Teaching Microhistory: small things, big questions and a global pandemic

Brodie Waddell

Over ten weeks in April, May and June this year, as a pandemic raged across the world and most of us found ourselves confined mostly to our homes, I taught one of my favourite modules. It’s called ‘To See the World in a Grain of Sand: Reading and Writing Microhistories’, and it’s open to most of the MA students in my department at Birkbeck.


There’s no obvious reason why about twenty postgrads would sign up to do an optional module focused on theories and methodologies, especially as most of them were living in locked-down London, one of the hardest hit cities in the world. But they did, and I’m glad they did. Continue reading

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

Continue reading

The Marginal and the Monstrous: The ‘Voices’ of Prostitutes and Traffickers in Modern History

Our second post in The Voices of the People symposium (full programme here) is by Julia Laite, Lecturer in British History at Birkbeck, University of London. Reflecting on her own work on prostitutes and traffickers in the early twentieth century, Julia addresses a number of themes that will recur frequently throughout this symposium: the value of the microhistorical approach and the capacity of digital technology to support the work of close contextualisation; the importance of self-reflecting on ‘history from below’ writing as a genre and methodology; and the ethics of recovering the ‘voices of the people’.      

Julia Laite

When Lydia Rhoda Harvey steamed away from the shores of New Zealand, enroute to Buenoes Aires where she would, according to her traffickers, ‘see gentlemen’, what did she think? What did she say? What did her traffickers, Antonio Adolfo Carvelli and Veronique White, say to her? To each other? Is it possible to guess, and if so, do I want to and should I?

'A collection of voiceless photographs from the Carvelli/Harvey trafficking case, London, The National Archives, MEPO 3/197

A collection of voiceless photographs from the Carvelli/Harvey trafficking case, London, The National Archives, MEPO 3/197

My new book project examines the story of Carvelli, White, Harvey and the other women who were trafficked alongside of her, as well as some of the police officers, campaigners, and social workers who were directly or indirectly involved in the case. The project didn’t start out as a global microhistory, but as I got further into my research on the subject of trafficking, I became increasingly convinced that examining it in this way would allow me to capture, more effectively than any other way, the complexity of trafficking as a historical subject. Debates rage in the historiography over whether trafficking is most meaningfully described as a form of migrant labour or as exploitation; scholars examine it either from a national or an international perspective; they examine either state action or philanthropic campaigning; they examine the formation of law or the way law looks in practice (though this is actually not very well covered). Histories of trafficking are methodologically transnational (by their very nature), but scholars are coming to realise that they are also very locally contingent. Trafficking also tells us a great deal about power: state power, patriarchal power, economic power; but it also reveals complex voices of people caught up in, facilitating, or fighting ‘the traffic in women’.

A microhistory is an excellent lens with which to capture this complexity; but while also focusing on these individual voices. And so I have spent some time thinking—at times agonizing—about what it means to capture the voices of ‘ordinary’ people in such an extraordinary case; people who were thought of as marginal and monstrous in equal measure: as abject victims, as despicable ruffians. I’ll share some of this thinking here, in the form of four interrelated questions that have been troubling and captivating me as I have gotten deeper into the project, and into my historical actor’s lives. The first is,

How can I listen? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Microhistory: subjects, sources, anti-fascists and Adam

Brodie Waddell

Microhistory is, it seems, a many-headed sort of beast.

In my previous post I suggested that, despite its name, ‘microhistories’ were not simply ‘small histories’ and asked what might make microhistorians 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?

The responses I received in comments (and by email) were very helpful as it soon became obvious that there were many other possibilities that had never occurred to me. Indeed, I received not just five responses, but at least double that number of potential ‘defining features’. Here, however, I will just focus on four issues.

