The Canon: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg

September 16, 2010

The year 1976 was a big one for me. I was living in Rome, finishing research on my first major book and commencing its writing. I was committing myself to a lifetime devotion to Italy, a strange destiny for an Anglo-Saxon Australian. I was also watching. I still watch Italy obsessively and with critical love. There was much to watch.

In June that year, there were seemingly crucial national elections when the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its allies just failed to get 50 per cent of the vote. In August, I joined the queues to see Bernardo Bertolucci's blockbuster, beautiful, vulgar Marxist, vulgar Freudian film Novecento. It purported to provide the definitive cinematic representation of Italy's 20th century. I read Carlo Ginzburg's study of the miller, Menocchio, a book that four years later was translated into English as The Cheese and the Worms. I have never forgotten it.

Why might a historian of modern Italy give canonic status to a monograph about an early modern peasant's confrontation with the Inquisition? Most monographs provoke a flutter of reviews and move to shelf death in their libraries. The Cheese and the Worms, no.

No, because Ginzburg tells a moving tale wonderfully well and with great scholarly span. But there is more than that. When I first scanned the book, I learned both about 16th-century Friuli and about 20th-century Italy (and Australia). I gained understanding of the past and the contemporary. Here was a stubborn little man refusing to be cowed by what Antonio Gramsci - well defined, at least in the PCI and Eric Hobsbawm version, as "the Marxist whom you can take home to mother" - called hegemony. The rule of the Catholic Church was not just verbal. No doubt it controlled meaning and "common sense". But it also managed courts, jails, torture and capital punishment.

After quite a few twists and turns, Menocchio was to die because he clung to his puzzled "knowledge" that the world was rational and material, that worms grew in a cheese, that democracy was natural. He knew that "God is nothing but a little breath, and whatever else man imagines him to be". The reproduction of every day showed virgin birth impossible: "I don't believe if I don't see." Christ was "a man like the rest of us, but with more dignity, just as the pope is a man like us, but of greater rank because he has power".

In 1976, Menocchio was advising Italians to question the hegemony of endless Christian Democrat governments. Although an early modern peasant, he was a questing modern Gramscian "organic intellectual".

In 2010, when neoliberalism's hegemony is entrenched globally and most seriously opposed by irrational religious fundamentalism, we historians and we citizens need still to treasure the Menocchio story. We must keep asking why, how and are you sure? Reading history, we must defy the "terrible simplifiers" and continue arguing as humanely and rationally as we can.

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