Visions in a Ninth-Century Village: an Early Medieval Microhistory
By Charles West
History Workshop Journal, Vol.81:1 (2016)
Abstract: Microhistory is an approach that has largely passed the study of the early Middle Ages by, chiefly for lack of suitable evidence. This article however suggests that an account of a ninth-century peasant’s vision can be read to recover a microhistory of a rural priest in northern Francia, and draws out the implications for how the local societies of the period might be viewed.
Introduction: As historians begin to take the ‘global turn’ and to measure up the advantages of ‘big data’ history, it should not be a surprise that microhistory is if anything enjoying a revival. Contrary to the implicit assertion of David Armitage and Jo Guldi in their recent book, The History Manifesto, microhistory is not just a history of the very small, a recklessly antiquarian immersion in the tiny and obscure – or at least, it ought not to be. In its origins, it was a method that embraced ‘the minute analysis of a circumscribed documentation’, linked to a desire to go beyond the elite perspectives of traditional political history while retaining a sense of contingency and possibility neglected by the social history of the 1960s and 1970s.
When Carlo Ginzburg wrote about Menocchio the miller, or when Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie wrote about Montaillou, they were not avoiding big historical questions, they were trying to answer them. In the hands of these historians, microhistory was more about changing how we see the bigger picture than filling in the gaps: so it fits very well together with the global and the statistical.