The characteristic that came up most often was the notion of focusing on the ‘exceptional’, ‘unique’, and ‘extraordinary’. This is something that both Laura and Nancy emphasised in their comments as well as a point made one of the pioneers of the genre, Giovanni Levi, who claimed it involved taking seriously things regarded by others as quirky or deviant.1 In Nancy’s words, ‘these studies use the documentation of peculiarity as a point of entry into the ordinary, daily lives of marginal or low-status persons’.2 However, this feature of microhistory also opens it up to critique. As Steve Hindle pointed out in a recent talk (which he kindly passed along in response to my original post), discerning the relationship between ‘the particular’ and ‘the general’ is even more fraught in cases like these where one’s primary subject is undeniably ‘unrepresentative’.3

Another feature that several people mentioned was an explicit engagement with methodological issues. As Nick noted in his comment, microhistories often adapt interdisciplinary approaches, ‘read against the grain’ and acknowledge the important role of imaginative or speculative reconstructions in the absence of conclusive evidence. Laura too suggests that this might ‘be at the core of what “microhistory” is’. In Levi’s reflections on the genre, this forthright discussion of the ambiguities and partialities inherent in narrative sources – such as depositions in inquisitorial courts – is a key element in these histories.4

Perhaps these two recurring features, rather than their scale, are what give microhistories their distinctiveness.

But I think it is worth pushing further, because subjects and methods and even styles can only provide a rather ‘unhistorical’ definition of a historiographical genre. (Note: If you’re an undergrad looking for a straightforward definition of ‘microhistory’, you can stop reading now.)

Let’s start with politics. Nick mentioned that he associated this type of history with ‘the Lotta Continua 1971left’, a link that I hadn’t considered. I think he may be right: the ‘founder’ of the genre, Carlo Ginzburg, wrote a whole book deconstructing and critiquing the murder trial of an activist linked to the Italian leftist group, ‘Lotta Continua’.5 Similarly, the other ‘founder’, Giovanni Levi, has suggested that innovative historical methods can help to explain continuities between the present and the past that ‘neoliberalism’ tries to suppress. In fact Ginzburg and Levi both appear to take some of their inspiration from their Jewish identity and militant anti-fascist heritage. I’d welcome comments from any readers who know of additional (or contrary) examples, but what I think this ought to remind us is that even historiographical traditions that are not explicitly politicised still emerge from specific historical – and thus political – contexts. Microhistory is no exception.

The second issue is nomenclature. For, as Laura pointed out, if we want to find a definition we also need to ask a question: Who decides what is and isn’t ‘proper microhistory’? The power to name things is a very great power indeed, one traditionally reserved for deities and patriarchs.6 Part of the genius of Ginzburg and Levi was simply

Genesis 2:19-20 at the Brick Testament

Genesis 2:19-20 via The Brick Testament

their ability to come up with a concise, memorable term (microstoria) for what they were doing and to convince others to go along with it. This becomes clear when one realises that the word itself had already been used by an American historian, George R. Stewart in the title of one of his books more than a decade before the Italians took it up.7 Stewart may have coined the term, but it was only when Ginzburg and Levi turned it into a ‘brand’ that it became a widely acknowledged and widely imitated genre of history. It was then that it moved beyond the literal notion of a ‘small history’ to acquire all of these associations with specific types of subjects, methods and politics.

Here, at last, we have an explanation for why certain works of history which seem to fit the literal definition of ‘microhistory’ – such as E. P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters (1975) or Wrightson and Levine’s Poverty and Piety (1979) – are rarely granted that label. Ultimately, it comes down to politics, power and a damn good marketing campaign.


1 Giovanni Levi, ‘On Microhistory’, in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (1991). Thanks to Steve Hindle for drawing my attention to this.

2 For an excellent recent example of this approach (including some ‘microhistories’ and some not), see The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England: Essays in Celebration of the Work of Bernard Capp, edited by Garthine Walker and Angela McShane (2009). If you are interested in the connection between ‘microhistory’ and its ‘extraordinary’ antecedents in eighteenth and nineteenth-century ‘compilations of crimes, trials and other strange-but-true stories’, you might want to apply for a fully-funded PhD studentship on that topic at Ghent University in Belgium.

3 Steve Hindle, ‘Reducing the Scale of Historical Observation: Micro-history, Alltagsgeschichte, Local History’, at Huntington Library, Early Modern Studies Institute, ‘Past Tense’, 19 October 2012. There should be a podcast of this talk available soon at which point I will update with a link.

4 Levi, ‘On Microhistory’.

5 Carlo Ginzburg, The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes and a Late-Twentieth-century Miscarriage of Justice (1999).

6 Genesis 2:19 – ‘And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.’ See also this interesting recent post by Daniel Little on the nomenclature of ‘the human sciences’.

7 George R. Stewart, Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Charge at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (1959).

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.