Ginzburg's Lunn Lecture Reads Against the Grain

By Rebecca Egli - "Carlo Ginzburg is the best historian of his generation." So declared Mario Biagioli, UC Davis professor of science and technology studies, as he introduced the 24th Annual Eugene Lunn Memorial Lecture on April 18, 2016. Ginzburg, professor emeritus of intellectual and cultural history at UCLA, gave a talk entitled "Unintentional Revelations: Reading History Against the Grain."

Ginzburg reflected on the methods of historians and the use of intentional and unintentional forms of evidence. Referencing the work of Marc Bloch in The Historian’s Craft, he highlighted the value of unintentional evidence—historical sources such as private letters, archaeological findings, and government records that inform the researcher despite not being primarily created to do so. Additionally, he underscored the importance of intentional evidence—problematic sources such as memoirs, journalism, and testimonies created in order to shape the reader’s understanding of an event. By reading “against the grain” and questioning the author’s intent, biases, omissions, and cultural or political views, historians can extract valuable evidence.

Finely tuned gaze

Ginzburg is best known for works such as The Cheese and the Worms; The Night Battles; Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method; Ecstasies; Threads and Traces; as well as over fifty scholarly essays on a striking range of topics including Thucydides, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and many others.

He gained famed for his pioneering work in the field of microhistory, an analytical approach that examines the particular details of a single event, community, or individual in order to gain a much deeper and more intricate understanding of the subject, as well as of the larger place and time in which it occurs. This approach allows historians to look at their subjects with a finely tuned gaze, interrogating a specific moment with the aim of addressing much larger questions. Microhistory was, in part, a reaction to the predominance of macro-level social science in the 1970s, a generalizing method which failed to reflect the local or small-scale conditions it claimed to describe.

This approach has granted Ginzburg extraordinary insight into the beliefs, everyday life, and actions of individuals and communities that might otherwise be excluded from sweeping narratives. “Historians” he proclaimed, “turn evidence into traces of a life that has vanished.”

Purpose and playfulness

Ginzburg’s work has shaped many generations of scholars working in a variety of disciplines. According to Daniel Stolzenberg, associate professor of history at UC Davis, “What is most distinctive and exciting about Ginzburg’s work is something more idiosyncratic and irreproducible [than microhistory alone]: it is his style of historical argumentation based on a complex sequence of unexpected connections, which twist and turn, and improbably arrive at illumination. Improbably, because the success of this style depends on a truly unique combination of erudition and imagination, seriousness of purpose and playfulness.” Stolzenberg, who specializes in European and scientific history, added, “That virtuosity was on full display in his dazzling Lunn lecture.”

"As an Early American historian, I owe a profound intellectual debt to Professor Ginzburg's influence on our discipline,” PhD candidate Mike Mortimer noted. “Without Menocchio, the protagonist of The Cheese and the Worms, there would be no William Cooper, Martha Ballard, or Eunice Williams.”

This year’s lecture was co-sponsored by the UC Davis Center for Science and Innovation Studies, the Institute for Social Sciences, and the generosity of many individuals, including UC Davis alumnus Michael Tennefoss.