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

Previous entries in this mini-series: Bonus Book Review: Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs; Bonus Book Review: Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements; Bonus Book Review: Julian Baggini, How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy; Bonus Book Review: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

This month’s Bonus Book Review was a particularly fun one to read and write, as this was the first month where my suggested book, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, won the initial vote and was selected as the book of the month for the online book club I’m in. I do have to confess that, as with last month’s selection (Anderson’s Imagined Communities) I first read this particular work in grad school. In this case, I encountered The Cheese and the Worms in a grad seminar on European religious history. That class was offered in the fall of 2015 alongside a seminar on southern religious history, and I often joke that the semester–my favorite of grad school–was my “seminary” semester.

For this review and for the 2015 class, I used the 2013 edition of the English translation by John and Anne C. Tedeschi, a version which has quite a bit of prefatory material orienting the reader to what is to follow. Like Imagined Communities, The Cheese and the Worms is an oft-cited, oft-assigned, and oft-translated work, and in the preface to the 2013 edition, Ginzburg traces the history of the book itself from its origins as a chance finding in an archive in the 1960s through its first Italian publication in 1976 to its many translations and significant impacts on the field of history and the subfield of microhistory more specifically. Ginzburg notes that “The Cheese and the Worms has enjoyed great success and has been translated into many languages. It has been read in ways which are often beyond me, through cultural, as well as linguistic, filters which are inaccessible to me.” (p. xiii) He also asks, though, “It can happen; why did it happen?” (p. xiii)

Ginzburg argues, largely correctly, I believe, that a key factor behind the book’s lasting success is the personality of its central figure, Menocchio, the miller whose unusual theology (and attempts to share it with others) led him to run afoul of the Church. Menocchio’s story and its “interweaving between oral and written culture, and his challenge to authority,” make the narrative accessible and relevant to modern readers despite the considerable gaps in time, culture, and often geography. (p. xiii) To this I would add Ginzburg’s knack as a writer (evident even in the English translation of his work) and the accessible translation of his work produced by the Tedeschis. The book is sophisticated in its argument and in use of sources–chiefly the trial transcripts–but remains simple enough for undergraduate course usage and lay readers alike.

What is the point of the book, though? Ginzburg’s clearest statements on the matter come from the preface to the Italian edition, to which I will confine most of my remarks here in an attempt to not “spoil” the course of the story. (One of the benefits of microhistory as a genre is that the works often read more like novels, since readers may or may not be familiar with the figures involved or the outcomes of the stories told.)

Early in that preface, Ginzburg notes that historians’ attempts to learn more about non-elite peoples of the past are often hampered by a “scarcity of evidence about the behavior and attitudes of the subordinate classes” and that the main figure of his book, the aforementioned Menocchio (or Domenico Scandella) was an exception proving the rule. (p. xxi) Although Menocchio was a generally obscure figure–a small-town miller–his two trials and the accompanying records from them give us a remarkably thorough source base, all things considered, which Ginzburg then uses to “reconstruct a fragment of what is usually called ‘the culture of the lower classes’ or even ‘popular culture.'” (p. xxi)

Many historians, Ginzburg asserts, have been hesitant to study such culture, viewing culture as properly the realm of the elite. Further compounding the difficulty, non-elite is often oral culture, and since historians deal primarily with written records, figuring out what barely literate or even non-literate historical actors believed is quite a challenge. Those scholars who have attempted to tackle the problem, or one adjacent to it, have made some progress but left other avenues unpursued:

“First there is attributed to the subordinate classes of preindustrial society a passive accommodation to the cultural sub-products proffered by the dominant classes (Mandrou), then an implied suggestion of at least partly autonomous values in respect to the culture of the latter (Bolleme), and finally an absolute extraneousness that places the subordinate class beyond or, better yet, in a state prior to culture (Foucault). To be sure, Bakhtin’s hypothesis of a reciprocal influence between lower class and dominant cultures is much more fruitful. But to specify the methods and the periods of this influence (Jacques Le Goff has begun to do so with excellent results) means running into the problem caused by a documentation, which, in the case of popular culture, is almost always indirect.” (p. xxvi)

In this case, though, Ginzburg is able to analyze Menocchio’s statements in light of the books the miller had read, allowing him to see just how “a previously untapped level of popular beliefs, of obscure peasant mythologies” (p. xxvii) influenced Menocchio’s reading of those works and in turn his unusual cosmology (the source of the book’s title). Although Menocchio was clearly not an average inhabitant of his world, neither was he so far removed from it as to render it unintelligible in his words, and Ginzburg contends that Menocchio’s story is representative in both a negative sense (helping us understand what a majority believed) and a positive sense (helping us understand the possible outlier manifestations of the culture). “With this,” Ginzburg adds, “it is not my intention to pass judgment on qualitative versus quantitative research; quite simply, it must be emphasized that, as far as the history of the subordinate classes is concerned the precision of the latter cannot do without… the notorious impressionism of the former.” (p. xxviii)

