27 May 2006

The Cheese and the Worms

As many, if not most, of you know, my little brother (the one who got all the brains in the family) is working on his master's degree. In a recent care package, he enclosed three textbooks from one of the classes he's already done.

One was entitled The Cheese and the Worms, The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, by Carlo Ginzburg and translated from the Italian by John and Anne Tedeschi. What a fellow named "Ginzburg" is doing writing in Italian, I do not know.

Anyway, it's pretty much based on the documents from the two trials of on Domenico Scandella for heresy. Menocchio was his nickname, not sure what that signified. This fellow was rather an interesting guy, who was literate and read everything he could get his hands on. There's even a speculation that he got his hands on one of the Italian translations of the Koran that was floating around. He was denounced to the Holy Office (formal name for Inquisition) because for about two decades or so, he was spouting all kinds of lunatic heresies. Apparently he was considered a harmless eccentric, but otherwise respected because he had been mayor of his community, and at another time held a post in his parish concerned with financial management. Eventually, he persisted enough that someone denounced him, probably the parish priest. He was tried, sentenced to prison where he remained for two years, and was then released. This was not enough to discourage him, as he reappeared before the tribunal some years later and was convicted of holding to his former ideas, and was executed.

His heresy is fascinating, a mishmash of ideas drawn from several sources. He had read several books, and used half-remembered quotations and allusion to support his reasoning. However, it is clearly shown by citations from these books that the miller was not constructing a cosmology from these sources, nor was his point of departure anything he had heard in church. He was cherry-picking ideas and metaphors and quotes to support the ideas he already had.

Ginzburg argues cogently that the actual source of his theological fantasies was an undercurrent of popular culture, rooted in the beliefs of the rural peasantry which included pre-Christian elements. This explains some of the similarities between Menocchio's ideas and those of other peasants tried for heresy, as well as some links to the Anabaptist heresy. Most notably there is a consistent denial of the sacraments and denunciations of the church hierarchy for a myriad of abuses both real and imagined. Other key elements of his cosmology include the idea of the death of the soul but the existence of paradise, where the spirit/soul/something will be rewarded for good behavior on earth in material ways, not unlike the Muslim paradise. He also argued against the divinity of Christ and the virgin birth, as well as propounding the idea that all religions were valid and that Jews, Turks, and heretics should persist in their beliefs as they are the customs of their fathers.

The singular title of the book has to do with the account of the formation of the world. Menocchio was thoroughly obsessed with the four elements, and argued that the cosmos was originally a seething mass of chaos in which these four elements mixed at random. Eventually, much as cheese forms in a mass in the midst of milk, the world congealed. Spontaneous generation of life was the current scientific theory, and it was applied to cosmology as well when Menocchio explained that as maggots generate from cheese, so did the angels generate from the world, and the strongest of these angels was God. He then explained that God built the world we have today as a master carpenter builds a house--which is to say, by directing his workers, the angels, to do the actual work according to his plans.

Menocchio also decried all formalized religion, espousing the idea of religion purely as moral behavior to other people and denouncing everything else as a business to keep priests rich. He also was posessed of some pretty socialist egalitarian leanings which would do a good marxist credit today. Yet in this he also contradicted himself, but we can discount the cases of hedging his bets given that he was on trial for his life.

There is a mass of contradiction in the miller's theories, and a lot of shoddy logic. Goes to show how craziness comes from ignorant people getting their hands on just a little knowledge, without a teacher to prevent them from going off the deep end.

I don't know one way or the other about how much of this is crap the miller came up with off the top of his head, and how much truly is representative of this supposed survival of rural peasant culture. Certaintly, some things were common features of peasant culture, such as the dislike of the 'superiors' above them. Perhaps the gross materialism is also a product of the peasant 'mentality'. As for the rest, chaos and the four elements and spontaneous generation of angels, that doesn't strike me as something peasants are going to sit around discussing at night after harvest. That seems to me to be something the miller assembled from these books and from his own imagination.


Blogger tychecat said...

Menocchio is sometimes used as the extreme example of "A little learning is a dangerous thing". He was supposidly a horrible example of what learning to read could do to you. According to Ginzberg, he was fascinated with books and taught himself to read (This was less than a century after Guttenberg invented the printing press) Menocchio was a simple man who grabbed a few ideas, shot his mouth off to his neighbors, fell into the inquisition's hands and was eventually burned at the stake.
There is a play about him, sort of on the order of Miller's "The Crucible" but not as good.

8:06 PM  

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