“A look close up permits us to grasp what eludes a comprehensive viewing”

by Nick

In a comment on one of my first posts, Gavin Robinson recommended John Walter’s microhistory of the Stour Valley Riots, Understanding popular violence in the English Revolution. I’ve only now had a chance to read it! The book looks at Sir John Lucas’s attempt to secretly aid Charles I in August 1642, whick provoked Colchester crowds to vandalise house and subject him and his family to various indignities. The riots are often taken to be the best example of inter-class hostility in the British Civil Wars. Walter’s alternative analysis shows the importance of “thickly descriptive” contextualisation. Walter looks at the events within various contexts:

  • local social, economic and political structures and relationships
  • records of the events made by the authorities
  • the broader political participative culture of the mid-seventeenth century

Through this contextualisation, Walter shows that the riots weren’t just confined to Colchester, nor were they spontaneous class hostility in the name of anti-Catholicism. In particular, he shows links to alliances across classes who in turn had links to political figures in London.

Walter’s work is an example of microhistory – study of the past on a very small but very richly contextualised level. I’ve had the chance this week to read a number of “classic” microhistorical texts. One of the most famous is Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. This tells the story of the miller Domenico Scandella, called Menocchio. in 1583 Menocchio was denounced for his heretical beliefs. This included an innovative cosmogony:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Ginzburg reconstructs how Menocchio chewed over a relatively small number of books for many years, for example Mandeville’s Travels. He isolated words and passages, and juxtaposed different passages, sometimes distorting them. When mixed with a wider peasant oral tradition, tied to cycles of nature and going back to pre-Christian times, Ginzburg argues that this produced his distinctive views. In many respects there is a great deal of convergence between Menocchio’s ideas and those of informed and refined intellectual groups of his day. So by reconstructing the wider context of Menocchio’s intellectual world, Ginzburg is able to enrich our understanding of the culture of early modern Italy.

Ginzburg’s microhistory is:

intended to be a story as well as a piece of historical writing. Thus, it is addressed to the general reader as well as the specialist.

You can see in this a reaction against the Annales school and other attempts to find scientific, large-scale explanations for historical causation. In many ways this is comparable to trends in the social sciences more widely, for example Clifford Geertz and “thick description”, or Stephen Greenblatt and the new historicism. Certainly they share a certain set of intellectual affinities, particularly a concern with semiotics. Ginzburg and other Italian historians writing in Quaderni storici were concerned to put individuals and emotions back where the totalising tendencies of Annales and the longue duree had, to some, removed them from. In particular Ginzburg was concerned not to suggest that this of way of doing history was an alternative. He argued that:

A close reading of a relatively small number of texts, related to a possibly circumscribed belief, can be more rewarding than the massive accumulation of repetitive evidence.

but went on to qualify this by saying that

A look close up permits us to grasp what eludes a comprehensive viewing, and vice versa.

Still, some microhistorians have been criticised for trying, through selective example, to argue for much wider changes. This is certainly a valid critique if you see microhistory as a means for picking out general trends or building theoretical frameworks; but this isn’t what the original microhistorians set out to do. A number of microhistorians have also been criticised for their approach to sources – legal documents, for example, which are what Ginzburg bases his account of Menocchio on, are constructed not by the defendant in a trial but in a dialogue between them and the prosecutor. Some microhistorians have been accused of ignoring the “polyvalency” or multiple voices in such texts, although arguably you could level this criticism at most schools of historians about all texts. And there have also been some who have criticised microhistorians for adopting anthropological techniques of thick description without realising that they, like the anthropologist, are not a detached observer but a subjective one, who brings their own ideological baggage to proceedings. This is all very well but I liked the approach of Natalie Zemon Davis, author of another of the classic microhistories on Martin Guerre, who closes her account of the impostor Arnaud du Tilh, alias Pansette, by saying:

The story of Martin Guerre is told and retold because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible. Even for the historian who has deciphered it, it retains a stubborn vitality. I think I have uncovered the true face of the past – or has Pansette done it once again?

This is refreshingly honest, even if it is playfully deconstructive and even if it does bring up questions about her reconstruction of the social and cultural milieu of the period. Perhaps all historians should sign off with a disclaimer of these sorts…