Tag Archives: microhistory

  • One in a Thousand: One Hundred Years Later

    One hundred years ago, Eddie McKay, the WWI flying ace featured in One in a Thousand, was shot down and killed. To commemorate his life and death, and the publication this year of Eddie's story in an innovative new microhistory, author Graham Broad discusses how he was compelled to research, write, and publish Eddie's story. To learn more about Eddie McKay, you can of course get your hands on a copy of One in a Thousand, but we also urge you to check out Eddie's account on Twitter: @AEMcKayRFC

    I don’t believe in such things, but if I did, I’d say that Eddie McKay was pursuing me.

    About fifteen years ago, when I was a TA in the Canadian history survey at Western, I was asked to give a guest lecture about Canada in the First World War. It was my first lecture and I was quite unsure of myself, but I knew that the lecture would be more meaningful for the students if I told them about someone from their own university who had been killed in the war. The campus had no First World War cenotaph—it’s a long story—but I found Eddie's name in an old book about Western’s history. I looked into his story briefly. He was a rugby player who became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Perfect.

    I spent a few hours in the university archives looking for a picture of him to no avail. I left, stretching and yawning, rubbing my eyes, and paused to glance for a moment at a nearby display case. And there was an old and yellowed photo of Eddie McKay, wearing his rugby team uniform, looking straight back at me from the pages of a scrapbook about Western’s sports history. I alerted the archivist. “That’s weird,” she said. “I flipped to that page at random this morning.”

    Odd things like that happened again, over a decade later, when I decided to write a book about Eddie, like the time I took my laptop to the local market for a change of scenery. Sipping coffee and writing, I looked down for a moment at the top of the table. Somebody had etched “Eddie” in it. So that was weird, too.

    Again, I don’t believe in that stuff, but Eddie McKay does haunt me in a way. I can’t really claim to know him. Even if he had survived the war, it’s improbable that I ever could have: he would have turned seventy-eight the year I was born. Would I have liked him, or would he have liked me? He was athletic and a soldier. I am bookish, uninterested in sports, and unmilitary. And it would be incredible if he did not share many of the commonplace sentiments of his own age that rightly find no place in our own. Yet something about him compelled and still compels me inexorably. I’d mention him once a year when I guest lectured, and later in my classes when I started to teach. Then in 2007, I persuaded my senior seminar to do a little class project about him. Together, we gathered material about his life, at least the stuff we could get locally, and placed a commemorative marker for him on campus. I pass it often. My wife, who works at the university, can see it from her office window.

    In 2013, I hashed out an idea with Natalie Fingerhut, the Higher Education History Editor at University of Toronto Press. A biography, of sorts, of Eddie McKay. Could it be done? I dunno, I said. I’m not sure if there’s enough material. What the students and I had gathered in 2007 provided no more than a sketch. Even better, she proposed. It would really be two biographies: the story of Eddie McKay and the story of how I wrote that story—or failed to write it. A pedagogical microhistory.

    So, I committed biography, as they say. Sort of. I was able to locate only about six documents relating specifically to Eddie’s life prior to his twentieth year, for example, so the “biography” was pretty much confined to the last three years of his life when he was a student and soldier. Moreover, the experience of thinking my way through things I had taken for granted, such as how I went about doing history, why I believed the things I discovered about the past were probably true, laid me bare. Oh, back in the day I had taken the obligatory theory and methods courses, and I had wandered the thickets of “theory” over many hours of beer and argument with classmates who were convinced that there was nothing in this world that we could be convinced about. But I had always believed that, for all the interventions of the post-modernists, the core methodology of the historical profession hasn’t changed much over the years. We write about more things and often take a broader perspective, but fundamentally it seems to me that most historians do what historians have been doing for a very long time: they gather evidence to tell stories and make arguments about the past.

