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The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a 16th-Century Miller 
by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi.
Routledge, 177 pp., £7.95, October 1980, 0 7100 0591 1
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This is not quite another Montaillou. Professor Ginzburg’s book deals with an isolated heretical individual, not with a heretical community. But it shares some of the qualities of that marvellous book. It reveals an almost equally startling body of wholly unorthodox ideas existing within a nominally Roman Catholic society. The Middle Ages, it has been unkindly said, appear to be ‘the age of faith’ because nearly all the evidence which survives was written by monks and priests. We might extend this to the couple of centuries after the invention of printing: they appear to be centuries of faith because priests controlled the censorship. It is very difficult to find out what ordinary people thought. They may have accepted the orthodoxy of their betters, though there are many indications that this was not the case. But if they did hold unorthodox views there was no prospect of getting them printed, except when the orthodox refuted and denounced them. Only in the present generation have historians like Robert Mandrou and Peter Burke seriously attempted to ascertain what was going on beneath the surface. In Montaillou Le Roy Ladurie utilised one lucky cache of evidence. Professor Ginzburg has found another.

Domenico Scandella, known as Menocchio, lived from 1532 to 1599 or 1600. He was a miller, who spent nearly all his life in Montereale, a small hill town in the Friuli, part of the Venetian republic. The occupation of miller set Menocchio apart. ‘The mill was a place of meeting, of social relations, in a world that was predominantly closed and static.’ Like the ale-house, ‘it was a place for the exchange of ideas,’ and millers were ‘an occupational group exceptionally receptive to new ideas and inclined to propagate them’. Millers were prominent in medieval heretical sects and among 16th-century Anabaptists. Ginzburg describes another miller living at the same time in the mountains of Modena who had similar heresies to Menocchio.

Venice was the most liberal and anti-clerical state in Italy: early 17th-century Englishmen regarded Venetians almost as honorary Protestants. The republic’s bourgeois patrician government exploited the fierce hostility which existed between nobles and peasants in the Friuli, on the whole supporting the latter. The Friuli was unique in Europe in having a representative body for the peasantry alongside the Parlamento of their betters. Menocchio benefited from Venetian anti-clericalism when he was first on trial for heresy in 1584: the inquisitor was reminded that Venetian regulations required the presence of a secular official at all trials by the Inquisition. So by 16th-century standards Menocchio lived in a relatively free society; and his village was tucked away in the mountains.

Professor Ginzburg has drawn on the account of Menocchio’s interrogation, which is often full enough to be printed as dialogue. Menocchio was a loner who thought a lot for himself. He knew some of his thoughts were dangerous, but he found the captive audience of his judges irresistible, and poured out his ideas to them with the wildest imprudence, only occasionally checked by a transparent cunning. The inquisitors seem to have been flabbergasted by what they heard, and to have tried hard to make coherent sense of it so as to be able to identify Menocchio’s heresies.

Eleven books were mentioned in Menocchio’s trial. Some he owned, others he borrowed. We should not underestimate the importance of printing in bringing new ideas to people like Menocchio. An Italian translation of the 14th-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville revealed to him the existence of the quite different civilisations and religions of Islam, India and China. He also probably read the Koran, of which an Italian translation appeared in Venice in 1547. This is another example of the republic’s relative liberalism: the Koran did not appear in English until 1649.

Professor Ginzburg emphasises that Menocchio’s reading was ‘one-sided and arbitrary, almost as if he was searching for confirmation of ideas and convictions that were already firmly entrenched’. John Bunyan, likewise uneducated, faced similar problems after the publication of the Koran in England. Professor Ginzburg compares Montaigne, a contemporary operating at a very different intellectual level, who drew sceptical conclusions from reading descriptions of the natives of America. From Mandeville, Menocchio extracted the view that there were good men in all religions: but ‘since I was born a Christian I want to remain a Christian, and if I had been born a Turk I would want to live like a Turk.’ From the rather surprising source of Boccaccio’s Decameron Menocchio drew the conclusion that ‘each person holds his faith to be right, but we do not know which is the right one.’ (Menocchio had read the Decameron in an edition published before the Counter-Reformation censorship got busy on it; only the story which prompted this conclusion – a story the censors blotted out – remained in his memory.)

Tolerance, respect for the views of others, seems to have been one of the ideas for which Menocchio sought confirmation from his reading. From an even less plausible source, Il Fioretto della Bibbia, Menocchio ‘got my opinion that, when the body dies, the soul dies too, since out of many different kinds of nations some believe in one way, some in another’. It is a non-sequitur: but it illustrates one of Menocchio’s most steadfast convictions. The inquisitors could easily lead him into logical traps, but could not get him to renounce his deeply-held ideas.

