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Microhistory: Home

Last Updated: Jan 8, 2024 4:21 PM

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The historical method of microhistory, a form of historical writing, highlights a single person, place, object, or event and uses it to open a window onto broader historical questions. Historians have attempted to show that such microhistories can in fact reveal much about the grand sweep of history. Often centered on ordinary, oppressed, or colonized people who left few or no first-hand accounts of their lives, microhistories rely on unusual events—a murder, a heresy trial, a natural disaster, a scandal, etc.—to offer unique insights into a society that we can often see in no other way. By narrowing our focus to magnify the small, the particular and the local, scholars have proven that studies of seemingly inconsequential subjects can have a major impact on our understanding of history.
Feedback on this guide is welcome, and should be addressed to Michael Kicey, liaison librarian to the Department of History at UB.

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Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions. Populated by colorful characters and filled with an unending series of fascinating details, this book is a supremely entertaining, multi-layered masterpiece.

Lange Meet Me Mall cover artAlexandra Lange, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, Bloomsbury, 2022.

A portrait--by turns celebratory, skeptical, and surprisingly moving--of one of America's most iconic institutions, from an author who "might be the most influential design critic writing now" (LARB). Few places have been as nostalgized, or as maligned, as malls. Since their birth in the 1950s, they have loomed large as temples of commerce, the agora of the suburbs. In their prime, they proved a powerful draw for creative thinkers such as Joan Didion, Ray Bradbury, and George Romero, who understood the mall's appeal as both critics and consumers. Yet today, amid the aftershocks of financial crises and a global pandemic, as well as the rise of online retail, the dystopian husk of an abandoned shopping center has become one of our era's defining images. In Lange's perceptive account, the mall becomes newly strange and rich with contradiction: Malls are environments of both freedom and exclusion--of consumerism, but also of community. This book is a highly entertaining and evocative promenade through the mall's story of rise, fall, and ongoing reinvention, for readers of any generation.

O'Meara Girly Drinks cover artMallory O'Meara, Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, Hanover Square Press, 2021.

Strawberry daiquiris. Skinny martinis. Vodka sodas with lime. These are the cocktails that come in sleek-stemmed glasses, bright colors and fruity flavors--these are the Girly Drinks. From the earliest days of civilization, alcohol has been at the center of social rituals and cultures worldwide. But when exactly did drinking become a gendered act? And why have bars long been considered "places for men" when, without women, they might not even exist? With whip-smart insight and boundless curiosity, this book unveils an entire untold history of the female distillers, drinkers and brewers who have played a vital role in the creation and consumption of alcohol, from ancient Sumerian beer goddess Ninkasi to iconic 1920s bartender Ada Coleman. Filling a crucial gap in culinary history, O'Meara dismantles the long-standing patriarchal traditions at the heart of these very drinking cultures, in the hope that readers everywhere can look to each celebrated woman in this book--and proudly have what she's having.


Roach Stiff cover artMary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

For two thousand years, cadavers – some willingly, some unwittingly – have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They’ve tested France’s first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender confirmation surgery, cadavers have helped make history in their quiet way. This book investigates the strange lives of our bodies postmortem and answers the question: What should we do after we die?

Shah Crude cover artSonia Shah, Crude: The Story of Oil, Seven Stories Press, 2004.

This is the unexpurgated story of oil, from the circumstances of its birth millions of years ago, to the spectacle of its rise as the indispensable ingredient of modern life. In addition to fueling cars and illuminating cities, crude oil and its byproducts fertilize produce, pave roads and make plastic possible. The modern world is drenched in oil; the story of how this came to be is a great human drama of discovery and innovation, risk, the promise of riches and the unconquerable power of greed.

Thanhauser Worn cover artSofi Thanhauser, Worn: A People's History of Clothing, Knopf Doubleday, 2022.

A sweeping and captivatingly told history of clothing and the stuff it is made of--an unparalleled deep-dive into how everyday garments have transformed our lives, our societies, and our planet. In this panoramic social history, Sofi Thanhauser brilliantly tells five stories--Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics, Wool--about the clothes we wear and where they come from, illuminating our world in unexpected ways. She takes us from the opulent court of Louis XIV to the labor camps in modern-day Chinese-occupied Xinjiang. We see how textiles were once dyed with lichen, shells, bark, saffron, and beetles, displaying distinctive regional weaves and knits, and how the modern Western garment industry has refashioned our attire into the homogenous and disposable uniforms popularized by fast-fashion brands. Thanhauser makes clear how the clothing industry has become one of the planet's worst polluters and how it relies on chronically underpaid and exploited laborers. But she also shows us how micro-communities, textile companies, and clothing makers in every corner of the world are rediscovering ancestral and ethical methods for making what we wear. Drawn from years of intensive research and reporting from around the world, and brimming with fascinating stories, this book reveals to us that our clothing comes not just from the countries listed on the tags or ready-made from our factories. It comes, as well, from deep in our histories.