    My book, One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps, is the story of a promising young man who was killed in a terrible war. It is also the story about how I struggled to learn what I did about him, how I came to certain conclusions—however tentative—about him, and how I dealt with gaps in the record and the mysteries I couldn’t resolve. Where is he buried? Who was the mystery woman who inquired after him when he failed to return from his final patrol? What was in the envelope, addressed to him, that was never sent by the President of UWO in 1917? The book serves as an entry point, then, for students wanting to learn more about historical theory and method. It’s possible to skip the methodological discussions and read the book as biography alone, but it’s my hope that readers who come for the history will stay for the historiography.

    Eddie McKay was killed in action the day after his 25th birthday, 28 December 1917. For the past two years, I have been tweeting significant events in his life from @AEMcKayRFC. You can follow him there. In a future blog post, I’ll ruminate some about how I learned to stop worrying and love the tweet.

    Graham Broad is Associate Professor of History at King's University College at Western University and the author of A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945 (2013).

  • Taking Students into the Archive

    To mark the publication of the new edition of The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663, author Peter A. Morton talks about the origins of the project, how teaching from the book over the years has influenced the changes to the second edition, and the importance of providing students with the kinds of primary sources that will enable them to be effective historians.

    Morton_TrialOfTempelAnneke2e_comp03.inddWhen I first encountered the records of the trial of Tempel Anneke in the reading room of the Brunswick City Archive, it was a collection of papers (now bound together, but at that time in a folder of free sheets) about 2 inches thick, carrying lines of ink. Here was a surviving piece of history bearing traces of the people involved in it. The physical presence of the scribes and officials still seemed to cling to the letters that they wrote across the pages. As we transcribed the text, Barbara Dähms, the book’s translator, and I noticed changes in the handwriting of Johann Pilgram, the court scribe; at times he seemed confident and certain, and at others his hand was shaky and he crossed out lines. What meaning was carried in this physical remnant of the past? What could it tell us about the events that led to its creation? These questions in turn raised issues of perspective and methodology. How should we read the documents? What should we look for? How should we understand the words written?

    In preparing The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663, I wanted to pass on to my students as much of the experience of reading historical records and forming analyses as possible. I didn’t want to tell a tale or provide evidence for a thesis. Rather, Barbara and I aimed to offer the students a seat in the archive reading room to begin working through the sheets for themselves. This thought was the origin of the first edition of the book, and all the way through its preparation our shared goal as editor and translator was to keep the material as close as possible to what we read in the archive. The original collection of sheets was somewhat disordered, and some pages were missing. So in the editing it was necessary to re-order the sheets and fill in gaps with what could be gleaned from other sources. In the handscript, the sentences were sometimes hastily written or grammatically ill-formed (even by seventeenth-century standards). In our translation, we tried to preserve as much of that character in the English as we could. All along, our goal was to remain faithful to the pile of loose sheets presented to us in the archive, to offer the reader something close to the original documents.

    In his page on this site, Steven Bednarski, author of A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner, introduces the term “pedagogical microhistory.” The Trial of Tempel Anneke aims to give students the materials necessary to construct their own microhistory. What has been striking in teaching from the book is the degree of intellectual maturity with which students approach the material. They appreciate having the complete records, not merely selections, and many of my own students have presented original and thoughtful analyses. One student, for example, studied changes in the religious elements of Tempel Anneke’s confessions, arguing that her faith went through four stages due to the pressures of the trial.* In my experience, students benefit from the opportunity to form their own opinions from the records, based on their particular background and interests. I have heard similar experiences from other professors who have used the book. With the right material, students can become quite accomplished historians.

