The World in a Speck of Dust?
What can we learn from an unknown person of the past?
By Pilvikki Lantela, PhD candidate in the Faculty of Social Sciences.
In my research I investigate the late Finnish evangelist Martta Kaukomaa (1895-1992). She was an active member first of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, then the Pentecostal movement, and finally, The Evangelical Free Church of Finland. She preached, wrote books and poems, yet in collective memory, she is not a legend. No national fame, no movement after her, no biographies. Unsung, unknown.
In a seminar, a fellow researcher asked me a legitimate question. Why had I chosen this particular person as the protagonist of my study? Had she done something significant? Was she widely known in Finland?
I was caught off guard, immersed in microhistorical thinking. In microhistory, people are not picked because of their fame, or their political or cultural significance. Quite the opposite: microhistory often focuses on the unknown, on underlings and oddballs. I had grown to take this orientation for granted.
But why study someone with no apparent significance?
Even a very ordinary life reveals something of its time, place, and culture — the ideas and mentalities of the time. A life story opens up a window to a past, alien world. It clarifies what the past was like. No historical era has been just about those in power making important decisions in cabinets or drinking tea in fancy rooms. Much of life happened in kitchens and hallways, in streets, in bars, by the fire. Through the letters of Martta, I glimpse how to furnish a Finnish house in the 1920s and 1930s. I hear of the alcohol policies and the differing opinions of the day. I can decipher how ordinary life in Savonlinna felt during the Second World War.
Ordinary people experienced and lived through big, significant historical events and changes, such as wars, battles, genocides, cultural shifts, and technological inventions. In fact, common people had a significant influence on our history. They were no marionettes of faceless historical forces; they made choices. They were the agents of their own lives and therefore, of the whole world.
When you look closer at Martta, you notice she wasn’t just an ordinary woman. She was pretty boldly living against many expectations of a female of her time. Yes, she was a wife and a mother. Concurrently, she was actively travelling, preaching, and teaching in the 1930s and onwards. In the era of feminism and the #metoo movement, we easily forget how much more unequal women’s and men’s life opportunities were in the recent past. Let me remind you of the context. Women were ordinated as priests in the Lutheran institution as late as 1988. Yet before the post-war era, the Pentecostal movement had room for female preachers and maybe partly because of this, Martta was active in the movement throughout the 1940s.
As one of the fathers of microhistory, Edoardo Grendi, has said, the “exceptional normal,” the peculiar, always reflects the normal as well. It challenges the ordinary and reveals some of its boundaries. For this reason, it is worth looking at unknown, peculiar, even eccentric persons.
So, if someone asks you a question about your research that seems irrelevant or funny, think again. It might make you clarify and justify your research more transparently.
Roman Tales, by Thomas V. Cohen, was an inspiration and backdrop to this reflection.
Pilvikki's researcher profile >
This blog entry was written as an assignment for the course TUKO1111 Writing in English, offered on a regular basis by the Graduate School of the University of Lapland.