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Karl Appuhn

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. Microhistory emerged, primarily in Italy, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as a revolt against studies of large social groups and long, gradual historical transformations. The first microhistorians were especially dissatisfied with then predominant social history methods that concentrated on broad subjects over extremely long periods of time, the famous longue durée. The microhistorians also objected to the increasingly popular use of quantitative methods inspired by the French Annales practitioners, the Cambridge Population Group, and American cliometricians. The source of the microhistorians' frustration was the fact that quantitative approaches tend to reduce the lives of millions to a few economic and demographic data points. The microhistorians' response to these perceived weaknesses in social history, as it was then widely practiced, was to attempt to create a new method that would allow historians to rediscover the lived experience of individuals, with the aim of revealing how those individuals interacted not only with one another, but also with the broader economic, demographic, and social structures that traditional social history had taken as its subject matter.

The term "microhistory" was first coined by a group of Italian historians associated with the journal Quaderni Storici and, later, a series of books, microstorie, published by Einaudi. The most influential were Carlo Ginzburg, Edoardo Grendi, Giovanni Levi, and Carlo Poni. Together they began to define the theoretical underpinnings of what became known as microhistory. Some French and North American scholars soon followed suit, but their efforts lacked the programmatic dimension of the Italians' work. Thus it was the Quaderni Storici group that largely established the terms of debate and the boundaries of the method from an early date, and without them microhistory might not have become a distinct practice.

The Italian microhistorians' interest in the historic variations in people's lived experience of the world was heavily influenced by developments in cultural anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s. The work of Clifford Geertz was particularly important to the emergence of microhistory, even if some of the microhistorians, Giovanni Levi in particular, had reservations about Geertz's method. Geertz had popularized a concept of culture as a system of symbols that permits individuals to relate to and comprehend the external world. In his influential essays, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," and "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," Geertz had argued that the key to discovering how these various systems of symbols operated lay not in establishing general rules, but rather in observing the various parts of the system in operation and only then trying to fit them into a larger frame of reference. The rules of social interaction, according to Geertz, could only be reconstructed by inserting the behavior of individual actors into specific social contexts, from which far broader interpretations of a particular cultural group or system could then be derived. Geertz's method, therefore, has two equally important dimensions. On the one hand, the analysis must be grounded in the actions and understandings of individuals. On the other, it must seek to arrive at systemic explanations for group behavior based on rules that are reconstructed by careful analysis of those individual actions.

The quality and nature of the systemic explanations that can be derived from Geertz's method are very different from similar explanations generated by methods based on observing only the larger group. Close observation of individuals in action provides a better description of a particular social system, because it tends to emphasize the unique forces at work instead of relying on universal rules of human behavior to explain individual actions. Geertz was convinced that universal rules, whatever their apparent utility as explanatory tools, were flawed, because every system of social exchange is unique. His method was aimed explicitly at recovering the unique features of different cultures and showing how these provide the foundations for group organization, not some supposedly universal feature of human behavior such as rational choice or self-interest. Geertz's admonishment to anthropologists in the field, therefore, was to studiously avoid starting with a general theory or hypothesis, and instead to allow the accumulated data to suggest the interpretive techniques to be employed in each particular case study. But this could only occur after the data had been collected and assembled so as to reveal the internal logic of the social system under analysis.

Geertz's definition of culture and his approach to fieldwork and ethnographic study were adapted to the needs of history by the microhistorians. Like Geertz, the microhistorians saw culture and social interaction as a complex system of rules and meanings. These rules and meanings were established, in part, by larger social and economic structures, the traditional focus of social history. But the system was also defined by the participants' interactions with each other, and by the particular ways in which they came into contact with broader economic and social structures. It was this experiential dimension of structure that the microhistorians felt social history had largely ignored with its volumes of statistics aimed at creating generalized understandings of historical change.

