Popular and Elite Culture
POPULAR AND ELITE CULTUREregionalism and cultural diversity
education and the transformation of popular culture
leisure and the transformation of popular culture
the blending of elite culture and popular culture
the persistence of tradition in popular culture
The term culture is hard to define, and the difference (if any exists) between popular culture and elite culture is often controversial. Terms such as elite culture (or simply culture) have often been used to designate literature, the fine arts, and the performing arts, in contrast to a less refined and less educated mass (or popular) culture. The academic fields of social history and cultural history have greatly revised the perception of popular culture since the 1970s by exploring topics as diverse as material culture and department stores, nationalist culture and war monuments, folk culture and the charivari (rough music), or urban culture and the rise of spectator sports. This entry considers the above topics to be popular culture in contrast to traditional high culture (such as literature or opera) and it will discuss the relationship between popular and elite culture.
Generalizations about popular culture in the nineteenth century must begin with the qualification that in many ways it remained local or regional, not shared across the Continent. The centrality of the corrida (bullfight) in Spanish culture, especially in regions such as Andalusia, its great theaters such as the Plaza de toros in Madrid (which held more than twelve thousand people), and its spectacular rituals of banderillos and picadores (secondary participants in bullfights who goad the bull) shaped a local popular culture for thousands, if not millions, of people. Yet this was utterly different from Nordic local culture, especially in regions such as Telemark, Norway, where the tradition of skiing shaped a culture old enough to have fascinated Procopius and to have roots in a pre-Christian cult of Uller, the god of winter, who walked on skis. When skiers in Tele-mark began competitive skiing in 1864, it remained quite unknown in the land of the matador.
Similarly, important differences existed between the popular culture of the town and the village. To some urban eyes, rural Europe was a country of savages, "as brutal as the bears it breeds," in the words of a French prefect in 1831 (Weber, p. 3). Centuries-old traditions continued to characterize the cultures of rural Europe. Many rural cultures (especially in Mediterranean regions) still lived by such time-honored behaviors as the vendetta, in which matters of individual or family honor were resolved outside of the law. Other communities still employed such collective action as the charivari, in which villagers would serenade an unpopular or misbehaving member of the community with loud and cacophonous sounds. The derision of the charivari might include such traditional symbolism as antlers to humiliate a cuckolded (or simply weak-willed) husband. In the German version, the community might remove the thatch roof from the home of a man who seemed to be dominated by his wife.
Yet a nuanced view of popular culture must also note similarities across regions or between urban and rural culture. For example, scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm have explored the persistence of banditry, often sustained by family and community networks. Some regions, such as Sicily or Greece, became notorious for their culture of banditry, most famously the Mafiosi of southern Italy. Yet the image of the bandit flourished in northern societies too, as in the constantly retold sagas of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin in English popular culture or in the accounts of the bandit-hero Oleksa Dovbush in the Habsburg Empire. Social historians, cultural historians, and anthropologists continue to debate the extent to which highwaymen and brigands were seen as romantic heroes struggling against authority or as thugs who terrorized the countryside, but bandits (and popular tales about them) existed in most regions.
Similarly, networks of cultural support for criminal behavior also link the rural and urban worlds of nineteenth-century Europe. Early industrial outbursts of violence against machinery—from the Luddites in the English Midlands (1811–1813) to industrial sabotage in northern France (the word sabotage derives from the wooden shoes, or sabots, that workers threw into the machinery)—followed patterns that were similar to rural collective behavior. Both drew upon a community sense of a moral economy that heroic figures (from the fictitious Ned Ludd in early-nineteenth-century Britain to the real women who forced bakers to sell bread at the "just price," as French women did for centuries) might enforce; when such figures broke the law, they often received the support of the community, just as rural bandits did.
It should not be inferred from these examples that popular culture was chiefly grim or violent. Most regions of Europe retained a mixture of oral culture and folk tales; of song, village bands, and workers' music halls; of street and festival entertainment such as rope-walking, juggling, acrobatics, and marionettes; of itinerant magic lantern shows and theatrical groups.
The diversity of popular culture also included dramatic variation within a single country. Some historians of rural France have insisted upon the infinite diversity of the peasantry and the weakness of generalizations about them, leading to a tradition of scholarly studies based upon a single community or region. As late as 1863, government figures show that nearly one-fourth of the communes of France (8,381 out of 37,510) contained no one who even
spoke French; more than 10 percent of all French schoolchildren spoke no French, and a remarkable 48.2 percent of schoolchildren age seven to thirteen could not write in French. The persistence of regional languages and local patois underscores the variation of subcultures.
