Elizabeth and Tom Cohen: ‘Community is linked by sacrifice’

Elizabeth Cohen and Thomas Cohen are experts on early modern Rome and its hinterland, cultural anthropologists of everyday life with particular interests in lower-class women, gender and the micropolitics of family, neighbourhood and village. Here, they talk, primarily, about the aims, rewards and pitfalls of microhistorical methodologies. (27-3-2011)

David Rosenthal: You both are committed in some sense to a form of history that has been described as microhistory, now four decades old though according to many historians still packing a punch. Tom, if I can quote you back at yourself from Love and Death in Renaissance Italy [Chicago UP, 2004], you said “microhistory charms and discontents, magnifies and baffles”. So I wonder if we can explore that a little. How have microhistorical methods changed, where are they going, what are they still telling us about community?

Tom Cohen: What I like about microhistory, as a strategy for representing the past, is how we try to bring the reader as close as possible to the complexity of a world. In doing this we ask the reader to experience the world as it was experienced and to see the structure of the world as it was structured – which are two very different things. It takes a kind of double vision, from both inside and outside. And this process of seeing what was complicated and had many different textures, facets and rhythms requires a kind of knowledge that is close to total – it’s sensory, kinetic, auditory, physical every sense should be engaged to understand the real world as it was. That kind of double inquiry raises many questions, and also leads to a variety of knowledges, which you might think of as analytic and exterior and structural this is the “outside” understanding or, for the “inside”, as experiential or “embodied”, as they say these days.
      Both kinds of knowledge pose terrible problems. The problem of experiential knowledge is that our instincts belong to us, here and now they are hardly universal, and we are feeling our way towards a world that is both very different and only half visible. One of the things I like to do with microhistory is evoke a world, but at the same time caution the reader that we actually know so little. That sense of being there, on the street among people, of dealing and reacting, that we reach for when writing in a novelistic mode, is very seductive. Microhistory seduces us into thinking we can go there easily, but a really good microhistory tries to warn us that we are up against the problem of otherness. I like to evoke that strange conflict between being there and not being there.

Elizabeth (Libby) Cohen: What distinguishes between what you think you’re doing verbally and on the page, and what a history filmmaker is doing? You are very critical of film that has to represent visually all of those kinds of sensory data that it has no basis for.

TC: In my mind film in some way disempowers the viewer, because it tells you exactly what the filmmaker has to show you, the colours, shapes, movement, rhythms. They are given by the film and not open to interpretation. Film, by giving too much, robs the imagination. With microhistory, prose’s incapacity to fill the screen entirely frees and seduces readers to think around corners or fill in gaps, to find and ponder the unknowns.

EC: But perhaps also to make it up, just as the filmmaker did? What about the documentary problem, that filmmakers have no basis for deciding if the dress was blue or red or people were walking with small or large steps, all these things that they don’t even think of as historical data. But Tom does, when he tries to tease an experience out of a document. One thing about microhistory is that we are working with documents, like trial transcripts, that are very dense and allow a kind of microscopic enquiry but are in another way fairly confined. In order to get the density, you’re looking at a document that only shows you a couple of people in a particular moment.
      Microhistory does mean different things to different sorts of historians. A colleague who does Latin American history says they call microhistory something that I would say is closer to an ethnography or community study. In the Latin Americanist practice, looking at a single village, instead of a region or nation, becomes a microhistory, though it often draws on many different kinds of documents. There the document itself doesn’t collect the information you are looking at, as it does in, say, the judicial records that are the basis for the kind of classic microhistorical studies in the European tradition. If we’re thinking as early modern Europeanists, like [Carlo] Ginzburg and [Natalie] Davis, and so forth, for them a single complex record is often the core.

DR: With your own methods, you’ve brought out an idea of how communities operate at a very small scale, but with implications for a larger scale, in terms of power, or of identity.

