What is microhistory now?

Brodie Waddell

Ulinka Rublack, in her introduction to a recent symposium at the Institute for Historical research, argued that it was time for us to revisit ‘microhistory’. Partly, she said, this was because microhistory had been explicitly challenged by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in their History Manifesto for being too focused on narrow and specialist histories at the expense of the ‘big picture’. However, Rublack also suggested that microhistory has been misconstrued by the tendency among even sympathetic scholars only engage with the ‘classics’ of the genre – especially Carlo Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre – rather consider the wealth of new microhistories that have been written in recent decades.

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As someone long fascinated by microhistory, it was wonderful to be able to come along to this event. I’ve written about defining it, branding it and defending it before on this blog, and I’ll be running an MA module on microhistory at Birkbeck in the coming year, so I was keen to hear more about the current scholarship, and I was not disappointed. It was a excellent event and it touched on facets of this concept that I had hardly considered before. It would be far too ambitious to attempt to summarise each of the six speakers much less the discussion that followed, but I thought it might be productive to draw attention to two angles that particularly caught my attention.

Microhistory as a meeting place

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What should prospective history students read over the summer?

Laura Sangha and #twitterstorians

tweetLast week I asked historians on twitter what three books they would recommend for prospective students to read over the summer – those students starting a history degree in September. I got a lot of responses (thanks very much, brilliant #twitterstorians), and you can read the full list at the end of this post. Before you do, here are a few thoughts that struck me about summer reading for history students.

Question: exactly what is the best way to prepare for studying history at university? People evidently had widely differing opinions on this. Or rather, the books that they recommended seemed to suggest differing opinions. It all did seem to add up to some key themes though, which I have summarised as:

Bloch1) Students need to get to know the discipline, since what they did at school is not representative of it. So they should read ‘what is history’ books which explain why and how academics study the past. These might mainly cover historiography, or might be focused on issues that are fundamental to the discipline, i.e. what footnotes are, or why there is fiction in the archives. (See list section ‘The Historian’s Craft’).

2) Students need to think about the skills and techniques needed by historians. Therefore they should read ‘what is history’ books, but preferably ones with practical, hands on advice about how to read, analyse, write essays and research etc. Continue reading

Employability: the role of the academic tutor

Employability may be an ugly word, but it is increasingly an important part of teaching and learning at my higher education institution. In a world of tuition fees, student satisfaction scores and information gathering about leavers’ destinations, I imagine that its importance will also continue to grow. Whilst I am not a fan of any of the aforementioned trends, employability is something that I have been thinking about. If students are spending their time and resources on degree study because they think it will make them more employable, then they should be reflecting on what precisely it is they have learned that makes them distinct from people who didn’t attend university or who took a different course. They need self-awareness about their own development and the ability to articulate this to a potential employer in a meaningful way.

HEAIf you want to know more about employability then the HEA has a framework for ‘embedding’ it in your institution, but if you haven’t got time to wade your way through this, I can tell you that the sorts of provision that universities offer include: help with CVs; mock interviews; confidence building activities; work experience/placements; shadowing; help researching the job market etc.

Which leads me to wonder…what is the role of the academic tutor here? Is it our responsibility to talk about skills and ‘employability’ in our history seminars and lectures? Or is that something that is better left to the professionals in Careers Services? If tutors do have a role, what is it? Continue reading

Concluding Thoughts

This concluding post to our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Jonathan Willis, monster-head and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  Jonathan is a reformation historian who has worked on the musical and material cultures of the English parish church, in his Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England and in his forthcoming book The Reformation of the Decalogue.  Here he reflects on Collinson’s article, its influence, its relevance, and some of the challenges it still presents.

