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Microhistory and the Big Picture

By Danièle Cybulskie

I love microhistory. Given that my entire aim is to help people get to know the Middle Ages better five minutes at a time, it may seem obvious that I like working with small snippets of history, but microhistory is not about taking a short look at something. Microhistory involves looking at a small example from history and figuring out what it can tell us about the big picture.

Years ago, historians liked to work on broad, birds’-eye views of history (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, anyone?), but more recently, some historians have set their sights on small case studies. Last month, I attended a talk by Steven Bednarski on his book A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner. This book, as the title so aptly points out, revolves around the story of one woman’s trial for poisoning her husband. Great story, right? But what can we actually learn about the fourteenth-century by looking at such a small example? Actually, we can learn a lot.

If you study from most conventional history textbooks, you will learn about big, important decisions, made by big, important people – mainly wealthy European (male) aristocrats. Given that most of the population of the world doesn’t fall under that umbrella, how do we learn about everyone else? Case study is a great way to get at the history of people who weren’t at the top of the political food chain. Legal records especially are a wealth of information about people who stepped out of the ordinary conventions of behaviour (such as Joan of Arc, John Rykener, or Margarida, herself), and by looking at people’s outrage over acts committed against them or against society, we can extrapolate the “normal”.

We know more about what was acceptable religious practice from trials of heresy; we know about what was neighbourly behaviour from civil trials; and we know what was expected of spouses from testimony given on lapses in marriage contracts, just to name a few examples. We can even learn about the tiny minutiae of life. After all, as Bednarsky says, “even transgressors did not transgress all the time” (p. 13). When you zoom in closely on a person’s life, many of the ordinary parts of it become clear. In the case of Margarida, who was accused of poisoning her husband’s breakfast, we learn what people actually ate for breakfast in that time and place (it was “stew”, made with “dried almonds, oil [and] garlic”, p.36). Nobody made a fuss over these ingredients, so it’s a pretty safe assumption that this was a normal meal.

Microhistory does have its pitfalls, however. Notice in that last sentence I had to use the word “assumption”. Unfortunately, because people’s lives aren’t recorded from moment to moment (although we may be getting closer to that every day), there are always going to be holes in every story which have to be bridged through conjecture. While this conjecture is based on experience, research, and logic, it is not irrefutable proof, which leaves it open to attack. It’s also arguable that the sources of any particular case study may be unreliable, especially in the case of legal records: not every accused criminal will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Still, modern trials face the same issue, leaving people to decide – for better and for worse – what is “the truth”, and even the most scientifically-minded historians are faced with challenges, such as the medieval habit of inflating numbers. Every method of studying history has its challenges, and it’s the work of great historians and different methods together that makes us more knowledgeable as a whole.

The best advantage that microhistory has, and the reason I find it so compelling, is that it is centered on stories. Human beings love mystery, and we love stories about people who are just outside the “normal” conventions of society – take a look at any television listing or browse a bookstore for evidence. Microhistory draws us in with stories of compelling people, and teaches us more about history along the way. Done well, it can be the best of both worlds.

For an enjoyable and much more thorough discussion of microhistory, as well as to find out if Margarida actually did poison her husband, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Steven Bednarski’s A Poisoned Past. For a Goodreads list of other books (on a whole range of topics) that take a microhistorical approach, click here, and enjoy looking at the big picture through a small lens.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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