Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms. Trans. John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
The view of the past provided by sole reliance on diplomatic dispatches, treaties, government documents and high treatises on philosophy is necessarily skewed toward the ideas, beliefs, and activities of the upper reaches of society. Even when delving into the journals, letters, and accounts of more common people, the more affluent portions of society are still documented. Particularly when studying time periods in which literacy was not widespread, examining the attitudes and concerns of “ordinary” people becomes a very difficult challenge. The traces even the most literate of common folk left behind are only sporadically preserved. This is what makes Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms an important example of historical research.
By focusing on detailed records of the Papal Inquisition, Ginzburg recreates what he believes is a reasonable facsimile of the theology of Domenico Scandella, more commonly called Menocchio. A miller in 16th century Italy, Menocchio possessed more education than most of his peers, being able to read and write in Italian, but not Latin. His formal schooling likely ended at the primary level, but even this was enough to place him in responsible positions. Unfortunately for Menocchio his education and own quirky personality were enough for him to develop and communicate ideas that the Inquisition found necessary to investigate. Menocchio’s misfortune at attracting the attention of the Holy Office is our gain, since the Inquisition’s meticulous records preserve his response to interrogations, his responses under torture, the responses of his associates, and ultimately the sentences delivered.
Ginzburg’s method raises as many questions as it provides answers. Among the books that Menocchio supposedly possessed was a Qu’ran. Unfortunately, Ginzburg provides only the most peripheral evidence to call the “beautiful book” in Menocchio’s collection a Qu’ran. – it is identified by a converted Jew, and Ginzburg attempts to reference Menocchio’s statements before the Inquisition to specific passages in the text. This brings into question whether Simon the former Jew would have known what a Qu’ran was, or whether Menocchio might have run into these ideas through conversations with other people.
Despite the obvious issue of interpretation, there is the problem of whether Ginzburg’s conclusions are generalizable in any way. The text does provide the example of a slightly earlier miller also tried for heresy before the Inquisition, but takes special care to show how the two are dramatically different in their cosmology, with the exception of ideas that might be attributable to the same book that both possessed, Il Fioretto della Bibbia. This would seem to bear directly on Ginzburg’s argument, however. If both millers interpreted common reading material in ways that led them to heretical notions, then rather than emphasize the uniqueness of Menocchio’s experience, Ginzburg should look for common trends as documented in the records of the Holy Office. This speaks more of opportunities lost than to those gained through this type analysis.