István M. Szijártó (Eötvös University, Budapest)
Puzzle, fractal, mosaic. Thoughts on microhistory

22 November 2013


I would like to explore three metaphors about microhistory and their explanatory force. Let me take a thought of Richard J. Evans as my starting point. (It is not about microhistory specifically but about history in general.) As several others have done earlier, he suggests that the activity of the historian is like doing a jigsaw puzzle - one that is both incomplete and damaged. [i] The problem with this metaphor is that it tacitly suggests the previous existence of a round and complete past. I would not like to suggest that there was no past at all. But I think that the past is chaos, from which only a retrospective mind can make sense. To quote Oscar Wilde “Any fool can make history, but it takes a genious to write it.’

            Evans’s typically reconstructionalist approach has been standing under heavy fire in the last decades, in the sign of the ‘linguistic turn’, attacks coming especially from representatives of postmodernist views. Although the publication of White’s Metahistory in 1973 can be seen as the starting point of these debates, relativist scepticism had attacked the empiricist theoretical foundations of mainstream history much earlier: from Croce, Collingwood, Becker and Beard. And not even Metahistory was a postmodernist attack: Hayden White consequently rejects the allegations that he might be a postmodernist and Metahistory is a purely formalist book [ii], clearly a product of modernism. I have the impression that the heat of the debates of the ‘linguistic turn’ is due to the fact that the impact of postmodernism (articulated from the 1960s and 70s) and the belated impact of modernist theories (present already from the early years of the 20th century) arrived at the same time to the theory of history, amplifying the effect of each other. (Earlier modernist impact remained rather on the surface.)

            Conveniently, we can distinguish between modernist and postmodernist positions on the basis of their views about language. Historians could have learned long ago from Saussure or Wittgenstein that language cannot be avoided, it is not just a tool but the form of human existence. [iii] Modernism argues that language is not mimetic but generative, it does not reflect the world but forms it. Postmodernism goes further and claims that language cannot be dominated, the author is ‘dead’, not even he or she is in control of meaning. [iv] On these contrasting views about language the cardinal difference is based as for the theory of history: whether there is correspondence between past reality and the historical text.

            A third view has emerged in the debates of the ‘linguistic turn’, one that claims to occupy a middle position between the two extremes. For example Appleby, Hunt and Jacob claim that the correct position is neither postmodernist negation nor naive realist affirmation of correspondence, but their ‘practical realist’ answer: there is a poor correspondence, but the historian has still to aspire to this. Their ‘practical realism’ tries to give an answer to the postmodernist challenge claiming the infinity of meanings and that language cannot be dominated. T hey argue that there is a relationship between the elements of language and the past, and refer to the scholarship of Hilary Putnam. Following him, they stress that words have emerged as a reflection of the world and with the purpose of communication. There is a feed-back establishing a relationship between language and reality. 12.0pt; font-family:[v] Richard J. Evans also belongs to this approach. He writes, too, that ‘language and grammar are in fact not arbitrary signifiers, but have evolved through contact with the real world in an attempt to name real things.’ [vi] He also thinks that the reconstruction of the past will be partial, provisional and not objective, but he insists that it will be a true one. [vii] (It is worth noting that in postmodernists’ eyes ‘practical realism’ does not constitute a third position, just a new version of the old orthodoxy.)

Ferdinand de Saussure thought that language projects the chaotic inner self of the man and the similarly chaotic outer world onto each other and this way transfoms this double chaos into a double order. [viii] Now that postmodernist thinking has called into question our ability to control language, we may also suppose that the alleged order of the world is just an illusion. Levi, for example, claims that historians implant an ordered chronology, a coherent personality and rational decisions into the source material about a person. [ix] Bourdieu similarly argues, speaking about the creation of a ‘rhetoric illusion’, the ‘biographic illusion’ through depicting a coherent entity. [x] Similarly, there is reason to argue that the picture of a once round and complete past, the picture evoked by comparing doing history to doing a jigsaw puzzle, is also an illusion. History cannot be reconstruction because there is nothing there to be reconstructed. But if we discard the metaphor of the puzzle on these grounds, the way will be opened for the application of another: the fractal. Not for history in general any more, but specifically for microhistory.


