When reading about transnational and microhistories, two thoughts came predominantly to mind. The first was on how one could reconcile history on what is seemingly its grandest scale with its smallest (and often its most irregular). At first glance, perhaps, microhistory seems almost an antithesis to transnational history. Transnational history calls to mind forces that cross borders, wider movements, and nations themselves (as elaborated on in our previous discussion groups, the term ‘transnational’ implies the involvement of the nation as a key requisite, although we have debated the validity of that assumption).  Something that struck me when approaching this week and its readings on approaching microhistory from a transnational perspective is the fact that movement in rural and often even urban societies throughout much of human history was highly restricted: it seems almost silly at first glance to even think of applying the term ‘transnational’ to much of seventeenth-century England, for example. There may have been transnational forces at work, but the average farmer was surely unlikely to go or encounter anything beyond his borders. Anything else would have been a significant outlier. ‘Outliers’ do not at initially appear to work with transnational history. 


However, the readings this week – particularly Matti Peltonen’s ‘Clues, Margins, and Monads: The Micro-Macro Link in Historical Research’ centered on examples of microhistory that were ‘outliers’ in one sense or the other. For example, he examines Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and its focus on one villager who went against tradition and religion, as well as Michel De Certeau’s La Possession du Loudun and its interpretation of the ‘possession’ of Ursuline nuns in the 1630s. Neither of these cases were commonplace in their respective historical periods, yet both showed a common theme: their respective societies’ reaction to the unacceptable. In this, perhaps, more is revealed about the nature of said societies than a general examination of the ‘usual.’This, therefore, could be applied to the transnational outlier as well as the sub-national or national one. I think, for example, of an event close to my hometown: the revolt aboard the Amistad, a slave ship that came under control of its cargo while off the coast of New England. Unusually, after capture, the slaves underwent trial via the US Supreme Court and were declared free after it was decided that they were acting in self-defence. To my knowledge, the liberation of slaves post-revolt in pre-Civil War America – much less their return to Africa – was unusual. Yet its ‘outlier’ status does in no way diminish its relevance when studying the slave trade and its disputed legality; in fact, I think that it adds to it.


A second key aspect of microhistory in relation to transnational history to me is the fact that it adds a more ‘human’ dimension to history. History is my favorite subject; it always has been and likely will always be so. This has confused many of my friends, relatives, and perhaps most of all my classmates in high school. They have always cited the same factors in their hate of the field: it’s boring, it’s just a string of dates, or names of long-dead politicians, or laws that no longer exist. I agree with them to some extent: dates, names, and laws on their own often seem abstract to the point of dull. Great forces – modernization, globalization – are certainly impactful, but it is on a small scale that history begins to get interesting.


Any of the microhistory readings for this week are excellent examples of this: both Tonio Andrade’s ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys; and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory’ and Heather Streets-Salter’s ‘The Local Was Global: The Singapore Mutiny of 1915’ focus on relatively brief events placed against larger backgrounds of colonialism and war.. Both Andrade’s and Streets-Salter’s works are clear representations of how one can perceive more about the global situation by examining the local. Yet what remains the most striking to me about microhistory is how such a perspective characterizes the people with which it deals. History is about people, after all – this is what differentiates it from natural history or biology. Andrade’s and Streets-Salter’s works provide an excellent window into the different transnational forces of seventeenth-century Taiwan and twentieth-century colonial powers, but equally as importantly, they provide a fascinating window into human lives.


Microhistory: the irregular and the human

One thought on “Microhistory: the irregular and the human

  • February 20, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    By referencing Peltonen’s work on Monads, I recognise that the phrase “continuity is dependent on discontinuity”, or outliers as you mention, has stayed with you like it has with me. It is a confusing notion that an exception to the common rule or practice could be the very defining component of [transnational] ‘continuity’.

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