The Woolcomber’s World, Part V: A defence of microhistory

Brodie Waddell

The life of Joseph Bufton is unlikely to ever appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography amongst their nearly 60,000 ‘men and women who have shaped British history’. The only history that he shaped was his own.

Reduced to its essentials, his life is hardly worth writing about. As I’ve discussed in my previous posts, he was born in the small town of Coggeshall in 1650 and died in the village of Castle Hedingham, twelve miles down the road, in 1718. He spent nearly all of his sixty-eight years on this earth in north-eastern Essex. As far as we can tell, he never held any position of political or religious authority, never produced any works of artistic or literary merit, and never even married or had children.

The King and Nortern-man ballad - Crawford_1_1188_2448x2448So why should anyone care about Bufton? One might say that we should simply care about everyone equally: does not the humble ploughman in the field deserve as much attention from historians as the king on his throne? The king may have ruled vast tracts of land, but his territories would have been worthless to him if the ploughman hadn’t supplied him with bread. However, our knowledge of the life of a ploughman is usually limited to a few lines in a parish register listing a baptism, a marriage and a burial. We encounter no such difficulty with kings.

Joseph Bufton, like a ploughman, earned his bread by the sweat of his brow. Yet unlike most ordinary people of the time, he left to posterity eleven volumes crammed with his scribblings. These little notebooks offer us glimpses of a life lived in humble obscurity, a life that would otherwise be almost entirely lost to us.

The man who emerges from these volumes is hardly typical – after all, none of his fellow parishioners left behind such copious records – but Bufton does give us insight into the sorts of day-to-day experiences that would have been familiar to his many undocumented contemporaries.

The first page in Bufton’s pocket-sized book of notes on 82 sermons

The first page in Bufton’s pocket-sized book of notes on 82 sermons

Bufton was, as we have seen, a god-fearing Protestant. He constantly sought spiritual guidance through sermons and godly publications, as well as writing his own pious poetry. Yet his energetic piety was also eclectic, encompassing both the Church of England and puritan dissenters. His working life is similarly indistinct. He was intensely involved in the fraternal culture of the Coggeshall wool trade, but seems to have been both a ‘poor labouring man’ and later a prosperous wholesaling ‘clothier’. Finally, Bufton was deeply ‘parochial’ without being ignorant or isolated. He cared about every aspect of life in Coggeshall and recorded a loving chronicle of local events whilst maintaining an awareness of the wider world through reading London publications and talking to a constant stream of visitors.

The notebooks also demonstrated the problems with such unusual sources. Blind spots and interpretive challenges quickly became apparent. These volumes reveal much about Bufton’s ‘external’ life but little about his ‘internal’ life. Unlike Samuel Pepys, Nehemiah Wallington or Ralph Thoresby, he very rarely recorded his own thoughts or interpretations. Instead, almost all of the notes are extracts from published material, summaries of sermons or bare descriptions of specific events. The fact that he records this at all shows that he was engaged in much ‘active reading’ and ‘active hearing’, but the meaning he drew from them is much more elusive.

Perhaps most importantly, the notebooks show clearly the importance of ‘genre’ in our primary sources. The eleven volumes include at least four very different genres of writing, namely sermon notes, reading notes, quasi-institutional records, and a chronicle. Very different ‘Buftons’ emerge from each of these, none of which is especially ‘representative’ of his actual lived experience. Thus, Bufton’s little archive demonstrates the hazards of relying on individual diaries or other isolated manuscripts. Each mode of writing emphasizes one aspect of our existence whilst obscuring many others.

Fortunately, with Bufton we have several different ‘genres’. We may lack an introspective diary, but at least we can peer into his world from several angles. Looking through each of these windows in turn, we are eventually presented with a very rare sight: a remarkably full portrait of a non-metropolitan, non-elite individual. Moreover, the very ambivalence and ambiguity that we are left with is instructive. Bufton does not fit with the ‘ideal types’ we are used to encountering in early modern England. He was, for example, a ‘middling puritan tradesman’, but also a conformist, labouring parishioner. Ultimately, we can see the multi-layered nature of his daily life.

Unlike so many of his comparatively unrecorded contemporaries, Joseph Bufton can be remembered as a complex and well-rounded human being.

* * *

This series of posts has, I hope, showed the value of microhistory, an approach to history that I’ve written about before, but only recently attempted to put into practice.

Close studies of inconsequential people are, according to a recent ‘manifesto’, distinctly inferior to ‘macrohistory’. Yet, as Richard Blakemore, Tim Hitchcock, Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler have already noted, a larger canvass does not necessarily produce a more ‘significant’ history. Indeed, ‘macrohistory’ has a tendency to turn unique individuals, especially those who are relatively powerless, into an undifferentiated mass. Such anonymous ‘types’ or ‘populations’ may be attractive to bosses and policy-makers who want subjects that appear predictable, persuadable and governable. Yet ultimately the past is not inhabited by such mythical creatures – it is peopled with real human beings, individuals who were not merely ‘poor’ or ‘prosperous’, ‘Anglican’ or ‘puritan’.

As historians, we often need to talk about groups or collectivities, but we must always remember that these are only abstractions. Microhistory can remind us that the people of the past – and of the present – never completely conform to our simplifying labels. If we forget that, we risk contributing to a mentality that can be seen all too clearly in ongoing attempts to control and dehumanise the people around us.


3 thoughts on “The Woolcomber’s World, Part V: A defence of microhistory

  1. Excellent post. I’m very much against abstraction in history. I hadn’t thought of it before, but you make a very good point that abstraction and authoritarianism go together. They both misrepresent how people really are.

    • Thanks, Gavin. I should clarify though: I’m definitely not opposed to abstraction in historical writing. It is absolutely necessary from a practical standpoint: we can’t name every individual who turns up in our histories, even when we know his or her name. It is also often necessary for effective analysis: it can be very helpful to talk about the behaviour, attitude or position of, e.g., ‘the poor of the parish of Coggeshall’, ‘the maidservants of London’, ‘the dissenters’, or even ‘the people of England’.

      However, my point is simply that it is absolutely necessary to sometimes set aside abstractions and look through the microscope at individual people in all their complexity. Moreover, even when we are using abstractions, we need to remember that they are inherently artificial. They are terms of convenience and analysis, not real agents.

  2. Pingback: Microstoria | Up The Oss Road

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