    The second edition of the book expands on what we first compiled, but does not deviate from the original goals. The events reported in the trial records are a small microcosm of a larger society, in this case rural and urban life in Lower Saxony in the decades following the Thirty Years’ War. To read those records and to ask questions about them requires some familiarity with their historical context. In the first edition, I concentrated on the trial itself, presenting some explanation of the crime with which Tempel Anneke was charged and of the legal and civic context of a criminal trial in seventeenth-century Brunswick. The supplementary records added a few primary sources to this explanation. A second edition of the book gave us an opportunity to add to what we had originally published in two respects. First, the new edition reflects the experience of teaching from it over a number of years. For example, I found it important to convey the variety of approaches that historians have taken to the European witch trials. One might say that the historiographical lessons learned over the century that historians have devoted to the trials have been as valuable as the historical information extracted from the surviving records. In light of this, I prepared a historiographical essay to give students the kind of background knowledge of the field that a historian would have in hand. Second, over the years between the two editions Barbara had not stopped investigating the people involved: Tempel Anneke’s parents, her son, and his descendants; the family of Jürgen Roleffes, whose illness played a role in the trial; the keeper of the Tempel Hof, who replaced Tempel Anneke’s brother. She dug further into the archives and bookshelves to fill out our original sources. What resulted from this digging was a fuller picture of the social setting of the trial and the events that led to it.

    When the second edition was put together, we were in a position, therefore, to offer readers a collection of material that went beyond the legal aspects of the charge of witchcraft and early modern criminal trials. The new edition offers additional resources for this purpose. The historiographical essay tries to avoid leading readers towards one perspective or conclusion rather than another. It aims instead to provide examples from the range of perspectives used by historians, and to show how each new approach sought to improve on previous ones. We have also expanded the introduction and added a number of documents to the Supplementary Records, which offer glimpses into life in the village of Harxbüttel in the seventeenth century, and provide some knowledge of the events before and after the trial.

    We hope this additional material will increase the scope of enquiries that students can bring to the records. As all constructors of microhistory ultimately find, we have grown ever closer to the people in the events of the trial, not just to Tempel Anneke herself (although most certainly her!) but also to the court officials and witnesses, the children of Harxbüttel, and the residents of Knochenhauerstrasse. Hopefully our readers will gain something of that closeness as they try to piece together for themselves the records contained in that pile of sheets in the archive.

    Finally, we wish to add that we are currently at work on a further volume with similar objectives to those of The Trial of Tempel Anneke, to be published by University of Toronto Press in 2018. It will contain the records of three cases centering on the relations between melancholy, possession, and the devil in early modern Germany. The first case is the trial in Brunswick of a young housemaid, Elisabeth Lorentz. Many of the same officials, including the medical official, Laurentius Gieseler, who participated in the trial of Tempel Anneke, are involved in this later case as well. Lorentz told her employer and later the court that she had made a pact with the devil, but the court was concerned that she suffered from melancholy and that the pact was not sincere. The second set of records are from the trial in Helmstedt of a young man, Erich Brödermann, who signed a pact with the devil in his own blood, in exchange for wealth, love, and travel. To the records of these two trials we are adding a detailed account by a Lutheran pastor of the demonic possession of a very pious girl, and his efforts and those of his parishioners to free her of the demon. The introduction and supplementary documents provide necessary background on early modern Lutheran discussions of these topics.


    * Published as Miranda Van Heyst, “Tempel Anneke’s Confessions: Four Phases of Faith.” Mount Royal Undergraduate Humanities Review 3 (2015) 112-119.

    Peter A. Morton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Humanities at Mount Royal University.

  • On Bill Gates and Big History

    With increased attention being paid in mainstream media to the concept of "Big History," we thought it would be appropriate to solicit the opinion of someone who works in the field of microhistory. Steven Bednarski, author of A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner, and an Associate Professor of History at St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo, provides the following thoughts on why Bill Gates is to history as Wikipedia is to Voltaire. 

    A recent New York Times article summarizes neatly Bill Gates's move to push Big History into and onto American high school and college classrooms. While on the surface Big History may appear the salvation of historical teaching, and indeed has its place, in the long run it encourages facile, superficial knowledge.

