Microhistory


The Minutiae of Everyday Life

Sunday 7th November 2021.

Preface

Daily life involves a wide range of tiny, minor details. Not just for me but for everyone. Small things have to be done every day to ensure our survival, health and comfort. Our fitness, sustenance, cleanliness and domestic duties are based on routines that have to be performed each day. Most days for most people include housekeeping, chores, laundry, gardening, pet-keeping, shopping, visiting relatives, childcare, taking the kids to school – all of which I have done myself at some time or other. Our daily routines are made up of sleeping, resting, socialising, entertaining, cooking, cleaning, laundering, bathing and many other things that we all do every day to stay fit, healthy and contented.

The Minutiae of the Past

Such details have not traditionally been of interest to historians in the past. Traditional history was concerned with battles, wars, great events, great individuals, world-changing events and things that were of importance and significance to the times in which those historians lived. Now, archaeologists are uncovering an increasing amount of information about the daily lives of ordinary people. Science has enabled archaeologists to dig more deeply into the dust and debris of the past to reveal what people did long ago and how they went about their daily lives, cooking, eating, growing crops, disposing of their dead, treating diseases and injuries, constructing their houses and disposing of their domestic waste. These are all details that help us to understand how people lived centuries before us. The amount of information that archaeology has uncovered, from even thousands of years ago, is truly amazing. We know a lot about life in Pompeii because excavations there have been going on for a very long time. More and more detail about the ordinary life of its citizens have been unearthed from the many feet of ash from the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius that set the town in ‘stone’, some two thousand years ago. This evidence has enabled archaeologists to put together a detailed picture of how people lived prior to the destruction on 24th August 79 AD. We know what food the inhabitants ate. We know what time they got up and started work. For example, most people had their main meal of the day at around four p.m. It has been suggested, from examinations of the skeletal remains, that women ate a different diet from men. 3

Eating, Sleeping and Having Sex

Men tended to eat more expensive fish while women dined on animal products and locally grown fruit and vegetables. This suggests that men were more economically active than women. Access to food was differentiated by gender, the researchers concluded. As one of the report’s authors said, “Males were more likely to be directly engaged in fishing and maritime activities, they generally occupied more privileged positions in society, and were freed from slavery at an earlier age providing greater access to expensive commodities, such as fresh fish.” Eggs, figs, nuts and apples featured in the diets of wealthier residents. For others in the city there was a reliance on what we now call ‘fast food.’ The streets provided many bars and cafes that provided people with meals they could not cook at home. Bread was an important staple in Pompeii and its production from grain has been studied extensively. Grapevines thrived on the fertile slopes of the volcano. Wine was an key industry in Pompeii along with olives. Hazelnuts and almonds were also common. The importance of water has been examined. 1 Some of the largest houses had their own water supply and water fountains also provided a source of clean water for washing and drinking. Findings from digs have been confirmed by writings that have survived from that time, particular those of Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder.

We know how people dressed from drawings and paintings made at the time. Carvings also show how people dressed. 2 We also know something about the sex lives of the inhabitants from murals on the walls of some of the buildings. Everyday life for most people has often involved rituals. In today’s world rituals still exist, as they did in the days of our ancestors, but today these are different. Some are part of a religion or faith. The culture of a community always has traditions that are observed by the majority of people or by certain groups or classes of people according to their social status. Some of the things that people do on a regular basis are not strictly speaking rituals; they might just be habits or customs that are typical of their community or family group. Life is a series of routines and most of us do them without thinking. We take such things for granted. It is only when things go wrong, when disasters happen, that there are disruptions to our routines. Then we are reminded just how important those things are to us.

