Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms

As one can tell given a prior post on one of his books, I’m on something of a Carlo Ginzburg kick, and this, The Cheese and the Worms, is the book that, when I mentioned a few years ago to some friends that I’d learned about this interesting historian, they each said, “ah, yes, The Cheese and the Worms!”  I had just started The Night Battles, and hadn’t heard of this one, which clearly was the one that got a lot of press in places like the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Ginzburg wrote the Cheese and the Worms in an attempt to simultaneously satisfy the expectations of both “the general reader” or “literate public” and academic history.  That is to say, there are neither foot- nor endnotes proper, but rather appendices which detail source material for pages in question.  I have to think that Ginzburg made this choice because he’d stumbled across an undeniably fantastic subject, a sixteenth century miller, Italian, known as Menocchio, on whom more later.

Ginzburg’s claim to fame is that of “microhistorian” of popular religiosity: he takes very specific data, as far as I can tell most importantly from archives of the Italian Inquisition, and gives them a very close reading in order to read through, so to speak, the bias of the author–the Inquisitor bent on rooting out heresy as he imagines it–to get into, to a remarkably plausible extent, the mind of the accused heretic.  What Ginzburg finds is, not surprisingly, that the actual ideas of the heretic were, while still contrary to or different from High Church orthodoxy, very different from what Inquisitors assumed or imagined the heretics to believe.  Generally, where Inquisitors found heresy, Ginzburg finds popular, peasant religiosity.  Give the paucity of source material from peasants themselves on the subject, the historian relies on other sources.

As I noted above, Ginzburg knew he was on to something good when he found Menocchio.  The book is, above all, a completely fascinating read, and Menocchio himself, doomed to be burned at the stake we know from the start, an intensely sympathetic and literally pathetic figure.  He seems not to have had a mean bone in his body, but rather what seems on the surface to have been a totally idiosyncratic approach to religion.  He developed a unique, but at the same time detailed, cosmology, borrowing freely from written sources as well as oral tradition.  He was literate, but did not, as a working man, have access to large libraries and so his readings were intense and focused, with ample room for his own embellishment of meaning.  Under questioning, Menocchio veered between a willingness to please his questioner and an inability to resist the original thinking which landed him in hot water.  I can’t imagine a person reading this book and not projecting onto Menocchio all or at least some of his or her own difficulties with authority that wanted to stifle one’s originality.

There are three kinds of historian.  A first produces scholarly articles and monographs for other historians and never makes a meaningful dime from writing.  These historians often imagine what it would be like to be widely read, and simultaneously envy and look down upon anyone with a broad, or even slightly broad, audience.  Most historians fall into this category.  A second spends most of a career in the first category and then at some point gets the idea to write something that will actually sell, in the hopes that one can have some residual income when one retires, in addition to one’s pension.   They write the book, usually but not always a textbook, and then finish off a last scholarly monograph or two before calling it a day.  A third category more or less abandons academic history even while she or he draws the largest paycheck in the department because of all the appearances on public or network television as a talking head.  Her books or his are published by Random House, or at minimum one of its subsidiaries, and can be found at Barnes and Noble or Borders, or at minimum ordered there through regular channels.  This third group is, in a word, popular.  Ginzburg is interesting.  He seems to simultaneously be in the first and second categories, by design.

Early in the book Ginzburg references Bakhtin‘s Rabelais and his World, in particular Bakhtin’s notion of a reciprocal relationship in the sixteenth century between popular and high culture, at least in some cases like that of Rabelais.  We have an inarticulate peasant culture–inarticulate as far as written source material goes–centuries old, that, in the cultural fluidity of the sixteenth century, percolated up so to speak through particular, individual writers who, despite their education, remained expressive of that peasant culture.  I have coincidentally read Bakhtin’s book, loved it, and then lost my copy in the course of a couple of moves.  Ginzburg sees in Menocchio a case-in-point of Bakhtin’s model.  This works for me, but for the life of me I think Ginzburg needed another fifty pages to prove it.  The main text of the book is a mere 128 pages, compared to, for example, Bakhtin’s close read of Rabelais which was nearly 500.

All too often, Ginzburg references popular belief generally, leaving the reader with the sense of a formless mass of ideas rather than something real.  One can bring prior knowledge of the subject to Ginzburg’s account, which I did and which is why, I think, I bought his basic idea from the start, because I could fill in the blanks.  I got the impression at times that Ginzburg projected onto this mass of ideas what he wanted rather than what was there.  Peasants felt the world order, with entrenched elites, unjust, and felt that labor created the world.  Anyone who roots for the underdog would want peasants to believe this, and it’s not very profound that they did.  To take a contrary example, Bakhtin’s lengthy discussion about ideas of the body in Rabelais and his World struck me as deeply profound, not entirely expected (to me, anyway), and amply documented.

His general exposition of peasant belief as reflected in Menocchio makes perfect sense to me, but Ginzburg leaves me with a sense that he hasn’t really shown it.  The tension between his niche in academic history, that of microhistorian, focusing on very specific cases-in-point, and his broader ambitions to illuminate a broader culture is nearly too tense to sustain itself.  Interestingly, in the bit I read of The Night Battles a few years ago (I am going reread and complete the book within the year) I never felt that Ginzburg’s pronouncements about peasant belief were under-documented.  Having said that, The Cheese and the Worms is worth the read, both for what it documents about Menocchio, an interesting case if ever there was one, and for what it suggests about broader peasant religiosity.  That, and because Ginzburg, seeking to engage a broader audience, certainly wrote to be read.

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