Like Geertz, the microhistorians were concerned that generalized rules eliminated the cultural distinctiveness of groups, making history the study of people who were, in the end, and in most ways that matter, like us. The microhistorians wanted to avoid this mistake by creating a conceptual and interpretive distance between the historian and the subjects of history. Social history had failed to do this, the microhistorians argued, and thus had often made claims about people in the past that had more to do with our own present conditions than they did with the lives of the people being studied. The microhistorians, therefore, began with the assumption that the past was completely foreign to them. 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. Carlo Ginzburg summed the process up nicely, describing it as "making the past dead."


Adapting an anthropological approach to the study of history presented the microhistorians with a number of challenges. The most obvious lay in the difference between ethnographic fieldwork and archival history: the historian cannot directly observe, interact, or interview the individuals or groups being studied, which creates considerable evidentiary problems. The microhistorians' response was to define new ways of approaching documentary evidence and archival research. The program they developed was aimed at sifting through the evidence looking for traces, however small, of the sorts of social interactions that formed the basis of Geertz's anthropological method. The accumulation of tiny, seemingly trivial bits of evidence would eventually, the microhistorians hoped, enable them to assemble the data into coherent models of specific small-scale social interactions from which they could then, like Geertz, draw much broader conclusions.

The nominative approach. To meet the evidentiary challenge posed by their new method, the Quaderni Storici group established a handful of governing principles for microhistory. The most important method involved the reduction of the scale of historical investigation to accurately identifiable individuals. Ginzburg and Poni, in their 1979 Quaderni Storici article "Il nome e il come" (translated by Edward Muir as "The Name and the Game") argued that the fundamental unit of analysis for the microhistorian should be people's names, since these may be traced, compared, and confirmed through a wide variety of archival sources, including tax records, birth registers, notarial contracts, and court cases.

Tracing the names of individuals across different documentary sources, Ginzburg and Poni argued, brings into faint relief the outlines of their social world. In the course of an individual's documented lifetime, he or she would come into contact with countless other people as well as official institutions in ways that can be reconstructed by historians. Let us take a single, hypothetical individual as our example. Our subject might appear any number of times in a well-preserved archive, as many significant events in his or her life were formally recorded. Parish records would contain our subject's birth, marriage, and death. A notary's register might contain the terms of the dowry, if any; property transactions of various sorts; business dealings and practices in the form of contracts, partnership agreements, or even bankruptcies; and last, but not least, our subject's testamentary bequests. Tax rolls would provide some notion of our subject's total wealth, and court records would allow us a glimpse of what sorts of disputes, if any, our subject was involved in, as well as how they were resolved. Best of all, the chain of evidence could be picked up at any point along the line, allowing us to work outward to discover the rest.

Taken individually, these scraps of evidence do not seem to amount to much. Yet taken all together, it is possible to trace in broad outline many, if not most, of the important social connections in our subject's life, especially if other identifiable individuals appear often. Once we have assembled the data, we have not only one individual's life, but a significant portion of the social and economic networks within which that person lived. These networks, in turn, ideally reveal both the opportunities and constraints faced by our subject in the course of his or her life, in other words some notion of the person's lived experience.

This hypothetical case also reveals one of the major reasons why microhistory emerged in Italy and not elsewhere. To conduct a study based on the nominative methodology proposed by the microhistorians requires an archive, or in many cases a number of archives, containing many intact sources. Italian archives are by far the richest in Europe in terms of the size and chronological scope of their holdings, and also in terms of the variety of documents they contain, especially the court cases that have provided the most common starting point for microhistorical studies. The Italians had everything from parish birth records to tax rolls to notarial registers available to them in numbers that were often unimaginable elsewhere. Without a similar trove of documents, the nominative approach proposed by the microhistorians would have been inconceivable.

