Monthly Archives: September 2015

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller

(2015-09-23 001)Title: The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller

Italian Title: Il formaggio e i vermi: Il cosmo di un mugnaio del ‘500

Author: Carlo Ginzburg; translated by John and Anne Tedeschi

Publication Information: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, c1980

ISBN: 0-8018-4387-1

Library of Congress Classification: BR877.F74

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Friuli (Italy)—Religious life and customs
Friuli (Italy)—Civilization
Heresies and heretics—Italy—Friuli
Heresies and heretics—Modern period, 1500-
Scandella, Domenico, 1532-1601
Friuli (Italy)—Church history

Ginzburg’s book was published in 1976 in Italian and translated and published in English in 1980. He was one of the founders of “microhistory,” the analysis of one small part of a larger area, event, or individual—in this case, the life of a miller living in 16th century Fruili, Italy—that can tell us about what was going at that particular time.

Domenico Scandella, known as Menocchio, would have been yet another faceless and nameless person from the period if not for one important thing: he was put on trial for heresy during the Inquisition. The records of the court, in unusually good detail, gives quite a bit of information about Menocchio. He was married, had several children, owned a mill and rented two plots of land to farm. And he could read; the books that he either owned or borrowed that were seized from his house when arrested are listed. This is not so remarkable, since Ginzburg proves that there were schools at that time that taught elementary reading and writing, but not much. What is remarkable is what Menocchio did with these skills. He created his own cosmology.

Menocchio got into trouble because he talked about what he read which, in some cases, he didn’t fully understand because of his limited education. Nonetheless, he had his own interpretation of the world and God. His “preaching” was what got him into trouble with the Inquisition. (Ginzburg believed that Menocchio’s parish priest turned him in.) It is here that Menocchio, against the advice of his son and two of his friends, gives the inquisitor his version of the creation (which sounds closer to the Greek mythological creation than the Judeo-Christian) and theology.

All inquisitorial courts had a recorder whose job it was to write down everything that was said in the court. Thus, Menocchio’s voice is heard centuries after his death. The major problem was that Menocchio did not understand the questions being asked of him about Catholic theology, since he only had a rudimentary education. Also, he did not understand many of the parts of the books he had read and completely misinterpreted the points being illustrated. Ginzburg traces how the inquisitors caught Menocchio in traps of their invention, which caused him to become confused and then he had to try and redefine what he really meant when his understanding of the questions was limited.

Menocchio finally realized how dangerous his thinking was and, in the end, recanted everything. He first said that he thought up the ideas himself, then it was a voice inside his head and, finally, the Devil made him do it. He had been led astray. The court gave him mercy, and released him, but he was not to leave his home town and he had to wear a special garment that marked him for a heretic who had returned to the church. Both these conditions were for life. We know this because of the court records where we learn that Menocchio had been given special permission to leave the village for business, but he was never allowed to stop wearing the special insignia of a heretic reunited to the Church.

The Reformation had exploded across Europe and the Counter-Reformation was attempting to stem the tide of religious change. Two decades before Menocchio’s trial, a peasants’ uprising had brought ruin to the common people as they took sides between two nobles that led to war. No threats to the established order would be tolerated by the dominant classes. Menocchio’s recanting got him mercy once. The second time he was sentenced to death and executed after once again discussing his beliefs, which can be summarized to a “live and let live” mentality of tolerance for everyone of all faiths—Christian heresy.

The court records also talk about Menocchio’s background. He had served the local parish in charge of finances not once but twice, once before his trial and again after. He also served the town in some official capacity, so he wasn’t treated as a pariah. On the contrary, the town seemed to accept him back. He continued to function as the miller in the area until his second arrest and execution. Old, sickly, his wife and supportive son dead, and his other children estranged from him, Menocchio no longer cared what happened to himself and admitted that he was still a heretic.

One central theme Ginzburg argues is wrong is that the idea of the dominate classes’ culture “filtering down” to the lower classes (like trickledown economics), the members of which absorb it, reject it, or adapt it in some way. Ginzburg sees cultural exchange as more circular, with the lower classes having a culture that can affect the culture of the dominant classes and vice-versa. This he proves.

Ginzburg also analyzes the books that Menocchio either owned or borrowed. He goes further to discuss what other books that Menocchio might have seen, by drawing in evidence of other “heretical” books circulating in Italy at the time. Though Ginzburg cannot completely prove that Menocchio read these books, he discusses how their influence might have affected his thinking. One of those is the Koran, which had already been translated into Italian; it is not clear if Menocchio owned a copy or might have seen a copy. In any case, Ginzburg believes that the Koran would have been, for Menocchio, so far beyond his comprehension that he would not have understood most of it.

For me, the most important aspect of this book is that Menocchio is heard, centuries after his death. How many more men—and many more women—were never given the chance to be fully educated, and their voices will never be heard? Had Menocchio been from the ruling classes he would have been educated and probably become a theologian. It is only because of his extensive testimony at trial that Menocchio emerges from the darkness of the ages to become known.

The book is well-written, and is an excellent example of how microhistory can be used to help illuminate specific periods of history.