«Non ho mai praticato con alcuno che fusse heretico, ma io ho il cervel sutil,

et ho voluto cercar le cose alte et che non sapeva»



This unit focuses on the reading of Italian essays

The book

Il formaggio e i vermi. Il cosmo di un mugnaio del '500 (1976) by Carlo Ginzburg (The Cheese and the Worms. The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, 1981) is considered as

Carlo Ginzburg


Historians have yet to develop a comprehensive and conclusive definition for the term “microhistory,” largely because it remains on the fringe of current historical study. The evolution of microhistorical study in different regions across Europe and North America and in a variety of languages has further compounded the problem, leading, in some cases, to further ambiguity (Ginzburg, 1993). Its origin, however, is clear. The movement of historians, particularly those educated in Europe, towards a microhistorical approach to studying history developed from a political and cultural debate occurring in the social sciences in the 1970s and 1980s. As historians began to focus on social rather than economic factors, it became clear that certain “political events and social realities” could not be explained adequately by existing macrohistorical models (Levi, 1991). In essence, historical histories did not account for the experiences of all members of the event, society, or culture being studied. As a result, microhistorians have made a point of viewing people not as a group, but rather as “individuals who must not be lost either within the historical processes or in anonymous crowds” (Iggers, 1997).Focusing on the individual rather than the group also has led microhistorians to focus on the “margins” of power rather than the centre (Iggers, 1997). For microhistorians, this has included examining the lives and experiences of the disadvantaged and exploited, individuals who are often neglected by macrohistorical studies and who rarely fit the existing or resulting model. This examination, however, is not limited to people. It also emphasizes the intensive study of “single, tough, often isolated places, and extraordinary – though often historically ‘insignificant’ – events" (Woodward, 2003). By doing so, microhistorians have attempted to formulate a history of everyday life. The methodology used in examining the lives of marginalized people is often referred to as “thick description,” a technique often used by cultural anthropologists like Clifford Geertz (Levi, 1991). Rather than attempting to fit the individuals’ experiences into preconceived social histories, Geertz advocates the use of microscopic analysis as a means of generating conclusions that are applicable to a greater percentage of the general population. The primary challenge faced by microhistorians when developing these histories of everyday life is a lack of reference material. The marginalized subjects of their studies have left few traces or documents regarding their lives and experiences and those who have may not be representative of the sector of the population under consideration. Even the protagonist in Ginzburg’s celebrated work The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller left behind an unusually abundant collection of personal information, leading some to question whether this literate “miller” was typical of the marginalized class.Perhaps the most common and identifiable characteristic of microhistory is its reduction of scale, as suggested by the prefix “micro.” Rather than describing and analyzing broad topics, such as the American Civil War, microhistorians focus on specific events, such as Pickett’s Charge, which occurred within the context of broader fields of study. According to historian Ronald Hoffman, “it is much like the poet William Blake's injunction to see a world in a grain of sand" (Woodward, 2003). It is important, however, not to confuse microhistory with local history or biography. Both use a similar research methodology but fail to connect specific events with broader social contexts, another important but less obvious characteristic of microhistory. Hoffman states: “Microhistory scrutinizes isolated topics to come to grips with the larger universe of historical circumstances and transformations" (Woodward, 2003). Unless Stewart analyzes Pickett’s Charge within the context of the American Civil War, his work, although well researched and intriguing, would fail to meet the requirements of microhistory and could be described only as “anecdotal antiquarianism.”

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