What is microhistory?
There’s a very famous phrase of William Blake’s “to see the world in a grain of sand” and that’s what you’re trying to do with micro-history. It’s an approach to history which allows you to go into lots of detail, by going into that detail you get much closer to the subjects you’re writing about and that then allows you to draw out big questions about humanity, social change, and social existence in a particular period.
Is it the case that the more you look in detail at something, the more obvious these large themes become?
Not necessarily. Particularly if you’re looking at something like a court case very briefly then you only really have time to look at one side of the argument. But if you go into it in detail and you’re looking at different witness statements, even about the same event, then suddenly these little ambiguities crop up and you have to work hard to pull apart what happened, but at the same time trying to keep an eye on what really matters. Does it matter where some one was at a particular time? Does it matter that levitation is unlikely to have actually happened? Is what really matters the fact that people believe this, the fact that they give particular cultural spins on something? The more you look into something in detail, the more ambiguous it becomes, the more intricate it becomes. At the same time that allows you — if you can step back a little — to draw out large themes and to think about what individual things mean in their context.
“By going into that detail you get much closer to the subjects you’re writing about and that allows you to draw out big questions.”
I’m working through this weird case of cross dressing in early-seventeenth-century England. There are arguments about whether people cross dressing in Shakespeare is a massive challenge to the gender order, or whether it shows that the gender order of the period is quite secure. Those are complex debates. Once I’ve sorted what I think about them, I’m back in the court case and the next thing they do is use bagpipes, and I’m thinking “what do bagpipes mean in the seventeenth century? Oh, they’re a representation of warfare.” You’re constantly in conversation with the sources, but you’re also looking at secondary material, at historiographical debates. It’s a very engaging way of talking to the past, talking to these events, and trying to work out what they really mean.
Most people in history have left no traces of their own voice. What can we do to try to hear them?
It’s very hard to hear the voices of most people. I’m in a slightly luxurious position in that I’m an early modern historian and I work on England. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, particularly England, is a surprisingly well-documented society. My doctoral supervisor reckoned that early-modern England was — apart from our own — the most well-documented society in the world. That means we do see the voices of quite a lot of people who are not kings or politicians. But they are very hard to get at.
One place where we do see the voices of people who are not amongst the wealthy is through legal records. If you’re a historian of parts of Europe, then you might have records of the Inquisition, which are very useful. In England you have witness statements in front of the law courts. These are records which are conditioned by the court they’re used in, by the lawyers and the clerks who wrote them down, and by the fact that they are political documents. If you give a witness statement in a law court, particularly if you are the defendant, then you have a particular take on things and that makes it hard to interpret. Literacy does make it difficult in an earlier context to get at those voices of people who can’t write, who are not necessarily well-read, who are not opinion formers, often who are not men. I’ve been talking in class terms, but it makes it harder to get at the view of ordinary women, and children as well. Early modernists are forced to work through the remnants of middling sort, and above, men. Sometimes those men are using the voices of other people, but those voices are clouded.
The Return of Martin Guerre
Natalie Zemon DavisBuy
Your first book is Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre. Is this book a microhistory?
Yes, in a sense it’s one of the easiest microhistories to get into. It’s very short, working on a very famous case, it’s been turned into not one, but two films: a French film inevitably starring Gerard Depardieu and a — not particularly good — American version with Richard Gere. It tells a very unusual story about a French peasant who disappears off and leaves his wife and about eight years later this other French peasant turns up and claims to be him. His wife, who’s called Bertrand, says “Yeah, absolutely, this is my husband, this is Martin Guerre.” She defends him in front of the law courts in the village. Her family then really push the case, there’s a soldier who walks past and says “that’s not Martin Guerre, I saw him at war, he only has one leg.” He ends up in another law court and then dramatically the original husband turns up and the imposter ends up getting hung. It’s a very tragic, very strange story. Why does the wife accept this? Why does she think “I’m going to tell everyone that this is my husband?” Has she been duped? The spin that Natalie Davis puts on it is a broadly feminist one, which is that she is in a very tricky position in her world, she is stuck without a husband so she uses agency, she takes in this guy who wants to move up slightly in the world. She needs this protection of a husband and so she goes along with it. She’s been criticised, but it’s a broadly defensible position.
What I really like about this book is that it’s such an intricate story of very ordinary people, and yet Natalie Davis uses it to draw out these big themes about sixteenth-century Europe: about gender relations, about the hardship of peasant life. It’s just a fascinating story. It’s riveting. While you’re following it, you’re wondering how it’s going to end. It’s like a novel. There’s a reason it’s been turned into films and my book hasn’t yet.
I’m really interested in the figure of Bertrand. It’s easy to extrapolate that she can’t have been particularly happy with the real Martin Guerre, who abandoned her.
No, and this is one of the things that came out of my work on the seventeenth century: it was relatively easy for a man to abandon a woman in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In England there was a mechanism for bringing these blokes back. But it didn’t work a lot of the time as they just disappeared off to London, or one of the colonies. It means there’s this very difficult position a lot of women are left in, and they attempt to shift for themselves, they use what power they have. In Bertrand’s case, she comes to a fairly sensible solution to this very difficult problem, which is not of her own making. It’s generated a by her husband being a bit of a bastard, and by the fundamentally misogynist nature of sixteenth-century French rural society. It’s notable that it’s only when her real husband turns up at the end of the story that she says “OK, game’s up, this isn’t the real guy.”