The nineteenth century witnessed a transformation of popular culture as a world of superstition, witches, ghosts, fortune tellers, phantoms, and spells—counterbalanced by magic, amulets, talismans, and rituals—gradually yielded to a more educated and rational culture, a world of wider travel and broader experience. This did not mean the end of the supernatural in popular culture (Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897), nor did it impede such fads in popular culture as mesmerism, phrenology, and spiritualism.
The foremost agent of this historic change was the spread of universal education and literacy. Although the data are sketchy, studies have found that 72 percent of the men who married in France in 1800 could not sign their name to their wedding certificate; by 1860, those signing with an X had declined to 30 percent (45 percent for women), and thereafter illiteracy rapidly disappeared, reaching 3 percent for men and 4 percent for women in France in 1910. Germany reached a similar level of literacy in 1890 and Britain in 1900. Many regions in Mediterranean and eastern Europe, without laws mandating education, had significantly higher levels of illiteracy.
The rising literacy rate had a far-reaching impact on popular culture. Books, newspapers, and periodicals had been relatively few and were limited to an educated elite in the eighteenth century. A newspaper with a large circulation printed five thousand copies in 1789; by 1900 major
papers were printing one million copies. Technology (such as the rotary press and the linotype machine) drove prices down: whereas leading papers such as the Times of London cost seven pence at start of the century, by the 1860s the penny press put newspapers within the reach of almost all readers. Imaginative editors changed newspapers to attract a mass readership, giving birth to the woodcut (and then the photographic) illustration, the anecdotal feuilleton, the cartoon, the serialized novel, the telegraphic report, and the war correspondent. Writers such as Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle attracted tens of thousands of readers.
In 1789 newspapers had been important attractions in cafés, libraries, and cabinets de lecture (reading rooms), but they played a limited role in mass culture; by the early twentieth century, great cities such as London and Paris published nearly one hundred newspapers each, specialized to suit a wide range of tastes and opinions. The combined circulation of papers in such cities passed five million. Provincial towns published their own papers on at least a weekly basis. Specialized interests sustained periodicals on such topics as agriculture, sports, or fashion.
Thus the nineteenth century saw the oral culture of rural society largely replaced by the written culture of urban society. This transformed popular culture in ways far beyond newspaper readership. The manufacturing and mercantile economy of the age responded to a literate popular culture. Advertising (in forms such as the poster) changed material culture by promoting new products and the mail-order catalog made those products available to the small town and village. Complex equipment and procedures—from the camera to bicycle repair to the application of the chemical industry's new fertilizers—became available to readers.
Neither the rural nor the urban world of 1789 provided Europeans with significant amounts of leisure or the means to use such freedom. Market days and festivals, carnivals and fairs, birth and marriage celebrations, holidays and saints' days created a culture of occasional leisure; however, these events were limited in both time (they were infrequent) and space (they involved minimal travel). Both restrictions eased during the nineteenth century, transforming popular culture.
Leisure time remained limited for most Europeans in 1914: the forty-hour work week, the paid annual vacation, and retirement were accomplishments of the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century industrialization, however, resulted in a gradual reduction of the work week for the urban masses, shortening work days and creating a weekend. The ten-hour workday had become standard in Britain by the late 1840s; by the 1890s, coal miners had achieved a workweek of 42.5 to 55 hours and textile workers had achieved a 56-hour week (five and one-half days). By 1900 the typical worker in western and central Europe could expect a minimum of Sunday and half of Saturday free from work. An academic debate still rages concerning the extent to which this reduction in work was achieved through the success of the industrial economy or through the hard-fought battles of labor unions and militant workers, but the basic fact remains that the century saw many people win a certain amount of free time.
A large proportion of the urban population was dechristianized by 1900—only a minority attended church on Sunday. The upper classes of Victorian England were shocked to see proof of this in 1851, when a national survey of people in church on Sunday morning March 31 found only 24.2 percent of the population there. This trend, combined with the shrinking work week, greatly increased the popular culture of leisure activity.
