CARLO GINZBURG. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1980. Pp. xiv, 224. $22.95. Paperback. ISBN: 9781421409887. Originally published in Italian under the name Il formaggio e i vermi: Il cosmo di un mugnaio del ‘500 in 1976 by the editor Giulio Einaudi.

Special Note: This blog post is in honor of the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, who is coming to UC Davis on Monday, April 18, 2016, to talk as this year’s guest speaker at the Eugene Lunn Memorial Lecture Series. This is the Twenty-Fourth Annual installment of the series. The theme is “Reading History Against the Grain,” and the talk will take place in the Buehler Alumni Center from 4:10 to 5:30 pm, with a reception to follow. The event is free and open to the public.

In honor of Professor Ginzburg’s visit, I have decided to post a review I wrote of what is perhaps his most famous historical work, The Cheese and the Worms, when I was in my first year of the MA program at Loyola University Chicago. This paper was one of the very first book reviews that I ever wrote in graduate school. I submitted it on October 28, 2013, for a Historiography class taught by Professor John Pincince. I can still remember that I read Ginzburg’s entire book, from the first page to the last. As many of you know, The Cheese and the Worms is not a long book, so perhaps this is not nearly as impressive of a task as I am suggesting. Nonetheless, the point is that the work was captivating, and it had a profound impact on me. Although I was quite critical in my initial review, I look back upon the work with great fondness now. Since reading The Cheese and the Worms, microhistory has become one of my favorite historical fields. I hope that one day, I can achieve anywhere near the same delicate balance between the local and the global—the intimate and the transcendent—that Ginzburg has achieved here. Thanks for reading. Enjoy.

Lunn Lecture Picture

Book Review: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (1976) is the second book written, and the first book translated into English, by the twentieth-century Jewish-Italian historian and proponent of cultural and micro history, Carlo Ginzburg (b. 1939). The book centers on one Domenico Scandella, also known as Menocchio, a sixteenth-century miller from the village of Montereale in the Friuli region of northeastern Italy, then a domain of the Venetian Republic. Menocchio was the defendant in two rounds of Catholic heresy trials that occurred in 1584/1585 and 1599 respectively. The second round culminated in his public execution by burning at the stake in the Contrada Maggiore of Pordenone. Ginzburg analyzes the primary sources associated with these inquisitions. He interprets these documents within a wider European context, taking into account such factors as the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, a preindustrial printing revolution, a longstanding culture of oral tradition, and a genre of utopian literature. In the end, Ginzburg argues that the heretical ecclesiology espoused by Menocchio at the inquisition tribunals can be linked to an older and broader, “underground current of peasant radicalism.”[1]

Excluding notes and prefaces, The Cheese and the Worms is a short and dense text of 128 pages. These pages are divided into sixty-two numbered ‘micro-sections’ that are titled only in the table of contents. These sections are not a narrative of the Menocchio trials. They are a detailed analysis of the ecclesiology[2] articulated at the trials, with an emphasis on its multifaceted influences and cultural significance. That being said, in order to achieve a concise understanding of the central argument, the reader must first construct a summary of the heretical ecclesiology that is on trial. Although this unique belief system resembled that of the Anabaptists, the Jacobites, the Lutherans, the Manicheans, the even followers of Origen, and the Reformation in general, Ginzburg stresses its very distinct nature. Nonetheless, after echoing the avowed notion that it “came out of [Menocchio’s] own head,” he demonstrates that it was actually created by an “interpretative filter” that Menocchio applied to oral traditions, personal relations, and vernacular writings.[3]

Menocchio’s ecclesiology rejected many theological concepts and practices. These include the divinity and the Second Coming of Christ, the existence of purgatory, the idea of masses for the dead, blasphemy, original sin, damnation, transubstantiation, the immortality of the soul, the Apocrypha, the Catholic sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, extreme unction, marriage and ordination), the divinity of the Gospels, and the use of religious imagery. Conversely, Menocchio’s ecclesiology upheld religious equality and posited a causal force—alternately named chaos or nature—that predated God. It also included a heretical origin story from which the book derives its title. That cosmology was based on coagulating cheese, worm-like angels, and a deity of “Two spirits, seven souls, and a body composed of four elements.”[4]

Ginzburg mentions that this blasphemous ecclesiology would have been attributed to “religious delirium” in later centuries, but the Counter Reformation of the sixteenth century demanded a much more severe answer.[5] Similarly, Ginzburg argues that the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, and the printing revolution gave Menocchio an outlet to articulate his ecclesiology, which was actually rooted in older notions of peasant materialism.[6]  These notions challenged the hierarchical authority of the Catholic Church, most obviously when Menocchio compares the use of Latin in courts to a “betrayal of the poor,”[7] and the use of religious sacraments as “merchandise.”[8]

