An interesting analogy, several pages into the work by John-Paul Ghobrial – ‘Introduction: Seeing the World like a Microhistorian’ – spiked my curiosity for exploring more about a globally recognised proverb. On a brief note, my first thought when I read the title was ‘what were microhistorians before committing to their craft?’ – being rather ignorant I assumed that obviously the intricate – specific – attractions must have a more elaborate background. Surely ‘microhistorians’ are not just ‘globalists’ seeking a historical vice from which to brand themselves as ‘global historians’? Ghobrial remarks that global history is ‘a family at war with itself’ – ‘a family of resemblances’ on one hand; on the other hand ‘assorted ranks of vassals and tributaries…’. A house divided rarely stands without proper reconciliation, it is supposed that Micro-Spatial history may be a sufficient collaboration within ‘global-history’ to broaden the professions of the historian to examining history through ‘micro’ cases studies, whilst maintaining spatial awareness of the larger inquiries of ‘global’ history.
The proverb ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’ was spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the Illinois Republican State Convention, Springfield, Illinois, June 16th 1858. The actual reference for the line originates in the Bible, specifically in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The connections shared through the mass adoption of a text is a paragon of how transnational history can be identified in its most rudimentary form, though the process of transmitting ideas and beliefs can be just as potent through oration and action. The assassination of President Lincoln was reported across the globe as a tragedy, some remarks hailing Lincoln “not only the ruler of his own people, but a father to millions of a race stricken and oppressed”. No less was the death tragic than alarming, though it also raised cautious optimism on the position of Constitutional succession from some foreign actors, including a response from China. Prince Kung, Chief Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, writing July 8th 1865, declared that “on the same day the Vice-President succeeded to the position without any disturbance, and the assassin had been arrested, so that the affairs of government were going on quietly as usual”. The story of Lincoln’s unfortunate demise adds volume to a comment made during the ‘Introduction’ of Micro-Spatial Histories of Global Labour by C.G. DeVito and A.Gerritsen:
“… the life experiences of diverse individuals and social groups can be dealt with through a micro-spatial approach… by following the individual’s own connections, and acknowledging the same complexity in cultural exchanges and in the individual’s own spatial representations .”
Whether or not the above example of correspondence following Lincoln’s death is ‘appropriate’ for the methodological approaches from this week’s readings does not necessarily disqualify it from being ‘correct’ in the sense that DeVito and Gerritsen state above. Their rationale is sandwiched between the exploration of micro-spatial perspectives and their contributions towards building a global history through what could be coined as ‘inter-innovation’. The communications between foreign consuls and the US Department of State – catalogued in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume ‘The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Late President of the United States of America… on the Evening of the 14th of April, 1865 – arguably exemplifies the importance of Anegelika Epple’s distinction between global histories that ‘stand in the tradition of universal history and seek to cover the whole world’ and histories that ‘are influenced by the spatial turn and conceive space as socially constructed and not as a geographical fact’. But doesn’t this example fulfil the promise of both? Perhaps that is the charge of highly-specialised ‘Micro-Spatial’ history. DeVito and Gerritsen’s Chapter on Micro-Spatial history begins by elaborating on the confusing relationship between scholars practicing different ‘forms’ of research from ‘within’ the seemingly umbrella-like field of ‘global history’. This distinction by Epple allows for some clarity towards the objective of Micro-Spatial history in relation to the broader ‘global-history’ – defined by DeVito and Gerritsen as ‘the most important divide within the field of global history exists between the interpretation that conflates the concept of ‘the global’ with a macro-analytical perspective, and the view of the global as a spatially aware mindset and methodology’.
Furthermore, a distinction is made between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ research in helping to define ‘globalisation’. This distinction can be placed in numerous historical contexts, including Late Antique Law which deems ‘top-down’ as illustrative of the systematic institutions of power, with emperors as law givers and the law ascribed rigidly through successive imperial constitutions. A ‘Bottom-up’, or rather “from the ground up”, approach to Late Antique Law pursues the social practice, the differing levels of access to institutional dispute management and socio-legal agency for individuals. Movement is key with the latter. Perhaps the example of Late Antique Law promotes Jurgen Osterhammel’s view that ‘Global history may be in danger of losing a sense of proportion by underestimating social structure and hierarchy.’ In ‘Seeing the world like a Microhistorian’, the idea that microhistory has little to offer to global because of the shared priority of ‘synchronic’ over ‘diachronic’ analysis:
‘Linguistics, in Saussure’s time, approached the problem of the multiplicity of languages by trying to trace each of them back to a handful of common sources…This approach was deemed diachronic by Saussure because it looks for the production of difference across time… this ignored the problem of how to account for the existence and operation of language itself… he [Saussure] insisted that it was necessary to take a snapshot of language at a particular time and effectively produce a freeze-frame of it. This approach he referred to as synchronic.’
The idea of time and space as determinants for the classification of the type of history you practice is not a new concept. An argument was made – in ‘Micro-Spatial Histories of Labour: Towards a New Global History’ – that conflating ‘micro’ and ‘local’ into micro-history limits ‘conceptualisation of space, and of the connections between different contexts’. This reveals an apparent risk of isolating the ‘global’ when practicing microhistory, which in cases such as these correspondence on Lincoln’s death prove is a necessary consideration for finding the commonalities between people continents away. Micro-Spatial History promotes an evolution from the global-local divide by ‘combining spatial-insights with micro-analytical perspectives’. Perhaps if you were a critical of Abraham Lincoln, a summation of his life’s pursuits would resemble: a paradoxical epistemology about the preservation of life and justice; or if you were a proponent: ‘the liberator Abraham Lincoln, the victim of hell-born treason – himself martyred, yet live his mighty deeds…’. A final interpretation may be that Micro-Spatial analysis allows us to see how people separated by oceans and dialect can see the commonality in one and other, regardless of predetermined ‘sociological rules’, or simply, ‘history’.
- Buchannan, Ian, A Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford University Press, 2010)
- De Vito, Christian G., Anne Gerritsen (eds.), Micro-Spatial Histories of Global Labour. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. (e-book: introduction)
- Ghobrial, John-Paul A. ‘Introduction: Seeing the World like a Microhistorian’. Past & Present 242, no.Supplement_14 (1 November 2019): 1-22
- Humfress, Caroline, ‘Law and legal practice, Late Antiquity’, in, Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine, Sabine R. Huebner (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (Blackwell Publishing, 2013), pp3949-3952
- Marrs, Arron W., ‘International Reaction to Lincoln’s Death’, Office of the Historian, US. Department of State, (December 12, 2011)<https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus-history/research/international-reaction-to-lincoln>
- Neely, Mark E. Jr. 1982. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc. (House Divided Speech) <https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/housedivided.htm>