So the problem which Professor Ginzburg attacks is to identify and account for these convictions, which Menocchio did not get from his reading but brought to it.

In Menocchio’s talk we see emerging, as if out of a crevice in the earth, a deep-rooted cultural stratum so unusual as to appear almost incomprehensible. This case ... involves not only a reaction filtered through the written page, but also an irreducible residue of oral culture. The Reformation and the diffusion of printing had been necessary to permit this different culture to come to light. Because of the first, a simple miller had dared to think of speaking out, of voicing his own opinions about the Church and the world. Thanks to the second, words were at his disposal to express the obscure, inarticulate vision of the world that fermented within him. In the sentences or snatches of sentences wrung out of books he found the instruments to formulate and defend his ideas.

‘Can’t you understand, the inquisitors don’t want us to know what they know!’ he exclaimed to a fellow villager.

But what was the ‘oral culture’ that the Reformation and printing had released? What were the ideas which Menocchio brought to his reading? Here what strikes me as most remarkable is the extent to which Menocchio’s ideas can be paralleled by those held in Montaillou two and a half centuries earlier, and by ideas which lurked underground in England from at least the Lollards of the 15th century until they burst out into the open in the freedom of the 1640s, when priestly censorship broke down. They included rejection of the Trinity, of the divinity of Christ, of the sacrifice of the Cross; denial of the immortality of the soul, of the existence of a local heaven or hell, of the virgin birth, of the sanctity of marriage. Menocchio was hostile to Latin as the language of a privileged class, and thought that ‘Holy Scripture has been invented to deceive man.’ The Apocryphal gospels were no less authoritative. He rejected images, ceremonies, the sacraments, saints’ days, the power, wealth and economic oppressiveness of the Church, and a mediating priesthood: laymen had a right to preach. More positively, Menocchio accepted a sort of materialist pantheism, such as was to be reproduced in mid-17th-century England by Ranters and Gerrard Winstanley. ‘Everything that can be seen is God ... We are gods.’ Menocchio had a wide tolerance and was impatient of theological niceties. ‘We should be concerned about helping each other while we are still in this world’ rather than about prayers for the dead. ‘It’s more important to love our neighbour than to love God.’ ‘He who does no harm to his neighbour does not commit sin,’ even if he blasphemes. It is a morality rather than a religion. Many of these views were held by Anabaptists in the Friuli in the mid-century; Menocchio may have been in contact with such groups, though this cannot be proved. He owned a vernacular Bible, a prohibited book.

His ideas are also reminiscent of those of the great anti-Trinitarian heretic Servetus, whom Calvin burned after Servetus had escaped the Inquisition. There is no evidence that Menocchio had read Servetus, whose heresies certainly circulated widely in Italy, not only among the learned. Servetus’s emphasis on the humanity of Christ, his belief that the Holy Spirit meant right reason in man, and that God was in all things, including human beings, may underlie Menocchio’s outburst:

What do you imagine God to be? God is nothing else than a little breath ... Air is God ... I believe that the [Holy Spirit] is in everybody ... What is this Holy Spirit?... This Holy Spirit can’t be found.

Yet even if such contacts could be established, they are not enough to account for Menocchio’s heresies. The fact that so many of them can also be encountered in 14th-century Montaillou, in 15th and 17th-century England, and among large numbers of 16th-century heretics all over Europe, suggests that Professor Ginzburg is right in postulating the existence of ‘an oral culture that was the patrimony not only of Menocchio but also of a vast segment of 16th-century society’. Its beliefs were loosely formulated and varied from place to place: but the evidence for its existence is very strong. Professor Ginzburg stresses that the peasant culture existed in its own right, and was not merely the cast-off ideas of a higher culture. Indeed, he suggests that we should see ‘a circular relationship composed of reciprocal influences, which travelled from low to high as well as from high to low’. Apparent echoes of Wyclif, Anabaptists or Servetus in Menocchio may tell us more about the origins of their heresies than about Menocchio’s contacts. Professor Ginzburg suggests that the inquisitors were being unnecessarily clever in hearing echoes of Wyclif in Menocchio’s belief in the mortality of the soul. But Anabaptists probably inherited this belief from the Hussites, who took it from English Lollards. All three may have drawn on longer-lasting peasant beliefs.

