Think Piece

Global Microhistory: One or Two Things That I Know About It

by guest contributor Maryam Patton

Where does the local fabric of human life stand in the great heights of global history? Consider Jürgen Osterhammel’s discussion of travel literature and the growth of exploration in his titanic The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century: ‘This intellectual curiosity about the outside world was specific to Europeans in the early modern period …. Although a few Ottomans reported on their journeys, Muslims generally had little interest in “infidel” lands’ (Osterhammel, 817). This matter of curiosity for visiting foreign lands has been the subject of significant debate. Yet here Osterhammel, with his authoritative scope offers little room for more nuanced understandings of the sort that Nabil Matar among others propose in response to Bernard Lewis’ original thesis of Muslim disinterest.

And so I was reminded that what excites me as an historian are these complicated details drawn out from the surface noise of life itself. Thus the neatly packaged narrative of ever-increasing globalization, interconnectedness and universalization feels unsatisfactory or too abstract to be meaningful to any single audience beyond professional historians. This is perhaps a redundant observation about global history’s broader aims. But the proliferation in recent years of what is being called “global microhistory” complicates this discussion of scale.

English translation of Leo Africanus’ Descrittione dell’Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

The most representative examples of this trend—though it is perhaps too soon to call it that—are Natalie Zemon Davis’ Trickster Travels: The search for Leo Africanus, Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Three Ways to be Alien: Travails and Encounters in the Early Modern World. Each of these histories concerned the lives of remarkable individuals who crossed boundaries and defied the neat geographical categories of their time, though global history itself continues to undercut any such neat distinctions.

Of the three studies, Trickster Travels merits further consideration because Zemon Davis avoids making references to global history, micro- or otherwise. And while this may be due partly out of respect for popular audiences, her decision to emphasis biographies should nevertheless raise questions in contrast to the various kinds of globality typified by the macroanalysis of Osterhammel. At least while reading works dealing with the early modern period, I am struck by the emphasis on travellers as the practical subject in terms of sketching a global perspective. If Zemon Davis’ historiography is any indication, this is becoming a potentially defining characteristic for what it means to be ‘global’ in the early modern world. If this reliance on travellers has not been misplaced, a text still remains to emerge with a structuralist perspective that shows how global currents acted on the scale of the individual before the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. I personally welcome such a text, for it could rekindle some serious debates that began in Italian microhistory but were never truly resolved. For now, we have a growing collection of microhistories, which, wonderful though they are, resemble narrative case studies without greater historiographical ambitions.

Francesca Trivellato anticipated these anxieties towards global microhistory. In her 2011 article, “Is There a Future for Italian Microhistory in the Age of Global History?” Trivellato stresses the need to revisit the original aims of the Italian microhistorians, though they were intellectually diverse, as a potential direction for future studies and for “a healthy dose of critical self-reflection” (Trivellato, 1). She reminds us of their conviction that “to reveal phenomena obscured by received wisdom would invalidate the teleology of grand narratives.” This is not to say that microhistory always sought to negate the rule through the ‘exceptional normal’; just as often, the exceptional could be used to “extrapolate typical and relevant indicators” (Trivellato, 3). To return to Zemon Davis’ case of Leo Africanus: what, in his case, was typical and what was exceptional? Zemon Davis is careful not to come out too boldly on either side, though there is no denying there were exceptional qualities to Leo Africanus’ character and the circumstances which led to his colorful life in Europe. He was not the only captive on his ship that fateful day he was handed over to the Pope. Yet even after a life lived in defiance of strict cultural divides, Zemon Davis reminds us that—at the end of the day—if he succeeded in returning home to Fez, he would have been received in disgrace as a convert and accused of collaborating with the enemy (Zemon Davis, 249). What I wish to emphasize is that we should be wary of accepting global themes as the new orthodoxy without pausing to consider what is obscured. A recent article by John-Paul Ghobrial on the life of the 17th century figure Elias of Babylon engages with this problem of obfuscation.