Simultaneously, European technology conquered distance. The railroad, the steamship, and the bicycle opened tremendous new opportunities. Whereas leisure travel in the eighteenth century—such as the English gentleman's grand tour of the Continent—had been the prerogative of prosperous few, the nineteenth century saw working-class families able to spend a day at the beach in Brighton or Nice (or in the mountains, or even at a mineral spring) or to visit a world's fair in the capital. Cheap railway excursions (third class travel was available), Cook's tours (the first carried visitors to the Great Exhibition of 1851), and Baedeker's guidebooks had become important elements in popular culture by 1914. The bicycle reshaped work habits (it was no longer necessary to live within walking distance of a factory), mating habits (one could find a companion at a greater distance), gender relations (women achieved new mobility and freedom), and recreational habits (bicycle races were begun, such as the Tour de France in 1903).
Leisure and mobility sustained a variety of institutions and activities that characterized European culture in 1914. They permitted thousands of people to attend spectator sporting events and even to follow their team to nearby towns. European football (soccer) soon became a central element in popular culture. The British Football Association began a championship competition in 1871 with fifty clubs; in 1901 Britain had more than ten thousand football clubs and the F. A. Cup Final drew more than 110,000 spectators. Immensely popular clubs, such as Juventus of Milan (1893) or Real Madrid (1902), were established across the Continent.
Perhaps the most universal element of shared popular culture by 1914 was the cinema, which was born in France in 1895 although its ancestry stretched back to the magic lantern shows of the eighteenth century. In the twenty years after Auguste and Louis Lumière projected the first film (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895), sophisticated film industries appeared in Italy, Russia, Germany, and Britain as well as in France. In 1909 London had ninety motion picture theaters; by 1912 the number had grown to four hundred.
The great popularity of motion pictures suggests a reconsideration of the connections between popular culture and elite culture, because cinema became an important element in both. Most cultural historians argue that such connections had always been stronger than seems apparent from narrowly focused studies of high culture. Traveling drama companies had long brought Shakespeare to
the English countryside, just as Viennese music halls had produced popular adaptations of Mozart's operas. Conversely, composers of symphonic music had great success transposing the themes of folk music to the orchestra hall, as Franz Liszt did in his Hungarian Rhapsodies, and many writers of elite culture prospered by adapting folk tales. The distinction disappears entirely in the age of the serialized novel, which made Charles Dickens an important figure of both elite and popular culture.
Nineteenth-century institutions, especially the public library and the public museum, did more to blend popular culture and elite culture. The first public art museum opened in Vienna in 1781, and French revolutionaries converted the Louvre into a museum in 1793; the National Gallery in London opened in 1823. The British Museum had opened in 1759, but at that date it still required visitors to write a letter seeking admission. These cultural institutions also remained inaccessible to the lower classes, sometimes due to admission charges or Sunday closing policies, but the world of painting and sculpture, architecture and artifacts, was no longer an exclusive element of elite culture.
It would be an error to conclude that these changes in European popular culture between 1789 and 1914 made that culture utterly different. A balanced understanding must also recognize continuity, even across the longue durée. Religion and nationalism provide good illustrations of this, because both were central features of European culture at the beginning of the nineteenth century and remained so in 1914.
Although it is true that the nineteenth century witnessed a significant diminution in Christianity's role in Europe, religion nonetheless remained central to European culture. The age of cathedral building may have passed centuries earlier, but the French constructed the basilica of Sacré Coeur in Paris between 1876 and 1914; the Germans consecrated the neo-Romanesque Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in the center of Berlin in 1895; and Antoni Gaudi began work on the astonishing neo-Gothic Templo de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in 1883. At the level of daily life, saints' days, patron saints, religious festivals, and religious ceremonies remained at the center of popular culture. Pilgrimages to Compostela or to sites such as the grotto at Lourdes remained popular.
Similarly, the patriotic nationalism that developed during and after the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars was even stronger in 1914. A century that began with soldiers singing Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle's La Marseillaise (1792) and Ernst Arndt's Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland? (1806) ended with the militaristic jingoism of Germany and the Next War (1912) and the naïve chauvinism of Rupert Brooke's 1914. Indeed, nationalism so flourished during the nineteenth century that it spread across most of the forms of popular culture discussed in this essay, from newspapers to sports. Nationalism and leisure merged in the adoption of patriotic holidays, such as July 14 in France, and nationalism appeared in architecture in the form of war monuments in many European villages.
See alsoArt Nouveau; Automobile; Cabarets; Cinema; Cities and Towns; Clothing, Dress, and Fashion; Decadence; Education; Impressionism; Libraries; Modernism; Press and Newspapers; Romanticism; Sports; Transportation and Communications.
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Steven C. Hause