    About ten years ago, I was speaking with eminent Harvard historian Daniel Lord Smail on his new passion, so-called Deep History. Like me, Smail began his career reading medieval legal records from the south of France. When we spoke, he surprised me by proposing an almost complete shift away from such traditional, archive-based approaches to the past and toward something alien. Smail opined that traditional history had become too “micro,” too tied to written texts, that historians had lost track of the grand narrative, and that the result was a discipline far too shallow. To combat this he proposed a sweeping interdisciplinary approach that united paleohistory, the very origins of our species, to the recent past. This approach drew on his love of anthropology but married it to emerging ideas from neuroscience and neurobiology; it also incorporated exciting insights from archaeology, primate studies, linguistics, even genetics. In his On Deep History and the Brain, Smail eventually argued that moods, stimulants, and feelings, all neurological in nature, played a guiding role in shaping culture. In his more recent Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, he and his collaborators discard individuals and events for cultural trends that span tens of thousands of years. They offer a chapter, for example, on the history of “goods,” writ large. It claims that sea shells collected and traded by early man in the Upper Paleolithic began a primitive system of currency but also “a system for communicating information about status and prestige as well as identity and belonging.” The result is that “The history of goods … is also a history that explores startlingly familiar patterns operating at different scales, a history that stretches over vast reaches of human time.” When Smail first spoke about all this to me, I was stunned.

    In the course of the last decade, I have watched, nose firmly planted in ancient paper records, as ideas like Deep History, or the more popular Big History, took root in the United States. Today, Deep History has achieved impressive success in some intellectual circles, married as it is to sound scientific inquiry, though the majority of professional historians remain skeptical. In contrast, Big History, a more popularized attempt to frame all knowledge from the Big Bang to the Big Lebowski, is the real money maker.

    Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, Courtesy of NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)Whereas Deep History conserves humans at the heart of history, and tells tales insightful to the human experience, Big History, according to one website, is “a framework for all knowledge.” More accurately, Big History traces the origin of the universe and explains how life evolved and where it is going. In this sense, it is about, to some extent, people, too. But not in the sense of actual history per se.

    All other forms of history share the premise that the study of past people’s words, deeds, thoughts, etc., though often cast within a distant and strange landscape, lend insights to guide and inform our present condition. Most modern historians, those who reject Big History, anyway, would say that the study of the past is not so much about what happened and when, but why. In struggling with the whys of the past, we gain useful insights into our own issues. Big History, in contrast, tells how and why things happened: the universe exploded, the Earth formed, single-celled organisms emerged, bipeds appeared, hunter-gatherers began to organize, sedentary farming provoked new technologies, and so on. But the hows and whys of big history are superficial, observable, presumably knowable, and ultimately incontrovertible truths. This is very different from, say, trying to understand why most Germans voted for Hitler, or how and why attitudes toward disability morph over time, or how and why cultures structure and renegotiate gender identities. Those hows and whys are slippery, more difficult to see clearly, but, in the end, more informative guides to understand the world as most humans experience it. At the same time, their opacity and complexity renders them difficult to quantify. After all, how can you mark a student right or wrong on a true / false test about gender construction?

    The enormous popularity of Big History, unlike Deep History, which remains relegated to academic discourse, is due to the enthusiastic personal support of Bill Gates, a lover of standardized testing. Gates's philanthropic Foundation, closely connected to his attempt to reform history teaching, has, since 2000, spent over 200 million USD on the Common Core State Standards initiative. This initiative is currently in place in forty-six US states. Its aim is to allow policy makers to standardize and measure uniform curricular output in US schools, much as Microsoft would gauge quality control on a microchip production line.

    Big History is not without virtue. At its best, it achieves what educators sometimes call knowledge integration. This is an important and worthwhile trend in pedagogy. It pushes students to make connections between and across curricula. It encourages them, for example, to consider how the lessons they learn in first-year economics apply to their upper-year course on social justice and how both inform a more holistic understanding of the problems presented by law makers in a legal studies course on the regulation of healthcare. In other words, knowledge integration fosters the idea that an informed mind reads between the lines and across the page, deconstructs problems, and connects the dots. On a fundamental level, this has been an underlying goal of human education since at least the Romans’ Seven Liberal Arts. Big History, done well, embraces the spirit of knowledge integration and its accompanying push for interdisciplinary collaboration between specialists.

