Decentering History: Local Stories and Cultural Crossings in a Global World

This essay was first presented at the 2010 Ludwig Holberg Prize Symposium in Bergen, Norway, where I, as the prize recipient, was asked to describe my work and its import for our period of globalization. The essay first traces the interconnected processes of "decentering" history in Western historiography in the half century after World War II: the move to working people and "subaltern classes"; to women and gender; to communities defined by ethnicity and race; to the study of non-Western histories and world or global history, in which the European trajectory is only one of several models. Can the historian hold onto the subjects of "decentered" social and cultural history, often local and full of concrete detail, and still address the perspectives of global history? To suggest an answer to this question, I describe my own decentering path from work on sixteenth-century artisans in the 1950s to recent research on non-European figures such as the Muslim "Leo Africanus" (Hasan al-Wazzan). I then offer two examples in which concrete cases can serve a global perspective. One is a comparison of the literary careers of Ibn Khaldun and Christine de Pizan in the scribal cultures on either side of the Mediterranean in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The other is the transmission and transformation of practices of divination, healing, and detection from Africa to the slave communities of Suriname in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.