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Empty trash. Buy milk. Forge history.

To trace the great arcs of civilization, historians tap the humble list

(Andreas Praefcke)
By Gal Beckerman
June 5, 2011

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On the eve of their marriage in 1682, Hans Hürning and Barbara Herrenmann, like all German couples of their time, invited a local official into each of their homes to catalog every single one of their possessions. The resulting list was exhaustive. It included not just their land and livestock, like his 3 hens and 1 beehive, but every article of clothing (his new calfskin trousers, her old black taffeta bonnet), assorted household goods (1 fire-bucket, 1 grain-husking basket, 1 dung-fork with iron tines), and even the wooden items she made while apparently planning her future (1 diaper-chest without ironwork, 1 cradle). It’s something to behold, a total catalog of a human’s belongings captured — as perhaps only the Germans could — in a meticulously organized and scrupulously detailed list.

Three hundred years after Hans and Barbara made their lists, a graduate student named Sheilagh Ogilvie began searching through the archives of central German villages for a dissertation topic. In every town she visited there would inevitably be reams of such lists, and she was shocked to find how pervasive and untouched these household inventories were. They had been produced by the local municipalities at marriage and death from at least the 17th century onwards, and in many cases nobody had looked at them for centuries: The sand used by scribes to blot the ink just after writing would often fall out onto her lap.

At the time, there were simply too many for her to try to research. But three years ago, armed with computing capabilities that did not exist in the 1980s, Ogilvie — now a professor at the University of Cambridge — began an ambitious project to process every one of the thousands of lists from two towns in the Württemberg region, beginning with the year 1602 and up until the late 1800s.

What has emerged so far is not just a glimpse of German life over three centuries, but also confirmation of a theory of Europe’s economic development. The team has already gone through 28,000 handwritten folios, representing 460,000 separate items of property and their monetary values, and by providing this sort of granular detail into what people owned from 1600 to 1900, Ogilvie has been able to track the beginning of consumerism. When did women start buying butter and beer at the market, instead of churning or brewing at home? When does the first nutmeg grater or coffee cup appear, indicating the arrival of exotic goods? Or for that matter, when do villagers start wearing an imported cotton fabric like calico? These small indicators lend support to a new understanding of the period before the Industrial Revolution, when historians like Ogilvie posit that there was an “Industrious Revolution,” increased consumption of luxury items that led to a desire for more income, changing people’s working habits and spurring the creation of faster, more efficient production models.

A household list might seem a fairly modest starting point upon which to build a whole theory of economic development. But in fact these types of lists are becoming increasingly important to historians — documents produced not as a message to posterity, like a memoir or diplomatic record, but as a simple snapshot of everyday life. Taken as a group, lists offer a rare window into the building blocks of society, economy, and culture — one that is becoming only more valuable as historians gain the processing power to make sense of them.

“Something as innocuous as a list turns out to be incredibly fruitful if you bring both a sense of historical questions and context,” said Kris Inwood, a Canadian historian who has been examining the many lists contained in the medical records of soldiers who served the British Empire. “You also need, of course, a methodology to know what to do when you get all these lists. But if you bring all these tools to it, you will find real meaning in them.”

We all make lists all the time, of course: The simple act of itemizing things on a piece of paper is nearly universal, if only because we all sometimes need help remembering what to get done around the house. Even if we don’t realize it, these personal lists are also discrete sets of information — traces of data, however ephemeral, about our lives.

For historians, this is exactly why they matter. Throughout history, officials have kept track of property in order to levy taxes. Similar inventories have been carried out locally, as in Germany, to keep track of inheritance. There are also lists, both private and official, of debts owed. And the official censuses of countries or parish registries or military “muster rolls” often contain information beyond just names and ages.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, before powerful computers arrived to help with the task of storing and organizing large databases of information, historians, particularly of economic development, have sought to combine their qualitative approach with a quantitative one. New academic centers and groups emerged with this new focus — in Britain, the Centre for Quantitative Economic History; in France, the Annales School; and in the United States, a group called the New Economic Historians, or Cliomatricians. Computers have now allowed historians to use lists even more systematically in order to get at broad trends over time.

All of these lists become the raw material for researchers to test out big historical theories, such as, in Ogilvie’s case, the idea of an “Industrious Revolution.” She wanted to see if the increased consumerism that began in the rich northern European countries like England and the Netherlands in the 17th century, and helped fuel the coming industrial explosion, was an anomaly. Could the same patterns be observed in countries like Germany that lagged economically about a hundred years behind? The lists, with their micro-data, allowed her to confirm that this stage of development was more universal.

