A question came from the conference audience aimed at Professor Tom Robisheaux. “Would you recommend Ph.D. students to write dissertations using microhistory as methodology?”

“No!” came Tom’s commanding bellow. Something about how the “professionals” of the discipline still do not fully grasp or embrace the microhistorical methodologies or the powerful stories they produce. “They,” meaning the guardians of the tower, “kill them!” Then something about not subjecting graduate students to such abuse.

C’est la vie. That’s me: continuously going against the grain. My dissertation was officially a “case study” which employed microhistorical techniques to learn more about an anomalous event in British/Atlantic history, the execution of Admiral John Byng in 1757.

Nonetheless, Robisheaux brimmed with optimism about microhistory’s future. According to the Duke University professor and author of The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village (2009), microhistory has come a long way since its inception by Italian historians in the 1970s. “There is no orthodoxy in microhistory,” explained Robisheaux, also the acting chair of the Department of History at Duke. “This frees the historian. If you write microhistory you simply must be creative, experiment, illuminate.”

IHR Workshp What is MicrohistoryIn a skype session with the Frederick W. Hilles Professor of History at Yale University, Francesca Trivellato, she also admitted that there remains tremendous “vitality” in microhistory. Trivellato, author of The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (2012), nevertheless challenged a room of some forty scholars to make sure that “microhistory and comparative history connect” to actively attach our work to “larger narratives.” She paid particular attention to Global History citing work by Kenneth Pameranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000). Trivellato held up the work by Pomeranz as an example of a historian who successfully bridged the gap between micro-stories and the so called “grand narratives.” She claimed that microhistory’s embrace of archival research engenders one particular strength, context. In fact, claimed Professor Trivellato, microhistory is unique in that it often provides a “plurality of contexts.”

Warwick University-based Maxine Berg was a bit more pessimistic. Though she agreed that it is possible for microhistory to “connect the local to the global,” historians that choose to employ microhistory as methodology do so at their own risk. That’s because many of the early microhistories were “Marxist inspired,” in other words they made attempts to “retrieve the voice of the poor” when highlighting “working class” history: such work often came across as overly eager. Microhistorians should “admit” this tainting before they proceed. Still, Professor Berg, author of A Woman History: Eileen Power, 1889-1940, encouraged attendees to seek out “spaces where cultures meet” for it’s there that microhistory shines. Her recent work on the First Nations of Canada’s British Columbia to the eighteenth-century trading networks with European merchant firms is just such an example. Here, the local is attached to the global as it was Britain’s East Indies Company that travelled out of the Indian Ocean basin to dabble in the Pacific. By focusing on Nootka Sound, Berg placed a small trading post upon the much larger grand narrative of Empire, trade, and global competition.

Emma Rothschild, Harvard professor and author of The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History, shared a story about a small French provincial town where a prenuptial agreement anchored in the 1760s was discovered in an archive toting eighty-three signatories, an unusually high number. Out of that curiosity, Rothschild was able to identify eighty of the eighty-three people while answering the question: why did this prenuptial contain so many? She realized that in the process of identifying who these people were, other documents provided all sorts of economic data. Rothschild had here answer to a very big question: “what was life like for the lower and middle ranks in eighteenth-century France?” Additionally, she had the birth and death records of the signatories’ children, and their children’s children. Armed with such information we can now trace one village’s voyage into, through, and post-French Revolution. Because of the history of this one document, we can now begin to attack and answer a question that has eluded historians of France for decades.

Benjamin Kaplan of University College London gave a brief of how his microhistorical methodologies led him to write Cunegonde’s Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment (2014). By focusing on the ever-shifting borders between the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, Kaplan demonstrated how an interfaith marriage exploded into violent attacks within the region over multiple years. Kaplan also challenged us to search out “borderlands” that are not only geographic, but economic and religious as well. He concluded that in the complicated quilt-work of ever-shifting geographic borders, “deregulation” reared its head and caused massive disruptions. If for example, religions relaxed their rules invariably what follows are parishioners and lay folk that begin to splinter away from one another.

Perhaps the capstone of the event was how Ulinka Rublack’s microhistory became an opera. A Cambridge historian, Rublack’s archival research into famed scientist Johann Kepler revealed that his mother was accused and placed under arrest for being a witch. Rublack attached her discoveries to the larger thread of witchcraft hysteria that swept through middle Europe in the early seventeenth century. The resulting work, The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother (2015), happily forced an interdisciplinary project between the history and music department at the university. The power of microhistory made art!

Terrific workshop which informed me I’m heading down the right path!

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