[Extracted from Finberg, H. P. R. and V. H. T. Skipp Local History: Objective and Pursuit David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1967, pp. 128-130.]
ON an earlier page 'community' was interpreted as "a set of people occupying an area with defined territorial limits and so far united in thought and action as to feel a sense of belonging together, in contradistinction from the many outsiders who do not belong."
The doctrine that local history should concern itself with the life-process of a community in this sense presupposes that the would-be historian will know how to recognize a local community when he sees one on the stage of history. He will have no difficulty with the compact villages of central England or the little market towns, once so tightly knit; but the scattered hamlets of the west or the great urban agglomerations of the nineteenth century may not so patently reveal that "sense of belonging together" which makes them intelligible units of historical study.
It is necessary to insist that locality alone does not provide a suitable or intelligible theme for the historian. I do not know whether Nasser's Egypt is territorially co-extensive with the Egypt of Tutankhamen, but it is obviously not the same community. When Captain Henry Skillicorne founded his spa at Cheltenham he also inaugurated a new local community very different from that of the humdrum market town which preceded it there at the foot of the Cotswold scarp. This is one case - there are many others - where the sense of belonging together has shifted. When it languishes, and dies, or is absorbed into some larger loyalty, the history of that particular community is at an end.
Sometimes a new one starts life before its predecessor is quite dead. Manchester is a noted example of a great manufacturing city where the ancient rural manor continued to provide the framework of local government until 1846, by which time the population had risen to nearly a quarter of a million.
Whether the starting-point defines itself, as it does when a community is born on a new site, or has to be discovered amid more complicated beginnings, we are asking the historian to proceed like a landscape artist when he sets out to make a picture of the scene before him. He must delimit it, or in other words decide that just these phenomena, beginning here and ending there, will make a satisfactory picture. It is this part of his function which distinguishes the historian from the antiquary.
Recently, when the doctrine of the "Leicester school" was being debated - and sometimes misrepresented - in the pages of The Amateur Historian, a correspondent declared roundly: "Medieval history is not my cup of tea." He evidently did not agree with Ranke that all generations are equal in the sight of God. But a man who is interested only or chiefly in the four or five generations nearest to our own is under no compulsion to attempt the history of a Domesday village, or indeed of any village if his sympathies are predominantly urban.
Another writer complained that to present nineteenth-century history in terms of decline and fall was to give a falsely pessimistic account of a period characterized in fact by abounding optimism. This may well be true: it depends on the local community.
At any given moment in the last hundred and fifty years an ancient village may be rapidly decaying while its population is drawn away to some prosperous new manufacturing centre. History is full of births and deaths.
To the objection that local history as we understand it is too exacting a pursuit for most people, Mr Skipp's observations on team-work supply at least a partial answer .
Finally, the voice of the antiquary is heard asking if there is no room in our scheme of things for one who enjoys collecting facts as other people enjoy collecting prints or china. Indeed there is. We may indulge a hope that he will make his finds accessible to others, and that somebody else will shoulder the task of shaping them into a historical narrative, but with this proviso, let us wish him, with all our heart, good hunting.
H. P. R. FINBERG