In many ways, Elias of Babylon resembles one of these ‘global lives’ that threaten to become representative of the early modern period. In 1668, Elias permanently left his native Iraq, (then under control of the Ottomans); by his death, he had travelled widely across Europe and even to the Spanish colonies in the New World. The accounts Elias left behind—rediscovered only in the last hundred years—constituted the first Arabic history of the new world. But Elias’ “Book of Travels” was more than a travelogue of far away lands intended to entertain audiences back home. He was a member of the Church of the East, and Ghobrial uses this fact, along with Elias’ allusions to rebellions against Rome (a common trope among Spanish Catholics who viewed the conversions of the Americas as a blow to Protestant efforts) to uncover a much deeper current about the limited significance of Elias’ global inclinations (Ghobrial, 71). Members of the Church of the East, or Nestorians as they were sometimes called, were still heretics in the eyes of Rome, so Elias’ pro-Catholic rhetoric comes as a surprise. When he returned to Europe from Mexico, and news had spread of his efforts, Ghobrial found consistently that his contemporaries and descendants all focused not on his global life but on his pro-Catholic leanings. It was his “local significance…as an early convert to Catholicism” that occupied the interests of his community (Ghobrial, 88-89).

 Examples like Elias show that it is worth slowing down, and that too great a focus on narratives of connection threatens to conceal moments of disconnect which can be just as revealing. A departure from the narrative model and case studies would be a welcome breath of fresh air as global history continues to grapple with formulating rigorous theoretical frameworks. Finally, it is worth considering whether travel had to take place literally for an early modern thinker’s world to be transformed. Books also traveled in this age, often from very strange lands and in large quantities, and could not the experience of reading them be enough to change a thinker’s context? Polymaths like Athanasius Kircher, who never left Rome, or Isaac Casaubon certainly possessed global worldviews, but intellectual history has yet to really question what that means. It is time for historians to adopt a global imagination on the scale of their subjects.

Maryam Patton is a second-year MPhil student at the University of Oxford studying the intellectual history of the Mediterranean in the early modern period. She is particularly interested in the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and people, and her dissertation focuses on 17th century British Orientalists. 


4 replies on “Global Microhistory: One or Two Things That I Know About It”

Terrific post, as usual, Maryam. Your point (or your summary of John-Paul’s point) about the fact that “global” travelers were often of interest to specific communities for “local” reasons is an important one, and it makes me wonder to what extent these global microhistories (if they are, indeed, a genre unto themselves) could be put into a useful conversation with intellectual histories of similarly “global” ambition. Intellectual historians have had somewhat more time, I would say, to figure out how to talk about the fact that “global” ideas are never really universal, but rather are refracted and reshaped by each of the specific contexts in which they are taken up and articulated. Just a thought…

I agree, as usual, with both of you: with Adam, that intellectual historians have been thinking on a global scale for a long time and, with Maryam, that we haven’t got all that far. Recently I’ve been rereading More’s Utopia, and this time through I was struck by how vivid a set of debates he stages about the uses of comparison–of laws, in the first instance–across borders. I wonder what played the main role in enabling him to think this way: his own experience as one who knew both the common and the civil law; the impact of the first new texts on those people over there; his own displacement, personal and intellectual, when he started writing the text–or, as is most likely, all of the above, in proportions I can’t yet imagine how to set.

I’m always struck by the opposition claimed between ‘global,’ ‘local,’ ‘micro,’ ‘macro,’ in my opinion it is a mischaracterization. Archivally-based global histories will almost automatically work on multiple scales, as the works of Trivellato for instance aptly show. In my view, it is misguiding to hold up Osterhammel and the like (Bayly; the Rosenberg edited volume) as examples of global history. They represent a certain type of synthesis based on secondary literature that will similarly automatically produce bird’s eye view accounts. Global history – as practiced by Europeanists, Middle East historians and so on – hasn’t been around for that long. In the US, PhD programs only began to recruit people into global history tracks in the early and mid-2000s. These people have begun to graduate but are only beginning to publish their monographs. They, not only the synthesis-producing Osterhammels should be viewed as embodying the ‘field.’ The nature of these works is very different from the Osterhammel/Bayly-style overviews. A recent successful example of an archivally-based global history in my period (modern History) that engages successfully with regions and localities (and how these regions emerged) would be Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World.

Comparison is a heuristic device that became foundational to the emergence of a global imagination in the 19th century, as I write in my recent book on the global history of time around 1900. Of course comparison as a historiographic practice has a history, and global and other historians of ideas could indeed engage more explicitly with this. What happens in the 19th century is that such comparisons become time-based, that is, they serve to establish hierarchies of development and civilization. It would be interesting to hear from early modernists whether cross-cultural comparisons of laws and other institutions in the early modern period are more horizontally-minded than in a later age.

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