The evidential paradigm. Another microhistorical principle involves a standard of historical proof that Carlo Ginzburg termed the "evidential paradigm," sometimes referred to in English as the "conjectural paradigm." The evidential paradigm suggests that small-scale historical analysis requires not only different techniques of investigation than broader studies, but different standards of evidence and proof as well. The approach has most often been likened to the detective's search for clues at the scene of a crime, in which evidence such as fingerprints rather than the principle of human nature or the larger social conditions that helped create the environment for the crime is used to discover the identity of a particular guilty individual. In a similar fashion the microhistorian uses documentary evidence to uncover the particular motivations, beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews of specific individuals rather than of larger social groups.

As a method, the evidential paradigm is diametrically opposed to the techniques employed by most social historians. In quantitative analyses of historical phenomena the historian looks for statistically significant correlations that provide empirical proof of how most people acted in particular situations. Like the detective, the microhistorian is hardly interested in how most people behaved. Rather, it is the statistically insignificant deviant who stands out. Ginzburg argued that the traces left behind by exceptional acts and behaviors can reveal previously unknown dimensions of human experience. At the same time, he admitted this necessarily requires a certain amount of conjecture on the part of the historian, because the conclusions that can be drawn from exceptional acts are rarely based on the same types of supposedly verifiable data as broader quantitative studies. Ginzburg posited that the degree to which research concentrated on the individual is inversely proportional to the degree that anything resembling a scientific method can be applied to the study of history. Therefore, the microhistorian must attempt to formulate a hypothesis based on incomplete evidence, rather than use large amounts of data to confirm or disprove some initial theory about past behavior. In essence, microhistory starts from a set of surprising facts and proceeds to seek out a theory that helps explain them. It does not, however, prove the theory, it merely suggests that a particular theory may provide the best available explanation.


Not surprisingly, the inescapable need for creative conjecture is the feature of microhistorical analysis that has been most often criticized. Historians, especially quantitatively minded ones, have pointed out that the evidential paradigm allows for apparently boundless speculation, precisely because it often rests on conjecture rather than rigorous proof. Moreover, the argument goes, statistically insignificant occurrences are just that. Other Italian historians such as Angelo Venturi were particularly harsh, accusing the microhistorians of, at best, producing trivial history based on the study of trivial data, and, at worst, simply writing historical novels.

Conjecture and relativism. Although the Italian microhistorians defended themselves vigorously from such attacks, they were also quite aware of the dangers inherent in their method. Giovanni Levi advocated caution when employing anthropological techniques for historical research. His major concern centered around the inherent relativism of cultural anthropology. Within the discipline of anthropology a certain type of relativism has the important function of guarding against ethnocentric interpretations and hierarchical rankings of different cultures. Thus for the anthropologist it is crucial to remain open to a wide variety of interpretations of human choices and actions. One effect of this approach that has already been mentioned is the notion that features of human behavior, such as human rationality, that seem to be universal are actually contingent upon the cultural systems that produce them. Such an assertion effectively prevents comparisons between different cultural understandings of the world, providing an effective safeguard against ethnocentric arguments. The obvious danger of such an approach, however, is that the scholar possesses a potentially uncomfortable degree of latitude in deciding what things mean in different situations, and can assign value and meaning to different human behaviors that they may not possess. For anthropologists this freedom is an essential feature of their discipline, which rests in some measure on the scholar's capacity for creative interpretation. For historians, on the other hand, too much interpretive freedom violates the empirical conceits that have been an essential part of historical practice since at least the nineteenth century.

Levi was keenly aware that an unconsidered application of the anthropological methods from which microhistory was derived would open the door to needless relativism. After all, the ability to draw explicit comparisons between different ways of understanding the world is an essential feature of historical practice. Without the ability to draw such comparisons, there would be no way of effectively describing historical differences and changes. Moreover, the type of creative interpretation prized by anthropologists would, if used without reflection by historians, give weight to the criticisms of Venturi and others that the microhistorians were merely in the business of producing historical fiction.