Of Wood and Trees

Many people like to see the bigger picture and dislike getting bogged down in details. When we read a novel or watch a film we want to follow the story. Too many details might get in the way, especially if they are not obviously relevant to the plot. Critics have slated movies for offering too much detail. But without such details, it is often difficult to understand what the author is telling us. This becomes very important in novels and films about the past. Modern writers love to research stories set in the past in order to achieve a respectable level of authenticity. Stories set in the past thrive on detail. Modern audiences are far more educated about the past than ever before and do not accept portrayals that lack convincing authenticity. Several documentaries on British television have revealed what life used to be like in previous decades of the twentieth century and, in doing so, have shown us how the minute details of everyday life have changed. Other programmes have revealed what life is like in countries abroad that many might not have visited. The great thing about television is its ability to transport us to worlds we have never visited and to show, in considerable detail, what life is like there for the average individual. That is realism. People like me are fascinated by it. In my writings, I have said what life is like now for the benefit of future generations. Much of what we regard as being mundane and trivial today might become of interest in the future. By the same token, we are often fascinated by the details of everyday life of our ancestors. Young people today are taking thousands of photos with their mobile phone and uploading these to a variety of social media platforms. One wonders if these will still be viewable in centuries to come when people might want to see images of life in the twenty-first century. How much more interesting life in the past would be if those living in medieval times had cameras. They did not and all we have today are their drawings and sketches that evoke how they saw life around them. I do sometimes wonder if people are more interested today in what is ordinary than they have been in the past. In some of my journal articles I have written about microhistory as a way of looking at both at the past and recording the present. Microhistory is all about the minutiae of everyday life in the past.

New Words

When writing this article, I discovered a word I had not seen before: quotidian. It is an adjective meaning ‘of or occurring every day; daily.’ According to one source on Google, ‘Quotidian is a fancy way of saying “daily” or “ordinary.” Quotidian events are the everyday details of life. When you talk about the quotidian, you’re talking about the little things in life: everyday events that are normal and not that exciting.’ Not that exciting to whom? Something that is quotidian is ordinary, everyday and commonplace. Not exciting but very interesting. I can see some archaeologists getting very excited about discovering a tiny, minor detail about life in Pompeii. If it tells them something they did not already know and if it has a broader significance in understanding the life lead by the residents almost two thousand years ago. another word (or rather phrase) I came across was ‘self-tracking’ – an activity carried on by people called ‘self-trackers.’ 4 Another word I had not seen before was ‘life logging’ which I found alongside ‘quantified self.’ New to me. I had my own words for such things when they were important to me in the past. People who track their own lives in considerable detail do so for a variety of reasons. Some do it because they wish to exercise more control over their lives. For others, it is part of their academic interests. Apps are being written for people who want to do such things. Some electrical devices allow people to watch their health and fitness. According to writer and software engineer Mark Koester, ‘Tracking and personal observation date back centuries. You can find strands of self-improvement through self-examination in both Ancient Greek and Ancient Chinese philosophers. Proceeded by the confessional writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Victorian era was notable for the proliferation of personal diaries and journals, which allowed for a narrative format of self-reflection.’ 4

It seems that people today are able to record considerable quantities of information through the devices they have, such as their mobile phones. Much of this is lost because they either feel no need to keep it or because they die and all their personal information is destroyed. The amount of data collected on individuals today is amazingly large. It serves a purpose while it lasts – mainly to those who wish to sell things. Data is a central part of modern commerce. Health and fitness, in the physical sense, is now accompanied by the ability to monitor mood, emotions, location, movements, travel and time. Some people use devices to collect data about their sleep. Our banks keep large quantities of data about our financial transactions. These are part of our everyday lives in the modern world. We can track ourselves and organisations and business track what we do. Millions of people now log on to social media platforms and post all kinds of thing about themselves. Even I do that. I know a lot about people I follow on Facebook; much more than I want to know and much of it I swiftly skim through and move on to the next post. Too much information is perhaps the best motto of the digital age.

I have been keeping a detailed diary this year; next year’s diary is already on my shelf. This year I have been completing my daily diary entry as I went through each day. Previously I used to write each day’s entry the day after. I found that too many details were lost because I had forgotten about them. So, now I write as the day goes by. That is easy because my diary sits on my desk alongside my keyboard and writing in it is not difficult. That is on days when I am at home. If I go out anywhere, for any length of time, I usually take a notebook with me and record what I did. Those notebooks are kept as adjuncts to my main diary. Take for example, going to a gig. I would not want to write everything about a gig in my diary; space is too limited to do that. Now I take a notebook and write what I found interesting about the event for any article I plan to write and also make notes about what I drank, what I spent and who I met. When I looked at my diary for 1968, I found many entries that listed the names of people I met when I was at the pub. No information was entered about who those people were; I assumed that I knew who they were and why they were important enough to have their names recorded. Fifty-three years later, I have no idea who many of those people were, why I knew them or why they were important to me at the time. That was information that was lost. But it gave me a habit of being more accurate when making notes. If I think it worth saying who I met, then I am now more likely to say why this person was important to me and how I knew them. Recording the past requires discipline. It requires techniques. One learns how to do it by practice and through experience. There has to be a methodology for writing records; it cannot be based on common sense.

