Microhistory with Carlo Ginsburg

In my Ideas That Changed History course, we’ve been talking a lot about the history of historians through historiography. (I used history way too many times in that sentence.) That is to say, we’ve read about how the discourse of history has changed over time – how interpretations and presentations have developed, what has been addressed, and what has been studied. This involves questions of method, narrative and analysis, and subjects of history.

So we discussed some of the approaches to historiography and how to actually talk about history and  I took particular interest into was microhistory. The term seemed fairly self-explanatory, but its primary focus in on history from the bottom up. Instead of looking at the major events of a period or the major players, microhistory involves taking one moment in time or one particular person and analyzing it as much as possible in order to tell a story. 

In order to get a good understanding of exactly what microhistory is, we read Carlo Ginsburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. The title, though a little strange, refers to a comment made by a 16th-century Italian miller during his trial as part of the Inquistion. Most of what Ginsburg could reveal about Mennochio comes directly from the trial records themselves – which appears to be extremely limiting. But Ginsburg helped the story of Mennochio apply to larger themes, such as the Inquisition, the Reformation, and the changing ideas during this time in history. 

Ginsburg tells this microhistory as a narrative, weaving just enough information for the average reader to carry the story but making it intriguing for the historian as well. Though limited in his information, Ginsburg takes what he has and recreates a 16th-century Italian village, attempting to get through the mind of the peasant miller who stood up to the Church. While Mennochio’s story isn’t revolutionary, it still feels that way – at least, it does to me. 

And I think that’s part of the cool thing about microhistory – it can truly showcase a person or an event in a person’s life that never would be considered in a survey course. I mean, isn’t that what’s exciting about history – being able to bring it alive for someone in real-time, by making these large and small connections? 

That’s all I’ve got for this week – definitely check out this great read, and keep an eye out for more on microhistory. 

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