Levi's prescription against this eventuality was to reiterate the microhistorians' commitment to a more traditional historical understanding of human rationality. Levi insisted that while interpretive latitude may be acceptable in anthropology, historians had to employ more formal and restricted notions of social and economic structure, human behavior, and, most importantly, the relative value of rationality. Historians could not, in Levi's view, afford to engage in too much creative interpretation, but had to be constantly mindful that while humans' ways of understanding the world are historically and culturally contingent, they are bounded and restricted by hard realities such as social class and economic power. For example, a creative historical interpretation of raucous sixteenth-century carnival celebrations might see them as a way for peasants and artisans to invert the social hierarchy for a day. The careful historian, however, would also recognize that this did not mean that the participants thought they were actually changing that hierarchy. In a purely anthropological interpretation based on a highly relative understanding of rationality, the capacity to produce a symbolic language of social inversion and changing the social order might be seen as nearly the same thing. For the historian these two things, thought and belief, or thought and action, had to remain separate. In other words, the symbolic language of culture may be an attempt by individuals to shape reality, but the historian must ultimately recognize that reality usually resists our best efforts to mold it. A restricted level of interpretation that recognizes this fact would, according to Levi, shield the microhistorians from their critics.

The normal exception. Another defense of the method mounted by the Quaderni Storici group attacked the critics through the quantitative methods they often favored. Edoardo Grendi suggested a corollary idea to the evidential paradigm based on the statistical concept of the normal exception. Because the individuals whose lives are unearthed by the nominative methods employed by microhistorians are most often exceptional in some way, they should be treated as statistically significant even though they do not appear at first glance to be representative. One of the easiest places in the chain of documents to find likely individuals for microhistorical inquiry has been in trial records, especially the proceedings of the Inquisition. Therefore, the microhistorian often ends up studying individuals whose behavior automatically places them on the social margins. The concept of the normal exception holds that while such statistically insignificant behavior is not representative of the majority of people, it may well be that it is representative of some smaller group whose existence remains hidden to standard data collection techniques.

It has been precisely for such marginal groups that microhistorical methods have proven most fruitful. However, while the most famous microhistories, such as Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms or Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre, have dealt with obviously marginal or exceptional members of society such as heretics and criminals, some lesser-known studies have demonstrated the ability to uncover the existence of invisible groups and activities that might fairly be termed mainstream. For example, Edoardo Grendi, in his study of the small Ligurian town of Cervo, focused on the economic practices of the local elite to show how their decisions were governed by social connections that were almost completely extrinsic to market forces. In a similar vein, Giovanni Levi discovered that the real estate market in a town he was investigating employed a socially established set of rules for fixing property values rather than a market-driven system. In both cases, the findings revealed the existence of elite groups whose business strategies were almost exactly the opposite of what one would normally expect to find based on typical studies of emergent early modern capitalism. In essence, the individuals that Grendi and Levi studied behaved in an apparently irrational fashion, at least if one starts from the hypothesis that the sixteenth century saw the birth of homo economicus. But in terms of the everyday social reality of their lives, their lived experience, their decision not to follow the market made perfect sense, for while it may not have been profitable, it helped preserve the social order. This is the promise of the evidential paradigm realized.

To the Italian microhistorians the evidential paradigm with its technique of extrapolating from small bits of evidence to reach broader conclusions constituted the crux of their new method. As individuals, they argued, we relate to the world through the particular, creating understandings of the larger world through the accumulation of small fragmentary pieces of data. The microhistorical method mirrors this aspect of human existence, attempting to reconstruct the sometimes peculiar ways in which individuals have tried to understand the larger world from within the confines of their personal experiences. However, while the Italian microhistorians were revolting against the broad structuralist work of the Annales school, they were in no sense antistructuralists. Nearly all of them were dedicated marxists who had brought to microhistory a strong commitment to structuralist analysis in history. In the broadest sense, they were simply trying to re-create the ways in which past people understood and reacted to social and economic structures, which, as the above examples make clear, is not always as obvious as the historian might wish. The microhistorians were particularly interested in the ways in which structure constrained individual choice, and the ways that people shaped their lives in response to those constraints. In other words, they wanted to escape the sometimes simplistic functionalism of the social historians without in any way denying the importance or power of social and economic structure.