TC: When scholars inquire into community, there’s a kind of push towards the idea of collective identity. One image of community that will come up asks what processes, what ceremonies, what exchanges, what images, allow a people, be it an entire city, a parish or a neighbourhood, to say, this is us”? Microhistory is interesting in that zone, because it often studies interpersonal relations and small-scale events, where community is just background and hard to see. Other sources, like chronicles or images of festivals, will stand back a bit, and say, this is the procession, the festival, the riot – and there we see community acting as one, collectively, with its boundaries, its centre, its rhythms. When you do microhistory you’re not looking at community as a community, but at persons in dense networks of exchange, and these networks converge on ganglia. As people act, they’re not acting as members of a community very much, but as somebody’s brother-in-law, somebody’s customer, enemy, friend, lover. What microhistory shows is what’s in the exchange, what is immediate, what is long term, implicit, explicit. You see people acting in these very dense social meshes that are characteristic of the early modern world. And one thing everybody knows about the early modern world is that the weaker the formal institutions – the weaker the state, church, banks – the more people are turning to one another to be banked, to be insured, cured, educated, defended. So early modern community in many ways is mostly seen not by its edges, not by its centre, but by that very dense interchange between its members.

EC: Implicit in what you just said is a meaning of “community” that I would distinguish from networking. I think there are, in some ways, two competing models for discussing the social. Community draws lines between us and them. It includes the notion that we are all inside something and share it, that all will say, at some moments, this is a “we” experience. Networks instead knit individuals into chains, often pragmatically, and don’t have boundaries. Certainly the stuff I’ve been talking about is probably better described as creating networks than as enacting and marking identities. Early modern Rome, for example, is probably more fluid in terms of community than some other early modern places. That doesn’t mean there were no communal bodies, or identities that people used, but they’re probably less consistent, at least compared with the picture we have in other Italian cities, where people are invoking more collective, communitarian identities more of the time than seem to be in play in Rome. Maybe it’s a special case, or at one end of a spectrum.
        Historians imagine the categories that work for the kinds of documents we have, different ones for different projects. Many very useful conversations about early modern communities reflect the kinds of corporate structures that generate the documents, and those in turn shape what we see and talk about. But a microhistorical approach sees past worlds from a different, more fragmented angle.

TC: To think some more about both what was on the social and institutional ground and about how to catch it, let’s look at what we do with trials. A trial is a very interesting, complex, almost-backwards telescope into a little piece of the world. It shows us the complicated transmission, onto paper, of real activities, exchanges, words said, out there in the real world. But we can’t go back there. The actual words and deeds are all brought to us in a very mediated way. So microhistory is not only about what people did, but about how people then took what they did and transformed it in a dialogue between what we could call the “state” and what we could call “society”, to use abstractions. Microhistory then looks both at institutions, and at the social world that institutions are not controlling but are in various tense dialogues with. In our work, for instance, the courts and the populace are using, shaping, and playing one another. I’m not sure we can say that we see “community” or “society”. In our trials, the Romans themselves seldom talked about such things.

EC: Romans did talk about neighbourhood, vicinato. So one thing to think about is what indeed is the language they used to talk about the groups that we’re interested in.

DR: In the course of these initial interviews, we have talked a little about the idea of social capital, of thick and thin trust, and community set out by the political scientist Robert Putnam, its advantages and flaws. Tom, you have been part of the most recent engagement with Putnam’s thinking by early modernists, with your piece about Rocca Sinibalda north of Rome, a village you’ve studied in depth [‘Communal Thought, Communal Words and Communal Rites in a Sixteenth Century Village Rebellion’, in N. Eckstein and N. Terpstra, eds., Sociability and its Discontents: Civil Society, Social Capital and their Alternatives in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Brepols, 2009, 23-50]. So I wonder how that debate is or isn’t meaningful to the approaches you have used.

TC: I read Putnam and I get annoyed, because he oversimplifies. He says they had community that was good, in the North, in the communes, and it was a shared activity that other people liked. I’m annoyed because I’m south of him – in Rome and the countryside around Rome in a world not much different from the North. But what I’m seeing is not that people “had” community, but that they made community, enacted community for some reason or other. It’s a bit like faith, like religion. One enacts confraternity, penitence, marvel, the whole Easter cycle, for instance. And we might say, “Well, that world is Christian!” But they also enact other things that are at variance with that, like family, like party. These enactments of community take great effort, they involve emotional mobilisation, the transformation of behaviour. One enters the communal sphere, just as one enters the sacred sphere. So one of my irritations is that Putnam is reifying community. He takes it as a fixed thing, rather than as a fluid, intermittent practice.

