Deconstructing Grand Narratives Through Micro-History: A Reading Response to Lisa Farley’s “The Reluctant Pilgrim:” Questioning Belief After Historical Loss by Marie Roberts for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

Deconstructing Grand Narratives Through Micro-History: A Reading Response to Lisa Farley’s “The Reluctant Pilgrim:” Questioning Belief After Historical Loss by Marie Roberts for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

“We’re going to start with discussing The Cheese and the Worms,” my professor offered. “Menocchio’s story,” she continued, “will help us to engage with micro-history in a very direct and immediate way.” I was sitting in the first lecture of an undergraduate methodology class about micro-history. Internally, I bemoaned the idea of learning about how to do history—let alone a kind of history that I had never heard of before. “What on earth does she mean by ‘the cheese and the worms,’” I thought to myself, “and what does this have to with historical research?” Intrigued at least by the idea of figuring out what my professor was talking about—and compelled by the (un)fortunate fact that a methodology class was a prerequisite for my degree—I stayed. Little did I know at that point in time that studying Menocchio and his version of the cosmos would completely transform the way that I thought about, and practiced, historical research. In fact, his story influenced me to become a bona fide history nerd who gets giddy at the mention of primary sources and who jumps at the chance to unearth the “layers of history” embedded within historical consciousness (Lisa Farley, 2010, p. 9). By examining the layers of Menocchio’s sixteenth century world, I began to perceive the absolute importance of micro-history for understanding current “sense[s] of place, identity, and social structure” (Hans Smits, 2008, p. 103). Micro-history affords us both pedagogical and curricular opportunities to turn toward the “difficulty of history” that Farley (2010) stresses is often avoided in the school curriculum.

The Cheese and the Worms was the first published study to use micro-history as an approach to research. Author Carlo Ginzburg examines the lengthy trial that took place during the Spanish Inquisition of one Domenico Scandella—otherwise known as Menocchio—who was accused of being a heretic for his version of the cosmos. He posited that in the beginning, “all was chaos … and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God” (Ginzburg, 1976/1992). Ginzburg sought to reveal how, in a time when the institutional doctrines of Christianity were seen as absolute truth, a small-town, unknown miller came to develop such extraordinary beliefs about chaos theory with no clear influence. By scrutinizing Menocchio’s trial records, books that he read, and the society in which he lived, Ginzburg is able to develop the conclusion that the miller’s beliefs were a fusion of the written word of high society with the oral culture of the peasantry. His methodology demonstrates the essence of micro-history: the focus on the individual as a historical phenomenon in order to bring to light the multiple ways that people make meaning and form beliefs. Micro-history allows us to deconstruct the grand narratives—or what Ted Aoki calls the “metanarratives”—that can sometimes pervade the history curriculum in schools (1991/2009, p. 251).

Here we might transition to Farley’s (2010) analysis of the annual pilgrimage that takes place at Lejac Residential School in Northern British Columbia in the name of Rose of the Carrier. Her gravesite is the object of the pilgrimage, as it is believed to carry miracles. Farley uses theories of psychoanalysis put forward by Freud and Kristeva to problematize the beliefs espoused by the pilgrims. She demonstrates that they do not simply believe because of their conversion to Christianity (which is a by-product of residential schooling), but because they both need the “illusion” of belief to protect them against the anxieties of historical trauma, and need the function of belief to attest to experiences that are unspeakable. The pilgrims participate in a Christian event, and instead of seeing this religion as an “instrument of violence,” they wishfully turn towards the miracles of Rose and the “miraculous recovery of goodness”—indicating their need to believe in the “illusion” of Christianity (p. 18). Conversely, Farley’s interaction with a group of young girls demonstrates how their beliefs are needed to give language to experiences that cannot be easily named or signified. The pilgrimage of Rose of the Carrier is thus not a categorical “symbol of colonial power that her followers passively accept” (p. 21), but is instead a testament to the “difficulty of history” (p. 28) that can be revealed through each of our individual narratives of the past (Farley, 2010). As Farley implores, “history is a matter of attending the paths people take—and make—off the beaten path as a sign of its affective and lingering effects” (p. 27). Just as Menocchio’s version of the cosmos could not be traced to one single source, the pilgrims’ beliefs cannot be explained by forced conversion alone.

In terms of pedagogy and curriculum, Farley (2010) reminds us that a history curriculum should not be about finding the “concrete evidence” that confirms “a set path or pre-given collection of representations”—the type of grand narrative history that is often relied on in and out of schools—but should instead focus on “read[ing] history symptomatically” (p. 27). That is, there are multiple truths and sets of meanings residing in individuals that cannot be accounted for in circumscribed ways. Aoki (1991/2009) furthers this point, asserting that it is time to decenter the “modernist view of education and to open the way to include alternative meanings, including lived meanings, legitimated by everyday narratives” (pp. 251-252). One way to follow this postmodernist vision is to turn to micro-history. Educators might consider the pedagogical possibilities of engaging with this type of history in their classrooms, as it could enable students to see how history is constructed of “various histories” that are formed out of “complex relationships between groups of people, social forces and the ways that stories get told (Smits, 2008, p. 105, emphasis in original). In turn, students may begin to learn how to deconstruct the monolithic representations of the past that saturate history curricula.

By the end of the semester in my methodology class, I had gained a much better grasp on Menocchio’s story and its significance for the practice of history. Instead of going forth in my future history classes and always asking myself, “Okay, so what is the overall truth that encompasses this time period?” I came to understand how one truth does not exist. Of course, micro-historians acknowledge that certain incontestable events took place at certain times. However, they also assert that individual experiences of those events, and how they shaped their future lives and beliefs, are what really matter. To understand why people make the pilgrimage to Lejac Residential School every year, it is not enough to look to the lingering effect of religious conversion. No, one must go deeper into individual narratives to get closer to what Deborah Britzman calls the “difficult knowledge” of what inspires these pilgrims to make the journey (as cited in Farley, 2010, p. 9). By examining our individual narratives as historical phenomenon within the larger context, we can get closer to understanding how people like Menocchio came to believe in chaos theory and how the pilgrims at Rose’s gravesite have come to believe in the miracles that it offers. Educators must grasp that history is never a tidy pursuit and that answers are never going to be wrapped into cohesive packages—and that we can always read history beyond the cheese and the worms.


Aoki, T. T. (1991/2009). Five curriculum memos and a note for the next half-century. In W. F. Pinar & R. L. Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted T. Aoki (pp. 247-256). New York: Routledge.

Farley, L. (2010). ‘The reluctant pilgrim:’ Questioning belief after historical loss. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 8(1), 6-40.

Ginzburg, C. (1976/1992). The cheese and the worms: The cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. (J. Tedeschi & A. Tedeschi, Trans.). Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Smits, H. (2008). Is a Canadian curriculum studies possible? (What are the conditions of possibility?): Some preliminary notes for further inquiry. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 6(2), 97-112.