The book that convinced/inspired me to be a historian was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which teased out the cosmology of a sixteenth-century northern Italian miller named Menocchio through his encounters with the Venetian Inquisition. Ginzburg’s ability to get inside the head of a sixteenth-century, semi-literate person was awe-inspiring to me when I first read this book as an undergraduate, and it still is: I regularly assign it to my own undergraduates. Ginzburg was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous pioneer, of a historical methodology called microhistory, in which the scope and scale of inquiry is so narrowed that the impact of historical events and forces is revealed through an almost-intimate perspective. Microhistories have the added benefit of giving agency–and presence– to people who might not otherwise appear in history books: Menocchio, the peasants of a medieval Pyrenean village who also come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Emmanuel de Le Roy’s Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error, a litigious Italian couple in Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in the Renaissance, a London lathe-worker in Paul Seaver’s Wallington’s World: a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-century London, a Maine midwife working just after the American Revolution in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.
I could go on and on listing classic microhistories, but as I was putting together my syllabi for this semester one macrohistorical trend became blatantly clear to me: while the first examples of this genre were all about people, the latest (and most popular) are all about things. Rather than examining a precise place in time through the prism of one person’s life, we are now invited to partake of the history of the world from the perspective of beverages (Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses), sugar (several books, beginning with Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the place of Sugar in Modern History), salt (Mark Kurlansky, Salt: a World History), pretty much every other spice including NUTMEG (Giles Morton, Nathaniel‘s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History–actually this book focuses on the man as much as the spice), drugs (David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World), and stuff (Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects). It seems to me that consumerism is definitely defeating humanism in historical studies: we are now what we seek and eat.
Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections