Cultural history brings to life a past time and place. In this search, cultural historians study beliefs and ideas, much as intellectual historians do. In addition to the writings of intellectual elites, they consider the notions (sometimes unwritten) of the less privileged and less educated. These are reflected in the products of deliberately artistic culture, but also include the objects and experiences of everyday life, such as clothing or cuisine. “Culture” can also imply everyday attitudes, values, assumptions and prejudices, and the rituals and practices that express them, from magical beliefs to gender roles and racial hierarchies. In this sense, our instincts, thoughts, and acts have an ancestry which cultural history can illuminate and examine critically. Historians of culture at Yale study all these aspects of the past in their global interconnectedness, and explore how they relate to our many understandings of our varied presents.
Cultural history is an effort to inhabit the minds of the people of different worlds. This journey is, like great literature, thrilling in itself. It is also invaluable for rethinking our own historical moment. Like the air we breathe, the cultural context that shapes our understanding of the world is often invisible for those who are surrounded by it; cultural history allows us to take a step back, and recognize that some of what we take for granted is remarkable, and that some of what we have thought immutable and natural is contingent and open to change. Studying how mental categories have shifted inspires us to think how our own cultures and societies can evolve, and to ask what we can do as individuals to shape that process.