CSI History: Microhistories and why you should read them

by Erica Nolan

During my internship at Truman State University Press, my fellow intern and I worked on converting one of the Press’s older publications into an e-book. While coding the information for Noble Strategies: Marriage and Sexuality in the Zimmern Chronicle, I found myself wanting to stop what I was doing and read the text. With intriguing chapter titles like “Marital Happiness and Marital Breakdown,” “Concubines,” and “ Bastards,” I couldn’t resist. It sounded like its very own soap opera.

I ended up reading a few chapters on my own time, and was soon engulfed by the history of the Zimmern family and fascinated by getting a glimpse into the lives of early modern German nobility. This book hones in on an extremely specific set of people and events, and therefore falls into the category of “microhistory.” Wikipedia defines a microhistory as, “an intensive historical investigation of a well defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual).” Many novels focus on a single event, a community, or an individual, but in a microhistory, everything you’re reading about actually happened.

Authors of microhistories are historical detectives, digging deeper than anyone has before them in the hopes of finding something new and increasing their understanding of the larger issues of social history by focusing on specific cases. Microhistories are often written for other historians; the average person might not think of reading one of these books. But my own experience with Noble Strategies made me wonder why more people don’t choose microhistories to read. As an English major, I’m always on board for a well-written story—and microhistories have great potential for being just that. What makes microhistories so much more interesting is the overall thematic focus within them. You get a better glimpse at the humanity within the history when it is concentrated on a certain theme. For example, the underlying theme of relationships within Noble Strategies demonstrates the disconnect between marriage and love in early modern Germany. It helps show how marriage was a financial and political arrangement that created the necessity for concubines as a source of affection, which explains the resulting bastards in the Zimmern family.

If you’re interested in finding a microhistory to sink your teeth into, a few other options in our collection include Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and “The Appearance of a Spirit” in 1628 and Husbands, Wives, and Concubines: Marriage, Family and Social Order in Sixteenth-Century Verona. And there are a few classics out there to check out too. The Cheese and the Worms is a great example, and one of the best-known microhistories is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (who authored our A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet). The Return of Martin Guerre was also a movie (in French), and there is even an American adaptation of the story titled Sommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. Maybe someone should write a soap opera or miniseries based on the marital adventures of the Zimmern family. Their story makes great reading.

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