            Microhistory is often claimed to be a typical genre of postmodern history. 12.0pt; font-family:[xi] Some of its representatives reinforce this impression. The slogan of the Russian periodical Casus, for example, advertises that it wants to write about ‘the individual and the unique in history’. More microhistorians, however, especially representatives of the Italian microstoria insist that the aspiration to make general statements should not be abandoned. Several intellectual efforts have been made to establish an umbilical cord between the the micro-level of the actual investigation and the high level of general statements, like the concept of the eccezionalmente normale or that of changing the scale. 12.0pt; font-family:[xii] There is still, however, room for new efforts, for the problem is yet unsolved [xiii], and people - that is, in our case, readers of history lang=HU - seem to be convinced that the rule is a better guide in life than the exception, so they are fascinated by the exception but they are buying the rule. Consequently it is vital for microhistory to try to link itself to the level of the general. Perhaps bringing fractals into the picture might be of some use.

            Fractals are central to chaos theory. [xiv] Let me quote Gyula Muraközy: ‘Fractals are systems with an intricate geometrical structure. When magnified, they reveal a finer and finer structure in different enlargements, and each of these is similar to the original structure.’ [xv] Their essential character is self-similarity, ‘a symmetry in the scales. It is about repetition, pattern inside pattern.’ [xvi] We can find this characteristic not only in mathematics or in lifeless nature [xvii] , but also in the living world. Benoît Mandelbrot has moreover found recurring patterns at every scale in data on cotton prices: that charts of the daily and monthly changes fit perfectly. lang=HU [xviii] The railway network of Europe is clearly a fractal, too. [xix] Bach’s music or Picasso’s drawings were also analysed as fractals. [xx] We can often observe self-similarity without having a clear idea of its cause. Could we find this phenomenon in history? [xxi]

            The obvious problem is that in the case of the cotton prices (to remain within the sphere of human society) self-similarity is found between two sets of homogeneous data. If we try to find self-similarity between the infinite complexity of the past on one hand and a microhistorical book on some minor detail on the other, reality on one hand and written representation (paper and ink) on the other, the effort seems to be clearly hopeless. But if we reach back to Bourdieu’s suggestion on the biographic illusion, and extend it to the thesis that the past is chaos and order there is tailored by the historian only, a round picture of the past being a representation, then we may say that the supposed self-similarity between general history and microhistory should be one between two representations. Thus it is at least not impossible the find the same pattern on a miniature scale in a microhistorical case and on a much higher scale in total history. This possibility is then strengthened by the fact that these two representations are evidently not independent from each other. How is, after all, microhistory born?

            It was as editor that I met the book of an elderly agrarian historian, Lajos Für. lang=HU [xxii] After several decades’ working in the field, he had an overall vision about the agrarian economy and society of 18th-century Hungary, then studying the sources and meeting a single case, he recognized this pattern. I think that the result, his book, is first-rate microhistory without any theoretical background on his part. We can say that he did not only ‘search for answers to large questions in small places’, to quote Charles Joyner’s definition of microhistory, [xxiii] but Für has in fact found the answer for his big questions in small things. The microhistorian imagines an overall picture, then suddenly recognizes its pattern in a single case. The decisive moment is therefore selection. Microhistorians work decades in archives and they meet scores of individual cases, and in one of these, the only one that they write as microhistory, they recognize the whole. There seems to be self-similarity between total history on one hand (as an imagined, only latent and unrealized representation) and microhistory on the other (as a limited therefore realizable representation). In this approach the fractal-like nature of microhistory is not chance or unbelievable coincidence, but lang=HU reasonable necessity.

            This idea about recognition is cleary platonic. Plato thinks that cognition is the soul’s recollection to eternal ideas. As he writes in Phaedo: ‘we remember afterwards the things which we know previously to our birth.’ [xxiv] When microhistorians recognize the whole in a part, I would not suppose it to be the experience of their souls earned before their births in the background, rather the sudden crystallization of their experience earned as a researcher, the realization of something hitherto obscure, the flame of intuition lit suddenly following a long preparatory phase.

