I’m a fan of microhistory, probably because I’ve always liked stories and because, when I was a child in Stirling, the main library had this permanent display of the town records and court transcriptions.
They were utterly mundane, but these stories of so and so being indicted for having an illegal midden in the street struck me as deeply fascinating, and spoke to me, told me something of the way that the society of a medieval Scots town functioned.
Currently I’m reading Stephen Bednarski’s treatment of the trial of Margarida de Portiu, who lived in a Provencal town at the end of the fourteenth century, and was accused by her husband’s relatives of poisoning him when he suddenly succumbed to something that was probably a cardiac arrest while working in the fields. Like Thomas Cohen’s recounting of the tale of Vispasiano and Innocentia, the tale tells us, through the details in the evidence, a lot about the daily life of the society.
The tales are not themselves remarkable –while sensational, they are not so out of band as to suggest that something similar could not happen in rural India, Morocco or Afghanistan today.
But today we can go and look, and observe how a particular society works. Microhistory gives us an anthropology of the past, by letting us see how medieval society functioned.
And of course they bring that touch of difference, that magical touch of exoticism so sadly missing in the world today where KFC is everywhere and hoodies t-shirts and jeans are well on the way to a universal default garb – even if the people wearing them still have different cultural heritages.
Necessarily the view we get is a partial view – we need records, and to be cynical, records of interesting trials, serial illegal dungheaps are much less interesting than tales of poison, of heresy and sex gone wrong, and this of course distorts both our view of the times and perhaps the choices researchers make when choosing the material.
Even so, it’s still valuable for the insights, the small details, the details of what people ate, and how they shared food, and how also society functioned as a web of minor obligations and loans, and also, the role written records took in formalising matters …