In some forthcoming work, I’ve argued that historians tend to overinterpret or misread silences in archival records, seeing instrumental or intentional erasures of knowledge instead of the incidental accidents or the peculiar character of modern archival culture. I suggest that instead of always seeing silence or absence of information as a crisis to which historians must respond, we should just accept with grace the things we can know and the things we can’t know.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with being curious about events, places and people that we know must have existed but that we can never know as they should be known. It’s that last point that’s really important. One thing that frustrates me at times about “big history”, world history or large-scale historical sociology is the extent to which historians writing in those traditions tend to assume that it’s turtles all the way down, that the insights of big history extend symmetrically to the smallest scales of human life, that microhistory contains no surprises or contradictions for the macrohistorian.
I’m by no means the only person to argue that a better analogy for the relationship between very small or individual experience and macrohistorical change is the relationship between quantum physics and classical physics. The lives of individuals or single communities in a small span of days or months happens within the same temporal and physical world as the life of the human species over a million years. A single event happens within the same reality as vast patterns of events and actions across centuries. But there is a profound break between the two levels or registers of historical experience, and it’s not just about scale. The microhistorical scale is where we find and interpret the meaning in other human lives, where the peculiarity and idiosyncracy of other people’s experience makes it possible to feel and imagine circumstances and decisions beyond our own individual lives. Microhistory can be causally important, in the “for want of a nail” way, but this isn’t its primary value to us. Macrohistory explains the conditions and circumstances of human societies, but microhistory offers us an endless exploration of the mystery of human circumstance.
So sometimes I find myself thinking about the inevitable, imaginable but unknowable microhistories that live in the in-between spaces of macrohistory. There are so many things that we know have to have happened that must have vividly individual stories buried somewhere in them. Think of all the individuals scattered around the world in the early modern era. Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu and Randy Sparks’ The Two Princes of Calabar are two great examples of these kinds of stories, but there are so many more that I’d love to know equally well. All those people lost or deliberately debarked, learning new languages and ways of live while living alone in a completely foreign society. Little forts and outposts built at the orders of mercurial or dictatorial officials and ship captains, abandoned or destroyed almost immediately after. Accidental battles and serendipitious feasts out of sight and unremarked upon. Conversations about how to grow yams and corn, sudden impulses to take a new plant on board a ship and bring it somewhere else.
A really skilled narrative historian gets a hold of a vivid, individualized story that rests on deep evidentiary foundations, on documents of many kinds and photographs and interviews, and you see just how important the details and idiosyncracies of human life can be, how much feeling and intensity we’d miss if all we had was the big story, told in the biggest terms possible. The skill of that kind of microhistory isn’t just in explaining everything: the meaning we draw from history on the smallest scales is partly that even when we know almost everything that can be known, there is so much that we don’t know, that the ends of microhistory are wisdom rather than a comprehensive theory of causation across time and space. Somehow I think that should temper the confidence of macrohistory even when we can’t speak to all the stories that we don’t and won’t ever know anything about.