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.

Combined image

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

There has been a surge of interest in so-called ‘global microhistory’ over the last few years. One of the finest examples is John-Paul Ghobrial’s work on Elias of Babylon and it was great to have him in attendance, contributing to the discussion. Yet, whereas Ghobrial and other global microhistorians – including Natalie Zemon Davis herself in her work on Leo Africanus – have followed particular people in their treks around the world, several speakers here emphasised the way the microhistory of specific ‘liminal’ sites could also offer a way into transnational history.

Maxine Berg talked about Nootka Sound, a cove not far from my home town in the Pacific Northwest which became an important place of encounter and exchange in the late eighteenth century. Within a few years of Captain James Cook’s first visit in 1778, the Sound had turned into a valuable point of contact between the local First Nations people who could offer sea otter pelts and the European traders offering iron and copper, who then traded the pelts on to China, where they were a highly sought luxury item used even in the robes of the Emperor himself. The sources for constructing a microhistory of Nootka Sound are not as voluminous as the wonderful inquisitorial records of early modern France or Italy, and getting at the perspective of First Nations peoples is especially difficult, but the potential value of this focus was obvious.


Indeed, Benjamin Kaplan has proven this in his book on a remarkable incident in a Dutch-German border village in 1762. A kidnapping at a baptism led to violent confessional clashes and, conveniently, a voluminous legal record. At the symposium, he talked about how studying the ‘borderland’ nature of this environment enabled him to approach broader questions of religious conflict and coexistent that would otherwise be missed. What is striking in both Berg and Kaplan’s cases is the small scale of the places they chose. One could talk about international trade or inter-confessional relations in a major early modern metropolis such as Amsterdam or London, but by tightening the focus to zoom in on a liminal area inhabited by only a few hundred or, at most, a couple thousand people, they are able to bring the tools of microhistory to bear on the concerns of global history.

I think we can go further still and suggest microhistories of particular localities – even if they are not obviously ‘borderlands’ – can usefully illuminate much bigger historical forces.  Emma Rothchild talked about her current work on the French village of Angouleme, a place notorious for its backwardness yet remarkably full of individuals with direct connections to the French Caribbean and other distant lands. I suspect the same might be said of some of English villages that have been microscopically examined, such as Terling, Earls Colne, Myddle, and Chilvers Cotton.

The close study of a locality, then, need not be parochial. By piecing together the lives of the inhabitants through careful record-linkage, it may be possible to see how extra-local networks of trade, religion or politics could intersect in a single inauspicious site.

Microhistory as archival immersion

The acute importance of primary sources is a crucial aspect of self-declared microhistories. This not to claim that other histories use archives rarely or uncritically, merely to say that microhistorians have a tendency to discuss their sources more directly, explicitly and fully than others. To take an extreme example, it is difficult to imagine a microhistory that relied mostly on secondary material, whereas this is common among macrohistories working on the global scale.

As Ghobrial noted, there is thus a tendency for microhistorians to become philologists, interrogating and contextualising a specific set of primary sources from dozens of angles, including reading them ‘against the grain’. But does the key source have to be an ‘extraordinary’ document or ‘exceptional’ collection? Must microhistories be based on the sort of rich material that Carlo Ginzberg found in the Italian inquisitorial archives?

The symposium suggested that this may be a misconception. Rothchild’s project began when she found a 1764 marriage contract signed by over 80 different witnesses in a small French village, surely an unusual document according to any definition. Yet she said that the vast majority of the information she has discovered has come from much more ‘ordinary’ sources, mainly banal parish registers, illuminated through an ‘obsessive’ process of record-linkage in order to construct biographies of the villagers and map out the networks through which they were connected. Unremarkable records can reveal remarkable stories.

This comes through even more clearly in relation to the so-called ‘archival turn’ in early modern historiography. Scholars have become increasingly concerned with the nature of the sources themselves – rather than their ‘content’. This is something that historians like Natalie Zemon Davis have long practiced – see, for example, her Fiction in the Archives – but it has now come to the fore in a wide variety of recent work. For example, a good many of the pieces in the excellent collection on The Social History of the Archive published last year might be interpreted as microhistories. It is even more notable in a recent book by Marisa J. Fuentes entitled Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, which presents a series of micro-studies of particular women in eighteenth-century Barbados. Here, the failure of the archive to present the perspective of the ‘dispossessed’, or even to offer substantial details about their lives, becomes a central part of the story. Although Fuentes only uses the term ‘microhistory’ in passing, I was struck by the way that her work pushes this methodology forward by showing how reducing the scale of examination can enable us to see both the women themselves and the ‘archival violence’ through which their stories were preserved.

