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.
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.