            This phenomenon is descriped by the American pragmatist philosopher, Charles S. Peirce as abduction. We look for a theory, he explains, taking our staring point in facts. We proceed by a ‘trial and error’ method, we do not make random guesses, however, but use our intuition instead. Abduction is a sudden regrouping of hitherto unconscious information into a new form. lang=HU [xxv] So I would like to suggest that microhistory is born by way of abduction, based on the phenomenon of  self-similarity .


            Finally, to demonstrate that I do not think that I have solved any theoretical problem, and I am only trying to introduce fresh elements into an old discourse, let me make another suggestion. It was fifteen years ago that I found documents about the scandalous life of a Hungarian noblewoman, a case which I intend to write as microhistory once I shall have amassed some more decades’ experience as a researcher of her age. I spoke to Simona Cerutti seven years ago in Paris about my chosen approach that I compared to the making of a mosaic. It the mosaic, although they outline a rough picture when seen from afar, individual stones are homogeneous. Similarly, I plan to treat different sources separately from each other, analyse them with the adequate methods - so to say without trying to erase the sharp dividing lines separating the little building stones of the narrative and without making any alterations to them in order to compose a harmonious overall picture from the originally heterogeneous components. This may be a way to resist the temptation of creating a ‘biographic illusion’. And then, seven years ago, Simona Cerutti called my attention to Arsenio Frugoni’s book ‘Arnaldo da Brescia in the sources of the twelfth century’, a book which had realized my project - back in 1954. [xxvi]

            Should microhistory be then compared to a fractal or to a mosaic? Maybe to both of these - or even to a puzzle, after all, as any genre of history, provided we alter that metaphor a bit. We could say that historians are not trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, but their job is to manufacture its pieces. If they observe their duty not to contradict their sources, these will be pieces of an incomplete puzzle. They present therefore a stronger intellectual challenge to readers than literary works, and this is quite important for the long-time survival of the discourse of history as a cultural practice of Western civilization.

            Puzzle, fractal or mosaic? Pondering about these issues is just intellectual reflection, a discourse on a discourse. We should at one point proceed to the archives and write microhistory instead of thinking about it. Similarly to what Pierre Bourdieu observed: ‘Those who increase methodical care to compulsiveness, remind me of Freud’s patient who always cleaned his glasses but never put them on.’ [xxvii] So let us put our glasses on.


[i]Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997) p. 89.

[ii]Ewa Domanska, Encounters. Philosophy of History after Postmodernism (Charlottesville - London, 1998), pp. 19., 26-27. (An interview with Hayden White.)

[iii]Antal Bókay, Irodalomtudomány a modern és a posztmodern korban [Literary Critisim in the Modern and Postmodern Period] (Budapest, 1997), pp. 133-134.

[iv]Gabrielle M. Spiegel, History, historicism, and the social logic of the text in the middle ages, Speculum 65 (1990) pp. 59 ff.

lang=HU [v]Joyce Appleby - Lynn Hunt - Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York - London, 1995, first edition:1994) pp. 247-250.

[vi]Evans, op. cit., p. 112.

lang=HU [vii]Ibid. p. 249. Elsewhere in his book, however, he insists that ‘objective historical knowledge is... attainable.’ (Ibid. 253.)

[viii]Bókay, op. cit., 145. (About Wittgenstein’s similar view: ibid. 259.)

[ix] Giovanni Levi, Az életrajz használatáról, Korall No.2 (2000 winter) (originally: Les usages de la biographie, Annales E.S.C. 44 (1989), pp. 1325-1337), p. 82.

[x] Pierre Bourdieu, L’illusion biographique, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales No. 62/63 (June 1986), p. 69-70.