“We’ve gotten up to the 1730s and we are just starting to see our first coffee cups now,” said Ogilvie. “In England and the Netherlands, these exotic drinks, tea and coffee, appear in inventories after about 1650, along with things like calico garments, early cotton, little silk garments. So for 80 years when you should have been seeing these things were it an English or a Dutch or Flemish home, we are not seeing them in our German homes. But now we are. That’s consistent with the hypothesis that this kind of consumer and industrious revolution happened in Germany, but it happened a lot later.”

Tracy Dennison, at the California Institute of Technology, is another academic using lists to help understand the evolution of a particular social universe, in her case the institution of serfdom in Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dennison is looking specifically at the 3,000 serfs who lived on a rich estate 200 miles north of Moscow, owed by the wealthy Sheremetyev family. She looked at all the documents produced by the estate from 1750 to 1860, including lists of all serf property that were created in order to assess them for taxes. Even just a cursory glance, Dennison said, upends our sense of serf society as uniformly impoverished. The categorized list of their dwellings range, she said, “from two-story houses with tile roofs to small wooden huts with thatched roofs.”

One of the lists Dennison looked at came about when the owners of the estate became suspicious of the amount of clothing their serfs owned. A decree was issued, which accused the serfs of having, as Dennison put it, “several changes of the nicest clothing while at the same time being in arrears on their taxes.” An inventory of all the serfs’ clothing was established and new rules enacted that put strict limits on the number of headscarves, coats, etc. that any family could have if they had not paid their taxes in full.

“These lists help us answer so many questions,” Dennison said. “What kind of stratification was there in this society? What sort of economic possibilities and consumption possibilities even within the constraints of a serf system? Was there was market penetration in the countryside?”

Sometimes lists prepared for one reason also contain secondary information that provides a great unintended store of material. Such is the case in the ambitious survey being carried out by Leigh Shaw-Taylor at Cambridge. He is trying to get a clearer picture of the occupational structure of England in the centuries that preceded the Industrial Revolution — like Ogilvie, to get a better idea of what triggered it.

But before a certain point in history, it’s not easy to find out what people actually did for a living. The British census only started systematically recording occupations in 1851, so Shaw-Taylor began scouring all kinds of other lists. There are the baptism records contained in England and Wales’s 11,400 surviving parish registers, which from 1813 were legally required to include the father’s occupation. One source for 1520 is a “muster roll,” a list of men fit for military service. Alongside descriptions of whether they own a horse or bow and arrow, the muster roll lists their jobs. And Shaw-Taylor is making use of an earlier set of lists, made in 1379 when the unpopular Poll Tax was instituted to pay for military campaigns overseas. On the county-by-county catalogs of people who owed this tax, occupation is often listed.

Shaw-Taylor is now eight years into this research and he envisions another decade of work to get the complete broad sweep, but already his findings — gleaned from these lists — have altered historians’ sense of the chronology of important economic shifts.

“It turns out that less than half of the population was working as farmers in 1700, much earlier than people previously thought,” Shaw-Taylor said. “This means that major structural change preceded the period when modern economic growth really got going. The conventional knowledge was that this change in people’s occupations came only as economic growth took off. Actually it’s quite clear that it began happening more than a hundred years before.”

The study of history has always been a battlefield between the “great man” approach that puts the likes of Napoleon and Stalin at the helm, and the notion that history is pushed along by more pervasive social and cultural forces, perceptible even in the smallest of gestures and habits.

For people concerned with those broader movements, lists offer important ammunition. In all that accumulated information contained in inventories and tax lists and muster rolls are the raw material of everyday life. And not only do the lists provide a historical trace of people whose lives might have otherwise gone unrecorded, they also furnish evidence of those tectonic changes by documenting tiny shifts — say the first purchased coffee cup in a Black Forest village.

Inwood, the Canadian scholar looking at British medical records, said the significance of the lists he is working with is that it is the first time in history that large numbers of people from all over the world — both native-born British and the aboriginal populations like Maoris and South African bushmen — were undergoing the same type of medical scrutiny. The result is long lists of height and weight, for example, that can be compared and give a much clearer sense of divergent living conditions in the 19th century. It is a portrait of an empire that could only be captured in the form of a list.

“It gives a balanced view of society,” Inwood said. “You do see in these lists the rich person, you will see the politician who books are written about. But you also see the people who don’t show up any other way.”

Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, ”When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was published in September and was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post.