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.
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.
At 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.
St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo
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