One of my personal ambitions in life, more of a dream really, is to write a micro-history. This is a unique form of historical monograph that addresses the life of one individual or of one event, and uses it to address broader historical questions. Most commonly, this discusses the life of an individual and uses it to discuss the period in which the person lived. By examining the life of one person in detail, historians are often provided with unique insight into the world in which they lived, which they would never have received had they attempted a broader historical approach. It is an incredibly interesting tool that is not utilized as often as it should be, and it can lead to some truly fascinating pieces of writing. Therefore I’d like to give you some of my recommendations, some of the micro-histories that have inspired me.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the micro-history is the first that I ever read, A Midwife’s Tale. Not to be confused with the similarly named Margaret Atwood book, it is a study of the life and journal of an 18th century midwife in a small village in Maine. Her name was Martha Ballard, and her life was chronicled through the diary that she kept, logging her incredible work. Over the course of 27 years Ballard helped deliver well over 800 children, and she also documented the turbulent times in her small town. The book was the first rousing success of Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, at the time a University of New Hampshire (my alma mater) history professor who would go on to teach at Harvard University following this professional triumph. While A Midwife’s Tale put her on the map, she is better known an observation she once made in one of her articles, that “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
While Martha Ballard’s diary was known about before the book came out, no one was able to decipher it until Ulrich examined it. Her study of Ballard’s life revealed a great deal about the role of women in early American society, demonstrating that they had greater agency and power than was previously believed. Ballard’s rigorous observations about life in her village also provided incredible insight into the lives of men and women in early America. Her unique perspective provided her with access and information that revealed a great deal about the private lives of her patients and the society she inhabited. Moreover, Ballard was a remarkable individual who was committed to her work and endured strain and hardship with a unique grace. Thatcher’s book is incredible because it not only illuminates the history of early America but also because it tells an entertaining and engaging story.
This engaging story can also be seen in the brilliant micro-history The Return of Martin Guerre, which tells a truly fascinating tale. The book, by Natalie Zemon Davis, tells the story of 16th century Frenchman Martin Guerre. Guerre was a peasant in the village of Artiqat who left the village at a young age, leaving behind an equally young wife only in her teens. Always a talented fencer and sportsman, he joined a Spanish militia and lived a few exciting years as a soldier before having his leg blown off by a cannon. After some years had passed, he would eventually return to his home to find a surprising scene waiting for him.
During his time abroad another man claiming to be Martin Guerre had come to his village and impersonated Martin, even marrying his wife. The two had carved out a life together, and although the new Martin Guerre had something of a bad reputation he was known to treat his wife Bertrande well. It seems strange to a modern mind, with photographs and social media, that anyone could so convincingly impersonate a man that they were known to only resemble, but this individual managed it quite well. There were several attempts to prove his falsehood before the original Guerre returned. Eventually, as the title implies, Guerre came home and the impostor was discovered and hanged.
Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre examined the curious life of Guerre and the unique circumstances that he, his wife, and his impostor faced. She examined how Bertrande could have failed to recognize her husband, even after not having seen him for years. In fact, she guessed that perhaps Bertrande was a willing conspirator of sorts who acquiesced to the imitation so that she could have a better life than she had as a single mother. Davis spins the historical account as something of a love story between the impostor, who was nicknamed Pansette, and Guerre’s wife. This resulted in a number of movies, starring Gerard Depardieu and Richard Gere, and even a musical by the creators of Les Miserables. Although Davis’ book says a great deal about the lives of people in the past, it also manages to tell a thoroughly fascinating story.
Finally I would like to discuss my personal favorite micro-history, Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner: Life, Death, Honor, and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century. Harrington, like Ulrich, is discussing a challenging diary that had never been examined in detail before his book. It tells the story of Meister Frantz Schmidt, an executioner in renaissance Germany whose life is equal parts ghastly and inspiring. Schmidt’s family had, for all intents and purposes, been forced into the role of executioners due to a personal shaming a generation before Frantz’s birth. Despite this, Meister Schmidt chose to attempt to rise above his station and lift his family out of shame. For forty-five years he was a dutiful executioner in his home of Nuremberg, and Harrington’s book describes this fascinating life.
Schmidt was a pariah due to the nature of his work, yet was well respected in his community. Executioners also served as physicians, and it was Schmidt’s goal for his children to be able to become doctors. He toiled throughout his entire life so that he could give his children a better life, hoping that if he proved his honor in a dishonorable trade then he could have the black mark taken off of his family. Harrington showcases Schmidt’s disgust with his trade as well as his compassion for the people who would be his victims. Executioners at this time were often required to perform grisly acts, even torture, and it is easy to judge them for their role in this. Despite it all Harrington shows Schmidt to be a good, even noble, man, while also showcasing the life of an executioner and the complex world of honor and responsibility that he navigated. Schmidt would eventually receive an imperial pardon for his family, and his personal quest for redemption is one that still moves me to this day.
Clearly there is something about the micro-history that ignites our imagination, and that is why it has so much potential. History is ultimately the story of ordinary people, although this is sometimes obscured by larger than life figures and heroic battles. These stories, which are almost endless, are amazing to us because they connect us to the past. They show us that we have the same basic motivations as people from half a millennia ago. Very few of us will lead countries, command armies, or paint timeless masterpieces, yet we all get up every morning and do the best that we can. It is refreshing and inspiring to remember that this simple fact has been true throughout all of human history.