Answering the “why” of the human experience is a task historians throughout history have taken on, with different methods ideas that have developed throughout the years. Culture history is what speaks to me in the pursuit of the “why” question. It offers insight into the minds of people that lived a thousand years ago or a hundred.  Patrick Manning stated, "Although people have been limited in their ability to control the ways of the world, they are usually able to express their response to the events and process in which they participate."[1] When studying the events of the past, if one only studies the powerful and decision makers, only part of history is examined. The works produced during any time period – such as literature, pottery, statues, coffins, rituals, and works of art- reveal the social values of the time and how people saw themselves and others. In addition, changes through time can be seen in examining these items, reflecting the changes in values and in society.

Understanding the connections in the changes over time can help reveal answers to part of the “why” question. Each stage of change, when examining the culture during it, will help make connections between the old values and the newer ones. An example of this would be in literature, the topics and themes in them will change with time as a reflection of the changes in society but changes do not happen instantly and the development of a people can be seen. Chivalry has changed since the middle ages. The artwork depicting the same story, for example, the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, will reflect one set of values in 1300 and a much different set in 1700, yet it is called chivalry in both times. This is also true for clothing, rituals, and other culture items. In examination of the changes through time, a deeper understanding of humanity is gained.

With different forms of art, a different perspective can be seen from each different creator. A religious creator will have a different spin on the same subject as someone from the elite. As time goes on and there are more items that survive the views of life can be seen from many different angles. A journal by a Jewish person in Nazi Germany gives a completely different view of the same events than a journal by a Nazi. Both journals provide valuable insight into the events of the time helping to give insight into the human experience of the individual and of people.

With cultural history, a historian receives information about the individual and the society at the same time. A painting might be projecting the ideals of society in the clothes and hair but at the same time, it represents the creators view. The creator could be critiquing society or parts of it, or they could be praising it. This tells a historian how an individual views the world that they live in. Like Manning stated while a person might not be making the decisions, they most certainly can and did react to them. Their reaction gives insight into how people felt about the events, activities, and values of their time.

Next to cultural history, social history, to me, is the best alternative. It deals with similar ideas and takes a rounded view of history. Social history focuses on society as whole or individual people. This, like cultural history, lets a historian explore different views of the world. The past is not linear and straightforward, it is complex and composed of many different viewpoints and people. Both social history and cultural history attempt to explore these. Social history explores categories like family, gender, class, and community. This gives a variety of views about events in the past from a different angle than the traditional histories. While I feel social history offers the most reasonable alternative, cultural history, to me, provides the best methods to answer the “why” question.


[1] Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) 299.






Manning, Patrick. Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.