Ginzburg shows both the weaknesses and the strengths of Menocchio. He demonstrates his ability to articulate some very complex analogies, such as when he compares God to a child within the womb of chaos, but he also demonstrates his tendency to falter in the face of his most fundamental paradoxes, such as the morality of the soul and the existence of paradise.[9] Overall, Ginzburg demonstrates the destructive and intractable persistence of Menocchio against the hegemonic authority of the Catholic Church, arguing that his behavior was actually representative of many other unknown free-thinkers.[10] Ginzburg states that the existence of these free-thinkers refutes “the unacceptable notion that ideas originate exclusively among the dominate classes.”[11]

But The Cheese and the Worms can be a frustrating text to follow. Ginzburg never provides a concise synopsis of the major events or a general overview of his primary sources. The reader does not get the full scope of the narrative until the analysis is over, and they only learn about the primary sources—such as books, recorded testimony, hearsay, conversations, comparative case studies, interrogations, letters, and church frescoes—when they become relevant to a prevailing thread in the argument. On some occasions, Ginzburg includes excerpts that are essential to the narrative, such as the Menocchio confession letters and the inquisitor interrogations.[12] Other times, he includes excerpts from contextual sources, such as the Travels by Mandeville or the Il sogno dil Caravia by Nicolini da Sabbio, that feel arbitrary and tangential. Particularly, his discussion of the “unknown rustic” Scolio and the mythical trope of Cockaigne appear like diversions that introduce new material when the story is clearly in its denouement. Of course, Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms has become famous as a work of micro-history. This particular genre of historical writing is known for circularity, or the ability of the author to move seamlessly between the local and the global. The execution of this process requires a deft sleight of hand on the part of the author, so the transition, for example, between an obtuse description of the medieval European readership of the Quran and the acute life history of Menocchio in northeastern Italy goes unnoticed. Each reader will have to decide for themselves when and how often Ginzburg succeeds.[13]

Overall, Ginzburg analyzes these global, external sources in order to prove that “the crucial element is a common store of traditions,”[14] however, this objective might have been more effective if the book was organized a bit differently. For instance, Ginzburg could have summarized the story of the Menocchio trials first, as Darnton had done with his famous chapter on the French, “Great Cat Massacre.” Then he could have proceeded to analyze the contextual material in a separate section. Instead, the current structure of the book is a tangled mass of analysis and narrative. Ginzburg states that the “case should be seen against [a] background of repression and effacement of popular culture,”[15] but he has spent so much space and time explaining the event and the ecclesiology itself that this point seems to dangle on its own, unproven and un-emphasized.[16]

In The Cheese and the Worms, Ginzburg is trying to make the quintessential, micro-history leap between a singular event and its broader context; but, in the opinion of this reviewer, he is far less successful than his contemporary Robert Darnton. There are moments when Ginzburg latches on to a tangible and Darntonesque conclusion, such as when he states that the borrowed library of Menocchio permits “us to perceive in this tiny community a network of readers who overcame the obstacle of their meager financial resources by passing books to one another,” [17] but these moments are few and far between. Rarely does his narrative circularity return home with such precision.

Finally, despite his microcosmic focus, Ginzburg de-emphasizes and omits discussions that seem crucial to our understanding of the larger cultural context, such as the rhetoric of the Giovanni Daniele Melchiore trial,[18] or the prominence of Chaos-based origin theories in the pagan religions of Europe. He over-emphasizes the common phenomenon of coagulation,[19] and he spends a considerable amount of time discussing specific books—a few of which there is no evidence Menocchio either owned or read—when he could be discussing comparative trial records. Finally, there is the nagging question of his leap from Menocchio—a miller who was both financially successful and firmly ensconced in both the religious and secular order of his town—to the base of peasant materialism. Given how many Italian peasants betrayed Menocchio like Judas before the Sanhedrin priests, this idea that he represents the peasantry should be challenged a little bit more.

Notes: 

[1] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980), 115.

[2] Ibid, 18.

[3] Ibid, 41.

[4] Ibid, 69.

[5] Ibid, 6-7.

[6] Ibid, 59.

[7] Ibid, 9.

[8] Ibid, 25.

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] Ibid, 128.

[11] Ibid, 126.

[12] Ibid, 87.

[13] Ibid, 112-117.

[14] Ibid, 117.

[15] Ibid, 126.

[16] Ibid, 126.

[17] Ibid, 30.

[18] Ibid, 73.

[19] Ibid, 58.