Bridgetown Barbados

Although neither Fuentes nor the contributors to the The Social History of the Archive were speakers at the symposium, it seems like we should be looking to scholars like these if we want to answer the question of ‘what is microhistory now?’ As Rublack implied in her introduction, and as Tom Robisheaux noted explicitly in the concluding discussion, there is a new generation of historians emerging who are embracing the form but whose approach is unconstrained by the methods and debates of Davis, Ginzberg and other pioneers.

Microhistory as a brand may have lost some of its ‘radical’ appeal, but the potential of ‘small histories’ to speak to big questions is stronger than ever.

21 thoughts on “What is microhistory now?

  1. Delighted to have this accessible. It’s very helpful indeed for someone who has not considered the issue for some time. I’d like to add a few possibilities and then one critique (it is me, after all).

    1 brokerage
    2 emporia
    3 hybridity (Homi Bhabha) (e,g, Nechtmann on nabobs)

    all inter-related.

    Critique? Well what has happened to Ruggerio and J-F Lyotard? Does their take no longer warrant discussion? Is it too emphatic about the ‘impossibility’? (Again, as a former archivist, I find that there is a wee bit too much romanticizing the ‘archive’, whatever that might be considered to be).

    BUT thanks for the real enlightenment.

    • I will add something here. I see so many historians tweeting about what constitutes an ‘archive’. Perhaps a discussion with your friendly local archivist about archival theory from Jenkinson onwards would be of benefit.

      • Thanks, Dave. I can see how ideas like emporia could fit well with some of the approaches discussed at the workshop.

        I also fully take your point about historians discussing archives in isolation from archivists and their scholarship. That said, I don’t think Fuentes and the others mentioned are in any way ‘romanticising’ the archive. Indeed, I believe they are trying to interrogate the constructed and ultimately artificial nature of the archive, and examine its role in power relations.

      • Too much Derrida (or J., C. Holt who made the same point decades ago in a HA pamphlet). Archives are not constructed, but accumulated (until the recent Self-curation – sic). Of course, the original organization has an agendum. Collections of manuscripts are constructed. There’s a difference between TNA and the BL, between record offices and special repositories.

        The romanticism is also about how they are acquired by archivists. It can be a shit job – literally. We spent most of our time in dilapidated industrial premises rescuing records of businesses going into liquidation. At Hadfields (steel in demise), we worked in a basement permanently flooded by the R. Don with thick mould and mosquitos. The stuff had to be placed in an air-tight tent and fumigated in bulk be Rentokil (too much for our conservation facilities). In another local government warehouse, my colleagues worked among shit left by the local feral youths. We had to wear special ventilators to work in a solicitors cellar into which records had been despatched and the trap-door shut allowing the rising damp to infest everything down there. That’s the reality of how accumulations of records are transferred to record offices.

      • shd be a solicitor’s cellar or cellar of a firm of solicitors, of course.

  2. Useful piece, thanks. John Walter taught a module on microhistory for years in Essex – would be interesting to hear his comments on ‘What is microhistory now’.

    • Absolutely! He explicitly frames his book on the Colchester Plunders in 1642 as a sort of event-driven microhistory. It might very usefully be compared to Darnton’s Cat Massacre.

  3. I am particularly interested in the ways in which micro-histories open up new ways of understanding the lives of people in the past. The records frequently fail to tell us about aspects of their lives, about assumptions they made or shared, about experiences they had which were commonplace for them but not specifically articulated: these can sometimes be recovered by close attention to the records of communities or families which draw out such assumptions or beliefs in the course of research. Large-scale studies are less likely to do so.

    • Quite right, Christopher. The documentary silence is, I think, one of the reasons by Natalie Zemon Davis defended the idea of informed speculation to fill in some of the gaps after exploring all the concrete records about an individual person/place.

  4. As someone who has been doing micro-history for years, it is refreshing to see the idea being discussed in a wider forum.

  5. The reaction on here and on Twitter is telling. Micro-history seems to be a form people really care about and want to understand better.

