Keith Wrightson


On his book Ralph Tailor’s Summer

Cover Interview of December 23, 2011

The wide angle

In researching and writing this book I did not set out to test any particular theory or promote any particular historical interpretation.  The project began with the accidental discovery of a rich cache of material relating to the Newcastle plague of 1636, and the part that Ralph Tailor played in it. It developed as I tried to elaborate upon that initial find by identifying and exploring further sources relating to the plague.

To this extent the book was driven by the sources and by my curiosity about how they could be used to recapture the experience of the plague more fully than had previously been attempted.  In trying to do that, I found that the many records generated by the plague also provided a point of entry to the society and culture in which it took place.  I hope the end result says something distinctive about the impact of plague, but it also says something about households, neighborhoods, social networks, the urban economy, living standards, religion, social memory, litigation, the role of scriveners in a partially literate society, people’s senses of time and place, their emotional palettes, and much more.

All this can be done in a relatively short book because methodologically it is a “microhistory.”  It is an intensive study of a particular event and place, using all the available forms of evidence.

The reduction of scale and intensity of focus involved in microhistory facilitates closer scrutiny of the sources. It allows one to explore things otherwise inaccessible, to notice things previously unobserved, to find unexpected connections and experience unanticipated insights. It can reveal more fully the social structures, networks of relationships and webs of meaning within which people in the past lived their lives.  It makes possible a more vivid, multi-dimensional, apprehension of the “lived experience” of the past.

Throughout the book, I tried to involve the reader in the dialogue between the historian and the sources: introducing the evidence, putting it in context, posing questions, and exploring interpretative alternatives.

And I adopted a narrative form—though not straightforward story-telling.  The book’s narrative is analytical, an explanatory process as well as a sequence of happenings.

The basic structure is provided by the course of the epidemic itself, and by Ralph Tailor’s activities.  Those interconnected stories, however, are punctuated with explanatory and contextual discussion. I found that using short chapters, and alternating narrative and analysis both within and between them, was the best way to sustain the momentum of the book, while at the same time explaining events, exploring particular dimensions of the experience of the plague, and reflecting on their meaning. The chapters are intended to be units of sense, by which I mean stages in the gradual unfolding of a meaningful analytical narrative.

In the course of my career I have alternated between large scale, big sweep, history, and microhistorical studies of this kind.  Both have their place, but work of the latter kind gives me most satisfaction.