I said that I would do it so I guess I better make good on that promise. Here then, is the overview of the book. Since I cannot add another writeup (and these really should be separate), I'm adding the book summary here above the essay since it should be included as very pertinent information.
The Book

A New Approach to Historical Study

Carlo Ginzburg found the record of a Church inquisition of a rather unorthodox peasant miller while he was doing research for another topic altogether. What he found therein is a quite extraordinarily detailed account of a man that would otherwise be unknown to us. Ginzburg presents much of the text as is, while offering clarification, external historical record reference, and his own evaluation of what it all means.

Historians have this perfect little picture of the world and they love to describe in detail just how everything played out to get us where we are today. If you talk to some of the good ones, you may get closer to the truth that we actually know very little about the past. We have a lot of evidence, but it pales in comparison to the amount that we have lost. This comparison is only valid when we are talking about civilizations that recorded their history, saying nothing about the incredible number of cultures that relied entirely on an oral tradition. Amazingly enough, some of these oral traditions existed along with our recorded history within the past 500 years. This is where The Cheese and the Worms begins, examining such a culture as it existed in 16th century Italy.

But just how are we to get at this oral-culture if nothing of it has ever been recorded? Truly this task is insurmountable to the historian, and often relies on the expertise of the anthropologist to piece cultural history together not unlike assembling the bones of a prehistoric beast. The Cheese and the Worms is such a unique treasure then because it is concerned with a recorded document that captures an oral-culture intact. The place and time is a peasant culture in 16th Italy (les petite gens). The history is given to us by the peasant miller Menocchio, a rather extraordinary self-educated man, and the recorder is none other than the Holy Roman Church. History is the story of kings, conquest and discovery, but this book is so unique because it gives us the tale of the common man.

A Most Extraordinary Peasant Miller

Menocchio was a miller that lived alone at the edge of the village.1 He happened to have a fascination with books and over time began to develop his own fascinating worldviews. Unfortunately the Catholic Church was not overly fond of free-thinkers and thus we find Menocchio in front of an Inquisition that records the proceedings in exacting detail. We are give a list of the books that Menocchio read. It is by examination of this list that we can start to deduce just where Menocchio gets his ideas. But what about those ideas that aren't in the books? Menocchio is very sure of himself throughout the proceedings and we are hard pressed to believe that he bases his ideas on conjecture alone. No, in fact Menocchio's ideas are representative of a culture, orally transmitted, that exists along with the Christian theocracy of the day. It is older than Christianity and has been passed down generation to generation for thousands of years.

The miller has his own ideas about the origin of the world, much to the horror of his inquisitors. In the beginning all the world was as a ball of cheese, and out of this cheese arose worms, which became the angels that gave birth to men. He goes on to describe how the soul is separate from the spirits, which might go nowhere except for his Aristotelian ability to hold a philosophical or theological debate. Keep in mind that he is debating with priests that have had a lifetime filled with study, and the are many of them in a room with just a lowly uneducated peasant. Being witness to his nose-tweakings and the priests' unsettlement is thoroughly entertaining and reason enough alone to read the book.

The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller
Carlo Ginzburg
ISBN: 0801843871

1In Menocchio's time, millers were regarded with suspicion. They usually lived alone, separate from the rest of the villagers, and made their living off of the fact that everyone had to grind their wheat in order to make bread, in order to survive. It isn't too surprising then that some resented millers in general. Compare this to witchhunts where widows or lonely women often bore the same criticism, sadly with a more violent conclusion. Whatever you think of the miller, you obviously can't get by without one.

The Essay

The following essay is mainly a utilization of Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms to explore the contemporaneous existence of a separate and ancient oral-culture that was alive in Italy in the 16th century, but which traditional history has been unable to bring to light for its reliance on recorded documents. It does employ other sources however, to aid the exploration, but I felt that this empty nodeshell would be a good home for it. Now I should probably do a separate writeup simply detailing the book, unless someone gets to it first.

