Loitering in the Piazza

Stephen Greenblatt

  • Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist by Giovanni Levi, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Chicago, 209 pp, £21.50, June 1988, ISBN 0 226 47417 8

Giovanni Levi’s Inheriting Power bears a generic resemblance to those recent historical studies that illuminate the lives of European peasants by isolating and reconstructing a single resonant story. The best of these microhistories – Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre – succeed in making their stories what Kenneth Burke calls ‘representative anecdotes’, reflections of reality that are inevitably selections of reality. The selections work if they manage to convey a sense of both resonance and particularity. The particularity functions rhetorically to persuade the reader that she has made contact not with another statistical table or an allegorical idea but with a palpable life and its concrete material world (‘to take note’, Hal tells Poins, ‘how many pairs of silk stockings thou hast, viz., these, and those that were thy peach-color’d ones’). The resonance functions to raise this enumeration of particulars above the trivial or the random, to evoke what Yeats called the emotion of multitude, to make the anecdote representative.

In Ginzburg and Davis resonance is hardly the result of the anecdote’s typicality: the Friulian miller who told the Inquisition that the world coagulated like a giant cheese out of the primordial ooze was not articulating a common creed, though he may, as Ginzburg claims, enable us to glimpse a widespread peasant materialism; the cunning French impostor who insinuated himself into the identity, the household and the marriage of another was not enacting a characteristic regional practice, though he may, as Davis claims, enable us to glimpse certain underlying peasant concepts of property and selfhood. The evocative power in both cases depends upon the historian’s ability not only to marshal convincing evidence but to tell an extraordinary story – that is, to conjoin the resonant with the marvellous. For it is less the force of statistics than the force of the marvellous – the story’s power to compel attention, to stop the reader in her tracks, to disrupt the order of things – that conjures up the lost world, despised, forgotten, repressed, of the European peasantry.

It is here that Inheriting Power parts company with the masters of the genre of micro-history. For Levi has chosen, as he writes with admirable candour, not an instance of the marvellous, but ‘a banal place and an undistinguished story’. The place is the village of Santena in the Piedmont and the story concerns its parish priest, Giovan Battista Chiesa, who in the 1690s caused a stir among the locals by conducting a series of unlicensed exorcisms. The exorcisms appear to have had mixed results: we hear of a costive baby who moved his bowels after Chiesa’s ministrations and of a crippled peasant who threw away his crutches, but also of those who went away as lame as they arrived and of a sick horse that failed to respond to the Latin prayer placed around his neck for eight days. But the success rate was evidently sufficiently high to command a growing following of the area’s wretched and to alarm the clerical authorities. Ordered by the diocese of Turin to cease his activities and to appear at the Archbishop’s palace for questioning, Chiesa arrived on 13 July 1697 in the company of a huge crowd of the lame, the hunchbacked and the maimed. After several interrogations, he was officially judged to be a ‘totally ignorant’ priest and released on condition that the exorcisms stop. But they did not stop. The day after his release Chiesa resumed his healings and continued them – at an average rate of eighteen cures per day – until 16 August, when he was arrested.

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