Cheesy worms are enough to have a man tortured for blasphemy, but not enough apparently to keep the man from speaking his mind. I am seriously considering a blog dedicated exclusively to review of cheese after reading this book, but let’s start with the history behind The Cheese and the Worms.
You’ve probably never heard of the miller Menocchio, or his ideas, but his story is worth your time. The Cheese and the Worms is a historical narrative concerning the life and heresy of man:
His name was Domenico Scandella, but he was called Menocchio. (1)
Thus begins what quite possibly one of the saddest but most sensational stories during the European Reformation. If you’re unclear about this time period I’ll give you a brief overview. That’s a polite way of saying I’m about to give a history lesson. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you, at least no more than usual.
In 1517 Martin Luther drafted what became known as his 95 Theses (plural word for thesis derived from the greek word θέσις meaning “Something put forth”, cool right? Right? Right? You have some attitude mister), and while the old legend has it that Martin Luther nailed the document to the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica as a challenge to the church, the case was anything but. Luther was a staunch Catholic, and a professor at the local university where he taught theology and had become, annoyed is too pale, spiritually frustrated by the church’s practice of the sale of Indulgences. Indulgences were slips of paper in which members of the church could pay a fine and have their loved ones given reprieve from the damnation of purgatory or spared the damnation to hell. Luther’s theses were meant to spark a public debate about indulgences, and I note that, as a scholar myself, this motion seems unbelievably nerdy. One can imagine Luther today getting into nasty facebook battles with the Pope. Then somebody starts talking about race and we all have to go watch funny cat videos on youtube until it blows over. Despite the man’s original intent to reform the church, it sparked a religious uproar that eventually divided the Catholic church down the middle creating Protestantism. The next hundred years began what was known as the Reformation period, a series of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that currently stand as some of the bloodiest battles fought on European soil. Civilians were butchered, tortured, raped, and murdered depending on their beliefs.
And thus I return to Menocchio.
The man was a miller in a small town in northern Italy known as Montereale where he ran a mill (think of something like a windmill or one of those wheels that is pushed by the water), and the revenue stream he acquired from this enterprise allowed him the opportunity to have free time and money, and since this was an age before Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube, what a man did in those times was read books. Menocchio’s problems began with the fact, that he read the wrong books. While the Bible was amongst them it is important to note that the Catholic church at this time was repelled by the idea that common people should be reading the scriptures. It would be impossible to list the names of all the books given to the reader due to the fact that all of their titles are in Italian. What is important, what is relevant is that Menocchio read the texts and formulated ideas from them.
Carlo Ginzburg, the original author of The Cheese and the Worms notes that:
This fact shouldn’t shock most readers given the fact that most human beings will always be plagued by their own bias. The human mind develops under the influence of our parents who attempt to instill in us virtues and the paradigms that govern sane, rational thinking (most of the time). Once a human being reaches adulthood, they rely upon that initial experience with reality, and by the time you’re about the age of twenty six or so your world view and understanding is typically set.
Well then so what? Why should I care about some old dead Italian dude in the Renaissance or Reformation or whatever who read some books. You should care dear reader, because his opinions were unlike anything that had emerged from humanity at that time.
Best to start with the most bizarre.
Menocchio was interrogated before a local chapter of the Catholic Inquisition. Despite what you might see in a wonderful Mel Brooks movie, the Inquisition was no delegated solely to Spain. As Protestantism became more pronounced, the Catholic church felt a paranoia about losing its footing and so established blasphemy churches where Menocchio was challenged. A neighbor of his spoke of the blasphemy:
These “things” Menicchio attempted to communicate to his fellow villagers. “I heard him say,” Giovanni Povoledo related, “that in the beginning this world was nothing, and that it was thrashed by the water of the sea like foam, and it curdled like a cheese, from which later great multitudes of worms were born, and these worms became men, of whom the most powerful and wisest was God, to whom the others rendered obedience….” (53).
