In the description of Mikhail Bakhtin’s assessment of the transition from the pre-modern to modern consciousness provided for this essay, we are presented with a twentieth century view of the generalized, sweeping themes of history. However, the readings and analysis we have accomplished throughout the semester have afforded us with a complexified, intertwined knowledge of the relationship between cultural change and the evolution of human consciousness. By deconstructing the historical record in such a way, it becomes inevitable to gain a deeper insight into the mechanics of change. In his work, The Origins of Modern Science, Herbert Butterfield discusses the importance of taking this approach to cultivating an understanding of history:

…we can only understand his (Galileo) work if we know something of the system he was attacking, and we must know something of that system apart from the things which were said about it by its enemies…it is necessary not merely to describe and expound discoveries, but to probe more deeply into historical processes and to learn something of the interconnectedness of events. (9)

With this method of understanding history in mind, it will be the purpose of this essay to explore the evolution of human consciousness within the context of the proper historical period. However, the framework will serve to complement Carlo Ginzberg’s statement that “culture offers to the individual a horizon of latent possibilities— a flexible and invisible cage in which he can exercise his own conditional liberty.” Working in this manner will allow for the closer examination of an individual’s formation of a self despite the dictates of tradition. In order to facilitate my discussion, this paper will take a three-pronged formation, drawing from various texts, to highlight the standing intellectual tradition and examine the ways in which a historical figure flaunts these strictures in an effort to establish themselves as individuals.


In tracing the evolution of the intellectual tradition concerning sexuality from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment one is hard pressed to uncover a distinct change in the cultural mindset. Somehow, despite all of the shifts made in religious and secular thought, mainstream sexuality maintained a static position. However, although the accepted sexual paradigm remained unchanged, there were hidden exceptions to the standard. In particular, I wish to discuss the case of Benedetta Carlini, the self-driven lesbian nun living in Seventeenth Century Italy, and her betrayal of both religious and secular tradition. Before the significance of this case can be understood, however, it is necessary to examine the intellectual tradition being rebelled against.

As mentioned earlier, sexuality was one of the few areas of human consciousness to go largely unchanged throughout the time periods covered in the course. This was probably due, in part, to the agreement over the laws of sexual behavior to be found in both religious and secular texts. Of direct consequence to the case of Benedetta Carlini were the religious tracts regarding proper sexual behavior for females. Universal to these writings was the ban placed on lesbian activities. Peter Abelard, in his Commentarium super S. Pauli epistolam ad Romanos libri quinque, sets forth the claim that lesbianism was “Against nature, that is, against the order of nature, which created women’s genitals for the use of men, and conversely, and not so women could cohabit with women.” Numerous other religious sources cited in Judith C. Brown’s book echo Abelard’s sentiments, including Thomas Aquinas and Theodore of Tarsus.

These religious texts may be considered advanced for even mentioning the existence of lesbianism. As further demonstration of the invisibility of this ignominious behavior I cite Baldassare Castiglione’s 1518 essay “On the Nature and Purpose of Women and Men” from his Book of the Courtier. This secular work, published long after the writings of Peter Abelard, reinforces the unfavorable standing of lesbianism through his blatant lack of acknowledgement. By rendering such behavior unnamable it is made all the more taboo through its removal from the natural language of sexuality.

You cannot possibly argue that Nature does not intend to produce the women without whom the human race cannot be preserved, which is something that Nature desires above anything else. For by means of the union of male and female, she produces children…(219-221)

Benedetta Carlini, therefore, as brought out in the investigation of 1620, was consciously rebelling against centuries of intellectual tradition. Her status as Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God assures us that Benedetta was knowledgeable of the prejudices ingrained into the culture against her chosen behavior. By virtue of her possession of this knowledge, Benedetta’s actions become all the more radical. It is essential to note the rarity of this type of event, which is bolstered by the dutiful recording of the court testimonials and eyewitness accounts. The specific attention paid to the nature of her sexual transgressions stand out from her visionary claims as unique. Indeed, the case of Benedetta Carlini brought new attention to the lesbian behavior being conducted in the convents of Renaissance Italy. Although this activity was still not recognized as being the result of desire, and not merely the result of the lack of a male presence, Benedetta Carlini’s story has illuminated the long history that this previously unnamable act actually possesses.


As is demonstrated in the case of Benedetta Carlini, the popular intellectual traditions of the Renaissance sought, by means of moral law, to control the sexuality of women. This power was extended to cover not only physical behavior, but important life decisions as well. With these choices confined either to marriage or the convent, it became the father’s decision as to the proper course for the future. Thus, it was the norm of the Renaissance age for one gender to have powers of determination over another. It would take a remarkably strong woman to stand in the face of her father and attempt to lead a life different from the one she might otherwise have been thrust into. Such a woman can be found in Anna Buschler, living in the German town of Hall during the 1520’s. By way of numerous affairs, none of which would lead to marriage, Anna Buschler would risk invoking the “harsh, unforgiving anger” of her well known father, Hermann Buschler, the town’s burgermeister, in order to exist outside the accepted cultural standard. In addition, Anna’s lifelong legal battles against her siblings contribute to the strength of her convictions.

Before we begin to illustrate the extent to which Anna’s father was representative of the patriarchal culture of the time, it is necessary to draw upon some sources espousing common wisdom of period. Taking place in the 1520’s, the care of Anna Buschler was fought against a backdrop of Reformation Era concentration on the institute of marriage. Martin Luther, in particular, discusses the importance of marriage in the life of a woman in an essay entitled On Celibacy and Marriage:

If a girl is not sustained by great and exceptional grace, she can live without a man as little as she can without eating, drinking, sleeping, and other natural necessities. (430)

By proclaiming women’s dependency on a husband as a “natural necessity” Luther precludes the existence of different ways of life as unnatural. The only identity a woman could assume outside of marriage, still defined in relation to men, was as a prostitute or spinster. In order to prevent women from falling into such unfortunate fates, advice pamphlets were printed in various formats, normally taking on religious overtones.

