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Historical Culture

By the term “historical culture” we refer to the diverse ways in which a society relates itself to the past. If culture is the way in which a society interprets, transmits and transforms reality, historical culture is the specific and particular way in which a society relates itself to its past. When we study historical culture, we investigate the social production of historical experience and its objective manifestation in a community’s life. This production is usually carried out by different social agents, often at one and the same time, by means of different media.

The term appeared at first in 1980, in the book of the French historian Bernard Guennée Histoire et Culture Historique dans l’ Occident Medieval (History and Historical Culture during the medieval period in Occident), in which the author attempts to illuminate the work of the medieval chroniclers connecting it with the wider mentality of the period. From the ‘90s and onward the term brought together a number of scholarly and intellectual pursuits, such as the study of memory, the making and unmaking of personal and collective identities, cultural and historical canons, historiography and representations, the wider field of intellectual history, studies of history education and public history, and (post)colonial histories. At the site www.culturahistorica.es several articles on the topic (mostly in English and in Spanish) can be found, giving an overview of the variety of intellectual searches related with the concept.

Going through a brief overview of the literature in the field, we could say that the concept of historical culture has been utilized for two different, although interconnected, purposes. On the one hand, it has proved to be a valuable tool in the study of historiography. Putting the question of the cultural premises of the production of a specific historical work in the centre of research, enables us to historicize the process of writing history, connecting it with broader concepts which dominate the discourse of specific periods.

On the other hand, historical culture has proved to be a very fertile field for cultural history as well. In this case, the relations of a society with the past (usually its own past) is treated as a case study allowing us to examine from a new perspective central questions pertaining to the period as a whole (see, for instance, The Culture of History: English Uses of the Past 1800-1953, by Billie Melman). In this case, the concept of historical culture is relevant to the targets of memory studies.

Initiativkolleg "Europäische historische Diktatur - und Transformationsforschung"
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