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  • William Tyler

Micro History

I often use the phrase, when history lecturing, 'broad brush approach'. In this blog I am going to the other extreme to what is called Micro History. The history of an object, a family, a village and so on from which we can place the macro history into a more 'real' context. The title, Micro History, has also been used to cover 'History from Below', that is the history of the non elite throughout the Ages, what GDH Cole called 'The Common People'.


The history curriculum for many of us was all about Kings and Wars, Politicians and Acts of Parliament. We seldom strayed into Economic or Social History. More's the pity. Perhaps the debate which has opened up about the curriculum in the wake of the BLM Movement will lead to fundamental change in the way in which we teach history in schools, and, just maybe, fire the interest of more pupils, the majority of whom give the subject up aged 13 or 14.


I have tried to broaden my own curriculum when teaching to include the history of non European countries as well as introducing social, and this term, environmental history. One of the glories of Adult Education is the ability to change the subjects taught so easily even if a greater pressure is placed on the tutor - Incidentally, speaking personally, a pressure I warmly welcome as long as I don't fall flat on my face too often.


I am a big fan of micro history because it is endlessly fascinating and endlessly new. When I was working full time as a freelance historian between the ages of 50 and 70, I had a talk I often delivered to clubs and societies called (thanks to a WI Member) 'With a Flush and a Brush: The Story of Personal Hygiene'. Just a couple of teasers from that old talk - when the French were beginning their Revolution in Summer 1789, the British were enjoying the luxury of a new product, Pears Transparent Soap. A fellow pupil of mine at Boarding School, later a Cambridge don, once calculated how much our lives had been shortened by being made to take a cold bath every morning from the age of 13 to 18. For the life of me I cannot remember the answer he came up with. Cold Baths in Public School is another subject entirely, and one not really connected with hygiene .....


French historians were some of the first to research and write micro history, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's 'Montaillou' remains an incomparable book of this genre. It is the story of a Provencal village at the time of The Cathar Heresy and is breathtaking in its depth. There is another whole history in one Cathar quotation from the 14th century where Satan is promising the peasants' hearts's desire in a strict hierarchical order, "I shall give you oxen, cows, riches and a wife for company'. One book I am looking forward to reading is another study of a single French village, this time 20 odd miles north of Nice. The book is about the village of Cipieres by Andrew Fleming et al.


A very early account (I'm a little reluctant to name it a history, for that implies modern research methods) is Richard Gough's 'History of Myddle', in Shropshire. It was compiled between 1700 and 1706. It is full of great snippets of information, such as this account of a villager being touched for The King's Evil (a skin complaint) by James II, ' ......when King James II came his progress to Shrewsbury, she was admitted by the king's doctors to go to his majesty for the touch, ..... [and so English, Gough adds]....... which did her no good'.


One area of micro history that I have been interested in for some time is the history of colour, which I have written about before in this blog. Today, let me say a word about coloured inks. Black remains the colour today for official signatures, even if signed in biro. The reason being obvious black doesn't fade. One colour less seen today, as the use of fountain pens has so declined, is the colour beloved of schoolchildren in the Fifties, and perhaps even more loved by their mothers, Royal Blue Washable. Green ink in our society remains the prerogative of auditors, the head of MI6, and the truly eccentric members of 'The Green Ink Brigade'. In Australia the Head of the Navy uses green ink. This is a throwback to our own First Sea Lord at the beginning of The First World War, Sir John Fisher. He would normally have used red ink or red pencil, but The First Lord of The Admiralty, had cornered the market in The Admiralty for red ink........ His name, Winston Churchill.







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