Again, I don’t want to spoil too much of the book’s “plot” here, since even though Ginzburg indicates Menocchio’s ultimate fate early on, the path leading there will likely be unfamiliar to readers, and the book is too enjoyable for me to undermine in that way. Instead, I’ll now offer a few minor criticisms en route to what is overall a very positive review. First, regarding the merits of the book itself, one’s opinions on The Cheese and the Worms will likely correspond pretty closely to how one feels about microhistory as a whole. If, like Ginzburg (and like me), you are comfortable with drawing out much larger conclusions from a single example or handful of examples, then it is hard to imagine a more successful and effective work in the genre; but if you prefer your history more comparative and more quantitative, you will likely find the book an enjoyable but perhaps unpersuasive read. And second, regarding the writing, while the accessible (at times, even breezy) tone of the book makes for a refreshing read, the frequent use of contractions (“We’ll see,” “It’s true that,” and so on) are jarring in a work of scholarly history such as this one.

Still, in the end, I suggested the book for the book club this month, I’m glad it won, and I was greatly appreciative of the opportunity to return to one of my favorite grad school reads five and a half years later.

For kicks, here’s my original weekly writing assignment from that grad class.

“If I remember the end of our previous discussion correctly, I am the lone student in this class reading Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller for the first time this week. (Provincial Americanists, am I right?) At any rate, I had heard much about Ginzburg’s short book in previous semesters, nearly all of it complimentary, when my fellow students read it for the European historiographical seminar or for the methodological colloquium. Based on this second-hand knowledge gleaned from overheard office conversations, I was expecting to find a tidy narrative about Domenico Scandella, alias Menocchio, an eccentric and obscure miller who ran afoul of the Inquisition because of his freethinking and, more directly, his free speaking. Having also heard that this was a—perhaps the—foundational microhistory, I anticipated that Ginzburg would be concerned mostly with the traditionally biographical aspects of his work, focusing almost exclusively on Menocchio’s cosmology but not teasing out any big-picture conclusions from it.

What I found, however, was something much more intellectually sophisticated than a simple rehashing of the life and times of Menocchio, enjoyable as that might have been to read. Rather, Ginzburg employs Menocchio, in ways not entirely dissimilar from Lucien Febvre’s use of Rabelais in The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, as a way to tap into the oral culture which shaped the intellectual world of Menocchio and his fellow peasants. As Ginzburg notes, Menocchio may seem like one of us or like the Lutherans, Anabaptists, and other “heretics” who populated his world. But in truth, his understanding of the universe and of his place within it were quite different from ours and theirs. The oral culture through which Menocchio filtered his peculiar readings of texts as varied as the vernacular Bible, Mandeville’s Travels, and perhaps even the Koran has generally been obscured because of an inherent lack of written sources. Fortunately, the relatively robust source base chronicling Menocchio’s appearances in court offers the careful historian a way in. Despite Ginzburg’s original interest in writing about an individual, then, The Cheese and the Worms winds up making much broader claims about the popular peasant culture of preindustrial Europe and about cultural transmission itself.

I freely confess to having a soft spot for microhistories, but I must also acknowledge that they can easily fall into the same trap which poses a particular danger to biographies and to works of local history: failing to answer the “so what?” question for audience members without a direct connection to the subject at hand. For instance, reading a hyperlocal biography about “Mountain” Tom Clark, a Florence, Alabama-area legend, sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon to me, but the rest of you would probably be less enthralled by that prospect. Ginzburg, thankfully, avoids this pitfall, and his methodological innovations and musings on cultural transmission resonate far beyond the boundaries of Montereale.

At the same time, though, I wonder how different Ginzburg’s approach really is from Febvre’s, and whether, in seeking to rescue Menocchio and peasant oral culture from historical obscurity, he is not guilty of the same kind of overreaching of which he accuses Febvre. Extrapolating an entire swath of culture from a single figure is a difficult task in any situation, and the very things that make it possible to study Menocchio at all—his frequent, lengthy, and well-documented appearances in court, his ability to write, his profession, and his familiarity with an unusual assortment of incendiary texts—seem to limit the miller’s representativeness. Not being overly familiar with any of the members of the rogues gallery Ginzburg assembles in the preface to his original work (Mandrou, Bolleme, Foucault, and Bakhtin) makes it more difficult for me to accurately gauge how revolutionary Ginzburg’s effort is, and so I look forward to the afternoon’s discussion and getting some clarification in this regard. Despite this possible shortcoming, The Cheese and the Worms usefully reminds me not to make overly hasty assumptions about what my historical subjects could or could not have believed, and serves as a powerful demonstration of the necessity for historians to dig into the weeds, identify interesting exceptions to cultural norms, and think critically about how those exceptions came to be.”

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