The data dictate the method. One of the best examples of how this movement from individual experience to broader structure, with an eye toward the possibility of the far-reaching conclusion, works in practice remains Carlo Ginzburg's study of the trial of a heretic miller known as Menocchio in sixteenth-century Friuli: The Cheese and the Worms. Ginzburg first assembled Menocchio's often conflicting testimony before the inquisition in which he tried to explain to his accusers why he held beliefs that seemed at odds with catholic orthodoxy, including the somewhat odd notion that God had created the world in the same way as peasants made cheese. Ginzburg showed how the relationships between Menocchio's various beliefs revealed how he had constructed a very personal cosmology that drew elements from local beliefs, Catholic doctrine, and a variety of books he had read over a period of many years, not all of which Menocchio could identify by title. Employing philological techniques, Ginzburg spent considerable time and care attempting to reconstruct Menocchio's reading list based on textual clues contained in his testimony before the inquisitors. His most surprising speculation was that Menocchio might have had access to a translated copy of the Koran. From this reconstruction Ginzburg then drew some much larger conclusions about the early spread of print culture to the lower classes and how peasants and other marginally literate people understood the new medium.

Ginzburg's study of Menocchio remains one of the classics of the genre, yet it also points to one of the central problems that historians have faced when attempting to formulate a satisfactory definition for microhistory. It remains very difficult to define, precisely because it is not a coherent set of practices or methods. The philological techniques and cultural model of the spread of print culture employed by Ginzburg bear little resemblance to the economic data and sociological model employed by Grendi in his study of the town of Cervo. Superficially at least, these two studies could easily be seen as belonging to two different genres entirely. Yet they are both microhistory. One might fairly say, therefore, that microhistory is the absence of any specific method, and a recognition that each individual historical case and each set of historical data demands a unique approach. The data dictate the analytical method to be employed, not the other way around.

While the absence of a consistent method has hampered attempts to provide a pat definition of microhistory, it has also allowed for an extremely wide variety of studies to be conducted under its banner. Microhistorical studies have been produced examining everything from legal practices, religious beliefs, and gender roles, to real estate markets, counterfeiting rings, and the economies of entire towns. And while the first microhistorical studies concentrated exclusively on the lives of otherwise obscure individuals or small groups, later studies by Carlo Ginzburg and Pietro Redondi reexamined the lives of famous individuals such as the artist Piero della Francesca and the astronomer Galileo Galilei respectively. But while the fame of the individuals changed, the method did not. Redondi's study of Galileo, for example, used a previously unknown document from his trial to speculate that Galileo's belief in atomism was far more troubling to his accusers than his heliocentric astronomy, because atomism potentially undermined the doctrine of transubstantiation. While Redondi has been criticized for substituting an obscure and complicated explanation for a simple and obvious one, his analysis did reveal a dimension of the infamous proceedings that had not been recognized in any of the scores of previous studies.


Flexibility, as these examples illustrate, is perhaps the greatest strength of microhistory. It has, however, revealed itself to be an impediment as well, especially when it has come to fending off the critics. Because microhistory has few methodological limitations, once the idea had spread beyond the Quaderni Storici group, there were very few restrictions on how the new technique would be employed in practice. Indeed, subsequent historians from many different intellectual and methodological backgrounds have often made use of microhistory in ways its founders never intended.

Divergence from the Italian model has been most apparent in the North American context, where microhistory soon began to assume new and different forms. American practitioners of the new cultural history, who were engaged in their own revolt against large-scale social history, latched onto the method as a way of recovering individual agency in history. The differences between this approach and that of the Italians are important. Whereas the Italians were primarily concerned with the limits imposed on individual agency, Americans were concerned with the ways in which people were able to bypass or even subvert structure. In many ways such an approach more closely mimics the anthropological models on which microhistory was based. Many of the microhistorical studies produced in North America tended to ignore the ways in which structure operated to limit the choices of individuals and moved toward interpretations that saw individuals thwarting social structures through the creation of personal visions of reality.

