Professor Cipolla’s new book puts one in mind of a Florentine espresso: minuscule in size; briefly stimulating in effect; and extortionate in price. At £7.50 for 85 pages of text his readers will be shelling out eight pence a page, a tariff which, I couldn’t help but calculate, would have put my own first book in the shops for around £65 a copy. Not for nothing, then, is he renowned as the most economical of economic historians, specialising in small books on big subjects – literacy, population, technology and the like. Many of these have brilliantly succeeded in dealing with complex historical problems within the space of a nutshell. In this case, however, the shell is altogether more imposing than the nut.
The book comes expansively inflated with puffery in two styles: the High (or Reverential) Puff and the Low (or Fastidious) Puff. The High Puff asks us to believe that the book ‘is of immense historical importance’ as ‘it presents a picture of the real life of ordinary people who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population of pre-industrial Europe ... on whose shoulders the high civilisations of the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Enlightenment were built.’ In other words, without taking into account the plague victims of a Tuscan hill village in 1630-1 – or by extension, anything that ever happened to anyone at any time between 1400 and 1800 – our contemplation of Michelangelo, Bernini and Voltaire is callow and impoverished. The Low Puff refers more tactfully to ‘spare’ prose and ‘deft’ strokes, evoking the warbling of the piccolo rather than the swell of the Vox Humana.
I should in fairness add that for your £7.50 you get three appendices (one transcribed from an earlier work); a bibliography of 15 items, thoughtfully printed in very large type and stretching over two pages; lists of contents and figures taking a page apiece; and a good deal of while surface area all contributing to take the page-count into three figures. Professor Cipolla helps this along by interpolating between his more strictly historical observations strangely delphic utterances of the sort one usually associates with Christmas crackers: ‘loneliness is the price a man has to pay when in a position of power’; or, in more cybernetic vein: ‘there are people who because of their biomass, physical dignity or psychic energy easily assert their authority on others.’ Apart from ruminations on biomass deficiency, there are the obligatory frequency diagrams designed to translate the perfectly obvious into the statistically awesome, and illustrations which are verbally recapitulated in the text. But all the cladding and padding and wadding and stuffing can’t conceal that this is a very short book about a very small town over a very brief period in time. To be blunt, it is a footnote cranked up into a Cecil B. De Mille production.
Given the extreme simplicity of the episode recounted, even 85 pages seem a bit luxurious. Far from Professor Cipolla telescoping its details he has elongated them into a historical shaggy-dog story with a correspondingly inconclusive pay-off. Its outlines can be summarised semaphorically in the manner of those invaluable contents lists in 19th-century history books. Plague hits Tuscan village of five hundred souls in 1630; Florentine Health magistracy puts formidable Dominican in charge of quarantine; opposition from truculent inhabitants who resent their already rudimentary subsistence further confined by irksome restrictions on movement; resurgence of petty crime; mortality recedes with winter cold; monk departs; plague revives early 1631; mayor fails to enforce regulations, dies in harness; monk recalled as attempts to ban religious procession meet with angry resistance from local priest and populace; procession goes ahead; quarantine stockade at one of the city gates vandalised at night; outraged roving commissioner summons insomniac busybody who claims to have witnessed the misdeed but (it being night) fails to identify culprits; witness rather than vandals thrown in jail until story believed; culprits undiscovered, plague recedes again; monk departs again; commission concluded inconclusively; end of story.
Professor Cipolla fleshes out these bare bones with some striking characterisation, but much of it is of the kind sneered at by historians when they encounter it in historical novels. When unsupported by anything except the most circumstantial evidence, there is invariably a resort to the emphatic and the imperative: ‘While he rode at an early hour towards the castello, he must have been thinking about those Monte Lupans’; ‘he must have been inquisitive by nature’; ‘like so many talkative people ... Pandolfo must have felt pleasantly self-important.’ Similarly, when the action threatens to flag, Cipolla stokes it up again by imaginative use of dramatic hyperbole, generally of the Mills and Boon variety: ‘He had not slept at all during the night and now in less than 24 hours he had experienced the whole gamut of emotions ranging from excited curiosity to the heights of euphoria down to the depths of terror.’ Since this refers not to attendance at a witches’ sabbath or an auto-da-fé, but to the busybody’s nocturnal snooping, followed by his informing and subsequent cross-examination, the reader might be pardoned for thinking Professor Cipolla’s threshhold of excitement rather lower than average. At the very end of the tale the ghost of the immortal Edgar Lustgarten walks again (scripted by Monty Python): ‘Who broke down the stockade at Monte Lupo? Was Pandolfo lying when he swore he had not recognised the evil-doers? And what role was played by the carpenter? These are questions that must remain unanswered.’
