Book Review

The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg

The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg

The winter of 1600 was not particularly cold in Rome and the residents of the Campo di Fiori must have thought it odd when the authorities began to set up a bonfire on February 17th in the market square. But when they saw a man, bound, gagged and naked, brought to the spot, they probably understood they were about to witness the judicial meltdown of that “terrible heretic” Giordano Bruno. That same winter was much colder in the mountainous region of Friuli in the far north-east near the present border with Slovenia. And such was the cold one day in the town of Pordenone that the authorities prepared another bonfire in the Contrada Maggiore. As the townsfolk gathered around, an old man was brought forth and was placed on top of the wood stack which was promptly lit. The locals knew the sick sixty-seven-year-old well – he had long been a character in the local villages – being a miller by trade, a former mayor of nearby Montereale and an administrator of the parish church there. His name was Domenico Scandella but he was better known as Menocchio. With Giordano Bruno in far-off Rome, the virtually unknown and ill-educated old man shared the dangerous honour of being accused of heresy and of being burned alive. Whereas Bruno’s burning ensured his lasting fame, the name of the Friuli miller passed into folk memory and into the Church’s archives, closed for centuries, until the 1970s when historian Carlo Ginzburg rediscovered the extraordinary story of Scandella’s life in the Udine archives.

Ginzburg’s study The Cheese & The Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller, first published in 1976, is one of those fascinating micro-histories which explores the remote lives of unknown and forgotten people. The story of Menocchio is one of a peasant life of obscurity but also one of strange and powerful ideas – confused and half-baked even – but powerful enough to bring him into conflict with the Inquisition and thereafter to the final purgatorial flames.

“I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos … and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time ….”

This was Menocchio’s own version of Genesis, recounted at his first interrogation: it has perhaps something in common with modern chaos theory. Sadly, the inquisitors did not appreciate the idea that God might have started out as a worm in a primordial curd. Nonetheless, this was Menocchio’s oft-repeated explanation, one he never recanted. More than an independent mind, Menocchio’s was a rebel spirit, harshly critical of Church and clergy and determined to have his say. His ‘learning’ was a fascinating hotch-potch of superstition, oral tradition, ‘strong’ ideas, misunderstood reading, peasant radicalism, paganism and ‘cottage cheese cosmology’. Ginzburg’s book details the patient mechanism of the Inquisition in Counter Reformation Italy as it sought to eradicate suspected heresy and heretical groups rather in the same way that Stalin suspected counter-revolution everywhere.

Bruno burned for the books he had written; Menocchio burned for the books he had misunderstood. Both burnings demonstrate among other things the truth of the old adage; a little learning can be a dangerous thing. Menocchio’s roasting generated more heat than light but at least it did not contradict the Laws of Thermodynamics. Today in Montereale the visitor will find the Domenico Scandella Social Centre. In the piazza there is a monument in the form of a large wheel of cheese with one slice missing. Our heretic has become a hero. Stephen Dedalus said of Bruno that, heretic or not, ‘he was terribly burnt’; so was the poor miller from Friuli.

-- Reviewed by Paul R Hyde on 07/02/2007

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0801843871
ISBN-13: 9780801843877
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication Date: 01/03/1997
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 188

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