This Sunday is the first ever non-fiction spotlight in the new format of the blog, so I thought it might be a good time to introduce a particular genre that you’ll be seeing a lot of: the microhistory. Sunday posts might also involve biographies, essays or other stuff.
Microhistories are close to my heart: they are intense historical studies based on close-reading of specific source material which produces a detailed piece of work that looks at first glance like a case study, but actually stretches itself outwards to broader themes and ideas within longue-durée historical narratives. You find case-studies in lots of normal histories, but the microhistory uniquely focuses on a small time frame, often a single event, or a small group of people, or an individual, in order to flesh out an important stitch that would otherwise be missing in the fabric of history.
Probably the most famous microhistory is Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. Published in 1976, Ginzburg’s work focuses on the peculiar life and cosmology of the sixteenth-century miller Menocchio. It’s a microhistory classic because, in this instance, the historian has found an individual who otherwise would have been forgotten or ignored by historians; someone who is not of the elite, who harbours an unorthodox worldview. However, instead of dismissing Menocchio as an inconvenient outlier, Ginzburg explores the peculiar mystical/spiritual beliefs of this early-modern man in order to flesh out a person who flies in the face of contemporary religious expectations. The very existence of Menocchio defies easy categorisation of religion in this time period- ‘belief’ cannot be presumed, and participation in church can no longer imply faith. Microhistories provide so much necessary detail, and prevent historians from making easy and convenient assumptions, and remind us all that, no matter what the time period and how rustic the setting, people have always been people. Emotions, beliefs, heresy and rebellion- they are not modern inventions.
The exceptions in history add up, and form their own genres: those who write history are increasingly aware of the need to reflect upon the different identities present in any particular context. Only relatively recently did the areas of women’s history, or the history of POC, or LGBTQ history emerge: beforehand, their historical presence was a novelty or an aside. Unimportant. Consciously ignored. Microhistories give voice to and validate the historical existence of people, events and ideas that would otherwise be forgotten.
If you’re interested in finding out more about microhistories, then you could try:
What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice – Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon
Small Worlds: Method, Meaning, & Narrative in Microhistory – James F. Brooks (ed.)
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller – Carlo Ginzburg
Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method – Carlo Ginzburg