Submitted for mblase's Support Your Local Library Quest

The Cosmos of a 16th Century Peasant

The present is the effect of the past’s causation. Trying to visualize the present alone leaves man’s perception in limbo and renders time meaningless. All elements in the scope of man’s existence participated in chaotic fashion to create the present world. It would present a limited view of the truth to only study parts of the whole history. Yet it was only in this century that historians turned away from the idea that kings, priests, and the bourgeois alone turn the world. They ignored the most important factor, the people.

Rulers lead wars that make nations yet all is subject to fate. The people are the soldiers in the wars, the economic strength of their leaders and nations, and indeed the instruments of fate. Though the people make up the vast majority, their voice is heard the least. They are the workers and the peasants that are naively called the lower class. They are the energy that has created and continues to create the world. The works on 16th century peasant culture by Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis help to elucidate the lives of a people that leave no direct permanent record. “A journey-men’s initiation rite, a village festive organization, an informal gathering of women for a lying in or of men and women for storytelling, or a street disturbance could be ‘read’ as fruitfully as a diary, a political tract, a sermon, or a body of laws.”1 By examining how literate culture mirrors aspects of low culture Davis uncovers new clues into the oral-culture. Ginzburg uncovers a primitive oral tradition solely by examining an exceptional peasant miller that bridges the divide between the oral and literate culture. Davis and Ginzburg provide us with a history that is fresh and entirely relevant.

Before we delve into the world of the 16th century peasant, the significance of what one might say must be established. It is an established fact today that the world the peasant lived in was oppressive and, as Hobbes put it best, “nasty, brutish and short.” It is interesting and relevant to the present to evaluate this voice of dissent. Since the records we have are those of the literate ruling nobles and Church leaders, the focus of documentation was generally restricted to the insurgent subject. To quote Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage” but conquerors, rebels, heretics and revolutionaries are the players. To give voice to the dissenting peasant (or an undercurrent of unorthodox culture) gives light to the reality of everyday life in 16th century Italy. It can even illuminate new aspects of ‘high-class’ culture.

The only reason we can assuredly know anything about les petites gens culture is because of the circulation of ideas and communication between the nobility and lower class. With the invention of the printing press, books could be bought for roughly equal to a half-loaf of bread.2 Rather than making print available to everyone and in doing so wipe out oral culture, peasants were likely to have open-reading sessions. They shared their ideas about what they read, past the book onto a friend, or ended up selling it to a library. “They flowed through the literate segments of the menu people rather than remain hoarded on an artisan’s shelf.”3

The coexistence of oral and written culture sought to enrich both. The printed word can “provide people with new ways to relate their doings to authority, new and old.”4 Such was the case for the main-character in Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. Using precisely accurate records of two Church trials, Ginzburg is able to give the reader a glimpse into the world of this extraordinary person. Menocchio, a peasant miller, is able to stand toe-to-toe with educated Church officials. He often pulls metaphors and speeches from texts that mystify the Inquisitors. The new medium of communication created standards in occupations and sciences. Accusations and assertions were recorded in timeless perfection to be critiqued, analyzed and added to. Davis notes that authors published books in Bakhtinian dialogue, with the reader in mine. Corrections and additions were often welcomed. Publications such as The Abuses and Ignorance of Physicians5 and a midwife’s denouncement of common birthing practices give voice to a wisdom born of experience and practice.

The state and Church, however, were immune to criticism. A comment on the evils of the clergy could land one, as it did in Menocchio’s case, in prison or worse. Held to such strict silence, how can historians be sure of peasant sentiment, hope and even ideology? The aforementioned Menocchio provides the modern historian with an exceptional and intriguing case. Menocchio was a pillar of the community in his village in 16th century Italy. His unorthodoxy lay in his literacy, but more so because he was so well read for his position. Indeed he often confounded his inquisitors with the literary tools he manipulated to his advantage. Before focusing on Menocchio’s uniqueness too much, Ginzburg takes a step back to evaluate Menocchio as being completely representative of his village, or even a primitive peasant culture that pervaded French society.

Menocchio’s view of the cosmos differed sharply from the accepted Christian doctrine. With a list of the texts that Menocchio had access to, Ginzburg follows clues like a detective. Menocchio talks of the world beginning from chaos and cites this belief as having originated from his reading of Fioretto della Bibia.6 However, the primordial chaos doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. Menocchio tries to use texts to support his ideas of a unified yet omnipresent god, and universal tolerance for all peoples and faith. He picks lines from texts like weapons to hurl at his judges, yet their overall dogma is unique. What Ginzburg uncovers, little by little, is that Menocchio’s ideas are machinations of his own “artful mind”, and he only uses texts to support his rhetoric and debate.