Last week I had the privilege of attending a workshop on ‘Writing Microhistories’ at Jesus College, Cambridge. It was quite simply an excellent event, due partly to the healthy diversity of speakers – from eminent sages like Keith Wrightson to a gaggle of precocious grad students – and partly to the (uncharacteristically) loose, informal nature of the discussion. It was the questions and conversations, rather than just the papers themselves, that made the day so stimulating.
The workshop had a whole series of highlights, including Wrightson’s ruminations on famous Geordies and some juicy gossip with the grad students over post-workshop drinks. However, I’d like to hone in on one particular question that came up in a variety of forms that day: Are ‘microhistories’ about scale? 1
The term ‘microhistory’ will probably be very familiar to most of you, but I’ll borrow from the summary provided by Duane Corpis for an interesting looking course at Cornell as it’s a solid introduction and easily accessible:
Microhistory is a particular methodological approach to the study and writing of history. The aim of microhistory is to present especially peculiar moments in the past by focusing on the lives and activities of a discrete person or group of people. By illuminating the trials and tribulations of ordinary people in their everyday lives, microhistory aims to show both the extent of and the limits upon human agency, i.e. the ability of individuals to make meaningful choices and undertake meaningful actions in their lives. By analyzing what might often seem to modern readers as strange and bizarre events and socially marginal peoples, microhistory offers a more inclusive understanding of who and what matters within the discipline of history. By emphasizing everyday life, microhistory forces us to re-think traditional approaches to history that focus on seemingly more important political events and actors. Finally, by looking at the “micro” level of social activities and cultural meaning, microhistory challenges approaches to the study of history that emphasize the need to quantify, generalize, or naturalize human experience or to find and impose normative and abstract historical laws, structures, or processes on the historical changes of the past.2
The prefix that separates ‘microhistory’ from other ‘history’ suggests that its defining feature is its size, namely it is history on a small scale. Certainly the most famous studies with this label focus on only a single person or place. The book that supposedly started it all – Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976) – illuminates the peculiar world of a sixteenth-century Italian miller. Natalie Zemon Davis concentrated on a French peasant couple in The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) and Robert Darton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ (1984) zoomed in on the actions of a small group of apprentices on a particular street in 1730s Paris. All of these studies share a scope that is severely and unapologetically limited when compared to more traditional histories.
The tools of the trade?
Yet etymology can be deceptive, because ‘microhistories’ seem to be more – or maybe less – than simply ‘small histories’. Although many of these histories centre on the lives of a single individual (Menocchio the miller, Bertrande the wife, Ralph the scrivener, Benedetta the nun), they are not biographies. Likewise, biographies of the great and the good are not microhistories despite the fact that they limit themselves to the story of a single life. Ian Gentle’s recent history of Oliver Cromwell may be academically rigorous and intellectually stimulating but it is somehow fundamentally different from Ginzburg’s Menocchio or Davis’s Bertrande.
In a related way, I think microhistory is distinct from local history. Here too similarities of scale mask innate differences. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s narrative of medieval Montaillou (1975) is the story of a whole village, not merely a single extraordinary individual or family – it explores the lives of all the villagers, heretical and orthodox alike. Yet Montaillou is almost always categorised as ‘microhistory’ whereas an equally famous and important local study, W.G. Hoskins’ book on Wigston Magna (1959), is not. The well-known histories of early modern Terling (1979) and Whickham (1992) by Keith Wrightson and David Levine went even further. Like ‘microhistories’, they were deeply analytical and challenged prevailing interpretations, almost the exact opposite of the antiquarianism of old-fashioned English local history. Nonetheless, they still appear to me to be essentially different from the explorations of Montereale, Artigat, Montaillou and la Rue Saint-Séverin offered by Ginzburg, Davis, Le Roy Ladurie and Darnton.
So, if ‘microhistories’ are not simply ‘small histories’, what makes them distinct? Is it their interest in ‘strange and bizarre events and socially marginal peoples’? Or the personal nature of their sources? Or their reflective and open discussions of methodology and the limits of historical knowledge? Or perhaps it is really a ‘continental thing’, well beyond the abilities of us depressingly practical Anglos on this side of the Channel?
I’d really like to hear your thoughts, which I hope will be the starting point for a subsequent post.
[Update: The follow-up is here]
1 I should also thank the MA students in my seminar at Birkbeck a couple of weeks ago, who had plenty of interesting things to say about the issue of ‘scale’, and two colleagues – Samantha Shave and Mark Hailwood – who discussed this with me over coffee.
2 Duane Corpis, course description for ‘Deviants, Outcasts & other “Others”: Microhistory and Marginality in Early Modern Europe’ (2010). See also the Wikipedia entry, which is a bit less helpful, or this article by Ginzburg (gated; ungated) and the many others available on JSTOR.