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Collective history?

I scoff at the term “collective history.” Using the name collective history to define the mass experience of history is misleading.

There is no such thing as a truly collective experience.

Long ago, history was interpreted along a strictly linear and chronological line. There was fact, fiction, and yes, collective experience because things happened one way, as interpreted by the sources at hand. This facilitated the emergence of what we know as “big name and big event” history. Usually this history was told parallel to the stories of powerful and rich men, leaders, generals, and conquerors. The reason for this is actually very simple: there were and remain a plethora of sources about important, whereas no one was too interested in the poor and beleaguered to write about them. This allowed history to ignore them.

Then we began what we call micro-history. This is when we zoom our focus in on more specific experiences. You could look at one event in one specific town. You could study just Roman nomenclature. It was this the emergence of micro-history that really allowed historians to explore the diverse range of historical experience. Finally, historians began to separate history into subjects like economics, politics, social, and culture. Within that, women’s history, religious history, German history, queer studies, diaspora studies, history of poverty, art history, etc, etc. If you can think of it, it is likely its own historical field.

More liberally defined, we have to accept the meaning of collective history, if we are to use it, as very broad. Yes, World War II was a collective experience, but within that are subsets of experience, and then the entire range of human emotion and circumstance must be taken into consideration if we are to understand World War II as a personal event (when we personalise history, we relate to it better). Though many people lived through World War II, everyone lived through it in their own way, therefore even the study of World War II cannot be fully understood until we begin to pick out all of the facets and study each individually while never forgetting context and the big picture.

Or rather, to create an example, we have to understand that a Roman senator, a German slave, a Roman plebeian, and a Roman general all would have experienced the invasion of Rome by Alaric different ways. We can have a history of events that go “this happened… and then this happened… and afterward this occurred,” which is what collective history would have us do, and of course is necessary on a contextual level. Or we can begin to ask questions pertaining to the brevity of experience, return to our sources and explore them to understand just how varied an event truly was. There is no a, b, c, but a 1a, 2a, 3c, 2d, 6b, and into infinity.

History is never a truly collective experience. Only broad events are collective, but to understand each event we have to abandon the idea of that there is a such thing as really, truly collective history.

14 thoughts on “Collective history?

  1. Apart from the fact that a look from several perspectives must be more correct than a look from just one I think it’s also more interesting to see history in all its facettes.
    One can see this from the popularity of history novels compared with the popularity of history school books. But isn’t it difficult to get enough sources for micro history to draw a detailed picture?
    About when has this field of micro history established? Reading your text I had to think of Tolstoi. In “War and peace” he does not only tell a story but also spares a few pages for discussing how history is written down and evaluated. His main argument is that “big events” aren’t the merit of big men but of lots and lots of circumstances. I guess he would have liked this approach you wrote about.

    1. Microhistory is very difficult because it expects the scholar to have a plethora of sources at hand to drawn reasonable, well-rounded, and unquestionable conclusions from. Unfortunately, these sort of sources are very rare because much of the microhistory population, the poor or the defeated, don’t leave us many records. And neither do past historians. The every day life of a Roman baker was by no means as fascinating as a depraved, fat Senator. It is when we find a cache of personal documents related together, or discover a collection of hidden church records that we can begin to write microhistory.

      I believe microhistory came about in the 1960s. I remember the first book of microhistory I read was by an Italian historian named Carlo Ginzburg. The book he wrote, I Benandanti, is about a sect of people known as the Benandanti in Friuli, Italy who believed they fought battles against demons and witches in their sleep to protect their village. After the church got a hold of these people, they were themselves accused of witchcraft because their practices stunk too heavily of paganism. Ginzburg was fortunate to find a collectin of Church and Inquisitorial documents to write his story with. This book is still in print under the title The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. It is an excellent book and I do recommend it. I also most recently read one called Immodest Acts about a false mystic and lesbian nun who undergoes a series of trials regarding miracles and signs she concocts. The author of the book, a woman named Judith Brown, just happened to stumble across the trial documents when going through a miscellaneous file of documents in a Florentine archive. The documents are out there, but it is only the lucky that find them.

      1. The every day life of a Roman baker was by no means as fascinating as a depraved, fat Senator.
        Or even of an emperor. Suetonius’ “de vita caesarurm” is highly amusing in my opinion. But I see the point. What specific topics would you like to know more about?

        Villagers who believed to fight demons in their sleep? This sounds fascinating. I read a few texts about witch trials and was to a few museums dedicated to this topic but most was of a rather general nature.

        1. I admit, I do love Suetonius. I presented a paper about four years ago on the subject of Roman morality, using Suetonius as a source in my discussion. The purpose was to disprove the contemporary idea that Romans were immoral gluttons. It requires a reading between the lines of sorts to determine the perspective of various authors in how they present both good and bad. With Suetonius it is less apparent than say, Martial, whose satire is pretty transparent. You are right, though, Emperors and Senators, men and women in power, are far more fascinating than the common man. Yet it is the common man that best illustrates society, culture, and day to day life.

          Oh yes, they believed they fought demons in their sleep for the protection of people, and more importantly for the protection of harvests. It was horribly unfair that these same people were accused of witchcraft themselves, since visiting demons in sleep was a little too similar to the Sabbath of witches.

        2. I guess Suetonius and Martial had very different ideas what to achieve with their work. So what were your main argumets for your case? I mean, you could have simply given you audience Cato maior. Point proofed et ceterum censeo carthaginem esse delandem. 😉
          Something I would really be interested in is every day Latin. Surely not everybody talked in the way in which Cicero wrote.

          I found Carlo Ginzburg in university library catalogue. I’m still on summer break but when I’ll return I think I’ll borrow that book.

        3. Precisely that gluttony was abhorrent and atypical Roman behaviour, which is was. The case was best made by the subtle judgement of Suetonius, I think, than the more apparent satire of Martial.

          I do hope you remember how much I love that particular phrase. I cannot mention him without that screaming through my head, as I am sure he intended it. Shoeless, pushy traditionalist though he was, he wanted to save and preserve Rome.

          Oh Romans had terrible language. Absolutely filthy mouths.

        4. Cato maior must have been a really interesting man. I recently read that he also took care of his family’s health by telling them what to eat. Cabbage soup in this case.

          Very filthy indeed. My current handbag book for short pauses, on the bus etc. is a collection of Catullus’ Carmina. Half of the words aren’t in my dictionary and I think I know why.

        5. Have you read one particular Catullus poem which is dedicated to a rival of his, who Catullus accuses of hating him only because his rival wishes a sexual encounter that Catullus has denied him? If not, I must find it. Absolutely filthy and entirely too amusing. Though I have never found the poem in any language but Greek, it has been a while since I have sought it out and perhaps you have a translation of it?

  2. I thought I had replied to this one already. Well, but I looked for this particular poem and couldn’t find it. But the contents table said 2 or 3 are missing in this particular book. Do you have it’s number?

    1. I wish I did! I found it again about 15 years ago in Greek, not Latin. I will redouble my efforts to find it and perhaps I can. I am determined now.

      1. Thank you so much for your effort 🙂 I recognised it and really found it in my book. I didn’t reaslise earlier that you were refering to that poem because the translation is quite different. Not so naughty by far! It says Catullus is going to make Furius and his friend “shut up”.
        My, my…that’s hilarious.

        1. And the lesson we learn here is that one must be careful never to earn the anger of a Roman.

  3. And the lesson we learn here is that one must be careful never to earn the anger of a Roman.
    Definitely! Cave romanos. Those two men surely had no idea their big mouthes would get remembered for centuries.

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