Cheese Is Not the Answer

There are many ways to be small.

But when historians talk about little history, it strikes me that they often mean the village study, the regional history, the family, individual, building, or object. They mean ‘micro-history’, which finds its opposite in ‘macro history’.

On the other hand, they might even mean chronologically small. See the  wave of recent work on specific years, or even days in history.

But I’ve been thinking about a different kind of small, and because I couldn’t make sense of it, I thought the best thing to do would be to blog about it.


The idea was prompted by an enjoyable book by Tom Gash about solutions to contemporary crime problems. The book was a present, given to me by a family member who had heard I was teaching a course on the history of crime.

Now I have no idea if Gash is right about crime and crime prevention.

I’m not a specialist in contemporary crime, and my interest in the history of crime is in another country (France) and from a different angle. I can’t prevent, and I don’t seek to judge, crime in the past. I’m interested in how it worked. I want to know why people committed a specific set of crimes to do with belief in magic, and how the criminal justice system dealt with that.

But Gash’s overarching argument stopped me in my tracks. To brutally oversimplify a complex book, he suggests that we get crime all wrong, focusing either on a view of society with Heroes and Villains, or one that sees crime as a consequence of social deprivation. For Gash, and the researchers he draws on, preventing crime is much less about these big – scarily big – problems (inequality, human nature), and more about little things.


It’s about how easy it is, for instance, to hotwire and hop on a motorbike, and ride off.

If that becomes more difficult, even for a simple reason, such as mandatory safety helmets, then stealing motorbikes becomes much less common. This, Gash points out, is what happened in Germany between 1980-6.

These are the kinds of arguments that might remind readers of British newspapers of ‘nudge’ or ‘nudge theory’, associated with the ‘British Behavioural Insights Team’. I’ll quote an old Independent story about the kinds of things they were known for:

The example they gave which has attracted most publicity – not because it is the most important, but because it is so wacky – is the success story of the public loo in Amsterdam airport where men were nudged into urinating in the pan, despite the many distractions which were apparently spoiling their aim. This small, but desirable, improvement in male behaviour was achieved by painting a picture of a house fly on the porcelain. The quantity of misdirected urine is said to have fallen by 80 per cent.


This sounds amazing.

Its appeal to me as a historian is the power it has to overturn how people in the past assumed crime and deviance worked. It is suggestive of new – perhaps more finicky – narratives of why people did things that were so obviously dangerous, and so rarely of any benefit to themselves or others.

But perhaps it is too good to be true. Nudge – a quick Google reveals- is not without its critics.

But I’m not interested in the efficacy of these theories in the present. I want to know if there are examples from the cases I’m looking at. Perhaps – my mind races! – there are factors – no, I don’t know what they are yet: ability to ride a bike, fondness for cheese, smallness of shoes! – that help to explain why witchcraft (my interest) became a source of violence in some places in France and the colonies, but not in others. Perhaps there are small factors that similarly explain why the courts treated crimes of witchcraft differently at different times and in different places.


But that’s where I hit a wall.

Although empirical work on contemporary crime, Gash writes, is lamentably thin on the ground, it’s even harder to do for nineteenth-century France. Blind studies were beyond the methods of the criminologists, police, and courts I research. Not a control group in sight.

And what would the small things in this little history be? If crimes really were affected by small changes, wouldn’t some contemporaries have noticed? I don’t think cheese is the answer, but I don’t know what to look for.

Well, that’s historical research I guess.

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4 thoughts on “Cheese Is Not the Answer

  1. Great post. I wonder if the problem is the search for an independent variable itself? That is, if we do X, then Y will follow. Doesn’t microhistory, like history, recognizes there are a lot of factors that fall out when one focuses on the big narrative? The congeries of factors are more true, help us understand/explain better, but is less likely to impress the policy maker who must explain to the public why doing X will cause Y.

    As for cheese-witchcraft, I give you the following, from The Daemon of Burton. Or A true Relation of Strange Witchcrafts or Incantations lately practised at Burton in the Parish of Weobley in Herefordshire (1671) “She had in her Cheese chamber many Cheese upon Shelves and a Bag of Hops in the same Room, one night the Cheese were all laid in the Floor in several formes and the Hops all strewed about the Room” (2); “And the Cheese were sometime convey’d by night out of the Cheese-chamber, and put into the Trines of Milk in the Dairy-house” (3). One of the lamer incantations, I’ll admit.

    Liked by 1 person

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