The Historiography of ‘Public Histories’ in the C18th

A key text is Sweet, The Writing of Urban Histories in C18th England.  Sweet quite correctly highlights that the significance for the historian doesn’t lie with the contents of C18th urban histories, the descriptions of the townscape; but in what the texts tell us about the author and the society for which they wrote; their outlook and their understanding of the world around them.  Because they were written by amateurs for the non-specialist (a key criteria for any public history in the modern sense) they provide an insight into how history was perceived, used and read.  Sweet classifies the texts as markedly optimistic, tending to underplay the traditional, as the author would be struck by the novel and changes.  They tend to follow a similar pattern.  First, an assertion of the innate status of the town by an assertion of continuity back to a semi-mythical origin.  Second, a description of the middle ages as a dark age; the populace as dupes of monks, and vassals of arbitrary lords.  Finally, they present the now as the age of enlightenment; “The past was important not simply for its own sake but for throwing the achievements of the present into sharper relief”.