Ginzburg takes it even one step further by proposing that Menocchio’s ideas are not completely unique but rather reflect a substratum of peasant dogma that has existed for millennia. This dependence on the land and the whims of nature necessarily create a materialist and cyclical view of the cosmos. Ginzburg supports this by introducing another peasant miller, Pighino. Brought before the Church in 1570, Pighino denied the punishment of hell, the immortality of the soul and espoused ideas of universal equality.7 Ginzburg also introduces one Paolo Ricci, a highborn heretic that may have had contact with Pighino.8 Though the possible existence of such an exchange is tantalizing to the historian, existing evidence cannot prove such a claim. Peasant culture may be further explored along other avenues. Examining how les petite gens found release, and by looking closely at Carnival (charivari) play, the historian will again find the voice of dissent.

The youth group in a village was a rite of passage in order to reinforce communal values. It evolved into something much more. The rules of play could often excuse and hide the insurgent broadcast. The famous Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, sees the charivari “as present in all societies.” “The carnival is always a primary source of liberation, destruction, and renewal, but the scope it is allowed changes in different periods.”9

The charivari in 16th century Italy evolved into highly organized hierarchies. These ‘Abbeys of Misrule’ issued their own proclamations and righted the wrongs of the village with mocking, humiliating parades of the guilty party. It was within the Abbey’s jurisdiction to parade a man that was beaten by his wife, and even vice-versa in the woman’s month of May. Large disparities in age of spouses also could fall under attack. These Abbey’s permeated Europe. Their focus was the local community and on its ancestry and tradition.10

Especially in urban Abbey’s, effigies of officials and clerics might be paraded, mocked, and even put on trial and executed. The raucous world of the charivari then could carry a serious message. Yet it was the sheer absurdity of the act that could shelter the participants. The peculiarity of sexual inversion in these plays had more purpose than comedy. First, it must be noted that a woman’s position was subordinate to her father/husband. Such was apparent in English law where the crime of killing one’s husband was considered treason, and not murder.11 Women were less accountable for their actions. It should be no surprise then that men often dressed up as women when attacking the injustices of the clergy or local landlord. They were thought to be “hiding behind their sex.” Dame Folly and the ludicrousness of the charivari provided a shield from which behind the menu people could make very serious critiques of perceived social injustices. “Before the existence of classes and the state, the comic realm was equal to the serious; with slave and feudal societies, including that of the sixteenth century, the carnival becomes a second life, a second reality for the people, separated from power and the state but still public and perennial.”12

By indirect means, the historian can piece together a history of the people that is all together not Christian but something quite unique and ancient. The existence of a primitive oral culture that crosses the borders of nations and pervades the bounds of time is extraordinary. What emerges is a natural view of the world. The equality of man and tolerance then are not new ideas, as modern culture arrogantly conjectures. Philosophy often surmises that small communities are the best form of government. Aristotle’s polis may have existed beneath a larger framework of government. It is astounding to find such ideas from the ‘lower-class’. The historian can find more pieces of moral consequence in a peasant miller’s musings then in the edicts of the Holy Roman Church.

1Pg. xvi Davis, Natalie Zemon
2Pg. 212 Davis
3Pg. 213 Davis
4Pg. 214 Davis
5Pg. 215 Davis
6Pg. 52 Ginzburg, Carlo, a complete list of Menocchio’s texts can be found on page 29
7Pg. 118-120 Ginzburg
8Pg. 122 Ginzburg
9Pg. 103 Ginzburg
10Pg. 106 Ginzburg
11Pg. 146 Ginzburg
12Pg. 103 Ginzburg


Davis, Natalie Zemon Culture and Society in Early Modern Italy
Stanford Univ Press, December 1977

Ginzuburg, Carlo The Cheese and the Worms, The Cosmology of a 16th Century Miller
Johns Hopkins Univ Press, Reprint edition March 1992

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