While I am certainly no historian, I took several history classes during university, and was fairly meticulous in ensuring the ‘History’ in the course title was prefaced with words along the lines of ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ rather than ‘political’ or ‘military’. This partiality toward the social & cultural aspect of historical research is likely why I find the micro-history to be particularly interesting – especially in terms of education.
As a historical research approach, micro-histories are best known as the history of everyday life. Supporting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim that, ‘There is properly no history, only biography’, micro-histories delve into the story and experiences of individuals likely living on the margins of society, events, or places, and how these give insight into macro-history.
The beginnings of the microhistorical approach is credited to the political and cultural debates concerning the social sciences in the 1970s and 80s, where we saw a shift toward focusing on social (rather than economic or political) factors.
French historian Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie once claimed that there are two distinct groups of historians: parachutists and truffle hunters. The micro-historians are clearly the truffle hunters, and the macro-historians, the parachutists, in the world of historical research. This is a very long-winded way of saying: archives are essentially the holy-grail for the micro-historian. From letters and diaries, to wills and deeds, archive stores are replete with the seemingly minute details of everyday life that provide a glimpse into the individual lives that can represent a particular period of history. While these aren’t necessarily the histories of Kings, Queens and political leaders, they can be used as a catalyst for exploring wider issues and themes of a given point in history.
Our NUWT collection is a perfect opportunity for classes of ‘truffle hunters’ to learn about twentieth century European history from the individuals and events of a specific organisation’s experience. While students explore the letters, social invitations, and photographs of equal pay activists such as Ethel Froud, they are also accessing material on subjects as wide ranging as Soviet Russia, Fascism and Germany, the plight of the Suffragettes and post-Second World War social policy.
Suggested Reads For the Micro-Historical-Minded…
Micro-histories tend to focus on the individual. While that ‘individual’ is often an actual person, topics can range from a substance (Mark Kulransky’s Salt: A World History, 2002); an animal (Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, 2004); or even hygiene (Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, 2007).
And with that, I hope everyone enjoys their Bank Holiday! (An accompanying copy of a micro-history to read is optional, I suppose.)
Further Reading & Citations