    But while knowledge integration and interdisciplinarity are good for global citizenship, Big History falls short. For those of us who think about the teaching and learning of history, there is perhaps no greater modern guru than Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. Wineburg, when interviewed for the New York Times article, astutely underlined the glaring shortfall of Big History: its failure to impart a methodology. Simply put, Big History links cool ideas and purports to show how Creation, evolution, extinction, etc. led us to where we are today. But it fails to ask questions about why this matters, how we came to frame the question, what this says about our quest for knowledge and understanding, and so on. Good historical methodology is not so much interested in knowing what really happened in the past as it is with asking how we think we know what we know, and whether and why we care.

    Historical methodology is, of course, a complex thing to teach but it is a foundation upon which critical thinking grows. It may be amusing or diverting to watch a YouTube video that connects the birth of the sun to the pyramids and then global warming, and people should contemplate such topics, but this is something other than history.

    The goal of real history teaching is to inculcate in people historical reasoning, the ability to interpret past events and gain insights from them. To do this, though, students must understand past events, struggle with continuity and change over time, seize that there are different ways to view the past, assess their merits and pitfalls, interpret evidence appropriately, make connections, grapple with causation and motivation, and incorporate modern debates. It is insufficient for Big History lecturers to offer a “complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centred view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model … and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe.” This sort of chronicling is readily available, say, on Wikipedia. Real historians would begin with the sources that teach us about a God-centred view of the universe, interrogate them, ask how and why they were produced, and attempt to discern what this tells us. When such historians came to Ptolemy, concepts of Greek sexual and political organization necessarily informed his systemic worldview, and they would very likely ask students to struggle with such issues.

    When a Big History supporting principal of a Brooklyn high school claims that “many progressive social-studies teachers would tell you that World History is a completely flawed course [… and that …] Kids don’t come out of it really having a sense of global history,” she completely misses the point of historical education. “Kids” do not need to master global history in grade ten. They need to be exposed to themes, documents, and interpretations. They need to spark their awareness that their personal stories are connected to every other human being’s, and to develop a hunger to make sense of it all. Real history teaching is not about mastering facts. It is a lifelong journey, a quest for meaning. While Big History may, on the surface, provide a facile nod in the direction of connecting all knowledge, it lacks the necessary complexity to shine true light on the human condition. For that, there are no shortcuts.

    So why the appeal of Big History among policy makers? The answer is startlingly simple. Big History conforms to dominant capitalist, corporate ideals. It reduces complex, critical thinking to objective right-or-wrong answers. Through its prioritization of big questions (the Big Bang, evolution, the formation of the Earth’s crust, etc.) it indirectly implies opprobrium for matters of less than cosmic consequence. How can events that unfolded over fifty years be as significant as those that took millions? What better way to eliminate, say, the rise of universal suffrage, the formation of the labour movement, or the quest for gay rights from high school and university conversations? Big History’s erosion of deeper thought and the careful pre-selection of topics, questions, and answers all restrict shockingly the life of the mind. While they may serve corporate agendas in that they churn out compliant workers, they also undermine democracy and, thus, pose a real threat to personal freedom and happiness.

    It is no surprise, therefore, that US teachers have begun to appreciate the dangers of taking educational direction from a patron with no pedagogical (or historical) training. Recently, the American Federation of Teachers, a past recipient of millions of dollars of Gates funding, parted company with the billionaire. Canadian public schools have so far resisted Big History, though they, too, struggle with government imposed standardized testing. In the UK, where “state education is rapidly following the US model,” denouncement of Big History has also begun.

    So now someone must explain to Bill Gates and to other would-be capitalist reformers of public education why Big History troubles so. It is because the sort of complex struggle that underpins actual learning resists easy quantification, eludes standardized testing, and, if done right, produces wonderful and unpredictable outcomes. These outcomes may be bad news for the corporate agenda, but they are essential for the human soul.

    Steven Bednarski, St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo

  • What is a Pedagogical Microhistory?

    To coincide with the publication of A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner, we asked author Steven Bednarski to discuss how the book is structured, as well as its intended audience.

