Thursday, June 22, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (2)

Any explanation of the character and procedure of microhistory as a discernible methodology must begin with the story of its earliest practitioners and advocates. Who initiated the microhistorical method, and why?

In 1993, seventeen years after he first published the original, Italian version of his now-classic work The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Carlo Ginzburg, with tongue in cheek, claimed to know “two or three things” about microhistory.[1] He recalls that he and some of his Italian colleagues associated with the journal Quaderni storici began using the expression microhistoria in either 1977 or 1978.[2] They saw themselves as pioneers.

What were they setting out to do? Ginzburg explains that in his case, he was studying Inquisitorial trials “in an attempt to reconstruct, in addition to the attitudes of judges, those of the men and women accused of witchcraft.”[3] In his archival research, he hit upon the remarkable, intriguing story “of a sixteenth-century Friulian miller who was tried and condemned to death by the Inquisition.”[4] He notes that in the Introduction to the original 1976 edition of The Cheese and the Worms, he “took issue with an essay by [Francois] Furet in the Annales in which he asserted that the history of the subaltern classes in preindustrial societies can only be studied from a statistical point of view.”[5] The book that Ginsburg had by then produced was, in effect, a practical response to Furet: “In reducing the scale of observation, that which for another scholar could have been a simple footnote in a hypothetical monograph on the Protestant Reformation in Friuli was transformed into a book.”[6]

But what exactly was the significance and utility of The Cheese and the Worms and other works like it? As Ginzburg details, what he and others were discovering was that a close-up look permits historians “to grasp what eludes a comprehensive viewing.”[7] In other words, a narrow, even microscopic probe can lead to a necessary revision of a standard macrohistorical narrative. Ideally, then, microhistory holds the potential to contribute substantially to what twentieth-century social historians called “total history.” As I see it, this was and is one of the method’s great promises.

Karl Appuhn captures the essence of the approach when he writes that microhistory “is a historical method that takes as its object of study the interactions of individuals and small groups with the goal of isolating ideas, beliefs, practices, and actions that would otherwise remain unknown by means of more conventional historical strategies.”[8]

Appuhn further explains that the earliest microhistorians were responding to a perceived weakness in the way that scholars had come to practice social history. Instead of establishing and describing “the broader economic, demographic, and social structures” that traditional social historians took as their subject matter, practitioners wanted to “rediscover the lived experience of individuals.” The goal was to reveal how those individuals interacted with those very same structures.

And this was no mere novelty. The outlook of the microhistorians included an indictment: “Their criticism of traditional social science approaches” was not that social science was not possible or desirable. It was, rather, that social scientists had made “generalizations that do not hold up when tested against the concrete reality of the small-scale life” that they claimed to describe and interpret.[9] By going in the opposite direction, from small to large, microhistorians believed that they could recover some of “the lost peoples of Europe.”[10] Along this line, an essential move was to assume that the past is absolutely foreign to us. Whatever similarities might appear to exist between the past and the present must be ignored in the interests of discovering the unique features and dimensions of past societies. As Ginzburg described it, the process begins with “making the past dead.”[11]


[1] Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It,” trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1993): 10-35.

[2] Sometime after Ginzburg began to speak of microhistoria, he learned that others had already employed identical terminology, but in ways that were quite different from what he and other Italian microhistorians had in mind. He notes, for example, that George R. Stewart, an American, was apparently the first to microhistory. In fact, the word appears in the subtitle of Stewart’s 1959 book about Pickett’s Charge, the failed and fateful attack at Gettysburg led by Confederate Major General Edward Pickett. As Ginzburg discovered, Stewart’s work, which is replete with minutia about the incident, highlights the notion that if Pickett’s Charge had only succeeded, then Gettysburg would also have turned out differently, and thus the Civil War would have turned out differently. In this way, according to Stewart, a single incident had impacted all subsequent world history. See George R. Stewart, Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959). Ginzburg also points out that in 1968, Luis González, a Mexican scholar, used the term in the subtitle of a 400-year history of his home village, Pueblo en vilo: Microhistoria de San José de Gracia (Guanajuato, Mexico: 1968). But Italian micro-historians of the 1970s and 1980s did not recognize their approach in books about seemingly-small events that made an incredible difference, studied in minute detail, nor in long-term studies of a single village, etc. By microhistoria, they meant something quite different. Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 10-13.

[3] Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 21-22.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid. The passage he refers to here can be found in the English edition, Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), xx.

[6] Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 22. Ginzburg notes that none other than Fernand Braudel was among the first to express his disapproval of microhistory. This was because he identified it with what he had previously condemned as histoire événementaielle, the “history of events.” By that expression Braudel meant “traditional history,” or the “so-called history of the world” which was nothing more than stories “dominated by protagonists who resembled orchestra directors.” Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 26.

[8] Karl Appuhn, “Microhistory,” in Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350-2000, ed. Peter Stearns (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001), 1:105.

[9] Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 108.

[10] Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe: Selections from Quaderni Storici (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). As one of my teachers, Professor Stefano D'Amico, pointed out to me, due to the work of diligent microhistorians featured in this collection edited by Muir and Ruggiero, many of those peoples are no longer so lost.

[11] Appuhn, “Microhistory,” 106.

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