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The best books on Microhistory

recommended by Jonathan Healey

The historian defines and discusses micro-history, choosing five books that use historical minutiae to answer big questions about the past.

What is microhistory?

There’s a very famous phrase of William Blake’s “to see the world in a grain of sand” and that’s what you’re trying to do with micro-history. It’s an approach to history which allows you to go into lots of detail. By going into that detail you get much closer to the subjects you’re writing about and that then allows you to draw out big questions about humanity, social change, and social existence in a particular period.

Is it the case that the more you look in detail at something, the more obvious these large themes become?

Not necessarily. Particularly if you’re looking at something like a court case very briefly then you only really have time to look at one side of the argument. But if you go into it in detail and you’re looking at different witness statements, even about the same event, then suddenly these little ambiguities crop up and you have to work hard to pull apart what happened, but at the same time try to keep an eye on what really matters. Does it matter where someone was at a particular time? Does it matter that levitation is unlikely to have actually happened? Is what really matters the fact that people believe this, the fact that they give particular cultural spins on something? The more you look into something in detail, the more ambiguous it becomes, the more intricate it becomes. At the same time that allows you — if you can step back a little — to draw out large themes and to think about what individual things mean in their context.

I’m working through this weird case of cross dressing in early-seventeenth-century England. There are arguments about whether people cross dressing in Shakespeare is a massive challenge to the gender order, or whether it shows that the gender order of the period is quite secure. Those are complex debates. Once I’ve sorted what I think about them, I’m back in the court case and the next thing they do is use bagpipes, and I’m thinking ‘What do bagpipes mean in the seventeenth century? Oh, they’re a representation of warfare.’ You’re constantly in conversation with the sources, but you’re also looking at secondary material, at historiographical debates. It’s a very engaging way of talking to the past, talking to these events, and trying to work out what they really mean.

Most people in history have left no traces of their own voice. What can we do to try to hear them?

It’s very hard to hear the voices of most people. I’m in a slightly luxurious position in that I’m an early modern historian and I work on England. 16th- and 17-century Europe, particularly England, is a surprisingly well-documented society. My doctoral supervisor reckoned that early-modern England was — apart from our own — the most well-documented society in the world. That means we do see the voices of quite a lot of people who are not kings or politicians. But they are very hard to get at.

One place where we do see the voices of people who are not amongst the wealthy is through legal records. If you’re a historian of parts of Europe, then you might have records of the Inquisition, which are very useful. In England, you have witness statements in front of the law courts. These are records which are conditioned by the court they’re used in, by the lawyers and the clerks who wrote them down, and by the fact that they are political documents. If you give a witness statement in a law court, particularly if you are the defendant, then you have a particular take on things and that makes it hard to interpret.

Literacy does make it difficult in an earlier context to get at those voices of people who can’t write, who are not necessarily well-read, who are not opinion formers, often who are not men. I’ve been talking in class terms, but it makes it harder to get at the view of ordinary women, and children as well. Early modernists are forced to work through the remnants of middling sort, and above, men. Sometimes those men are using the voices of other people, but those voices are clouded.

Your first book is Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre. Is this book a microhistory?

Yes, in a sense it’s one of the easiest microhistories to get into. It’s very short, working on a very famous case. It’s been turned into not one, but two films: a French film inevitably starring Gerard Depardieu and a — not particularly good — American version with Richard Gere. It tells a very unusual story about a French peasant who disappears off and leaves his wife and about eight years later this other French peasant turns up and claims to be him. His wife, who’s called Bertrand, says ‘Yes, absolutely, this is my husband, this is Martin Guerre.’ She defends him in front of the law courts in the village. Her family then really push the case, there’s a soldier who walks past and says, ‘That’s not Martin Guerre, I saw him at war, he only has one leg.’ He ends up in another law court and then dramatically the original husband turns up and the imposter ends up getting hung. It’s a very tragic, very strange story. Why does the wife accept this? Why does she think, ‘I’m going to tell everyone that this is my husband?’ Has she been duped? The spin that Natalie Davis puts on it is a broadly feminist one, which is that she is in a very tricky position in her world, she is stuck without a husband so she uses agency, she takes in this guy who wants to move up slightly in the world. She needs this protection of a husband and so she goes along with it. She’s been criticised, but it’s a broadly defensible position.

