Introduction: What is microhistory?
The Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. These six words immediately begin to conjure up all types of imagery in our heads. For some, the most immediate thought is of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. For others, the rampant Inquisition sweeping through continental Europe is the first event brought to mind. The historical basis of these two incidents are highly debatable, but nonetheless they still hold paramount place in popular belief. One thing that does not immediately come to mind for most people is the affects this utter doctrinal turmoil had on the philosophy of the ordinary population. Rarely in history do we get an insight into the minds of normal people, especially without some sort of influence from above. Carlo Ginzburg gives us this insight with his field-defining masterpiece ‘The Cheese and the Worms’. The reason this book is such an iconic example of microhistory, and one that will later be examined on this webpage, is because it perfectly showcases the religious beliefs of sixteenth-century peasants in their highly chaotic environment. Ginzburg examines the small to contribute a whole new dimension to the whole, and this is the very foundation of what the term ‘microhistory’ means.
Microhistory is the study of a very small, well-defined focal point. This could include a very particular event, an individual, or even a small community. One must then ask themselves a very simple question: why? What exactly makes microhistory a worthwhile field of research? History tends to focus on the large – the Reformation, nationalism, the World Wars. But all of these studies are made up of countless smaller pieces of a jigsaw. The Reformation would have been drastically different if not for the widespread promotion of simonies. Nationalism would have followed a different path if not for the increased education of ordinary Europeans. And the true horror of the Nazi regime can only be understood through case studies of places like Jedwabne in occupied Poland. In short, we need to understand the small if we wish to see the large. However, sometimes microhistory can go beyond illuminating understood historical truths. In 2006, Icelandic microhistorian Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson commented that ‘Micohistorians tend to focus on outliers rather than looking for the average individual’ (Gylfi Magnussonm, 2006). When outliners to established history are uncovered, it can actually challenge broad historical assumptions. According to Georg G. Iggers, microhistory exists because ‘social scientists have made generalizations that do not hold up when tested against the concrete reality of the small-scale life they claim to explain’ (Iggers, 1997).
Microhistory therefore plays two crucial roles – firstly, it contributes to large-scale history, and secondly it challenges and alters wider historical assumptions.
In comparison to other historiographical approaches, microhistory is actually relatively young. In 1887 two brothers, Adam and Charles Black, argued the importance of ‘local and our family historians’ to modern understanding of the past (Black, 1887). The first explicit use of the word ‘microhistory’ did not come until 1959, when an American scholar named George R. Stewart wrote a book entitled ‘Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Charge at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863’ (Stewart, 1959). In over 300 pages Stewart described in minute detail the events of this single, 15 hour battle. He described Pickett’s Charge in incredible detail, despite the fact that it only lasted 20 minutes. However, it was in the period between 1970 and 1990 that microhistory truly established itself as a mainstream field of study. According to Giovanni Levi, this was due to a new focus on social rather than economic history from the 1970s onwards (Levi, 1991). Microhistory then stepped into the limelight to offer new insights into the social interpretations of our past. In the next twenty years works were published that are today widely accepted as some of the greatest microhistories to date, including the contributions of Carlo Ginzburg and Robert Darnton. In the 1980s and 1990s microhistory also became increasingly important to some historians (especially in France) who began to use it as a way of analysing cultural histories, often through examining historical individuals. Around this time, two Germans named Alf Luedtke and Hans Medick developed a new branch of microhistory entitled Alltagsgeschichte, which focused on how everyday culture had impacted large social and political movements.
Over the past fifty years microhistory has become a leading historical discipline. It has captured public attention and perfectly complements modern interest in the history of culture and society. In the twenty-first century the small has become bigger than ever. Microhistory, therefore, is now more important than ever.
- Black, Adam, and Charles Black. “The Brocas Book.” The Edinburgh Review, Volume 166, page 235, July 1887.
- Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Johns Hopkins University Press (New Ed edition), 1992.
- Ginzburg, Carlo, and John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi. “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Autumn, 1993): 10-35.
