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.

And that’s about it. There was an unspectacular trial – no crowds screaming at the gate, no hint of heresy, no Inquisitorial interest, no courtroom theatricality, no record of peine forte et dure, Chiesa claimed to use in his healings perfectly conventional formulas drawn from his trusty Manuale parochorum et exorcistarum; he vigorously denied ever charging anyone for his services; and he humbly apologised for succumbing to popular pressure and resuming the exorcisms after he had been ordered to stop. After patiently sifting the evidence, the judges ended by again prohibiting Chiesa the practice of exorcism and suspending him from his functions as parish priest. The case was closed; from this point on Chiesa entirely disappears from the records.

No one is going to buy the movie rights. After a brief flourish in the opening chapter, Levi himself gives up the idea that he has much of a story to tell. But he does have material to unpack, scrutinise, sort out. For if there was nothing sensational or even particularly unusual about Giovan Battista’s story – there were many local healers in the rural areas of Early Modern Europe and frequent administrative efforts to regulate their practices – something interesting, indeed remarkable, has nevertheless been salvaged from the oblivion that quickly settled on cases like these. Fearing trouble with the authorities, or simply wishing to keep a record of his successes, Chiesa kept a notebook ‘in which I had noted the liberations of the obsessed and the bewitched that had occurred through my efforts’. Moreover, when the trouble broke out in earnest, he began, with the aid of his younger brother, to gather documentation, consisting of notarised testimonials to his healings. Thus, for example, one Michel Pinardo of Castagnole di Piemonte declared that on 6 or 7 August 1697, he had gone to see Giovan Battista ‘because my right leg and foot were completely swollen, with pains so intense that I could not stand on my feet and had to go by horseback ... And before I went to the same, I had shown my said swollen foot to many surgeons in Castagnole, particularly to two surgeons, both of whom told me that they did not recognise my ailment and that the best thing to do was to cut my leg off and that I would be left no more than a cripple.’ The exorcist knew better: ‘after having discovered the curse in me’, Giovan Battista had ‘liberated’ him so well that he had ‘taken himself home unaided’.

As this incident suggests, most sufferers turned to Chiesa after they had unsuccessfully tried more conventional remedies. His assistance was a last resort when the source of misery could not be discovered and the victim was groping in uncertainty. At the least he could be counted on to resolve the uncertainty: in 90 out of 100 cases, he diagnosed demonic possession, most often linked to some personal guilt of the sufferer. Whatever the actual physical results of his intervention, his diagnosis radically simplified the situation, Levi suggests, and provided a certain measure of psychic relief. If it is difficult for us, in a time of increasingly advanced medical technology, to accept the idea of incurable disease, it was still more difficult for the men and women of Chiesa’s time to do so, for they assumed the possibility of supernatural involvement in human affairs. Where medicine left off, exorcism could begin: there may have been important theoretical arguments between the two systems, but in practice there was more co-operation than competition.

Chiesa’s healings spoke to a craving for security, a craving Levi regards as the principal psychological and social motive of the period. In part, this motive springs from the perennial concerns of rural existence in pre-industrial Europe: the uncertainties of the weather, the devastating effects of plague and epidemic disease, the high incidence of infant mortality, the periodic shortages of food. In part, Levi suggests, it springs from particular developments in late 17th-century Piedmont: the political and economic ambitions of powerful families, jurisdictional disputes, shifting family alliances played out in relation to the struggle between the French and the Duchy of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II’s attempt to consolidate and centralise his power, the imposition on villages like Santena of new taxes, the depredations of various armies pillaging in the area. Over most of this an ignorant parish priest could have no power, but he could claim to locate the source of a sick man’s illness and to invoke supernatural assistance. One might argue that the sufferer who was told that his misery arose from a hidden guilt might not feel much more secure, but at least the diagnosis led the way to a course of action. Moreover, in Levi’s account the Italian peasant’s individual consciousness seems less important than a kind of collective understanding and reassurance in which the sufferer could merge himself. What matters is the community’s protection from the unforeseen and the inexplicable, a desire less for economic advantage than for predictability, modest self-sufficiency and local control.

Where the microhistories of Ginzburg and Davis attempt to probe with increasing intimacy the minds of their highly individuated and particularised subjects, Levi’s study moves in precisely the opposite direction. He doesn’t use Chiesa’s notebook and testimonials to heighten our sense of the interiority of this exorcist and his patients: rather, he uses the evidence to chart typical strategies and to construct a general cultural model. In this model, the peasants’ social system did not slowly collapse in the face of either the aggressive consolidation of absolutist power or the rise of market forces in land and goods. Rather, the peasant community – in the case of Santena and its region, mostly sharecroppers and tenant farmers (massari), with a smaller number of day labourers, modest landowners and local notables – devised a variety of techniques for negotiating the new developments and for producing a relative equilibrium. ‘They could not prevent forms of domination, but they did condition and modify them.’

They did so in part by learning to operate in the gaps, the interstices, that always exist in complex societies with multiple authority structures. Hence, for example, the villagers of Santena contrived for several decades to disappear in the cracks between competing jurisdictions and avoid paying taxes. Levi is extremely tenacious in making sense of the deliberately tangled manoeuvres of canny peasants determined to hold onto their money. And he is similarly tenacious in sorting out family strategies which minimised collective risk and helped to assure collective stability. The historian’s task here entails the conjoined abilities of a sociologist, an anthropologist and a chartered accountant. Levi finds that the massari typically established elaborate alliances within non-co-resident families related, for the most part, through the male consanguineal line. These group alliances made possible a considerable diversification of activities. At the centre of these activities, as we might expect, was the acquisition of land, but the land, sold principally between kin, was held in relatively limited quantities beyond which the peasants did not usually go, turning instead to other modest ventures.

