This week’s readings threw me back into taking HI2001. I remember when I first read the module’s description, it sounded like the last thing I wanted to do. Luckily I had Andrew Cecchinato as my tutor, and he ran insightful and extremely helpful tutorials to clarify any lectures that we thought were too confusing. I remember admitting a few weeks in how the module was not as bad as I had originally thought it would be, though there were definitely some lectures and concepts that I had trouble understanding and never wanted to explore again! There were only a handful of lectures that I found really memorable, but among them were Konrad Lawson’s lecture on transnational and global history and the lecture (I think given by Ana del Campo) on microhistory, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that Doing and Practicing Transnational and Global History had a week on microhistory.
Since then I have always felt a connection with microhistory, since my essay for HI2001 was on the question: How far do micro-historical and everyday life history approaches fail to see the ‘big picture’ of the past? I had argued that instead of failing to see the ‘big picture’ of the past, microhistorians and everyday life approaches increase it by widening the scope of observation to engage in a dialogue between evidence and context, and can draw even further conclusions on topics that people have thought were already done and dusted. I was surprised at how much I had enjoyed doing research for this essay, as I remember the first time I looked at the essay questions offered, I was quite overwhelmed by the amount of topics of which I had then known nothing about.
I had read Tonio Andrade’s ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys; and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory’, while doing research for the essay, but ultimately did not end up referencing it in my final submission. Despite this, I found it a very different experience reading it in the context of MO3351, rather than reading it while having a very targeted essay question in mind. It was almost as if I was reading it for the first time, even though I recognised the title right away. Within the context of this module, I found that it was easier to keep an open mind, whereas previously I had been searching for specific moments that would support my essay argument, which let the narrative flow more smoothly, and made the piece as a whole seem more approachable. I was better able to see the transnational connections between individuals and places, forming a more cohesive and insightful piece. Perhaps if I had to write the same essay now, I would include Andrade’s piece; maybe it’s because I have a better understanding of transnational history than I did then, or maybe because I can better understand both the global and micro narrative that was constructed – who knows.
One of the sources I referenced that I particularly enjoyed was Sigurður Gylfi Magnusson’s ‘Far-reaching microhistory: the use of micro historical perspective in a globalized world’, Rethinking History 21:3 (2017). This was a very interesting piece in which Magnusson wrote a microhistory on a farmer called Jón Bjarnason of Þórormstunga in Vatnsdalur, north Iceland in the nineteenth century. Jón had written a multi-volume manuscript that was a collection of natural sciences, general knowledge, and geography. Magnusson uses Jón to draw deeper connections between Icelandic peasants and the views of world history during that time. On reflection, Magnusson’s piece could serve as a piece of transnational history, as he considers Iceland’s role and experience in the networks of knowledge-gathering and information-spreading in the 19th century. I would definitely recommend Magnusson’s work to anyone who is further interested in microhistory, Scandinavian perspectives, or the broader themes and cultures of the nineteenth century.
Other case studies I used for the essay could also be interpreted in a transnational lens, which leads me to the question of whether all types of microhistory can also be types of transnational history? I suppose it could in some cases, such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms offering reflections on concepts of culture between European social classes. Another case study I looked at George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Charge at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Stewart covers a period of only fifteen hours to micro-analyse an event that lasted roughly twenty minutes. In one of the first works to include ‘microhistory’ in the title, Stewart does not necessarily draw connections between his micro-subject and wider global themes – what he focuses on instead is explore what Pickett’s Charge can reflect on the broader topic of the American Civil War, and the human nature of those who are at war. Perhaps Stewart’s work could be somehow be used in a larger comparison of those at war, exploring the experiences of soldiers both in a national context and a transnational context. That could be interesting! In cases such as these, where the final conclusions end up being more localised to one geographic location or one nationality, I suppose they are not necessarily a type of transnational history. But perhaps this is because the author did not intend for it to represent transnationalism, or because the author simply did not push their investigations further to see how it could reflect transnationalism. I guess that raises another question of if everything is transnational history if the right transnational questions are asked and the transnational perspective is acknowledged.
Microhistory is definitely a subject that I would like to pursue further, or at least dabble in a bit more. I love how you can focus on a topic, object, person, place, etc. that might seem small in comparison to other things, but really can provide a deeper understanding to a larger topic or theme. It makes me wonder about all the endless possibilities of what could be used to create a microhistory and then could be further examined within the contexts of transnational perspectives.