Microhistory as Literature

Microhistory can largely be defined as it sounds. It is not grand; it is not grandiose. It is small and intimate and its subjects are often obscure.

The subjects of more famous works of microhistory, for example Martin Guerre, the focus of an excellent book by Natalie Zemon Davis, are plucked from the great mass of the unknown, or have their stories transfigured from myth to something resembling reality.

Such stories are deeply personal in every case. There is something in them which avoids the coldness of even the most effective biography and the rigid, unfeeling rosiness of hagiography. They are personal. Thus microhistory can illuminate ideas about personhood, self-knowledge, and self-perception in years past. And it can, in the way all literature has the potential to do, tell us a more than a little about ourselves.

Two examples of microhistory are Keith Wrightson’s Ralph Tailor’s Summer and Jonathan Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang. Ralph Tailor was a scrivener, a professional writer who lived in Newcastle in the seventeenth century, notably during a plague which ravaged that town. He was not born there, but moved to Newcastle in youth, and would have felt a strong loyalty to his adopted home town. Tailor composed wills for the dying. He undertook inventories of their possessions. He testified in local courts. Woman Wang lived and died in provincial China at around the same time. The two lives are almost as different as they could be. Culturally, socially, politically – there is great variety and immense difference to be found separating these two life stories.

Both books appear, at least from the title, to focus direct on the stories of these unknown individuals from many years ago. This perception is misleading.

These books are examples of microhistory, which can take that form, but they are more than simple portraits of single individuals who ought to be rescued from obscurity; instead they are fully-fledged tableaux of the eras in which those lives were lived, within which events took place. There is a sense of gazing across society, looking from the men who ran Newcastle in Ralph Tailor’s day to the poorest people, who could not even be given names in the parish burial registers; and also looking from the highest magistrate with the best literary degree to the poorest people in the China of woman Wang, people who begged for food from prison inmates.

In methodology, the latter is sparse. Spence writes about three sources: one book of local history; one book of short stories, stories composed with a moral edge; and another book on ‘happiness and benevolence’, which was written by one of the presiding magistrates. For Wrightson, the documentary evidence upon which he draws is wider and yet also less specific. He has carefully weighed the documents bearing the signature of his titular character, and they are tangible and definable and useful, but he has to make extensive use of other sources to patch holes in the narrative, in the record.

Wrightson makes use of a religious tract, Newcastle’s Call, written by Robert Jenison, which describes the nature of the plague as God’s punishment, and he derives some success from suggesting that not everyone felt this apocalyptically, and also that the fabric of society did not wear down as could have happened and has been suggested – that people cared for each other even in the middle of a terrible tragedy; and that they did so as well as they possibly could, many risking their own lives in the process. There is a moral element to this story, too, one of duty and honour, personal advancement and responding to dire circumstances with stoicism. This can be seen in so many of the wills cited, in which dying men and women made peace with their God (in most cases) and then attempted equitably to divide their processions. This was not fatalistic; there was little gnashing of teeth and rending or garments – or at least there is no surviving record of such behaviour; it was all deeply necessary.

But there is a sense that Wrightson gets carried away with his own moral lessons. He has Tailor as a kind of moral figure, rather than a man just getting by. To some extent, this is unavoidable authorial intervention, an imposition of latter-day thinking on the events of the past, even if the writer truly knows the era better than almost anyone living, and even if there is a strong attempt to have based everything on meticulous documentary evidence.

Perhaps also Wrightson derives too much from a fairly thin documentary trail to furnish his scrivener with a personality. He is an up-and-comer. He is a new man. He is professional public servant on the make. And he is willing to take his job to many difficult places and to do dangerous things to do right by his adopted home town. Thus it is both a pleasure to see that by the end of the narrative Ralph Tailor has done well for himself and also a saddening shock to note that, in not having children, his life may well seem less successful than it could have been. Genetically, he did not endure. Though it is certainly pleasing in a narrative sense that he remained a man of note in his town and had many close ties with guilds and other corporate bodies until his death, and that he owned much property and lived well. But such things can be unnecessary in the study of history.

