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To See the World in a Grain of Sand: Reading and Writing Microhistories


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: Dr Brodie Waddell
  • Assessment: coursework of 1000 words (20%) and a 4000-word essay (80%)

Module description

How much can we learn about the past through the story of a single person, place, object or event? For example, what can the inquisition of a heretical Italian miller tell us about popular beliefs in the age of Reformation? Since the 1970s, historians have attempted to show that such ‘microhistories’ can in fact reveal much about the grand sweep of history. By narrowing their focus to magnify the small, the particular and the local, these scholars have proven that studies of seemingly inconsequential subjects can have a major impact on our understanding of history.

In this module we will examine both the microhistories themselves and the extensive scholarship that has been produced explaining, refining, justifying and critiquing this approach. In most weeks, we will examine a particular microhistory. We will read several classics from the genre - including Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, Natalie Zemon Davies’ The Return of Martin Guerre and Martin Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ - as well as more recent innovative works of ‘global microhistory’ and ‘object biography’.

The primary focus will be on the period c.1500 to c.1800, but there will also be sessions on medieval and modern topics. The module will include at least one session where you will have the chance to discuss your own experience of writing microhistory and a workshop based on a selection of primary sources, where we will discuss how we might write our own. In addition, by the end of the module, you will have explored the sorts of topics, methodologies and primary sources that could serve as a basis for a successful dissertation.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • display a good knowledge of the development of ‘microhistory’ approach, including its most prominent practitioners and their key works
  • compare and contrast the approaches used by different microhistorians and understand the reasons for difference
  • handle primary sources with confidence and see the implications of different methodological approaches to them
  • understand how and why historians have conceptualised scale
  • situate microhistory within wider debates about the development of the historical discipline.