    A Poisoned Past“Pedagogical microhistory” is a new term coined to capture the dual nature of A Poisoned Past.

    The book is first and foremost a microhistory: a narrative history focused on a single “moment” in time—in this case the criminal trial and aftermath of an epileptic woman accused of using sorcery or poison to murder her husband. Like all microhistories, it is interested in social history, the story of the lives of everyday people (as opposed to great rulers, war, politics, etc.). The book, thus, deploys Margarida’s tale to shine light on a lost world. While her supposed crime and the court processes that ensued are important, what matters more is how court records reflect everyday lives. After all, even criminals are not deviant all of the time. Much of what people say and do in court touches upon their routine existences: what they ate for breakfast, how they dress, whom they love, whom they hate, how they spend their money, how they think and feel about their bodies, their sex lives, and so on.

    But A Poisoned Past is also inherently pedagogical. Unlike other microhistories, sometimes criticized for creating a compelling narrative from sources ill-suited to the task, this one deliberately tests boundaries and pulls back the veil that separates the author-historian from the story and reader. The book points out where the historical records are limited, and highlights when modern choices dictated the direction of the historical tale. In doing this, it educates the reader on the nature of historical research and writing and, I hope, underscores that the study of past people and societies is much more about us than it is about them. If we accept this premise, then the purpose of history is to help modern society structure its own narrative, order its own world, and make sense of its own experiences.

    The book’s intended audience is broad: scholars, teachers, and students of history at every level. The book is written in lively narrative prose that is widely accessible. Its tale should appeal, naturally, to serious medievalists, but also to anyone engaged in questions of historical inquiry.

    Margarida de PortuAt the university level, the book can be used across all arts disciplines and departments. While it is primarily a history book, its approach draws heavily on methods provided by English (narrative), anthropology (cultural studies), and sociology (reflexivity). The book, therefore, demonstrates how these sister disciplines influence intellectual thought across the arts curriculum. Since its subject is a persecuted woman, the book would work equally well in a women’s studies course. Its focus on her sex life and gendered disability experience makes it ideal for a gender studies course, too. Finally, while the book is rooted in legal documents, and provides edited and translated transcripts of criminal trials, it will provide historical scope and content to legal studies or criminology courses.

    Working through the university curriculum year by year, the book can be used differently at each level. In an introductory course, the book exposes students to everyday life in a past society. From its tales, students learn about attitudes, values, politics, law, and culture across time and space. For students in the middle of their undergraduate studies, the book pushes them to think about the importance of good, clear, and compelling writing. It attempts to show that good history need not have boring prose. It offers lessons, and raises questions about narrative structure, the organization of ideas, and the formulation of arguments. All of these issues transcend history as a discipline and speak to good essay writing skills. For students at the end of their BA studies, the book raises a challenge about historical methodologies and theories. It shows how different historians do their research differently—some take oral histories, some read ancient texts, some study newspapers and films. The sources they decipher each require specialized training and techniques and often inform the sorts of questions historians are able to ask. At the same time, historians are living, breathing people in the modern world. They have their own biases, interests, and obsessions and these inevitably influence the type of history they produce. The result is that historians fall into different methodological camps, not all of which coexist harmoniously. This book plays games by telling a story from the perspective of one camp (say, gender history) and then retelling it in a different voice (say, Marxist economic history). Advanced university students will, therefore, find in this book an example of how and why modern thinkers persist in writing history.

    At the graduate level, the book takes a risk and lays bare its evidence. Unlike many history books, this one does not require its reader to trust its author. The book contains a good portion of the source documents in edited Latin and English format. Readers are encouraged to “fact check” to see where the author may have misread, misled, or misinterpreted. This allows the book to be used both as a secondary source and as a primary source.

    The goal of A Poisoned Past is to encourage professional scholars and students of every level to engage its narrative tale and to form their own opinions about a lost world and its relationship to our own. With luck, each of these groups will produce their own insights and contribute to a larger dialogue about human experience, culture, and history.

    Steven Bednarski
    St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo

    Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course that would benefit from having this book on the required reading list, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!

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