One of my interests is attempting to understand what human experiences were like for individuals in the past. I want to learn about their day-to-day lives, their fears, their aspirations and what their world view was.

Does a field of study which attempts to document and convey human experiences across periods and demographics exist, and what is the name of this field? The closest I have been able to find is social geography, but that seems to be a rather poorly defined field with little emphasis on historic experiences.

5 Answers 5


There are a number of relevant approaches, with some subtle differences:

  • Microhistory, most famously perhaps Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324. Here is the idea is to focus on a narrow geographical and temporal time-frame, typically a village. Alain Corbin's Le Monde retrouvé de Louis-François Pinagot, sur les traces d’un inconnu, 1798-1876 goes one step further and attempts to be the “biography” of a randomly chosen 19th century man (the idea is intriguing but at the end of the day there aren't many sources and the book ends up being as much about his village, his area, his family, and his profession as it is about him as an individual so it's really a prosopography rather than a biography).
  • Social history looks at the life of regular people and socio-economical structures rather than what's called “la grande histoire” in French (i.e. wars, politics, dramatic events and famous people). Here the focus is not so narrow and the authors sometimes offer generalisations, up to the 5 tome Histoire de la vie privée edited by Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, which attempts to describe daily life from the Roman Empire to the 20th Century.

    During the last decades, social history moved from a primary focus on economical issues to a stronger interest in culture and representations (histoire des mentalités including much of Duby's work). Works like Corbin's (which is sometimes called histoire des sensibilités) therefore also include a lot of material on sensory experience (colours, smells, noises) that seems particularly relevant to your question.

(I do not mean to suggest that it's restricted to the French-speaking historiography but it seems particularly active there and that's what I am most familiar with so that's what I covered in my answer. Fortunately some of these books have been translated to English and you can use Wikipedia to find other interesting references.)

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    I would add the history of everyday life. Histoire du quotidien for the French variant and Alltagsgeschichte for the German variant. Jul 29, 2015 at 13:38

Just as I was posting that question and looking for a tag, I saw social-history appear as a suggestion. Sure enough, Social History describes what I am looking for:

Social history, often called the new social history, is a broad branch of history that studies the experiences of ordinary people in the past.

I have recently started reading the English translation of The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller, which documents detailed aspects of the life of a Friulian miller of that time. It describes itself as a work of Microhistory, which might also be a fitting term, although that term is perhaps not confined to individuals' experiences.

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    Yes, I think social history is the best broader category, but they are often interested in broader "structural" transformations over time, at a higher scale and level of analysis. Since the 1980s, the development of micro-history, or, especially what is called in German "Alltagsgeschicte" (English Wikipedia description: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alltagsgeschichte ) has really pioneered the study of individuals and their daily lives.
    – kmlawson
    May 1, 2015 at 16:37

There are many books written about this but I am not sure that there is a name for the "filed of study". For example, Carlo Ginzburg, Cheese and worms. The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/cheese-and-worms

There are also many books, mostly in French which have "Daily life" in their titles, like

Edmond Pohnon, La Vie quotidienne en l’an mille, 351 p. rééd. en 1992.

Here is a similar book in English:

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World" by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

It is not only about ordinary people but ordinary people are included.


"History from below" is an example of attempts to write the history of ordinary people. This particular approach was a reaction by leftwing historians against the prevailing interpretation of Marxist history, which viewed people as the passive vessels of economic forces.


An excellent source for the late 12th and up to mid 13th century in southern France might be the translations of the inquisition against Cathars led by Pierre Fournier, for example "Montaillou" by E. Le Roy Ladurie.

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