If the devotee of history-as-thrills is not likely to find much in this book to set his spine tingling, can the scholar learn anything fresh? Given the immense literature on plague and its social impact (to which Professor Cipolla has made distinguished contributions, but on which the massive volumes of Jean Biraben might be thought to have said the last word), it is hard to see that the Monte Lupo story is much more than a minor if picturesque addition to our knowledge. It comes as no surprise to discover an individual cleric like the Dominican Father Dragoni transcending the disputes of Church and State over the stringency and propriety of prophylactic regulations, and enforcing the wishes of the latter rather than the former. Humanist or even monastic clergy throughout plague-stricken Europe often gave their Christian pastoral duties a higher priority than they gave to traditional rites, usages and customs. One important aspect of the Counter-Reformation Church was precisely this kind of attack on popular ceremony. Nor is it startling to find no positive correlation between religious processions and plague mortality. Ever since Creighton’s classic history it has been supposed that by far the most common (albeit not exclusive) agents of transmission were, not other people, but the fleas of Rattus rattus.
Carping aside, the most depressing aspect of this offering is what it implies about the pigmification of historical scale. The time has long since passed when historians dealt exclusively with the grand scenarios of power: the life and death of empires and nation states; their wars and revolutions, diplomacy and business. It was a salutary corrective to turn instead to the history of the unsung masses, and from the most recalcitrant and ostensibly ephemeral sources, ingenious and gifted historians such as Richard Cobb, Olwen Hufton and E.P. Thompson have produced masterpieces of historical reconstruction in which the lives of the obscure and the downtrodden are given the front of the stage. There was, and is, a serious purpose in viewing élite culture and its politics from the perspective of the common individual struggling to survive. But this is not the same thing as assuming that all historical events have an equivalent call on the historian’s attention, or that any scrap of evidence, however inconsequential, which is capable of being written up with a modicum of imagination and literary competence demands rescue from oblivion. On the contrary, much of it could do with being sent straight back there. The indiscriminate celebration of the humdrum threatens to dissolve history into a random aggregate of disconnected episodes, anecdotally related. And the result of such a process is not merely the substitution of a mosaic comprised of myriad, imperfectly fitting chips of the past for a possibly over-coherent picture of Great Events, but an invitation to study the individual fragments as though they each were miniaturised versions of the whole. This ‘microcosmic’ view – the absolute opposite of Febvre’s and Braudel’s equally unattainable ‘histoire’ tolate – is in effect a neo-pointilliste heresy of immense positivist vulgarity. Its premise must be that history is comprised of discrete actions and events, each as worthy of study as the next, since each contains within it some element of the universal. At the most banal level – Tolstoy’s preference for the cosmic significance of the ear of ripening wheat over the cosmic significance of Napoleon – this is necessarily true. But to conclude, for example, that a study of the distribution of Bolshevik posters in Plotsk is quite as important as a study of the Petrograd Soviet, is tantamount to a declaration of war on causal explanation: a relapse into egregious relativism.
It is time, perhaps, to reinstate the significance of significance. Or is it too quaint to insist that the historian’s work involves explanation and argument, and that this necessarily entails an evaluation of evidence? And that only when such evaluation, comparison, selection, is undertaken can evidence be brought to bear on a predefined problem or a preconceived hypothesis? Has there been such a loss of nerve among historians that they now swallow uncritically the social anthropologist’s dictum that to describe is to explain? For ‘thick description’ can mean thin understanding, if what is being thickly described has lost its anchorage in the larget measures of time and space.
The signs of a creeping Montaillou syndrome are ominous. The local, the anecdotal, the parochial, the gossipy and the intimate, threaten to tyrannise historical fashion quite as thoroughly as the public, the national and the political once did. As the demand for ‘readable’ history becomes a hunt for the scraps and shards, the rags and bones of evidence, from which a good yarn might be knocked together, the historian is in danger of becoming a kind of beachcomber among the casually washed-up detritus of the past. If this goes further we shall revert to what we were before Thucydides had grander ideas: bardic tellers of tales, ministering to a culture terrified by the fragility of the contemporary, and seeking in chronicle an inverted form of augury. Or, less apocalyptically, we may end up as minor entertainers in light prose. Should that happen, the High Puffer’s boast that it ‘more history books were written like this they would drive novels off the market’ will be put to the test. And on the evidence of this kind of tittle-tattle, it will be history, rather than the novel, which will meet with a rude comeuppance.