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Research Projects

Life Writing from Below

Life writings are an important resource for exploring how individuals have understood and put into words their experiences of their society, whether in the immediacy of letters and diaries, or in the retrospective account of an autobiography or memoir. 
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The ‘Life Writing from Below in Europe’ project aims to bring together a network of researchers and archivists –  from different disciplines, working on different topics, on texts from various European countries in a range of languages across several centuries – to assist intellectual exchange and practical co-operation.

Over the last 25 years, scholars in a range of disciplines (including history, literature, sociology, ethnography and folklore) have uncovered a much larger body of life writings ‘from below’ (by workers, peasants, artisans, plebeians, the popular classes) than had previously been assumed to exist. They have worked with archivists to identify and catalogue (and sometimes publish or digitise) such texts, whether they are in state archives (such as pauper letters arguing for assistance under the Old Poor Law in Britain, or soldiers' letters from the Western Front collected by French military censors), or in those of political and social movements (such as trades unions or labour parties). 
At the same time, various personal, local and regional initiatives ‘from the margins’ have led to the creation of collections specifically of life writing from below (such as L’association pour l’autobiographie et le patrimoine autobiographique in France, or the Fondazione Archivio Diaristico Nazionale in Italy). These new archives, in the words of Martyn Lyons, ‘exist to promote respect for popular writings, to validate popular memories, and to offer a radical alternative to the official records’.

Our first seminar, ‘Life Writing from Below in Europe: Comparative Perspectives’, was held in June 2014, with speakers from Estonia, Finland, France and Switzerland, as well as Britain. Revised versions of the papers will be published in the European Journal of Life Writing (

Our next seminar (3 March 2016, 18:00-19:30) will showcase the work of a collaborative partner, the international charity ATD-Fourth World and its full-colour publication, exhibition and multi-media project The Roles We Play: Recognising the Contribution of People in Poverty. This collection of photographic portraits and self-written biographies explores the roles played by those living in poverty within their families, communities and society at large, in order to highlight their efforts, validate their achievements and challenge the negative attitudes often held towards vulnerable and excluded families in the UK.

For fuller details, see:

If you are interested in contributing to the development of the project, and/or would like to be be informed about future events, please get in touch.  Email: 

Image credit: King’s College London, Foyle Special Collections Library
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