Distinguished Professor of History Donald Quataert discusses the importance of "writing history from below" during the Harpur Dean's Distingushed Lecture in Casadesus Recital Hall.
Photo by Jiang Wu
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Distinguished Professor of History Donald Quataert, who ranked the importance of the lecture in his life with the one he gave as part of his job interview in 1986, spoke to a full house in Casadesus Recital Hall for the 2010 Harpur Dean’s Distinguished Lecture on Nov. 5.
A pioneer in archival research in Ottoman history, Quataert has brought the stories of peasants and commoners to the fore. Calling it “writing history from below,” Quataert has come to realize the stories of the sultans, elite members of society and state agencies leave out a valuable perspective in history that can only come from the peasants themselves.
“What is history from below?” he asked. “It’s not history from above. An obvious point, but in the Ottoman context, I mean it’s not about sultans or rather the history of the state, state elites, policy makers and war makers. That’s history from above.
“In Ottoman history, the development of the state remains the predominant preoccupation of histories,” he said. “It is a legitimate line of inquiry, but it is not appropriate for a field that has become as rich and developed as Ottoman history has to continue to neglect to the extent that it does the history of its peasants.”
As a graduate student, Quataert realized that the vast majority of the writing of Ottoman history came from above, neglecting 90 percent of the population. “What about the lives of these individuals who in the past might take three weeks to walk from point A to point B, but now have the trains and the changes that regularity, safety and security brought?”
To underscore his words, Quataert showed a number of photos from working-class society. “Take the wool merchant group,” he said. “Look at them and see how different they are. Some women have their heads covered, others not. What kinds of stories could you tell about this community of people whoever they were, and the activities in which they’re engaged?
“What do these photos tell us about the exchanges of communications? We could have articles and books written about the labor and relationships of these barbers. What were their customs, what was their relationship to the state? How permanent were their stations?”
There are whole stories to be told, said Quataert, from the female soap workers in the factories that still exist, to the male workers in the tobacco factory. “How were they recruited? What were their relationships with their families? What kind of stories could you tell?”
With so many wonderful stories to be told, history from below is relatively scarce in Ottoman history, Quataert said. Literacy was a major factor. “Most Ottomans couldn’t read or write, which means that documentation sources have inherent limitations they might not otherwise,” he said. “American historians don’t face the problems Ottoman historians do where most documents are state generated and talk about what’s interesting to the state and talk about history from below when it suits the state and is important to the state. That’s a real limitation because the state studies workers mainly when they’re on strike or causing trouble of some sort, but not in the normal course of their lives.”
Most of what was written was about the producers of wealth, in the act of the production of that wealth, Quataert said, but he reminded the audience that you can have history from below and not have it focused on producers and the act of production.
“Everyday history,” he said, “is the history of people in the actions of their everyday lives having families, consuming goods, interacting or not interacting with the state. You start to think about what history from below is and it can be many things. It doesn’t have to be simply about production.”
At one point in Quataert’s career, he was frustrated by the lack of sources to write history from below and started down a different path. But that changed, he said, when he was put in contact with a body of primary Ottoman sources in 1996, about a town that is today a dying coal mining community.
“In 1983, I wrote a book that had a chapter on these coal mines,” he said. “In 1996, somebody in this town contacted me and said, by the way, there’s this body of Ottoman language materials here that I can’t read that you might be interested in.”
The materials became the source of a 2006 book by Quataert on the coal mines of this town. “It is a book of Ottoman history, based on Ottoman primary sources, but outside of the imperial Ottoman source,” said Quataert. And that made the book fairly unique.
Now, Quataert said a growing corpus of primary documents is becoming available from the Ottoman experience that deals specifically with a set of local issues. “You can either believe that this town was unique or the tip of an ice berg and that there are in the Ottoman world lots of other archival collections,” he said.
The emergence of private archives is also becoming a trend, he said. A lot of merchants have private archives that are now being rediscovered by historians who have the connections.
“So, with a great subject and rich materials and abundance that is increasing almost daily to do history from below, why not switch over?” he asked. One legitimate objection he noted is that if you’re dealing with miners and it’s only about miners, can you say that miners are typical of anything?
“My argument is that when you do miners, you are not restricting yourself to a narrow subject at all. And I say as an Ottoman historian, we have to be bold,” Quataert said. “My argument is that we shouldn’t be afraid to offer our case study and the possibility of the typical. The history of coal miners can be a total history because you can tell the story of coal miners and as you tell it, you can be telling a much larger story at the same time.
“We have lots of really smart people doing lots of smart history,” Quataert summarized, “but what I’m trying to suggest is that we think about giving more attention to history from below. When you study people like coal miners, it can be a total history of that society at a given moment and it will recover a past that will otherwise probably be forgotten and lost.”