What I really like about this book is that it’s such an intricate story of very ordinary people, and yet Natalie Davis uses it to draw out these big themes about sixteenth-century Europe: about gender relations, about the hardship of peasant life. It’s just a fascinating story. It’s riveting. While you’re following it, you’re wondering how it’s going to end. It’s like a novel. There’s a reason it’s been turned into films and my book hasn’t yet.

I’m really interested in the figure of Bertrand. It’s easy to extrapolate that she can’t have been particularly happy with the real Martin Guerre, who abandoned her.

No, and this is one of the things that came out of my work on the seventeenth century: it was relatively easy for a man to abandon a woman in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In England there was a mechanism for bringing these blokes back. But it didn’t work a lot of the time as they just disappeared off to London, or one of the colonies. It means there’s this very difficult position a lot of women are left in, and they attempt to shift for themselves, they use what power they have. In Bertrand’s case, she comes to a fairly sensible solution to this very difficult problem, which is not of her own making. It’s generated by her husband being a bit of a bastard, and by the fundamentally misogynist nature of sixteenth-century French rural society. It’s notable that it’s only when her real husband turns up at the end of the story that she says, ‘OK, game’s up, this isn’t the real guy.’

One of the interesting things about a lot of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women’s history more recently is this debate as to how far women are able to shift for themselves and bend the rules to their advantage. There are some scholars who say that the rules were actually so harshly stacked against women that they didn’t have much chance of doing that. There are others, both are from within feminist history, who argue the opposite. They say women are in a very difficult situation because of the rules of the world, but actually they work them in quite clever ways and are able to say the right things at the right time. That’s the really big theme that comes out of The Return of Martin Guerre. It speaks to all those debates.

Book two is Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre.

This is a wonderful collection of short essays, very much on cultural history. It looks at individual people, individual places, individual topics, and draws out big themes. There’s a fantastic article in it about people responding to Rousseau, showing some of the emotional responses they had to Julie, which Darnton reckons is the bestselling book in eighteenth-century France. In another wonderful piece, my favourite in the collection, Darnton looks at fairy tales. He takes a source which is quite tricky and clearly not true in the traditional, Eltonian sense and looks at what cultural world it tells us about, how it reflects peasant society. I was very struck by the fact that in most of the fairy tales he looks at — they’re all nasty and bloody, but we all know that — when the hero wins, he doesn’t become the prince or marry, he gets a pot of porridge that’s never empty or he wins a minor battle of wits against the local aristocrat. It’s a very small scale of victory and Darnton particularly emphasises this in continental European contexts. It shows that people’s ambition was to survive. He uses these stories people told to children to get into cultural mindsets.

The classic article from this collection is the one that gives the title. It’s about these apprentices in Paris who think their mistress is spending more money on her cats than on looking after them. They have a mock trial and hang all her cats — she’s quite upset about this. There are all these questions about whether it’s a sexual attack on her, because of the connotations of cats with female sexuality, and how far there are class distinctions emerging in eighteenth-century Paris between the journeyman class and the bourgeois. Darnton has a quite Marxist take on the whole thing. We don’t know whether the massacre actually happened. It’s based on a story told later. For me, the realisation that sometimes it doesn’t matter if a story is objective truth was very important. It’s the same with the fairy tales: fact is not just the physical things that happen, fact is also the way things are represented, the stories people tell. That was very influential on me, as a young PhD student who thought we always had to work out what actually happened.

I read that factual historical sources and historical literature were a two-way street, the one influences the other because the way you see yourself reflected in literature obviously changes the way that you behave, and the way you behave changes the way you write.

