Both David Cressy and Cynthia Herrup believe they are writing microhistory, a word coined by Italians, but used to describe above all the work of Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre, 1983) and Robert Darnton (The Great Cat Massacre, 1984). Microhistorians have turned to the verbatim records of interrogations kept in the law courts of early modern Europe (or at least those parts of Europe where Roman law procedures were followed) to reconstruct the detailed stories of individual trials. They have been trying to write 'history from below', convinced that the stories peasants or apprentices told about their lives, and the decisions courts reached on the basis of them, were inconsistent, distorted, fractured, but that at the same time there was precious little objective truth to be discovered beyond these accounts. Davis and Darnton both taught at Princeton, where they attended the seminars of Clifford Geertz, who encouraged the belief that the simplest events (his classic account was of a cock-fight in Bali) were invested with the preoccupations and styles of thought of the whole culture; that objects and actions could be interpreted as if they were texts; and that the right sort of description ('thick description') would enable readers to 'see' what was at issue. Foucault's Discipline and Punish (which appeared in English in 1977) provided a ready model of how historians might achieve similar effects.
LRB 10 August 2000 | PDF Download