The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News, Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603–1660
Un incident, une bêtise,La mort de votre jument grise
—Paul Misraki, “Tout va très bien Madame la marquise”
The historical landscape is undergoing a curious change. Amid the profusion of books about the usual subjects—founding fathers, gay culture, the public sphere, memory, the Holocaust, ecology, globalization, slavery, war and peace, sex and women—a new genre has sprouted. It is scattered across so many subfields that it has hardly been noticed, but it can be found everywhere, even on the front tables of bookshops and the “required” sector of reading lists for college courses. The genre takes the form of short books on dramatic events—murders, scandals, riots, catastrophes, the kind of thing that used to be the specialty of tabloids and penny dreadfuls but now comes out in hardcovers bearing the stamp of university presses.
Despite their sensational subject matter, these books represent a serious approach to history. They deserve recognition, perhaps even an appellation contrôlée. The best name I can come up with is “incident analysis,” because for all their variety, the books share one common characteristic: they focus on an incident, relate it as a story, and then follow its repercussions through the social order and even, in some cases, across successive periods of time. They pose dizzying questions: How can we know what actually happened? What delineates fact from fiction? Where is truth to be found among competing interpretations? And they leave their readers with a Rashomon effect: the past, when seen up close, looks more inscrutable than ever.
The best-known work in this genre and the one that has served as a model for many others is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (1983). It takes a dramatic incident—the trial of a peasant woman accused of cohabiting with a man who had passed himself off as her long-departed husband—and peels away segments of the narrative in order to uncover aspects of gender relations and peasant life in sixteenth-century France. It also explicates successive accounts of the affair, from the original court records right up to a current movie version. Natalie Zemon Davis served as a consultant for the film and even appeared in a bit part. But after collaborating in this reenactment of the event, she warned her readers that she could not solve the riddle at the heart of it—the inside story of the Guerre ménage—and she turned her book into a reflective essay on how an incident can be known and how it is refracted over time through successive modes of communication.
Two decades later, historians are still playing with the problems of getting to the bottom of their stories. But the game is now more serious. Many of the incidents concern the blackest aspects of the twentieth century, and the scholarly difficulties are compounded by a hunger for historical knowledge that is being felt with increasing urgency throughout entire societies. While survivors sort through their memories, new generations want to know the …