With the background of subtle male dominance firmly in place, it should be easy to see the justification for Hermann Buschler’s treatment of his daughter. However, his behavior transcended the boundaries of paternal right even for his time. When the truth was revealed in later trials that Hermann Buschler was the recipient of a “mandate for surreptitious capture” enabling him to bring Anna home by force and chain her to a table in his house for six months, his actions were generally lambasted. Anna Buschler, in her own words, describes her father’s actions thusly:

To the best of his ability (he has) belittled, reviled, and raged against me in a way that is not at all befitting or proper for a father to do. He should rather shelter, care for, and protect me from scandal and disgrace, as natural fathers are obligated by both divine and human law to do.

This testimonial speech brings the case outside of gender and familial relations into the wider sphere of human rights. Anna’s attention to the duties of a “natural father” and the dichotomy between human and divine law reveal her grasp of the injustices heaped upon her in her home and court life. While many women who were, perhaps, mistreated similarly no doubt understood their unjust treatment, Anna stands out because she publicly acted upon her convictions. The fact that she fought the justice system until her death, and married solely for the financial support necessary to continue her legal battles, are indicative of the possibilities one has of transcending gender roles. By publicly battling the assumptions of her patriarchal society, Anna Buschler defined herself through action and left her mark on the historical record.


We have seen in the previous two sections the prevalent influence of religion on social behavior. While neither of the cases discussed directly attack the church, the proliferation of Christian belief into various territories of life affected all members of society on a mostly equal basis. Due to this immanence of religious thought, it is important to highlight in the final section the story of an individual willing to assume the most alienating role available in the time of the Renaissance; that of the heretic. What makes the story in question all the more unique is the fact that it concerns a peasant miller named Domenico Scandella or Menocchio, who would rebel against the most sacred of traditions through the construction of an individualistic cosmogony influenced by various texts. In creating this cosmogony, Menocchio diverged from nearly all of the guidelines decided upon in the Council of Trent. It is because of these transgressions that Menocchio was brought before an Inquisitor and eventually put to death.

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1564, determined the official rulings of the Catholic Church on the vital religious issues of the Reformation Period. In one of the opening sections listing the decrees of the Council, the purpose for the calling of the summit are listed as follows:

…for the increase and exaltation of the Christian faith and religion, for the peace and union of the Church; for the reformation of the Clergy and Christian people; for the depression and extinction of the enemies of the Christian name…

Amongst the decrees issued from this meeting were doctrines banning individual interpretation of the Bible, upholding the validity of the sacraments and the truth of the transubstantiation, as well as canons espousing the virtuous lives of the clergy and the defense of saints, relics and the sale of indulgences. Anyone caught thinking differently would be held in anathema.

Menocchio would go on trial in 1584 for betrayal of nearly every sacred ideal upheld by the Council of Trent beginning with the denial of the Church’s possession of absolute truth. During the second trial of 1599 Menocchio voiced his opinion upholding the relativity of beliefs as dependent on faith. People firmly stick to their faith, but there is no way to determine which faith is correct. This largely tolerant view of alternative religions extended God’s grace to all people, which did not sit well with his inquisitors. In court testimonies, Menocchio would go on to accuse the Church of creating the sacraments for their own purposes, and declared marriage to be a human invention. His opinions on the sacrament of the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation were that both were created in order to control men, and that that the celebration of the Mass was merely an extension of this control.

Aside from these relatively typical accusations against the social power wielded by the Church, however, was a view of the universe diverting entirely from the creation myth recounted in the book of Genesis. Menocchio’s individually held heretic belief is what assured his position in a contemptible state:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos…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. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time…

The ideas presented here of a chaotic universe from which all creation sprung disavows the role of God as creator. For a simple miller to come up with such opinions, and to stubbornly adhere to his beliefs despite torture and alienation, was too much for the inquisitor’s to condone. Although much is made in Ginzburg’s book about the various sources which may have inspired Menocchio’s thought, this case may be considered important by virtue of the protagonist’s refusal to give in to the authoritative position that the Church held. Menocchio’s persistent will is a testament to the power of his belief, and a glowing example of how an individual can survive the alienation of his fellow men due to an unyielding strength of mind.


Each of the individuals highlighted according to the various stages upon which they took their stance shine forth from the historical record as important figures. Although all three paid for their refusal to calmly obey traditional rules of conduct, each contributes to the theory of human consciousness set forth by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms. Benedetta Carlini, Anna Buschler, and Domenico Scandella all created for themselves a memorable position in history by testing the limits of the cage set forth by the culture of the Renaissance. These attempts at transcendence all serve as precursors to the movement away from religion, and the focus on the individual potential of the human race to come in the Enlightenment era. All three of these modern consciousnesses have survived the test of time because of their unwillingness to accept defeat in the face of the cultural machine. The stories invoked here should serve to remind us of the many other individuals who, for one reason or another, have not been remembered in the historical record. In the words of Stephen Ozment, author of The Burgermeister’s Daughter:

History is littered with such indelible injuries. The only saving grace in these situations is the injured party’s own refusal to go quietly. There is a shriek of recognition, a redeeming sarcasm, a slap of defiance, which ennobles a person’s destruction and distinguishes it from abject defeat. (194)

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