Carlo Ginzburg

Latitude, Slaves and the Bible:An Experiment in Microhistory

My approach to microhistory has been largely inspired by the work of Erich
Auerbach, the great Jewish scholar who spent his most creative years in Istanbul in exile from Nazi Germany. At the end of his masterpiece, Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the Second World war, Auerbach wrote: “Beneath the conflicts, and also through them, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible.”
Half a century later one hesitates to describe the so-called “globalization” which is taking place under our eyes as an “economic leveling process.” On the other hand, the “cultural leveling,” the erasure of cultural specifities which Auerbach looked at with growing worry, is an unquestionable reality, although difficult to grasp. In an essay published in 1952 Auerbach remarked that Goethe’s concept of Weltliteratur had become increasingly inadequate to our endlessly expanding gaze. How can a philologist from a single cultural tradition approach a world in which so many languages, so many cultural traditions interact? Auerbach believed that one has to look for Ansatzpunkte, that is, for starting points, for concrete details from which
the global process can be inductively reconstructed.2 The ongoing unification of the world, Auerbach wrote in the conclusion of Mimesis, “is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random lives of different people.”

Some time ago, while I was working on a separate project I came across a tract bearing the following title:
Mémoire sur le Pais des Cafres, et la Terre de Nuyts, par raport à l’utilité que la Compagnie des Indes Orientales en pourroit retirer pour son Commerce, Amsterdam 1718 (Remarks on Kafirland and the Land of Nuyts, considered from the point of view of their usefulness to the trade of the East India Company.) The copy I consulted at the UCLA Research Library – a photocopy of the original edition – is bound with a Second Mémoire sur le Pais des Cafres, et la Terre de Nuyts, also issued in Amsterdam in 1718. At the end of the two tracts the identity of the author is revealed: Jean-Pierre Purry, a name I had never heard before. After a glance at the two texts I was immediately intrigued, for reasons which I will discuss later.
Then began a research project which is still far from its conclusion. This lecture is a preliminary report on my work in progress.

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