Classically Inclined

December 22, 2011

Book review: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller – Carlo Ginzburg

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:39 am
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You may be thinking, “worms? Cheese? Sixteenth-century millers? Isn’t this a bit outside of her normal sphere of inquiry?” In which questions you would be quite correct – I have little to no interest, professionally or personally speaking, in the theological and socio-economic landscape of the Friuli region of Italy in the 1500s. However, this book is One Of Those Books that gets mentioned a lot when you start hanging around with historians and thinking about the historical method and various methodological approaches, which I did rather a lot of at Rutgers. As a result of spending time with bad influences, one of my ongoing personal development projects is reading around theoretical texts and books that exemplify approaches towards historical and literary evidence, and getting a sense of whether the conceptual framework that other people use might be helpful for me and my work. This particular book has become emblematic of what’s called micro-history – that is, taking a very small, seemingly insignificant piece of evidence, and story telling history around it, to link it into wider narratives of historical development for the period and putting it into its proper context.

So Ginzburg has taken the transcripts of the Inquisition’s dealings with a miller, one Menocchio, who was examined twice for heresy and eventually put  to death. Ginsburg shows from the transcripts where Menocchio fits into intellectual thought and political environment of the period, using the microscopic evidence to lead the reader into the wider political and theological debates of the period. There’s quite a lot of due caution used, particularly when speculating what texts Menocchio may or may not have read, but there is also a willingness to take a speculation far enough to plug into wider social narratives if the jump seems justified. I can imagine specialists in the period disagreeing with me on this one, but overall it felt like a well-balanced mix of relying on the trial transcripts and justified speculation. I particularly liked Ginzburg’s analysis of Menocchio’s approach to reading and to the texts we know that he definitely read, what that tells us about small rural villages as communities of readers, and what we can then discover about Menocchio’s strategies of interpreting what he had read.

In terms of microhistory as a methodological technique, I don’t know quite where it would fit into the sort of work that I do, but that’s because of the contextual differences of the evidence that survives for the period versus the ancient world, and the sort of stuff I work on. I’d say that I would see this kind of approach working with the papyri from Egypt, for instance, or perhaps graffiti or other ‘casual’ writing, as opposed to the deliberately literary writing that I’m working with at the moment. But it’s good to have another conceptual approach in the toolbox should I wander in that direction in the future.


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