    On the ‘classics’, I wonder if the success and longevity of Cheese & Worms and Martin Guerre are due to their strangeness. Readers, academic and popular, are pulled along by these unusual stories, from which historical questions emerge. Those questions are often implicit, which makes the books harder to place in the historiography. In the first chapter of Great Cat Massacre, Darnton talks about the unexplained or the oblique catching his eye. The historian can’t help investigate and the reader can’t help read. I wonder if any new micro-histories, while more useful for our broader understanding of the past, will have the same impact.

    • Normalization of microhistory: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/32 (Barry Reay on the Blean – well, he professes that it’s microhistory and has a justification for his assertion).
      On The Cheese and the Worms, it has been integrated into a wider piece by Susan Reynolds in TRHS for 1991? on the wider existence of scepticism – i.e. not so strange, just revealing something generally hidden.
      On Darnton – personally, I’d exercise caution on anything written by Darnton in this sense: he was a colleague of Geertz and close follower of Geertz’s hermeneutic anthropology, which searches for a (single) coherent interpretation. Ironically, Geertz recognizes the ‘hermeneutic circle’ and then carries on to engage in it.

    • Yes, it is wonderful to see so many people invested in the idea of microhistory as a potentially powerful approach to the past. And I think you are quite right to highlight the issue of ‘stangeness’ – or, if we want to use the jargon, ‘alterity’. That’s what makes Ginzberg and Davis such great ambassadors of the early modern period. They manage to show that their subjects were both entirely human – and thus relatable – but also sometimes shockingly ‘foreign’ – and thus intriguing. The Angelia McShane and Garthine Walker’s volume on *The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England* does a great job of getting at some of these issues, though interestingly with few if any direct references to microhistory: http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9780230537248

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  7. I’d push back a bit on local studies as micro-history; if the genre has meaning, it iris the narrowness of focus. That could be a place, but I don’t think 200 years of Terling is micro anything! (Myddle is a better candidate, so focused on Gough.). I think Wrightson’s discussion in the intro to Ralph Tailor is very good here. (And this is typical: Wrightson got drawn in by the signature on a will…). He talks about the intensity of focus.

    I do think it’s useful to think about what is not microhistory as well as what is – why not some biographies, for instance? They share a great deal, but I think they are different.

    • Place: Hoskins and thus Hey, I assume, would have regarded their studies as addressing the particular, but would not have acknowledged their research as microhistory in that term; one justification for the concentration on the local is that grand narrative has failed or is impossible (i.e. Lyotard, Ruggiero). All with question marks!

    • Fair enough, Susan. I completely take your point about Wrightson and Levine’s Terling not being a particularly ‘small history’ given its long time span. I’m not keen on definitional debates, but I suppose to my mind, microhistories can be about individuals (e.g. classics like Ginzburg and Davis as well as recent ones like Wrightson on Tailor and Ghobrail on Elias of Babylon), events (Darnton on the cat massacre, John Walter on the Colchester Plunderers) or places (Hey on Myddle; Hindle on Chilvers Coton). What unites them is looking at small things to ask big questions.

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  9. Great post, Brodie! I agree that it’s good to see so much attention to this method. I’ve always wanted to dabble in it further. I find the concept of ‘global microhistory’ particularly exciting, and I think it’s gathering quite a bit of pace (not least due to John-Paul’s example).

    There’s one point I’d like to raise, though. I remember a conversation with an Italian colleague about what had, and had not, translated from the original concept of ‘microstoria’ developed by Ginzberg and Giovanni Levi (who has not had as much recognition amongst English-speakers as Ginzberg). Their main point was that ‘micro’ does not necessarily refer to scale, but to the microscopic approach to reconstructing detail. This is naturally easiest to do at a small scale, but it would also be possible to do a ‘big microhistory’ if you had the time and resources (and in our world of research projects and digital tools, this might be more feasible than it used to be). My colleague felt that the emphasis on scale in Anglophone work has led to a tendency to focus on telling specific stories, which loses some of the other original ambitions or alternative modes of ‘microstoria’.

    I agree with you that debating definitions can be tedious; and I think amongst the examples you mention there are some good alternative styles of microhistory; and personally I rather like telling stories, especially if they are simultaneously illuminating and entertaining. Nevertheless, it does seem that scale has become the defining criteria of Anglophone microhistory, and it might be worth reflecting on why that is. I don’t have an answer…

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