When I first began reading about history, I remember becoming engrossed into the stories from the past, whether it was Paul Revere’s famous night ride from Boston on the eve of the start of the American Revolution or Adolph Hitler’s improbable rise to power. While many of my friends viewed history as a large (and largely useless) collection of names, dates, and places, I saw a story- the story of mankind and civilization that could not go untold- and it was through books, documentaries, and visiting historic sites that brought this story to life for me. As I have grown older, I have remained partial to works of history that tell a story- Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and William Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope inspired me to continue my studies of history at university- and even in my time studying at St Andrews, I have still much preferred reading works that put together a plot line to follow. Thomas Cohen’s fascinating article chronicling the elaborate prank of several Roman Jews on an unsuspecting Neapolitan rope maker in 1551 gave an illuminating account of Roman street life and Roman Jewish culture in the Sixteenth Century, and Tonio Andrade paints an intriguing picture of Dutch Taiwan that features the famine, violence, espionage, divided loyalty, and treachery that a Hollywood director would seek to include in an upcoming film.

But what’s the use of these gripping- and dare I say entertaining- stories in the wider discipline of history? How can a casual prank played by a minuscule fraction of the Roman Jewish population tell us more about Early Modern Rome, or why should the tale of a Chinese farmer who found himself in the hands of the Dutch be significant in the study of European colonization during that period? Quoted by Matti Peltonen, Roger Chartier’s definition of micro history perhaps can begin to address these questions:

“It is on this reduced scale, and probably only on this scale, that we can understand, without deterministic reduction, the relationships between systems of beliefs, of values and representations on the one hand, and social afflictions on another.”

These ‘micro histories’ serve the important purpose of providing illuminating examples from which one can better understand the people, societies, and systems of values and beliefs that Chartier mentioned. From Cohen’s article, one can see how much the Jews living in Rome were as much Roman as they were Jewish: they are documented as speaking a Roman dialect, thus disguising their Jewish identity to the unsuspecting Neapolitan visitor. Andrade’s demonstrates the complex attitudes of the Dutch colonists towards the natives of the countries they wished to trade with, as while they actively encouraged the locals to become entrepreneurs and trade with them as economic equals, they also showed little respect to captured natives whom they suspected of conspiring against them. One should always be cautious not to read too much into small examples, but these micro histories go a long way in stimulating what Braudel, as quoted by Andrade, labelled as the most important tool available to a historian: the imagination. It’s the imagination that a historian relies upon to help construct ideas about the past and ultimately carry the discipline forward.




Andrade, Tonio, ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory,’ Journal of World History 21, no. 4 (December 2010): pp. 573-591.

Cohen, Thomas V., ’The Case of the Mysterious Coil of Rope: Street Life and Jewish Persona in Rome in the Middle of the Sixteenth Century’ in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer 1988) pp. 209-221.

Peltonen, Matti, ‘Clues, Margins, and Monads: The Micro-Macro Link in Historical Research,’ History and Theory, 40 (3) 2001, pp. 347-359.

Micro History: Putting the ‘Story’ back into History