[xi]E.g. according to Frank R. Ankersmit, postmodern history in characterized by a focus on small things, its literary form and narrative character. Its results are not to be confronted to each other, and it has given up the hope to get to know the past . Among the examples he enumerates works of Natalie Zemon Davis, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carlo Ginzburg and Georges Duby. Italian microhistorians, however, defy this categorization. (Carlo Ginzburg, Mikro-Historie. Zwei oder drei Dinge, die ich von ihr weiss, Historische Anthropologie 1 (1993) pp. 189-190. )

[xii]See e.g. Carlo Ginzburg - Carlo Poni, The name and the game: Unequal exchange and the historiographic marketplace, in: Muir-Ruggiero (eds.), op. cit., pp. 7-8; Giovanni Levi, On microhistory, in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, 1991), p. 95; Bernard Lepetit, De l’échelle en l’histoire, in: Jacques Revel (ed.), Jeux d´échelles: La micro‑analyse à l´expérience (Paris, 1996), pp. 71-94; Jacques Revel, Micro‑analyse et construction du social, ibid. pp. 15-36; Matti Peltonen, Clues, margins, and monads: The micro-macro link in historical research, History and Theory 40 (2001), pp. 347-359.

[xiii]E.g. Riceur thought so in 2000. ( Paul Ricoeur, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris, 2000), pp. 276-277.)

[xiv]Chaos theory is describing the areas of nature that can be characterized by simple non-linear differential equations. (Gyula Muraközy Gyula, A káosz elmélete és tanulságai [The theory and the lessons of chaos], in: Nikosz Fokasz (ed.) Rend és káosz. Fraktálok és káoszelmélet a társadalomkutatásban [Order and chaos: Fractals and chaos theory in social research] (Budapest, 1997), p. 58.

[xv]Ibid . 54.

[xvi]James Gleick, Káosz. Egy új tudomány születése (Budapest, 1999, originally: Chaos: Making a new science (Harmondsworth, 1988)), p. 122.

[xvii]Muraközy, op. cit. pp 58-59; Gleick, op. cit., pp. 122-123.

[xviii]James Gleick: Káosz. Egy új tudomány születése. Göncöl Kiadó: Budapest, 20002104.

[xix]Nikosz Fokasz - Ákos Kopper - Máté Maródi - Gábor Szedenics, Az európai nemzeti és regionális vasúthálózatok fraktáljellegér?l [On the fractal-like nature of the national and regional railway networks in Europe], in Fokasz (ed.), op. cit., pp. 266-267.

[xx]Lajos Nyikos - László Balázs - Róbert Schiller, A kubizmustól a fraktálizmusig [From cubism to fractalism], ibid., pp. 245-255; Kenneth J. Hsü, A zene fraktálgeometriája: a madárdaloktól a Bach-fúgákig [The fractal geometry of music: From birds’ songs to Bach’s fugues], ibid., p. 298.

[xxi] Donald McCloskey writes about the applicability of the thinking of chaos theory in history building on the characteristic of sensitive dependence on initial conditions (Donald N. McCloskey, A történelem, a differenciálegyenletek és a narráció problematikája [History, differential equations and the problem of narration], ibid.

[xxii]Lajos Für lang=X-NONE , A berceli zenebona, 1784. Kísérlet a történelmi pillanat megragadására [The tumult in Bercel, 1784: An attempt to seize the historical moment] (Budapest, 2000).

[xxiii] Charles Joyner is quoted by Crandell Shifflett’s review on Gary W. Gallagher (ed.), The Fredricksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock (Chapel Hill - London, 1995) on H-CivWar, September 1995.

class=MsoEndnoteReference> lang=EN-US class=MsoEndnoteReference> lang=EN-US 12.0pt;font-family: [xxiv] lang=EN-US Plato, Phaedo, style='color:black'> style='color:black'>, trans. Benjamin Jowett.


[xxv] Edward Muir, Introduction: Observing Trifles, in: Edward Muir - Guido Ruggiero (eds), Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe (Baltimore  - London, 1991) pp. viii, xviii-xix; cf. Thomas A. Sebeok - Jean Umiker-Sebeok, ‘You know my method’: A juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes (Bloomington, 1980).

[xxvi]Arsenio Frugoni, Arnaldo da Brescia nelle fonti del secolo XII (Roma, 1954).

[xxvii]Pierre Bourdieu lang=HU -  Jean-Claude Passeron - Jean-Claude Chamborderon, Le Métier de sociologue (Paris, 1968), pp. 16f , quoted by Ute Daniel, Kompendium Kulturgeschichte. Theorien, Praxis, Schlüsselwörter (Frankfurt am Main, 2004, first edition: 2001)  p. 179.