Absolutely. I think that’s true. One of my favourite things to ask students at interview is, ‘What do we do with literary sources?’ Often the first thing they say is, ‘We don’t know whether they’re true.’ It’s a very plausible way for them to think. But, yes, we don’t just live in a world where everything is material. We live in a world that is heavily influenced by the culture that we imbibe. That culture is not just based on fact. Particularly if you look at the early modern period, it’s based on ideas about magic and God, which are intrinsically neither provable nor factual. I think we do a massive disservice to people in the past by not engaging with them and that cultural world on their own terms. The work of people like Keith Thomas did do a good job of engaging with relatively ordinary people and trying to understand their cultural world. For that we have to look at things like literature, it’s one of the best sources for it.

People specifically had pretty crazy beliefs about cats, I believe?

In the sixteenth century, cats had all kinds of strange connotations: female sexuality, magic, diabolic magic — the traditional view of the witch with the cat does have some grounding in history.

Book three is Poverty and Piety in an English Village by Keith Wrightson and David Levine. Why did you choose this book?

This is less fun than the other books, it’s a very serious work of history. But it’s interesting for me for two reasons. The first is that in my field it has been hugely influential. It’s about a village called Terling, which is in Essex. It’s a relatively economically vibrant, religiously active village not too far from London. It’s got very good records from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The book by Wrightson and Levine has been so influential that there’s now a Terling thesis about the early modern period. This is that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because of the economic changes that were happening, there was a rise of the middling sort and they were intrinsically much more receptive to Puritanism. They saw that there was a lot of poverty in their village and they wanted to control it. That control was manifested through things like restrictions on people having time in the ale house, prosecutions for sexual misdemeanours. Even things like swearing and playing football on the Sabbath fell into these guys’ crosshairs. That thesis, which people have challenged and unpicked, has been very influential. It has also changed the way early modern historians look at the English nuclear family. Wrightson and Levine looked at people’s wills and found they didn’t leave very much money outside their immediate family, which suggests that what they called ‘non-kin’ were not very important to English people. It fed into this idea of English individualism and the importance of the nuclear family way back in seventeenth-century England.

The second reason I think it’s really interesting is that it takes the same anthropological approach of people like Robert Darnton and melds it with this tradition of local history. What we call the ‘Leicester School of Local History’ is where you look for big, often economic, themes in the history of a single village. One of the classic examples is W. G. Hoskins’s The Midland Peasant, which is about a village in Leicestershire. It’s a very English tradition, that particularly economic and social approach to one village. Wrightson and Levine take that and stick in a bit of cultural history. They’re very influenced by people like Alan Macfarlane who’s an anthropologist and they use Terling as a way of thinking about how English society is changing in that period.

They may be wrong, there are even historians who debate their interpretation of that one village. Methodologically and in terms of the ideas though, this is so influential and so interesting as a book.

What was it like to live in a village at this time: were they harmonious?

One of the things that Wrightson argues in another article, and I think this is influenced by his Terling stuff, is that the early modern period sees something called a ‘decline of neighbourliness.’ I think this is just another attempt by an early modern historian to create a really interesting narrative. His argument is that in the Middle Ages there was this real language of neighbourliness. Villages worked by getting together and working in the same manorial court, sharing the same common land, socialising in the same ale houses, playing the same games, and the same sports. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries two major changes happened. One is the rise of fundamentally divisive forms of religion such as puritanism, this then sees these middling people try to regulate the behaviour of the poor and stop them doing certain types of games. Wrightson’s middling sort think in very different ways as well, they see themselves as being linked to the gentry, reading the same books, going to grammar schools and universities, thinking in very different ways to the nearest poor. Wrightson also writes about the rise of capitalism and he thinks that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England developed along particularly capitalist lines: the market became more important. This means you got the enclosure of common lands and economic differentiation between the middling sort and the poor. In the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that then shatters this neighbourliness and creates a very different world going into the eighteenth century. It’s a world that is ready for parliamentary enclosure, the battles over food prices, and things like that.

