The Cheese and the Worms, by Carlo Ginzburg

The subtitle to this book is “The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller”. Many of us who are tired of hearing about the parade of wars and failed conquests that make up traditional histories are eager to hear about the lives of ordinary people in centuries long past. The problem, of course, is that there is little in the way of written records about peasants who could not read or write. Ronald Hutton, author of The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700, makes use of churchwarden's accounts and household accounts to determine English seasonal rituals and pastimes, looking for example at the time when churches paid for minstrels or morris dancers. Similarly, Ginzburg here examines trial records to bring to life Domenico Scandella, also know as Menocchio, a miller who was brought to trial by the Inquisition.

He was born in 1532 in Montereale, a small hill town in what is now Italy. Although only a peasant, Menocchio could read and write. He was given or loaned books by friends among the upper classes and priesthood: the Bible, Boccaccio's Decameron, Mandeville's Travels, etc. Not only did he read them carefully, but he thought long and hard about them, developing his own philosophy and his own interpretation of Christianity. “God is nothing but a little breath,” he told his neighbors. Priests and monks are like the Devil, who “want to become gods on earth.” Christ was only a man, and the only law that should be followed is to “Love God and your neighbor”. He denounced the way the rich treated the poor and talked of the need for “a new world and a new way of life.”

He also came up with his own creation story, using the elements of his daily life: “all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; 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 . . . there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time.”

Naturally once these deviations from the church's dogma came to the attention of the Inquisition, they had Menocchio arrested. The records of his two trials are curious because he seems almost grateful for the opportunity to express his views to men learned enough to follow them. The judges pushed him to explain further and treated him with respect. Initially he was sentenced to prison instead of the stake. Released after two years due to ill health and good behavior, however, he soon slipped back into his old ways and found himself on trial again. The pope himself intervened, so there was no leniency at the second trial.

Ginzburg traces Menocchio's philosophy to “ a common store of traditions, myths, and aspirations handed down orally over generations.” As a writer, what I found most interesting was the way Menocchio interpreted what he read. Ginzburg speaks of “a screen that he unconsciously placed between himself and the printed page: a filter that emphasized certain words while obscuring others, that stretched the meaning of a word, taking it out of its context, that acted on Menocchio's memory and distorted the very words of the text.”

All readers do this, filter what we read through our own prejudices and knowledge, placing it in relation to what we already know. I am often tempted when I write to tell the reader everything. See? I want to say. This connects to that! But I know that it is far more effective to put the pieces out there and let readers make the connections themselves. That active work of imagination is the true reward of reading.

This very readable book of the history of one man in sixteenth-century Italy has given me much to think about. I want to learn more about this oral tradition that informed Menocchio's thinking, and have already acquired another of Ginzburg's books.

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