, and thieves, people whose 'class consciousness...


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pp. 1-11
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Archived 2007
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