EC: He has his own agenda, constructing the Italian commune retrospectively to serve present-day purposes. He’s not meaning to be a historian of the commune. He simply takes a model that some people have offered him and used that. Also, there were multiple communities and people enacted different ones in different contexts, so a person was not simply part of a community that governed everything she or he did. That seems an overly social conformist model of how most people are operating. I prefer a picture of people, whether female or male, who have some agency, where ideas and experiences of community are real to them. But at a given moment they may mobilise one or another of the communities or identities to which they belong. And the people who respond to a claim on collective obligations or alliances, they also are agents. So it’s not like there is a set of rules – I say you have to do this for me because we’re in a community, and then people do what they’re told to. There’s much more negotiation around ideas of community. Sometimes it gets people where they want to get to, and sometimes they don’t choose to enact community in conventional ways.

TC: If I can go to the present British government’s notion of the community’s going to help pick up the dog poop. One of my problems with Putnam is that there’s a rosy glow around community. And in fact modern studies do say that where community is strong, life goes better, where community webs are strong, cities function better. But one of the things that is not strongly emphasised in Putnam is the cost of community, the emotional and social labour that goes into sustaining any communal enterprise, be it a family for which we make great sacrifices, be it a neighbourhood or a sacred society, a city. One sacrifices one’s safety, one’s life, one’s money. Community is linked by a great deal of sacrifice and self-abnegation. And people sacrifice things in expectation of reciprocity – and this can be very formal or clear, or very vague; the exchanges can be narrowband or wideband. So community carries with it the positive, and it also has considerable negatives, and there are real costs to belonging.
      So when I study my village of Rocca Sinibalda, the place is burning dissenters’ houses and then making them fall on their knees in church and say, “Please take me back, you’ve burned my house”. So one of the things I have seen with a village when it forms a popolo or commune is that to belong requires a certain amount of suffering, imposes suffering. That pushes me in the direction of Daniel Smail, and all his talk about hatred as a social institution, as well as towards the piece that Libby and I wrote for Locating Communities [“Postscript: Charismatic Things and Social Transaction in Renaissance Italy,” Urban History, 37, 3, 2010, 474-82]. There communities are not held together just by positive feeling but also by envy and hatred. An interesting example is the city of Rome today, which is held together by the hostility of the fans of Lazio and Roma, and it’s richer for that hostility. We are people who hate each other”, so to speak.

EC: If we imagine our own world, there are people who have entered particular ways of practising religion – Orthodox Jews or Christian monks, for example in part because it brings community. When they do so, they voluntarily agree to behave in certain ways that distinguish them and to give up things that may have been desirable in another context. So the sacrifice itself becomes part of the sense of belonging and of what makes you feel good about what you’re doing. In the early modern context overall, the option of not being in a community was probably less available. Yet in some places, like Rome, social identities may sometimes have been less clearly defined. There were more choices, including illicit ones, and people with more communities than, say, in Tom’s village. I don’t want to push the notion of agency too far, but I suspect people in these urban settings generally had more choices, and less clarity, and some may have felt a lack of community.

DR: Agency in fact has been an important idea for you, to move sideways now. A lot of your work has been about making women visible, and you have used the kinds of methods we have been discussing to do that. How has that work on women and gender changed our sense of how urban communities operate?

