The larger uses of microhistory (Thomas V. Cohen)

I remarked, via email, to István Szijártó that we microhistorians had a good deal to teach the whole discipline of history.

He asked me to write out my reasons. I do so here not to lay down dogma but to stir comment from fellow practitioners.

It seems to me that microhistory will not, and cannot, become a school. It is not a theoretical discipline, but an expository practice, with a shared esthetic and a common interest in fine-grained detail and dense connections.

Meanwhile, out among historians, there are assorted analytical practices: the history of ecology; of migrations; of social mobility; of technology; of medicine; of warfare; of gender; of nutrition, and so on at handsome length. These sub-disciplines almost always have their bodies of theory, their canons of evidence, their alliances with other disciplines.

Microhistory is not at all like those fields. Little theory, less canon. At the same time, it seems to me, at has a great deal to offer historians of all sorts. It has practices. It sets a model, both for analysis and for exposition.

I write these reflections amidst editorial tasks that bring me into contact, and conflict, with a plethora of flawed writing by other scholars, often well trained and talented. To my eye, microhistory is a splendid remedy for much that I find sadly wrong with how many historians write today.

  1. First, we microhistorians are far more skilled than most historians at subtle reading of evidence. We squeeze our sources hard, we read for nuance, we listen carefully to language, we crawl into and even behind our sources. Many historians read without our intense curiosity, as if the sources, whatever their nature, just plain speak truth. Nuance, a strong sense of ambiguity, and healthy skepticism are central to our practice; these are good models for intelligent reading and investigation, for all historians.
  1. Second, we microhistorians are very keen to assemble, as far as we are able, the entirety of past moments. In our passion for the brief and small, we aim for totality — every human sense, every quality, every tone, every source  — within our finite scope and eager grasp. We have a keen eye for setting. We offer an antidote to reductionism and blinkered narrative. Macrohistorians could never follow our obsessions all the way; they would bog down hopelessly. But the model of a well-rounded picture of past moments is a precious heuristic and macro studies can employ, and enjoy rich micro-moments.
  1. Third, we microhistorians take to heart the story-teller’s art. In this we are not altogether alone, but, still, we are somewhat lonely. Modern scholarly writing is often altogether artless, on every level, from the humble sentence, up across the paragraph, to the entire essay. Indeed, I say essay advisedly; as editor, I recently wrote all my authors, reminding them that what they had to write me was indeed an essay, with a voice, a vision, an argument, and a sense that the reader really was a fellow human, alive and interested in reading. Now essay is perhaps too restricted a term; we microhistorians sometimes experiment with other literary forms. The more power to us! But, for most historians these days, the climb to the plain old essay is already a good, steep hike through rough and brambly intellectual countryside.
  1. Microhistory is keen to bring the past to life. Much scholarly prose these days does its best to kill the past entirely. “Taking into account all the evidence bearing on the case at hand, we are inclined to accept the hypothesis that indeed Brutus stabbed Caesar.” Or, more likely, “Caesar was stabbed by Brutus.” Scholarese, the leprosy of academic writing! Microhistory eschews it. “Go back to Bulgaria!” (I quote Humphrey Bogart, in “Casablanca.”) I am continually telling my authors, “Go back to Lisbon!” (or wherever they should carry us). Take the poor reader back to your story!

István asked us last year if we thought our universities should offer programmes in microhistory. I hesitate, as it seems to me that microhistory is hard for beginner scholars. On the other hand, the more I edit, the more I lean toward graduate courses, and, who knows, even a journal, devoted to the art of writing history well, The journal of truly enjoyable history. Certainly, in such a course, or such a journal, good microhistory would win a prominent perch.
Thomas Cohen

York University, Toronto