- Gylfi Magnussonm, Sigurdur. “What Is Microhistory?” History News Network, 7 May 2006. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/23720.
- Iggers, Georg. Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge, page 107. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.
- Levi, Giovanni. "On Microhistory." In New Perspectives on Historical Writing, edited by Peter Burke, 93-114. University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 1991.
- Stewart, George R. Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Oxford University Press, 1959.
Microhistory is the intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual). In its ambition, however, microhistory can be distinguished from a simple case study insofar as microhistory aspires to "[ask] large questions in small places", to use the definition given by Charles Joyner.
Microhistory originally developed in Italy in the 1970s. According to Giovanni Levi, one of the pioneers of the approach, it began as a reaction to a perceived crisis in existing historiographical approaches.Carlo Ginzburg, another of microhistory's founders, has written that he first heard the term used around 1977, and soon afterwards began to work with Levi and Simona Cerutti on Microstorie, a series of microhistorical works.
The word "microhistory" dates back to 1959, when the American historian George R. Stewart published Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack on Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, which tells the story of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Another early use was by the Annales historian Fernand Braudel, for whom the concept had negative connotations, being overly concerned with the history of events. A third early use of the term was in the title of Luis González's 1968 work Pueblo en vilo: Microhistoria de San José de Gracia. González distinguished between microhistory, for him synonymous with local history, and "petite histoire", which is primarily concerned with anecdotes.
The most distinctive aspect of the microhistorical approach is the small scale of investigations. Microhistorians focus on small units in society, as a reaction to the generalisations made by the social sciences which do not hold up when tested against these smaller units. For instance, Ginzburg's 1976 work The Cheese and the Worms – "probably the most popular and widely read work of microhistory" – investigates the life of a single sixteenth-century Italian miller, Menocchio. The individuals microhistorical works are concerned with are frequently those Robert Tristano describes as "little people", especially those considered heretics.
Carlo Ginzburg has written that a core principle of microhistory is making obstacles in sources, such as lacunae, part of the historical account. Relatedly, Levi has said that the point of view of the researcher becomes part of the account in microhistory. Other notable aspects of microhistory as a historical approach are an interest in the interaction of elite and popular culture, and an interest in the interaction between micro- and macro-levels of history.
- ^Joyner, C. W. Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture, (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1999), p. 1.
- ^ abcTristano, Richard M. (1996). "Microhistory and Holy Family Parish: Some Historical Considerations". U.S. Catholic Historian. 14 (3): 26.
- ^Levi, Giovanni (1991). "On Microhistory". In Burke, Peter. New Perspectives on Historical Writing. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp. 93–94.
- ^Ginzburg, Carlo (1993). "Microhistory, Two or Three Things That I Know about It". Critical Inquiry. 20 (1): 10.
- ^Ginzburg, Carlo (1993). "Microhistory, Two or Three Things That I Know about It". Critical Inquiry. 20 (1): 11.
- ^ abcGinzburg, Carlo (1993). "Microhistory, Two or Three Things That I Know about It". Critical Inquiry. 20 (1): 12.
- ^Magnússon, Sigurdur Gylfi (2003). "'The Singularization of History': Social History and Microhistory within the Postmodern State of Knowledge". Journal of Social History. 36 (3): 709.
- ^Tristano, Richard M. (1996). "Microhistory and Holy Family Parish: Some Historical Considerations". U.S. Catholic Historian. 14 (3): 26–27.
- ^Ginzburg, Carlo (1993). "Microhistory, Two or Three Things That I Know about It". Critical Inquiry. 20 (1): 28.
- ^Levi, Giovanni (1991). "On Microhistory". In Burke, Peter. New Perspectives on Historical Writing. Cambridge: Polity Press. p. 106.
- ^Tristano, Richard M. (1996). "Microhistory and Holy Family Parish: Some Historical Considerations". U.S. Catholic Historian. 14 (3): 28.
- ^Tristano, Richard M. (1996). "Microhistory and Holy Family Parish: Some Historical Considerations". U.S. Catholic Historian. 14 (3): 27.