HCA Doctoral Masterclass: Prof. Mark Seymour

Microhistory in the river of time: notes from the banks of the Tiber

Mark Seymour, Professor of History at the University of Otago

Thursday 3 December 2015, 6-8pm, Dreyfus Room, 28 Russell Square


*Please drop a line to Jana to let her know you are coming: j.comfort@bbk.ac.uk *


The river of western historiography used to be a powerful and reliably flowing stream whose main narratives were grand and came from left and right. As the river has approached the coast of the present, it has developed an increasingly complex set of tributaries and encountered various rapids, some of which have been so rocky that they have almost altered the very course of the river itself. Closer to the banks are sometimes inconspicuous little pools and eddies that seem to have a life of their own, apparently heedless of the central flows in deeper areas. This is where microhistorians, who investigate small, well-defined historical phenomena, insisting that their reduced scale of observation can add to and even change the big picture, like to paddle. In this discussion we will talk about microhistory, which first came into fashion in the 1970s, placing it into historical and historiographical context. The main aim is to gain a better understanding of the basic questions of scale that all historians must ask themselves. Illustrations and examples come from my own research in nineteenth-century Rome.

As preparation, I ask you to read a journal article and a book chapter:

  • Richard D. Brown, ‘Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge’, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 23 No. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 1-20.
  • Mark Seymour, ‘After Respectability: Women, Sexuality and the Circus in Pre-SexologyItaly’, in Valeria Babini, Chiara Beccalossi, and Lucy Riall, eds, Italian Sexualities Uncovered,1789-1914 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 80-100.

If this subject is of special interest to you, consider also reading this brilliant and provocative piece about using a lock of hair as an historical source (about as ‘micro’ as you can get):

  • Jill Lepore, ‘Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 88, No. 1 (June, 2001), pp. 129-144.


For Professor Seymour’s CV see: http://www.otago.ac.nz/historyarthistory/staff/otago036862.html


For more information on the full series of doctoral masterclasses, visit: https://birkbeckhistoryphd.org/2015/09/14/doctoral-masterclasses/

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