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  • Microhistory:In General
  • Zoltán Boldizsár Simon
What is Microhistory? Theory and Practice. By Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon and István M. Szijártó (London and New York: Routledge, 2013. 184 pp.).

The most adequate book-length account on microhistory, I believe, would be a microhistory of microhistory. Nevertheless, there is a strong chance that it could not qualify as the best available one. While such an adequate account would certainly possess the merit of being self-explanatory, at the same time it would rather automatically reproduce its own possible shortcomings. On the other hand, other accounts might register these shortcomings, but most likely only at the price of presenting general views in a top-down manner, which is somewhat outlandish to a practice proud of its bottom-up stance. This, at least, seems to be the price that Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon and István M. Szijártó are willing to pay in their book What is Microhistory? Theory and Practice, which is, to my knowledge, the first book-length account on microhistory in English.

That there is this particular price to pay does not mean that microhistory was sentenced to silence about generalities. It means only that it is supposed to have its own way to arrive at them, and whatever that way may be, in order to present general views on microhistory in the form of a comprehensive account, this supposedly specific way must be given up. In other words, it is all about the way that leads to general views. While most microhistorians, including Szijártó, are convinced that arriving at generalities is one of the most important defining characteristics of microhistory (5), the extent of agreement is significantly lessened when it comes to identifying that way. Such identification is usually regarded as the most puzzling and mysterious question one might ask about microhistory, and both authors take a shot at answering it. Szijártó’s quest for a plausible answer leads him into the world of fractals, while Magnússon has an entirely different opinion on the issue as he develops a methodological edifice he dubs “the singularization of history” with the intention to drop the general level for good. With these diverging claims, two main features of the book are already touched upon. The first is that, in one way or another, both Szijártó and Magnússon reflect on or organize their parts around this most puzzling and mysterious issue—the issue of the micro-macro link. The other main feature is that the book, instead of being written as a single coherent account, offers two general views on the issue (distributed into two parts of the book). [End Page 237]

These two main features are the ones I would like to reflect upon in what follows. First I will say some words about the authors and about the composition of the book while trying to provide a short overview of the two parts, then I will shift to a discussion of that puzzling and mysterious issue, highlighting Szijártó’s and Magnússon’s general views on microhistory. Finally, I will introduce a third and even more general view on microhistory which is none of the views that the authors consciously propose but the view that I think lurks behind both.


It seems convenient to begin with the fact that some time ago I had the opportunity to read and comment on a manuscript (in Hungarian), a predecessor of the text which now forms the first part of the book written by István Szijártó (in English). I was also familiar with the plan of co-authoring a book with Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon that would be something other than a coherent account, but I had no idea about what form it was going to take (from the range of available options I was aware of), especially because I had no previous information whatsoever about Magnússon’s part. Now that I have become familiar with the final product, it is both more and less than I expected. It is more regarding the extent to which the authors are engaged in the discussion of the...


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