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The clever peasant Arnaud du Tilh had almost persuaded the learned judges at the Parlement of Toulouse when, on a summer’s day in 1560, a man swaggered into the court on a wooden leg, denounced Arnaud, and reestablished his claim to the identity, property, and wife of Martin Guerre. The astonishing case captured the imagination of the continent. Told and retold over the centuries, the story of Martin Guerre became a legend, still remembered in the Pyrenean village where the impostor was executed more than 400 years ago. Now a noted historian, who served as consultant for a new French film on Martin Guerre, has searched archives and lawbooks to add new dimensions to a tale already abundant in mysteries: we are led to ponder how a common man could become an impostor in the sixteenth century, why Bertrande de Rols, an honorable peasant woman, would accept such a man as her husband, and why lawyers, poets, and men of letters like Montaigne became so fascinated with the episode. Davis reconstructs the lives of ordinary people, in a sparkling way that reveals the hidden attachments and sensibilities of nonliterate sixteenth-century villagers. Here we see men and women trying to fashion their identities within a world of traditional ideas about property and family and of changing ideas about religion. Deftly written to please both the general public and specialists, this work will interest those who want to know more about ordinary families and especially women of the past, and about the creation of literary legends. It is also a remarkable psychological narrative about where self-fashioning stops and lying begins.

Demos Unredeemed cover artJohn Putnam Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America, Alfred Knopf, 1994.

The setting for this haunting and encyclopedically researched work of history is colonial Massachusetts, where English Puritans first endeavored to "civilize" a "savage" native populace. There, in February 1704, a French and Indian war party descended on the village of Deerfield, abducting a Puritan minister and his children. Although John Williams was eventually released, his daughter horrified the family by staying with her captors and marrying a Mohawk husband. Out of this incident, The Bancroft Prize-winning historian John Demos has constructed a gripping narrative that opens a window into North America where English, French, and Native Americans faced one another across gulfs of culture and belief, and sometimes crossed over.

Emberton Walk About cover artCarole Emberton, To Walk about in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner, W.W. Norton & Co., 2022.

Priscilla Joyner was born into the world of slavery in 1858. Her life story, which she recounted in an oral history decades later, captures the complexity of emancipation. Based on interviews that Joyner and formerly enslaved people had with the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, historian Carole Emberton draws a portrait of the steps they took in order to feel free, something no legal mandate could instill. Joyner's life exemplifies the deeply personal, highly emotional nature of freedom and the decisions people made, from the seemingly mundane to the formidable: what to wear, where to live, what work to do, and who to love. Joyner's story reveals the many paths forged by freedmen and freedwomen to find joy and belonging during Reconstruction, despite the long shadow slavery cast on their lives.

Ginzburg Cheese Worms cover artCarlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

This is a study of the popular culture in the sixteenth century as seen through the eyes of one man, a miller brought to trial during the Inquisition. Carlo Ginzburg uses the trial records of Domenico Scandella, a miller also known as Menocchio, to show how one person responded to the confusing political and religious conditions of his time. For a common miller, Menocchio was surprisingly literate. In his trial testimony he made references to more than a dozen books, including the Bible, Boccaccio's Decameron, Mandeville's Travels, and a "mysterious" book that may have been the Koran. And what he read he recast in terms familiar to him, as in his own version of the creation: "All was chaos, that is earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and of that bulk a mass formed―just as cheese is made out of milk―and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels."

Lepore Wonder Woman cover artJill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of one of the world's most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story--and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism. Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history. Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator. Internationally known as an expert on truth--he invented the lie detector test--Marston lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman. This book is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women's rights--a chain of events that begins with the women's suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

Rutkow Empire Scalpel cover artIra Rutkow, Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery, Scribner, 2022.

From an eminent surgeon and historian comes the "by turns fascinating and ghastly" (NYT Book Review, Editors' Choice) story of surgery's development--from the Stone Age to the present day--blending meticulous medical research with vivid storytelling. There are not many life events that can be as simultaneously frightening and hopeful as a surgical operation. In America, tens-of-millions of major surgical procedures are performed annually, yet few of us consider the magnitude of these figures because we have such inherent confidence in surgeons. And, despite passionate debates about health care and the media's endless fascination with surgery, most of us have no idea how the first surgeons came to be because the story of surgery has never been fully told. Now, this book elegantly reveals surgery's fascinating evolution from its early roots in ancient Egypt to its refinement in Europe and rise to scientific dominance in the United States. Comprehensive, authoritative, and captivating, this book is "a fascinating, well-rendered story of how the once-impossible became a daily reality" (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).