ePub Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe ePub

by Edward Muir

In the final essay in this collection of papers, Gianna Pomata explores the experiences and lives of unwed mothers in Italy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In most cases all she has to go on are medical notes and case reports, often very formulaic and recorded as part of form filling for bureaucratic and reporting purposes in maternity and foundling hospitals. These are not what we would usually think of as rich and expansive historical let alone biographical sources, and yet this is one of the more conventional social histories in this collection and the only one centred on events outside the early modern period. Yet, Pomata has been able to develop an insightful and subtle set of images of the women she is discussing. As a result of this nuanced exploration, she concludes on p 193:

“Our culture sets up two different approaches to the problem of life: biography and biology. When we try to understand the events of our history, perhaps we ought to try to have them both present. In the case of women, however, the biological conditioning has been recorded, analyzed, and underlined so often, so appropriately and so inappropriately as well, that a reminder of the biographical aspect, to the experience of concrete individuals, seems long overdue.”

In making this statement, she has given us part of the case for microhistory – not used here to mean small history, but of the analysis of small things to inform and shape our understanding of people’s lives in the past. Microhistory was an approach that emerged in Italy in the later 1970s and began from a realisation that because the marginalised and disempowered left only traces in the historical record, then as historians we need to start our analyses from those traces.

These essays then take as their starting points things as seemingly insignificant as the request by a Jewish merchant to the church authorities in a small Italian town in the late 1500s to be allowed to remove a painting of St Christopher from an external wall of his house, a single question by an inquisitor as a follow up to a witness’s second-hand testimony or a report in Bergamo in 1517 that spectres (that is, ghosts) were seen in battle in a field. These are all essays in Italian but they are as much about how we do history as they are about medieval and early modern Italy. Whereas Pomata’s is fairly conventional social history-from-below, Bertolotti’s and Niccoli’s about witchcraft and battling spectres are as much pieces of comparative historical ethnology as they are social history, and explore the European spread of popular knowledge and the gaps between popular and institutional religion. Early modern Italian history is a long way from my usual areas of reading but the quality of these pieces meant that the only one that did not keep me closely engaged was the detailed discussion of political factions in Cervo – a Ligurian town not far from Genoa.

Given that Italian history is not my thing the essay that I found most compelling was the introduction by Muir about the importance and justification of microhistory, or as he calls it, observing trifles, which he justifies in one place (p viii) by reference to the biologist Stephen Jay Gould who wrote: “close observation of individual differences can be as powerful a method in science as the quantification of predictable behaviour in a zillion identical atoms…. When you understand why nature’s complexity can only be unravelled this way, why individuality matters so crucially, then you are in a position to understand what the sciences of history are all about”. That is, in part, microhistory is a response to grand sweeping nationalist histories, the Annales school’s focus on the long duree and ‘great man’ approaches by starting from the insignificant and the small.

I am pretty sure that I knew more about Italian history I would have enjoyed this more, but even without that it is a great reminder of the marvels of digging into the details of historical research and joy that is my chose discipline’s way of doing things. Fabulous.

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Book Title
Book Author
PublisherJohns Hopkins University Press
Release date 01.08.1991
Pages count240
eBook formatHardcover, (torrent)En
File size6.9 Mb
Book rating3.67 (6 votes)
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