One can imagine Christians in our own day and age being outraged by such an accusation concerning the foundation of reality, let alone what these poor Catholics felt at the testimony of this renegade’s ideas. God coming from cheese and worms, that’s ridiculous. God is an omnipresent omniscient (never mind that these two concepts cancel each other out) man that appeared from nowhere and created the universe and angels. Menocchio must surely have been either a mad man or else an agent of Satan sent amidst the populace to turn them away from god. But is it fair to immediately damn Menocchio as a heretic as his contemporaries did? I can’t in good conscience say so and that isn’t the atheism talking. There’s a passage which precedes this where Menocchio is asked about the role of Christianity against other religions. He replied:
Likewise, God the Father has various children whom he loves such as Christians, Turks, and Jews and to each of them he has given the will to live by his own law, and we do not know which is the right one. That is why I said that since I was born a Christian I want to remain a Christian, and if I had been born a Turk I would want to live like a Turk.” “Do you believe then,” the inquisitor retorted, “that we do not know which is the right law?” To which Menocchio replied: “Yes sir, I d believe that every person considers his faith to be right, and we do not know which is the right one: but because my grandfather, my father, and my people have been Christians, I want to remain a Christian, and believe that this is the right one.” (49-50).
If Menocchio’s bravery and integrity in the face of almost certain physical elimination isn’t a testament to humanity I’m not sure what is. While I cannot agree with his ideas (again, atheist), his refusal to reject them simply because of threat of physical harm is inspiring, and I really, truly wish that it had a happy ending, but this is the Catholic church we’re dealing with. Menocchio suffered a stern jail sentence and was eventually tortured several times for his ideas.
Ginzburg’s retelling of this one man is an attempt to observe a trend during the Reformation that is often ignored. Having taken a course over the period it is accurate to say that much of the scholarship tends either to focus on the dramatic military and political squabbles that took place over religion or else to observe the rise of superstition following Catholic orders to squash out any sign of heresy. Menocchio falls between these cracks offering scholars and anyone interested in the time, the glimpse of what was occurring at the human level. As Ginzburg notes in his Preface:
In the past historians could be accused of wanting to know only about “the great deeds of kings,” but today this is certainly no longer true. More and more they are turning toward what their predecessors passed over in silence, discarded, or simply ignored. “Who built Thebes of the seven gates?” Bertold Brecht’s “literate worker” was already asking. The sources tell us nothing about these anonymous masons, but the question retains all its significance. (xiii)
Why is no one interested in the baker? Why does no one care about the gravedigger? It may be because those people live mundane lives devoid of splendor while the rich and powerful participate in the events that shape the lives of those beneath them, but the historian is missing something great when they ignore the realities of the influence of power.
Ginzburg wants to move from the glamorous power structures common to historian’s efforts and try to understand how what was taking place within the palaces and courts were effecting those in the bottom rung of society, and that is significant for the fact that more people know about Abraham Lincoln than they do about the photographers? Most people when JFK was assassinated wept for the man, but no one bothered to talk to Clifton Pollard, the man who dug his grave until Jimmy Breslin interviewed him. What then of a miller? Where was he?
The primitive state of communications in preindustrious Europe caused even the smallest centers of habitation to have at least one mill powered by water or wind. The occupation of miller, consequently, was one of the most widespread, and their prominence in medieval heretical sects and, in even greater measure, among Anabaptists is not that surprising. […] The charge of heresy was wholly consistent with a stereotype such as this. Contributing to it was the fact that the mill was a place of meeting, of social relations, in a world that was predominantly closed and static. Like the inn and the shop it was a place for the exchange of ideas. […] Their working conditions made millers—like innkeepers, tavern keepers, and iterant artisans—an occupational group especially receptive to new ideas and inclined to propagate them. (119-120).
Menocchio and his wormy cheese may not possess the paradigm altering power that Luther and his 95 Theses did, but in his own way he came to represent what was changing about Europe at this time.
A case such as Menocchio’s was made possible by two great historical events: the invention of printing and the Reformation. Printing enabled him to confront books with the oral tradition in which he had grown up and fed him the words to release that tangle of ideas and fantasies he had within him. The Reformation gave him the courage to express his feelings to the parish priest, to his fellow villagers, to the inquisitors—even if he could not, as he wished, say them in person to the pope, to cardinals, and princes. (xxiv).
Menocchio’s story is ultimately one of individual will. It didn’t involve epic battles. It was not peppered by the appearances of political figures. He did not rub elbows with the Doge of Venice or the Duke of Ferrara. He was a man that read a few books and formulated his own conception of doctrines concerning reality, and while that ain’t a bestseller or a blockbuster action flick, it speaks to human imagination. Menocchio’s tale is strange, but shows the reader that the ideas that seem absolute in our age, even as far back as 500 years, were open and subject to debate. Menocchio formulated his own opinions rather than simply accept what was told to him, and that strength of will is of absolute necessity to society regardless of time period.
Anyone interested in suggestions for the title of my eventual Cheese Blog please leave a comment. Thank you.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms. Trans. Tedeschi, John and Anne. Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 1976. Print.