Teaching microhistory (Thomas V. Cohen)

Dear all,

I am happy to throw my own experience right here, in the email. Twice, recently, I gave my Canadian students (third-year course) a sprawling criminal trial from Rome. It was a wonderfully complex affair involving a disgraced official of the grain office, upon whose fall there surfaced very credible allegations that he had abused his grain monopoly, leverage at the Vatican, and influence among the nunneries to collect pre-pubescent girls for his salacious amusement. He would lodge them with the nuns and then borrow them, like library books, to embellish his afternoons. He courted them, and their guardians, with ample gifts, mostly clothing, and also, of course, food. The trial abounds in voices, of girls and their protectors, of servants, of officials of the grain office. And it abounds in puzzles about place and time and motive. I had some 50 students, and l let them form teams of four or five, and each team picked its project. Some tackled the geography of the story, finding out where in the city the fellow filed his victims. Others went after papal politics or the chronology of the grain crisis of 1557. One, mostly female, became fascinated by the dresses. When this wretched man let his hands go sliding under the “gallone” of a girl’s dress to fondle her, as she bent over his bed, just how did he do this to her? A gallone is a ribbon, and the students went happily rummaging in paintings by Giulio Romano and Raffaele, looking for the placement of ribbons. And when a cloth was “raso paonazzo” (peacock, purple silk), what colour did that word denote and how good was the cloth?

Meanwhile, a friend of mine at Boston College had the trial from me, for her own microhistory teaching, and she set up a WebCT site where her students and mine could exchange observations.

As pedagogy, the whole thing was a splendid success. The students were reading microhistory by Guido Ruggiero, Gene Brucker, and Carlo Ginzburg, so they knew what they were doing. They had seen Tom Kuehn’s sharp critique of Brucker, so they were alert to dangers (presentism, novelistic temptations). Mostly, they were wonderfully keen; the bizarre story, the pathos of the female voices, the connivence of some of the parents, who were angling for dowry money by dangling maidens, all this stirred the students up, as did their own moral indignation at the sleazy morals. And they were excited to be “doing history” rather than just consuming it. One advantage of microhistory is that the students become writers before their time.
One of the joint papers won the dean’s prize for best third-year paper across the entire university; the project brought out a great deal of energy and thought.

The drawbacks: I had to translate the whole MS, as too few could read the Latin and Italian of the original. And the imperfect “local knowledge” of the students. To do microhistory really well requires a seasoned scholar who knows the lay of the land in every sense. But the attempt at microhistory, done as I did it, is a wonderful occasion to teach about the things an historian needs to know before he or she can stake a claim. We can work hard on the logic of conjecture and ponder the nature and power of evidence and the contours of our massive ignorance.

I would not hesitate to do a thing like this again.

I should add that, as some readers may know, the first chapter of my Love and Death in Renaissance Italy (U Chicago, 2004) describes a somewhat simpler microhistory done in first-year class, where I used a very short trial and the blueprints of the castle where the crime took place. “Find the corpses” was the challenge. Teamwork again. As always, the student response was very enthusiastic. I was interested in teaching mastery of space and time. Take scattered bits and reconstruct an order of action.
Thomas Cohen

York University, Toronto