Emma Rothschild, "An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France over Three Centuries" (Princeton UP, 2021)


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Emma Rothschild’s new book, An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France over Three Centuries (Princeton University Press, 2021) (see the book’s accompanying website here: https://infinitehistory.org), is a beautiful work that, by following the lives of one obscure family over five generations, weaves together a history of France through the momentous revolutions and economic transformations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this conversation, Emma talks to Yi Ning Chang about the puzzles of writing micro-, meso-, and macrohistory, about the literary and the historical, and about what it might mean for the historian to treat every historical story as one of potentially infinite possibilities.

Marie Aymard was an illiterate widow who lived in the provincial town of Angoulême in southwestern France, a place where seemingly nothing ever happened. Yet, in 1764, she made her fleeting mark on the historical record through two documents: a power of attorney in connection with the property of her late husband, a carpenter on the island of Grenada, and a prenuptial contract for her daughter, signed by eighty-three people in Angoulême. Who was Marie Aymard? Who were all these people? And why were they together on a dark afternoon in December 1764? Beginning with these questions, An Infinite History offers a panoramic look at an extended family over five generations. Through ninety-eight connected stories about inquisitive, sociable individuals, ending with Marie Aymard’s great-great granddaughter in 1906, Emma Rothschild unfurls an innovative modern history of social and family networks, emigration, immobility, the French Revolution, and the transformation of nineteenth-century economic life.

Rothschild spins a vast narrative resembling a period novel, one that looks at a large, obscure family, of whom almost no private letters survive, whose members traveled to Syria, Mexico, and Tahiti, and whose destinies were profoundly unequal, from a seamstress living in poverty in Paris to her third cousin, the cardinal of Algiers. Rothschild not only draws on discoveries in local archives but also uses new technologies, including the visualization of social networks, large-scale searches, and groundbreaking methods of genealogical research.

An Infinite History demonstrates how the ordinary lives of one family over three centuries can constitute a remarkable record of deep social and economic changes.

Yi Ning Chang is a PhD student in political theory at the Department of Government at Harvard University. She works on the history of contemporary political thought, postcolonial theory and race, and the global histories of anticolonialism and anti-imperialism in Southeast Asia. Yi Ning can be reached at yiningchang@g.harvard.edu.

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