Using Results

Do we use this information to make changes to our lives? If I look back at the data I gathered about myself in previous years, I can say that I did not use much of it. As I have argued in recent articles, life is chaotic and subject to chance. No matter how much we plan our lives, they are subject to random events and serendipity. Much of what changes our lives is down to luck or accident. Serendipity often refers to something fortunate that happens or to something that is good. That depends on how we react to an event. It might present us with an opportunity that we can make good of. But not always. It might appear to be good fortune at the time but it might later prove to be something we came to regret. Collecting information about our lives might allow us to be more in control but only if we use that information and use it to good effect. People record all sorts of information for different reasons; some of which are just nostalgic. People often record things they did for the first time. Most people rely on their memory but, as we know, that is not always reliable. That is why so many people take photographs of things they regard as being important at the time. Now that most people have mobile phones with cameras, it is easy to take a snap of something or somebody. Even I take photos of things to mark an event which I could easily have recorded by pen. If I throw something away (dispose of an item I have had for some time) I might take a photo of it, knowing that the picture will have the date and time embedded in it. That is much easier than writing down that I threw something out on a specific date. Being able to recall good times and good things helps us when we are down or depressed. Not something that affects me these days but I am sure it must have happened when I was young. Some memories remain forever; but they can be amplified by records either written at the time or pictures taken with a camera. People have kept letters they have been sent; I have done that. When I wrote letters by hand I used to keep carbon copies of them. That was long before computers were invented and, in those days, personal letters were not typed. Today it is common for people to take photos of the meals they eat, often at restaurants but even on special occasions when dining at home. After I have baked a cake, I might take a photo of it so that I can see what it was like. If something really important happens to me, in the future, I will want to record as much as it as possible. The worse scenario is being involved in a serious accident and being unconscious in hospital for a period time, unable to make notes. That is something that fortunately has never happened to me. I might complain that I am spending too much time writing about my past and not enough about the future. Easily said but not as easy when it comes to putting it into practice. The future is very difficult to predict. My future is set and there is little I can do about it. In my article called Where Next?, I wrote about where I might live in the future, if I ever get the opportunity to move out of Leicester. My future depends, like everyone else’s, on what happens in a world heading towards the catastrophe of global warming. Do we have a future? I cannot be sure because too many things are going wrong in the world, too much of the time.

Conclusions

It is clear from the above, that I regard the minutiae of every day life as important. It has been important to me but it is also of increasing importance to historians. Recording tiny details of life is far from easy. We take such things for granted and hardly know what they are. My diaries are full of details but many of them are not recorded clearly. I wrote things in my diaries that I understood at the time but the significance of which was forgotten many years later. Going through my diaries is like archaeology – I have to search through masses of details in order to discover who someone was or why an event I referred to was important. To be good at recording the details of everyday life, we have to be careful and meticulous in our approach. It is very easy to record too much information just as it to miss details that should be important but will be lost if we do not think carefully about what we are doing.

Explorations In Microhistory. J. Thursday 6th June 2019.
Writing About the Future. J. Sunday 7th July 2019.
Explorations In Microhistory 1. J. Monday 26th August 2019.
Corporations and the Future of the World. J. Friday 15th November 2019.
Climate Change and Global Warming – the Big Picture. J. Sunday 3rd January 2021.
Chance – Meditations, Reflections. J. Friday 8th October 2021.
Where Next? J. Monday 25th October 2021.
Preserving Your Personal Past. J. Thursday 4th November 2021.

Footnotes

1 See the article at https://www.pompei.it/pompeii/daily-life-pompeii.htm which gives a lot of information about life in Pompeii.
2 I looked at: https://study.com/academy/lesson/daily-life-in-pompeii-herculaneum.html
3 This comes from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/08/210825143108.htm – a study by the University of York in 2021.
4 Self-trackers is the subject of this article: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191202-can-lifelogging-really-help-you-live-more-intensely. I also looked at: http://www.markwk.com/why-people-self-track.html