Agency at the expense of structure. The increasing emphasis on agency at the expense of structure was precisely the development that Giovanni Levi had warned against in his discussion of Geertz's method. Indeed, Levi was also outspoken in his criticism of North American works such as Robert Darnton's essay "Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin," which interpreted a slaughter of cats by a group of Parisian printer's apprentices and journeymen as both a symbolic and real revolt against the existing social and economic order. Levi argued that while such microhistorical studies may be interesting as interpretive exercises, they are of limited use as historical examples because they are ultimately imponderable and meaningless. Concentrating on agency rather than structure serves, in Levi's opinion, only to illuminate the case under scrutiny. In the case of Darnton's cat massacre, the example was revealing only of the dissatisfaction of a few individuals, and did not provide any additional insight into existing understandings of eighteenth-century French society. Agency alone, according to Levi, reveals very little. Only by focusing on structure can the microhistorian hope to formulate hypotheses that have meaning beyond the bounds of a particular moment or incident.

Criticisms of North American microhistory that were already familiar in the Italian context also began to surface. In 1988 the American Historical Review published a debate between Robert Finlay and Natalie Zemon Davis concerning her well-known microhistory, The Return of Martin Guerre, which analyzed the trial of a sixteenth-century French peasant accused of posing as someone else for the purpose of wrongfully claiming the other man's wife and property. Like Angelo Venturi before him, Finlay accused Davis of writing history that was little more than fiction. Historians, Finlay argued, have a responsibility not to distort the sources they work with. Davis's contention that the accused was in league with the wife was just such a distortion, Finlay claimed, because while he was found guilty, she was cleared of any wrongdoing by the court and her relatives. The documents contained nothing to suggest her complicity, and, therefore, Davis could not responsibly suggest otherwise, or she risked ascribing false motives to real people.

Davis defended herself by pointing out the degree to which she had created a context within which to situate her interpretations through painstaking descriptions of sixteenth-century legal culture and village life. Her conclusions were also justified, she claimed, because the chronicles she had used as her sources already contained significant distortions and interpretations of the events. The only way to discover what happened and what significance it had was to engage in an interpretive exercise aimed at eliminating the distortions contained in the sources. Finlay's overly literal reliance on the source material constituted its own kind of distortion, Davis argued, one that microhistorical methods can at least attempt to rectify.

The debate between Finlay and Davis suggests that despite the best efforts of the microhistorians to guard themselves against the criticisms of empirically minded historians, the problem may ultimately be intractable. While there have certainly been cases of interpretive excess, these have been limited to a few works, and serve more as a reminder of the dangers involved than as a condemnation of the method. Yet the critics remain convinced that any interpretive method such as the evidential paradigm constitutes a distortion of history. The microhistorians also remain convinced that empirical methods distort history by masking variety and difference. There is probably little to be done to reconcile these opposing views.


The relentless attention to the interpretive issue has also distracted from other limitations of microhistory for which there may be no immediate solution. Historians are generally faced with the problem of describing phenomena in two, somewhat incompatible, dimensions. In the synchronic dimension most commonly associated with the discipline, the historian must tell a story of change over time. In the diachronic dimension, the historian must offer convincing descriptions of specific moments in time. Microhistory's strengths obviously lie in its ability to provide densely researched diachronic descriptions. This again reflects the use of anthropological methods, which are notoriously unconcerned with change. Likewise, microhistory does not lend itself to effective synchronic narratives. Often, this is the result of practical considerations. The microhistorian is required to spend so much time, effort, and space exploring the implications of a few painstakingly researched events that to expand the boundaries of one case study would be unwieldy.

Microhistory's apparent inability to account for change, however, is also the result of conceptual limitations. The limitation imposed by anthropology on comparative analysis has already been discussed in the context of Giovanni Levi's criticism of Geertz. Levi's proposed solution of employing a restricted interpretive technique, however, has not effectively addressed the issue of synchronic change. In part this is because his arguments were intended as a response to the empirical historians' criticisms of microhistory as much as they were to refining the technique itself. His argument, therefore, focuses on the ways in which culture can be described by the historian, not the mechanisms through which social change eventually occurs.