Book four is Richard Gough’s The History of Myddle. Who was Gough?

Gough was a Shropshire yeoman who teetered on the edge of gentility, he died in 1723. For some reason, he collected these memoirs of his village — Myddle —which are part antiquarian, part local interest, part a document with a purpose. One of the things he does is write a list of all the law suits Myddle won against neighbouring villages, which is a very seventeenth- and eighteenth-century way of looking at your local community: this is a profoundly litigious society. His psycho-geography is very interesting because he thinks about the village in a particular way, he thinks about the church and where each family’s pew was in the church. He goes around each pew and says “this family sat here, this is their story.” It’s not just their genealogy, it’s all about their sexual exploits, or the crime they’ve been involved in, who were good guys, and who were terrible puritans or terrible drunks. There are running themes, such as the idea that drink can ruin people, but it’s also full of these wonderfully gossipy descriptions of his neighbours, such as someone who’s got“good gear in his breeches.” It’s full of stories we would never see had Gough not written them down.

One of my favourite is this guy who’s a petty thief. His big thing is hedge breaking, he likes to go round and pick bits of wood out of people’s hedges. This is really quite annoying, but not the sort of thing you want to have your neighbour hung for. He buys this new oven, and the way his neighbours decide to get back at him is they get a piece of wood and they bore a hole in it and fill it full of gunpowder and plug it. Then they stick it temptingly into this hedge. Of course, this guy trots along and sees this piece of wood sticking out and goes “fantastic, I’ll have that for my new oven.”He takes it back to his house and puts it in the oven, and it blows up. He’s last seen running around saying “fire, fire,” but he’s fine, and doesn’t completely change his ways. It’s really interesting that this is another way of dealing with troublesome neighbours without using the legal system. As historians we are always using legal records, and we see people when they come into contact with the state quite often—the state means the law courts—but there must have been loads of people who were dealt with by village communities in ways which we’d call vigilante, but which were essentially quite sensible responses in a world where the legal system was difficult to use and was incredibly harsh. Theoretically, someone could be hung for quite a small amount of theft. Villagers actually don’t want that. They want to play a joke on people.

“Fact is not just the physical things that happen, fact is also the way things are represented, the stories people tell.”

There’s another wonderful story from Gough. Another petty pilferer, who is described as a “very silly fellow,” so probably has some kind of mental illness. He’s involved in stealing odds and ends, but then he gets involved in a more serious crime. He is stealing chickens and taking them to a guy in Shrewsbury to sell them, so it’s organised crime, but in a very Shropshire way. So this really annoys the neighbours and they haul him in front of the courts where he’s convicted of stealing a number of chickens, which should theoretically qualify him for the death penalty, but the judge says to the jury “go away, you must find him guilty, but think very carefully about the value.” The jury bring back the value, they find him guilty but they say that the chickens were worth 11 pence, which makes it a misdemeanour rather than a felony. Gough has this wonderful, vivid description, he says “at which the judge laughed most heartily and says he’s glad chickens are so cheap in this part of the world.” This guy learns his lesson a bit, Gough says he never completely stops pilfering stuff. It’s a description we would never see looking through legal records, of someone who is faced with the full harshness of english law, and yet the way it actually works on the ground is people mitigate it and try and work out ways of using it to give someone a lesson rather than having them killed.

The way he talks about the physical and temporal boundaries of his world really struck me.

He picks the parish for a reason, and the parish church for a reason, as those are centres of people’s cultural worlds. It’s quite clear that things like the poor law are very influential. When he talks about the law suits his parish has won, they’re usually over settlement, they’re about people who Myddle claims they don’t have responsibility for and other parishes claim it does. In that respect the poor law is encouraging people to draw these mental boundaries around the parish. But it is interesting how mobile Myddle is. Lots of people leave and go to London, Gough isn’t quite in contact with them, but he still hears stories about them, and some of them return. One of the striking and powerful things about Myddle — he’s recording this at a fifty year distance — is the number of people he talks about going away to fight in the civil wars. Most of them are young men, they mostly don’t come back. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries England is increasingly mobile.

