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.
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.