Some of the most interesting pages in this fascinating book grapple with the problem of identifying the ideas of this oral peasant culture. By definition they could not be printed in a censored press. ‘The thoughts, the beliefs and the aspirations of the peasants and artisans of the past reach us (if and when they do) almost always through distorting viewpoints and intermediaries.’ Ginzburg speaks of ‘the tenacious persistence of a peasant religion intolerant of dogma and ritual, tied to the cycles of nature, and fundamentally pre-Christian’. Only in the 1640s in England could Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, early Quakers and other sectaries get some popular ideas into print. Ginzburg identifies rationalism, scepticism, materialism, egalitarian utopianism and religious naturalism as permanent characteristics of this culture.

Books, as we have seen, were not ‘sources’ for Menocchio. ‘Between himself and the printed page’ was ‘a filter that emphasised certain words while obscuring others’. And this filter ‘continually leads us back to a culture that is very different from the one expressed on the printed page – one based on an oral tradition’. Menocchio insisted that his opinions ‘came out of his head’. ‘I did not believe that paradise existed because I did not know where it was.’ The title of Ginzburg’s book derives from Menocchio’s idea that the world was not created by God but ‘produced by nature’, ‘from the most perfect substance of the world’. From this original chaos the angels and God himself were produced by spontaneous generation, ‘just as maggots are produced from a cheese’. Professor Ginzburg points out that the doctrine of spontaneous generation of life from inanimate matter was a ‘tendentiously scientific’ idea, the possibility of which was not refuted until more than a century later. He draws attention to Thomas Burnet’s use in The Sacred Theory of the Origin of the Earth (1681) of the metaphor of cheese-making.

So we are brought back to the two-way transmission of ideas from popular to upper-class culture: the problem of ‘the popular roots of a considerable part of high European culture, both medieval and post-medieval’. Professor Ginzburg refers to Rabelais, Breughel, Anabaptists and Servetus: he reminds us that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the same time as Menocchio. He suggests that after the Peasants’ War in Germany and the reign of the Anabaptists in Münster (the 1520s and 30s) a determined effort was made to reestablish upper-class ideological hegemony, which took ‘various forms in different parts of Europe, but the evangelisation of the countryside by the Jesuits, and the capillary religious organisation based on the family achieved by the Protestant churches, can be traced to a single current’, ending in the ‘repression and effacement of popular culture’.

Yet if we think of our great heretical poet Milton, it is remarkable how many of his unorthodox ideas reproduce in a more sophisticated form those of Menocchio: Milton’s rejection of creation ex nihilo, his doctrine of creation out of a pre-existent chaos, his theological materialism, his anti-Trinitarianism (often attributed to the influence of Servetus), denying the equality of the Son to the Father, his belief that ‘all men are Sons of God,’ his passionate hatred of idolatry, his rejection of monogamy. Milton’s rebel angels argued that they were not created by God but were ‘self-begot’. Milton’s heresies are traditionally attributed to Classical sources: Ginzburg’s remarkable book reinforces the suggestion that we should think rather about Milton’s relationship to popular culture.

The Cheese and the Worms is enthralling reading. The translation, which must have been difficult, reads excellently. The translators have, however, added a gratuitous note in which they tell us that Menocchio had a fair trial. The practice of recording what the victim ‘might utter during the torture, even his sighs, his cries, his laments and tears’, so useful for the historian, was ‘designed to discourage irregularities’. Menocchio was tortured and burnt under ‘what was, for the times, an essentially moderate code of law’. Professor Ginzburg more wisely limited himself to remarking on the presence of a lay observer at Menocchio’s first trial, when torture was not used. There appears to be no evidence relating to this point in his second trial, but Rome found it necessary to insist that ‘the jurisdiction of the Holy Office over a case of such importance can in no way be doubted’, which suggests that the secular authority was trying to save Menocchio. He was burnt at ‘the express desire of his Holiness’, Pope Clement VIII.

There is one consoling moment in this grim conclusion. Menocchio was subjected to the torture of the strappado for half an hour, in order to make him reveal the names of his ‘accomplices’. First he said, ‘Let me down, and I’ll think about it,’ but he still could not recall any names: he almost certainly had no followers. Jerked up again, he promised to talk, and named the Count of Montereale, lord of his village, and to this story he stuck. That last piece of peasant shrewdness was enough: the inquisitors were not anxious to get involved with a count. So Menocchio was not tortured again, so far as we know, until he died in the fire.

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