Nobodies and Perverts

Who is the most boring individual in my doctorate? It seems a good time to reflect, having just passed my viva (it feels good! In fact, I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I was expecting.)

The backstory. One of the (foolhardy) things I did to research my thesis was attempt to identify a large number of nineteenth-century rural men and women. I wanted to know something about the lives of the shepherds and shopkeepers, postmen and poachers, housewives and midwives who sang songs and told stories to the folklorist Félix Arnaudin.

In some cases this was easier than others. One chapter of my thesis explores the life of a joiner who became a clerk later in life, combining information from his first and second marriage certificates with an analysis of the kinds of folk tales he told. Another chapter of my thesis took a similar approach to a female legend-teller who lived almost one hundred years in the farmhouse she was born in, eventually inheriting it and taking over the management of her family’s sheep, crops, and trees.

But I am haunted by the others, the men and women who, for want of a more original term, I could call the silent majority. I know when many of these people were born. Sometimes I know who they married, when they died, or what jobs they held. But among the 759 entries in the database I created to keep track of my unsung heroes, there are some whose birth certificates I could not even find. There are people whose ages, occupations, and names remain uncertain. People who are hardly people at all in any meaningful sense.

I’ve been thinking about the most uninteresting of this great mass recently even more than ever, for two reasons. The first is a conference I attended on using individuals for historical research a few weeks ago ( and the second is an odd experience that was a kind of epilogue to an archive visit I made in August (

The conference is easier to explain: it was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the importance and rationale of studying the lives of individuals in the past, and prompted me to revisit one of my favourite books, Alain Corbin’s Life of an Unknown. The English title is much better in my opinion than the French Le monde retrouvé de Louis-François Pinagot (The rediscovered world of Louis-François Pinagot). ‘The life of an unknown’ gives a hint of what Corbin wanted to do: choose someone deliberately boring, someone for whom no amazing source survives, one of my people who are not people.

Take, for example, Étienne Baleste, known as Noun (1838-c.1881) a labourer who told two tales in the 1870s, which I mention in my thesis. Noun could read and write, he served in the army, and married once, in 1863. He had three children with his wife, Marie Dumartin. And that is it, all I really know of his life.

Well. All I know except for the stories he told: a tale of a blacksmith who outwits the Devil and a tale of a fox and a wolf. But the historian eager to find out what Noun was like won’t find much in these stories, either. In fact, they rather closely resemble stories told my many other men and women to folklorists all over rural Europe, and in the parts of the rest of the world where European settlers carried these traditions. I can speculate about what the harsh world of these tales had to do with Noun’s own difficult existence – after all, he died aged just 43 – but what do we really learn of the man?

And, I’ve also been wondering, what should we know of him?

I read a great post by Julia Laite on this problem this week ( She worries that resurrecting the lives of individuals from the past can be disrespectful, even risking ‘outing’ them. And this is a question that has been particularly bothering me since my last day in the archives in Strasbourg in August.

As I sat eating my breakfast in my hostel, I was conscious someone was watching me. I didn’t think much of it: when you live in a town like London, you develop a different sensitivity to looking at other people, or being looked at, a different threshold, and I am conscious that this threshold is higher in other places, where studying a stranger’s face on the bus, or at breakfast, might well be acceptable behavior.

But as I made my way out onto the street with my bags, the man who had watched me at breakfast followed.

All very well. No doubt he had somewhere to be as well.

My route to the archives was never particularly busy. Strasbourg has a great tram system which scooped me up near the hostel and dropped me a short walk along the river to the new archive building. Fairly quiet as this route was, it was obvious to me almost immediately that the same man was following me to the tram stop.

I decided to do a little experiment, based on years of cheap thrillers and spy movies. I hid myself on the tram platform, behind a ticket machine, and waited for the tram I wanted. When it arrived, I stayed hidden, waiting until the last possible second to jump on to the end carriage, where I positioned myself with a view down the train.

There could no longer be any doubt. As the train pulled away, my follower rushed into my carriage, clearly looking for something… And saw me, watching him. He looked unsettled.

What to do now? I didn’t want to get off at my normal stop. The walk along the river would be deserted, and I had no idea why this man might be following me. I remembered the terrible story of a Canadian man who had severed a stranger’s head on a bus a few years ago. I am nothing if not melodramatic.

So I decided to get off one stop early, and try to shake my tail. A few minutes later, I succeeded, rounding a corner slightly out of breath, and ducking round another sharp turn. I wandered on to the archives and spent my last few hours looking for conscription records.

So what?

Well, it isn’t a pleasant feeling being followed, even when you have no legitimate grounds for concern. I don’t research the secret police, I am not an activist in a repressive state, I’m not having an affair with someone who is married. Yet being followed for no reason at all is just downright unsettling. I quickly developed a resentment of this man. I felt he was invading my right to be me, unscrutinised by strangers.

So how would Noun feel, more than a hundred years later, to find himself ‘starring’ in the conclusion to my thesis? My intention is to give people like him a role in history, to show how their experiences were different from what historians know about the middle- and upper-class individuals that dominate our history books. But I never got Noun’s permission. He never asked to be the hero of my version of events.

Here’s me, with my academic self-image built on theoretical justifications, but what makes me better than a man in a dirty mackintosh? How much of our appetite for history is OK! Magazine for the intellectual snobs?

I do think there is a difference, to do with questions of social significance. Noun matters to me because of what he represents: an entire class of people, the population of a region transformed by dramatic environmental and social changes. But in a sense, this might not make things any better: “Don’t worry, Noun, it’s nothing like that. I’m not interested in you because you mean anything to me as a person. You just stand for issues of wider importance… Oh, isn’t this your stop?”


3 thoughts on “Nobodies and Perverts

  1. Really enjoyed your thought-provoking post, Will – yet another!

    Thinking about your final assurance to Noun: “Don’t worry, Noun, it’s nothing like that. I’m not interested in you because you mean anything to me as a person. You just stand for issues of wider importance…”

    I too search obsessively for people locked up for some time in Yarmouth Gaol. As a historian, I’m concerned with the historical issues they can illustrate, for sure. But they do mean a lot to me as people. Maybe it’s because in the records they are objectified – as offenders, prisoners, convicts and so on. What makes me love the research is trying to recover them as people – their passions, hopes, dreams. ‘Recovery’ has been out of vogue since the onset of the linguistic turn. Of course we can’t bring our subjects back to life – we’re not resurrectionists – but we can breathe some life back into their histories. For me, that means getting up close and personal with them. We have to stay committed to the idea of recovery even while acknowledging it’s an impossible dream.

    Congratulations again on your doctoral award!



    1. Thanks, Helen! And I totally agree: there must be some value to recovering lives as well as illustrating wider issues. Sometimes I worry that biography (even of the unorthodox kind) does not earn much respect from academic historians tho…


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