Collinson’s original lecture, which posited a shift in Protestant attitudes to religious imagery, music and drama around the year c.1580 from creative engagement (his idiosyncratic definition of ‘iconoclasm’) to ideological disengagement (‘iconophobia’) presents three challenges to historians.  Well, it probably presents more than three, but there are three in particular that I want to focus on here…

3666e534c7bdb9746caf03110c90dc4fThe first challenge, and the one which has been taken up and answered with the most gusto, in the contributions to this symposium as well as in the scholarship more broadly, has been to disprove the notion of a shift to ‘iconophobia’ through the identification and presentation of concrete counter-examples.  Religious imagery, religious music and religious drama did not cease to exist c.1580.  It is worth pointing out at this juncture that Collinson’s article (perhaps unsurprisingly) stands up much better today upon re-reading than I had anticipated.  Much of what people have challenged him on, he doesn’t actually claim.  He doesn’t speak about religious music in general, for example; just godly ballads.  He doesn’t speak about pictorial art in general, and explicitly rules out domestic decoration from consideration.  His claims and evidence are much more limited than they are often taken to be, and therefore in a narrow sense they remain more or less correct. Continue reading

Historiographical Reflections

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Alec Ryrie, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.  Alec has expertise and has published widely in a variety of areas pusuant to the history of the English reformation, including Being Protestant in Reformation Britain. Here he offers some historiographical reflections on Collinson’s Stenton lecture and the model of doing history which it offers.

The consensus view of the workshop was that significant parts of Collinson’s argument in this lecture were, simply, wrong; but also that they were fascinatingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong. Pieces of this kind appear periodically in historical scholarship: powerful arguments which do not necessarily command any kind of assent, but which unsettle and stimulate a wide range of scholars and end up advancing an entire field. We can all come up with a short list of works of this kind. They are a very useful part of the scholarly ecosystem. My question is, how do we encourage this kind of work? And I ask not least because I fear that it is becoming less common than once it was.

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Future Directions

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Ian Green, Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School for History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.  Ian has expertise and has published widely in a variety of fields, including early modern print, education and domestic devotion.  Here he reflects upon some of the most fertile areas of future research in further refining our sense of the relationship between mature Protestantism and graphic depictions in visual and material cultures.

47372As Eamon Duffy and others have shown, the iconoclasts of the mid-16th century destroyed much of the splendour and symbolism of the late medieval church, and as Patrick Collinson suggested, some of the leaders of the second phase of the Reformation in the late 16th century wanted to narrow the range of religious imagery even further. But not only is it open to question whether these ‘iconophobes’ were sufficiently well-placed or organized to bring about the decisive further shift in English culture that Pat thought he could detect, but also it may be suggested that the impact of iconoclasm in mid-Tudor England had not been as severe as in Reformed churches abroad or in Scotland. This was partly because the English authorities deployed a narrower definition of idolatry, and partly because at all levels of clergy and laity there appears to have been a reluctance to go beyond the bare minimum of destruction authorized, especially if the offending objects were hard to reach or expensive to replace. As a result a significant proportion of fittings, decorations and monuments were left alone until the 1640s, or even the 19th century and beyond, as in the ‘Shakespeare church’, Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, which has two 15th-century images of Christ, scores of angels, and symbols such as the three nails used to crucify Christ, and the five stigmata of the wounds he received. Continue reading

Somerton: a Parochial Case Study

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Susan Orlik, a PhD student based in the University of Birmingham’s Department of History.  Susan is working with Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis on the changing material culture of the English parish church, c.1560-1640.  Here she reflects upon the implications of a close case study of the Somerset parish of Somerton for Collinson’s ‘iconophobia’ thesis.

Over the last thirty years scholars have challenged Patrick Collinson’s generalised arguments on iconophobia, which he laid out in his famous 1985 Stenton lecture, and then developed in The Birthpangs of Protestant England in 1988. In the book he used the famous phrase ‘severe visual anorexia’ to describe the absence of the visual.[i] Recently the rich material evidence from local parish churches has been used to challenge his view and provide a more nuanced perspective about the visual.

Somerton in Somerset provides such rich material evidence. It has an inscribed and coloured pulpit of 1615 and a carved communion table of 1626 with some rare images on its bulbous legs. The material evidence is matched here by informative Churchwardens’ accounts: these tell of the Churchwardens raising an annual rate and also raising an additional rate for a specific purpose. In 1615 the additional rate was levied ‘for and towards the building of the new pulpit and repayeringe of defects about the church’. The octagonal pulpit has the date on it, as well as an elaborately decorated cornice with a frieze of flowers and leaves. Continue reading