Microhistory: size matters

Brodie Waddell

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.

17 thoughts on “Microhistory: size matters

  1. Things I associate microhistory with – and these are very personal associations, rather than what necessarily defines it as a genre of writing – are:

    – the left: not necessarily historians who nail their political colours to the mast, but at the least, historians who have an interest in the marginal and subaltern.
    – interdisciplinary approaches: borrowing from anthropology, literary criticism, economics, sociology, or wherever else.
    – linked to that, reading sources against the grain: for example using records left by elites to recover voices of non-elites.
    – also linked to that, using as diverse a range of sources as possible and following leads as far as they possibly can go (even if that takes you into other periods, places or topics): John Walter’s account of the Colchester riots of 1642 is a superlative example of this.
    – a not dogmatically empirical approach to sources and analysis: I don’t mean by this a willingness to make things up, more just a recognition that our ability to recover the objective truth is imperfect and that imaginative, narrative approaches to history have a part to play in helping us understand what people in the past may have been thinking, feeling or doing.

    “I should also thank the MA students in my seminar at Birkbeck a couple of weeks ago”

    I remember that particular seminar in my own MA well! As I recall we were in that junk room (it may have been tidied up now: this was in 2007) at the end of the corridor with the bust of Eric Hobsbawm in it. A slightly strange experience to have one of the titans of history from below gazing down at you amidst stacked chairs and old wine bottles…

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Nick.

      Interesting that you mentioned the political association first. Although I agree completely that microhistorians tend to come from the left, I hadn’t made that association myself. Perhaps this is just because my interest in social/cultural history means that nearly all of the historians I read come from a socialist or social-democratic tradition. (This may be changing with my new interest in proper ‘economic history’)

      I think you are probably right about the others too. However, I’m less sure about the ‘diversity of sources’. Yes, most microhistorians try to find every trace of the information about their subject, no matter how scattered, but often it seems they rely very heavily on one specific source (e.g. a series of depositions, a journal) and only use the other traces to fill in context.

      I’ll try to respond more fully in a follow-up post.

      PS: Sadly I haven’t experienced the Hobsbawmian junk room. Is it in the Malet Street building? Our MA seminars are a good quarter of an hour away at Westminster Kingsway thanks to the joys of the new room booking system.

      • Yes it was in Malet Street, on the 4th floor – but looking at the website the faculty seems to have moved since then so the contents may well be elsewhere now! It was at the end of a twisty corridor and full of old chairs, leftover bottles from faculty parties, and of course the Hobsbawm bust. They used to squeeze twelve of us in there during my first term in 2007.

  2. Thanks Brodie and Nick, really interesting points here. It made me realise that I have always thought of microhistories as case studies that use a small, focused sample of evidence to shed light on much broader issues, questions and trends. That would hold true for a distinction between biography/ microhistory, but doesn’t really work for a local history/ microhistory divide. The local history can of course be set up as a case study (with the implication that other places would have been similar, and that you can generalise from it), but it does seem to be different to microhistory with the features mentioned above. Perhaps a microhistory is a unique case study (with the implication that nowhere else would have been the same, yet the exceptional nature of the case throws into relief the ‘normal’ aspects of society).

    Then I was thinking: who decides? We have Brodie’s categorisations, which he suggests are more widely held, but why? When do studies get labelled and by who? Is it as part of the reviewing process? The teaching process? The conference and seminar scene?

    Finally, now I am wondering what I think the most important characteristic of a mircohistory is. I think Nick’s point about interdisciplinary approaches is very important, an emphasis on innovation in approach, and interest in mentality as well as reality – a focus on the strange, bizarre and marginal fits well with such a methodology of course. Brodie’s phrase ‘reflective and open’ seems to be at the core of what microhistory is…

    • Yes, this question of who decides what is and isn’t ‘microhistory’ is key. As we know, the process of naming/labelling is not transparent. One need only think of early modern labels like ‘puritan’ or ‘ranter’ or ‘gentleman’ or ‘vagrant’ to see that this is an inherently political act. That’s something I’ll need to think about and hopefully address in the follow-up post.

  3. One of the phrases I like best, in regard to microhistorical research, is that it concerns itself with the “normal exception.” That is, microhistorians are interested in the lives and field of agency of “ordinary people,” but paradoxically, the perspectives of such people, since they usually were illiterate, most often appear in the written record in extraordinary circumstances, when literate elites took notice of something peculiar and documented it. For this reason, microhistories often focus on offbeat or exceptional individuals / events. Yet, a good microhistory can unveil a great deal about the boundaries between the commonplace and expected, and the rare and unusual: these studies use the documentation of peculiarity as a point of entry into the ordinary, daily lives of marginal or low-status persons.

    • Thanks, Nancy. I think that’s a great point: microhistories often seem to be based on the idea that by focusing on the exceptional, they can learn about what was considered normal (and thus unrecorded). You can see that in an excellent recent festschrift in honour of Bernard Capp: The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England: Essays in Celebration of the Work of Bernard Capp, edited by Garthine Walker, Angela McShane (2009).

      This contains a number of essays would likely fall under the rubric of ‘microhistory’. Of course, it also contains a few that don’t seem to fit that label (such as Keith Thomas’s essay on the fart and a couple of chapters on witchcraft), so perhaps we shouldn’t regard the ‘normal exception’ as an exclusively microhistorical method.

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  5. This is a really interesting discussion. I’ve been wracking my brains now for a while over the differences between The Cheese and the Worms, which ‘definitely’ is a microhistory, and Terling, which (although it has plenty of ‘micro’ characteristics) ‘feels’ like it isn’t. This is a really crude distinction which won’t hold up, using problematic, porous and imperfect categories, but is the key difference that Ginzburg, Darnton, Davis et al are cultural histories, whereas the other works fall more into the category of social/socio-economic? Do those traditional disciplinary distinctions have any validity here? And are we just left trying to put our finger on what precisely cultural history is, instead of what microhistory is?

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