Telling a story is not, to the mind of many historians, their primary duty. Narrative has its place; but analytical work is more effective, more intellectually challenging, and often seen by those who matter to be of more value. But holes in the surviving records burden historians with a choice. If the story of Ralph Tailor had no end – if the documents did not survive, if no paper trail persisted – would Wrightson have made one up? There is a temptation to do so. It may aid narrative completeness. Would he have made an educated guess? Or could he have been sure enough simply to end the story there, barely noting the unresolved question of what happened to his subject?

In an excellent, enthralling article published in Past and Present, entitled “The Secret Life of Elias of Babylon and the Uses of Global Microhistory”, John-Paul A. Ghobrial does not feel the need to follow an imagined cradle-to-grave narrative for his titular subject. He airily writes that ‘it is difficult to say why exactly he wrote these works in the way that he did. For it is in Spain that the paper trail left by his travels comes to an end, most likely because this was where he died, sometime around 1700.’ This ambiguity does not sate a desire in the reader for a conclusive story. But it does work. It creates a sense of the precariousness of life. It gives a renewed appreciation for the way voices and lives and perspectives can be rescued from centuries of darkness. It was, in other words, the right thing to do.

Though it is ostensibly done in the spirit of writing history, Ghobrial exercised direct authorial choice. It was profoundly a literary act.

Ralph Tailor’s Summer provides much of what we expect from great literature. An absorbing tale, morally powerful events, genuine profundity, and a pleasing, restrained prose style which occasionally stretches out and embraces the beautiful. ‘They envisioned a future for others if not themselves, even for those unborn, and they helped provide for it as best they could.’ ‘If you read the stories, the old city becomes peopled again; alive and spirited even in its distress.’ ‘If you know the names and have imagined listening to their voices, you can walk the streets on a quiet morning and hear them whispering’.

The Death of Woman Wang is even more literary, comprising a selection of vignettes, powerful reminders of life and death in the provincial China of this period. Bandits arrive, kill and are fought. Men go off with prostitutes and face the consequences. Some men scheme and inveigle their way into the affections of women. Men betray their wives; some of them kill their wives. Wives scheme, plot and are foiled. There is corruption and chaos, but also moral tales of real sharpness.

Much of it, as Harold Bloom suggests, seems more fictional than historical, more literary than factual. But this is reasonable, to an extent, not least because it comprises a survey of the writings of the time, which were allegorical and steeped in literary culture. How historical is this, however? How historical is writing about the probably contents of woman Wang’s dream the moment before her husband killed her? How much of this is an imposition on the past which only serves to create an unsubstantiated impression?

It seems that microhistory in many ways gives free rein to the more writerly pretensions of historians. These two books are literary in construction; there is simply not enough primary source material to construct a traditional narrative history in either case. Instead, it is better and easier, and creates a more effective portrait of the time, in many ways, to approach things holistically. This requires and justifies skilled writing. This gives rise to the usefulness of such stories as that of woman Wang, who only appears in the final chapter and the epilogue of Spence’s book, and serves a literary function as a hook upon which he can hang the rest of the story.

There is also the matter of how these stories come about. In Ralph Tailor’s Summer, as well as in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, another premier work of microhistory the reader is told that the story came to the historian almost by accident; a chance encounter in an archive led to the discovery of a story so good that it had to be told.

This seems a little too serendipitous to be entirely believed, but then again, some work in the Nottingham University archive suggests that discoveries are made this way – for example the fate of Mr Obins, who fell from his horse and whose injury greatly worried both the British and the locals of Sicily during the Napoleonic Wars. And furthermore, I have heard Jason Peacey of University College London discourse about his study of a Gloucester village before the English Civil War: he described the conflict over who owned village lands and who could therefore direct the religious nature of the village school, an acute source of conflict and also, in a way, a microcosm of so much of the age in question.

This is microhistory, then, and it is a story of how so much of these stories come about – luckily, by chance, by coincidence, but fortunately so.

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