According to Levi, the overarching interests, power and prestige of the collective were paramount. Group endogamy was strictly observed, roles and behaviour patterns were strictly pre-determined. Dowries were not of equal worth for all the women of the group, but they were set in accordance with an overall strategy in which ‘each single event did not affect the level of consideration of the group as a whole.’ Similarly, individual criminal acts by members of the group were assumed as collective responsibilities; the guilty party was not excluded – if he had to flee, his property would be held for him until he could return – and the overall prestige of the group would be undiminished. This prestige was obviously linked to wealth – the greater the group’s prosperity, the less it had to depend upon relations of clientage with noble proprietors – but the social organisation was not principally directed toward a competitive struggle for land or money, a contest in which the group with the greatest holdings in the end would be declared the winner. The paramount desire was for evenness, constancy, reciprocity and solidarity in the face of a rapidly changing world.

This elaborate, sustained balancing act – ‘the great collective, day-by-day effort to solidify institutions that guaranteed increased predictability’ – has none of the glamour of the marvellous. In its place, Levi speaks rather dauntingly of his file cards: ‘32,000 entries arranged by name, with an average of better than twenty mentions for everyone who lived in Santena between 1672 and 1709’. Even here there is, I suppose, a certain poetry, the kind C.S. Lewis called – rather implausibly insisting that the term was not meant to be pejorative – ‘drab’. Levi suggests that his reading of the massive amount of documents, parish records, acts of land transfers, court proceedings, notarial records is akin to field work: ‘much as if we had been loitering on the central piazza of Santena for twenty-five years’. I confess that for me such a fate seems roughly comparable to a prolonged exile at the hydro-electric plant in Ulan Bator, but I am all the more grateful to Levi for his dogged patience. For the family strategies, tax dodges and land transactions that he analyses are the ground base for the marvellous narratives that make history (or life, for that matter) seem something more resonant than a land-tax survey.

Or rather, Levi’s book would lead us to conclude, those narratives are most likely to occur when the equilibrium, so cunningly crafted, so carefully maintained, begins to crack apart. For after all the charts and tables and graphs have been carefully laid out, a story of sorts does emerge from Inheriting Power, a story as much about Giovan Battista’s father, Giulio Cesare Chiesa, as about the exorcist himself. Giulio Cesare Chiesa was a prominent figure in Santena, not because he owned much property or belonged to a powerful group but because he was a master of negotiation and manipulation, a man with an entrepreneurial genius for profitable if devious arrangements and for mutual back-scratching. It was Giulio Cesare who, as podesta of Santena, engineered the long-term municipal tax evasion; it was he who, as the village’s leading notable for over forty years, mediated between the state and the community, between peasants and signori, and between the locality’s rival feudal landlords. He represents, Levi writes, ‘the implantation and proliferation of a new type of political specialist, an individual capable of taking the needs, aspirations, resources and traditions of the local community, of separating them, and of relating them to corresponding demands, offers and resources in the society at large, adjusting them to its juridical and administrative systems’. In short, he is the patron saint of small-town power-brokers.

Giulio Cesare was clever enough to hold on to power and prestige throughout his long life. But it is easier to leave a bit of land to one’s heirs than to transfer a social role. He did what he could: he contrived to make his son, Giovan Battista, the village’s parish priest, a position of genuine if modest authority. But when in 1690 the podesta died, the son was unable to hold together the complex, jerry-built system that his father had laboriously constructed – perhaps no one could have done so. The tax collectors caught on to the game, the local consortium of feudal lords squabbled among themselves, the groups of massari began to intrigue and to quarrel. By 1694, not only had the edifice of Chiesa père started to crumble, but Chiesa fils had made bitter enemies. He had done so, it seems, principally by misappropriating confraternity funds and by demanding payment for the performance of burials: no gratuity, no burial. After a denunciation, an investigation began, and hostile witnesses came forward. An impoverished, illiterate countryman testified, for example, that when his wife died, the priest refused to ‘make the said burial except if I first brought him, as I did, a red wool shirt belonging to my said wife, which was like new and cost me, when I bought it, 17 lire, and he kept it for the said burial, which followed immediately, adding to me that he demanded another 15 soldi, which I could pay either by bringing him some fish or by giving him a day’s work.’

Chiesa weaseled out of this sordid business with nothing more than an apology and a promise to behave himself. But it is in the wake of the investigation and public shaming that he embarked on his brief and inglorious career of bestowing free exorcisms on the suffering masses. Did he think to recoup his lost prestige with a calculated appropriation of fraudulent charisma? Levi thinks it unlikely – why would a cynical Chiesa have obstinately continued the exorcisms after the original prohibition had made it dangerous to do so? – and speculates that he had come to believe in his healing powers. But Inheriting Power never engages sufficiently with the exorcist’s inferiority to give these speculations much force. Despite the racy subtitle, this book is not finally ‘the story of an exorcist’. Instead, it is an anti-theatrical, modest and quietly courageous attempt to dispense with wonder as a creator of historical resonance and to loiter attentively in the piazza.