As an undergraduate, I double majored in history and English to fulfill two of my life’s passions, and now I’m finding that writing historical fiction has rather the same effect. Shadow of the Portico is partially set in early modern Italy and is the story of an exclaustrated nun and a well-born but unfortunate notary who have fallen in love–romance being another passion of mine.
As I approached this project, I found that while I had a good understanding of the larger context of sixteenth century Italy, I lacked more specific knowledge of the societal expectations for our noblewoman and notary. This is a dynamic time and location, and I certainly didn’t want to depend on general conceptions of the Renaissance found in my survey textbooks that focused on the fourteenth century in Florence.
I began my research by looking through social histories of early modern Northern Italy, trying as often as possible to situate information in Bologna in particular, giving consideration to the fact that northern Italian cities were reasonably autonomous and decentralized. This would have been easier had I chosen a more well-researched city like Florence or Venice, but unearthing Bologna’s unique color has been hugely rewarding.
As I read these social and cultural histories, I’ve discovered the historiographical methodology of microhistory. It reverses the idea that we study history through the lens of larger societal concerns and instead we look at case studies of specific people in specific locations with specific circumstances, and then look at society through that lens. This is precisely what the novelist does–we look at the stories of people, our characters, who must deal with their conflicts and grow as individuals.
I’m not new to microhistory, it turns out. Reading Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms was pretty standard fare for undergraduate medievalists, and indeed this book was instrumental in sparking my interest in heresies. However, I hadn’t made the connection with microhistory, even though this is one of the seminal works of this methodology. I now find myself that much more curious about implementing this approach in my research.
With that, one of the objectives of my blog is to further examine microhistory as a research method and apply it not only to my novel research, but also my interest in historical reenactment, in particular persona play for the Society for Creative Anachronism. It’s exciting for me to bring all these passions together and create original products in both fiction and nonfiction.