One potential solution has been suggested by William Sewell, whose analysis of Geertz's technique focuses on the categories employed for analyzing the functions served by culture. Geertz asserts that cultural systems provide "models of" and "models for" reality. The first type of model claims to provide a template for describing and reproducing reality. The second reflects the way that existing social and cultural conditions provide the basis for judging new productions. Scholars who have been influenced by Geertz, including historians, have not recognized, according to Sewell, the extent to which these two functions of culture are different. That is to say, there is often an obvious disjuncture between the reality that is being described in "models of" and the conditions that are being judged and reproduced in "models for." Sewell posits that it is this disjuncture that drives historical change, as people attempt to make the two models coincide in their lived experience.

In terms of microhistory, the original Italian technique may be said to concentrate on the "model of" aspect of culture, while North American practices have concentrated on the "model for" aspect. Sewell's analysis, therefore, not only offers a way of incorporating a mechanism for historical change into microhistorical analysis, but it also provides a way to bridge the gap between the social microhistory of the Italians and the cultural microhistory of the North Americans. There are already signs that this is happening, as Italian scholars employed in American universities have begun to incorporate features of both types of analysis.

Nevertheless, the general lack of synchronic analysis in most microhistories is not damning by itself. After all, the ability to describe change effectively is one of the great strengths of the traditional social history, and therefore need not be a major concern for microhistorians. In this sense it is important to recall that while the Italian microhistorians were critical of social history, they never envisioned their method as a replacement for Annales school studies, which they ultimately admired. Rather, the microhistorians wanted to expand the possibilities of social history by adding depth of analysis to the breadth of existing narratives. The synchronic dimension is, therefore, less important than might seem immediately apparent, as traditional social history already tends to provide the larger narrative within which the Italian microhistorians situated their own work. Indeed, microhistory's greatest success has been its ability to reveal the hidden mechanisms at work in social history and provide more subtle interpretations of group behavior. Thus, even if microhistory never manages to reinterpret the process of historical change, it has still provided a meaningful contribution to debates in social history.

See also other articles in this section.


Brucker, Gene. Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence. Berkeley, Calif., 1986.

Darnton, Robert. "Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of Rue Saint-Séverin." In his The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York, 1984. Pages 75–104.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Davis, Natalie Zemon, and Robert Finlay. "AHR Forum: The Return of Martin Guerre. The Refashioning of Martin Guerre." The American Historical Review 93 (June 1988): 553–603.

Geertz, Clifford. "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." In his The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, 2000. Pages 412–453.

Geertz, Clifford. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture." In his The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, 2000. Pages 3–30.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Translated by John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore, Md., 1980.

Ginzburg, Carlo. "Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm." In his Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore, Md., 1989. Pages 96–125.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Enigma of Piero: Piero della Francesca: The Baptism, the Arezzo Cycle, the Flagellation. Translated by Martin Ryle and Kate Soper. London, 1985.

Ginzburg, Carlo, and Carlo Poni. "The Name and the Game: Unequal Exchange and the Historiographical Marketplace." In Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe. Edited by Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero. Baltimore, Md., 1991. Pages 1–10.

Levi, Giovanni. Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago, 1988.

Levi, Giovanni. "On Micro-History." In New Perspectives on Historical Writing. Edited by Peter Burke. University Park, Pa., 1992. Pages 93–113.

Muir, Edward, and Guido Ruggiero, eds. Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe. Translated by Eren Branch. Baltimore, Md., 1991.

Redondi, Pietro. Galileo Heretic. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal Princeton, N.J., 1987.

Sewell, William H., Jr. "Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History." In The Fate of Culture: Geertz and Beyond. Edited by Sherry B. Ortner. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. Pages 35–55.