EC: The women I’m looking at are lower-class women and that makes a lot of difference. Upper-class women have become more visible, partly because they appear in more sources, and a lot of the historiography has gone to making them visible. That’s great. But there is also a long-standing discourse, particularly about Mediterranean societies, that women are invisible because they’re not allowed in the street. That’s only semi-true. But the presence on the street of upper-class women is very different from that of lower-class women, who are exposed to various risks associated with being female and unprotected, but it’s also a necessity for them. So I see them and try to portray them as trying to make the best they can with the modest resources they have. They are certainly visible. But they are also not doing the things that matter to many historians – so I find that it isn’t always easy to make scholars integrate the people I’m talking about. At one level or another they are inconsequential by the terms in which these discussions are usually conducted. Lower-class men suffer similar kinds of invisibility in some ways. In other words it’s not only about gender, but there’s a kind of double bind for the women I’m looking at. On the other hand, I do think that looking at the nitty-gritty processes of daily life tells you something about the way people lived and experienced their social environments, and in that sense I am doing microscopic history, looking at very small kinds of transactions. That’s absolutely essential, but it’s not going to tell us about politics or art. Women are out in public and their behaviour has public consequences – I find a dichotomy of public and private not terribly helpful for the early modern world – but most of my women are not making petitions or engaging with the public sphere in the governmental sense. In turn, women’s relatively weak participation in corporate relationships outside the family shapes my understanding of community. Acting locally, early modern women built and nourished alliances — and sometimes hostilities. Yet, with the exception of some religious and charitable bodies, we have little evidence of their identification with formal communities.

DR: But this work has changed our understanding of what was possible in public space, what women were actually doing, and about the operation of agency in early modern culture.

EC: Yes, that’s maybe one place the historiography has gone. My question is whether it’s turning back at this point. Early on, everything was very top down, and one looked at the institutional records to see what authorities were telling others what they ought to dofor example, to shape Counter-reformation souls. Later, social history and various other methods of history from below had a larger presence. I’m not sure at the moment where that’s going. I think in some ways cultural history, looking at representations of people rather than real people, may be participating in something of a shift that’s privileging people with the access to the resources to make and circulate representations. I don’t want to push that too far, but I have some sense that we’re in a slightly different mood than we may have been 15 years ago.

TC: The old political history was very top down. And the old social history, which was often bottom up, was given very much to structures and to the distribution of persons and resources in large numbers. And then there was the cultural turn in scholarship, which was representational, in which the people disappeared we just had ideas and images talking. Some of us historians now are seeing very clearly a shift out of that way of talking. Although we haven’t let go of representation, we want people back in. So we see in gender studies a great deal of interest in agency, and one form of agency is social or political action, but another form is self-representation. And then recently, talk of embodiment and the revived discussion of the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre’s ideas of space, is all very interesting, because what it’s doing, it seems to me, is moving some of us to thinking about how persons as agents were both representing themselves and constructing their environments. And, at the same time, we want to know how people in the past were perceiving those environments. Spatial talk still tends to think of space in a metric way. But the embodiment movement says, wait, space is more than what’s the shape of the urban space, the shape of the square or house. It’s also what does it smell like, do your feet get stuck in the mud, what do you bump into, what’s its texture, its quality of sound or light. So we have materiality. We can also mix into this general stewpot of where history is going the immense and growing impact of neuroscience, which none of us understand, but many agree must matter. So the move to neuroscience, which is very much under the impact of these potent new imaging techniques, gives us a sense that there must be something palpable in the human body, where it shapes our thoughts, some way of connecting the way the human mind works in itself with forms of action.

EC: To take that back to the early modern, I think that is actually disempowering agency. You’re more optimistic about people being present in the historiography that’s going in those directions. I’m less sure about that, I think it’s getting disconnected again. I’m impressed by my graduate students who are in “cultural history” space, and I say to them, we’re going to do a course in social history, and they say, What’s that? I think there’s level at which looking at social action, looking at making something happen, is not as central to the way some portion of history is being done at the moment. Tom’s optimistic notion is that you can do it all at once, but I’m not sure I would describe that as a wider pattern.

TC: Can I give you an anecdote. I gave a micro micro paper about three people naked in bed together. And Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, the historian of the entire world, was in the room – he’d given the plenary about thinking globally. The next day I’m in the elevator and we’re changing floors in the hotel. He’s in there, too, and he’s says to me, I loved your paper. But, I said, it was micro micro, and you are macro macro. I stepped out of the elevator and, as the doors were closing on this famous historian, he said to me, “Everything is macro.”

DR: Of course that was one of the aims of microhistory when it started, how you discovered something large from something small.

EC: Microhistory has been only variously successful at making that jump.


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