The last book is Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook. What is Brook’s method for reading microhistory?

He takes a series of paintings, most of which are by Vermeer — or by his contemporaries — and he tells the story of what’s in them. He pulls apart the fact that there’s a piece of China plate in one image to tell the story of the Chinese porcelain industry. He discusses the appearance of a map of the Dutch republic, and what the appearance of cartography in the seventeenth century means. The eponymous hat is from The Officer and the Laughing Girl, it’s a beaver hat, and Brook tells the story of how traders in Canada are bringing back beaver fur. He discusses how that tells us that trade and maritime exploration in the seventeenth century are bringing the world closer together. The seventeenth century is the first age of real globalisation. In the sixteenth century you see little prods, but the seventeenth century sees everything pulling together, for Europeans at least.Vermeer’s Hat, for me, is a really clever, engaging, brilliantly written book. It’s a real page-turner.

He’s not really saying anything drastically new, he’s trying to tell global history in an engaging way. Historians of the early modern period have become slightly obsessed with global history recently. I think that’s right, it’s very important, but it’s often hard to tell that story to a wider audience. The genius of Vermeer’s Hat is that he finds a clever and engaging way to do it.

This book discusses these objects in interiors. How aware would the individual who owns them herself been of their links to globalisation?

I don’t know that they would have thought about ‘globalisation’ as such, I don’t know that they wouldn’t either. I think part of what Brook is suggesting is that these interiors — the Turkish carpets, the porcelain — are put together for a specific reason, which is that they show a cosmopolitan world view, which is particularly indicative of the cultural world of the Dutch middle class in this period. You could apply it to the middle class in London as well, or even to some English provincial towns. That world view is increasingly globalised, it’s increasingly showing knowledge of the rest of the world, an interest in commodities. In the late seventeenth century, in England, it becomes much more common in gentry houses to have cotton curtains, which were made in India. This causes all kinds of consternation among the wool industry in England because they’re worried about the competition. It shows that the world of at least some people is becoming increasingly globalised.

The trouble with a lot of this stuff is that you are looking at elite history. Vermeer’s interiors are not those of Dutch peasants. These are the Dutch, urban middle classes. But the fact that the world in this period is becoming more interconnected did have an impact on people quite far down the social scale. People around Bolton and Manchester — pretty backwards places at that time — started to manufacture cotton in the early eighteenth century. Cotton doesn’t grow in England, they were getting it from Turkey and Syria. That means that by the early eighteenth century the peasants of Lancashire were in competition with the peasants of Bengal for global cotton markets.

The reason I said Brook was micro-history is that he’s doing something again which is slightly different. You’ve got Natalie Davis who takes an individual set of court cases, you’ve got Darnton who looks at cultural events, Wrightson and Levine do a very local English history, reconstructing it from wills and inventories and manorial records, you’ve got the gossip of Myddle and Gough. What Brook does is he looks at paintings and analyses them in detail. Again, this is a way of unpicking particular remnants from the past — in this case fantastic paintings — and looking at the bigger picture that they tell.

July 19, 2017

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Jonathan Healey

Jonathan Healey

Jonathan Healey is a University Lecturer in English Local and Social History at the University of Oxford. He works on poverty, economic development, popular political history, and rural history from the 15th to the 19th centuries. In 2012 he was picked as one of the winners of BBC Radio 3's New Generation Thinkers competition. His blog is The Social Historian.

Jonathan Healey

Jonathan Healey

Jonathan Healey is a University Lecturer in English Local and Social History at the University of Oxford. He works on poverty, economic development, popular political history, and rural history from the 15th to the 19th centuries. In 2012 he was picked as one of the winners of BBC Radio 3's New Generation Thinkers competition. His blog is The Social Historian.