Book Review: The Cheese and The Worms

The Cheese and the Worms tells the story of an accused heretic in rural Italy, while also comprehensively depicting sixteenth-century culture and the rigid social and religious foundations in place. Author Carlo Ginzburg utilizes the peasant Menocchio’s life and eventual death to present a portrait of a “remote Friulian village” and to celebrate the extraordinary case of a miller who was not only literate but a prolific reader and thinker (xv).  Menocchio’s story is not only interesting in its own right, but also serves to represent the disparities in the era’s social hierarchy and the clashes between the peasant class and the religious authorities throughout the inquisition. The author presents Menocchio in a light such that the reader is engaged throughout, and is ultimately sympathetic when he is burned at the stake for his alleged crimes against the church. Carlo Ginzburg is able to clarify and detail some of the sixteenth-century’s most radical ideas and beliefs through his analysis of Menocchio’s trial records and the most significant aspects of his conviction, including the importance of literature in his ideals, the influence of the culture on his life, and his relationship with his faith leading up to and during the span of his two trials. 

The Cheese and the Worms is ultimately defined by the themes of conventionality and rebellion, as it centers around the discovery of Menocchio’s distinctly controversial religious beliefs and inevitable clash with the traditional ideologies of the dominant Roman Catholic Church. Through analysis of the dialogue between Menocchio and the inquisitors during his trials, Ginzburg reveals the opposing viewpoints of both sides. To articulate this he writes, “by breaking the crust of religious unity, the Reformation indirectly caused… peasant beliefs, perhaps centuries old, that were never wholly wiped out… to emerge; the Counter-Reformation, attempting to restore unity, brought them into the light of day in order to sweep them away” (19). In this way, Menocchio serves as an example of not only a peasant miller and literate thinker, but overall as the quintessential example of rebellion against the church authority.

Common people in sixteenth-century Europe were not encouraged to or provided with the tools to achieve literacy. High-ranking religious officials worked to limit exposure to their constituents on beliefs other than those of the church. Italian clergy are noted to have emphasized the practice of memorization of church doctrines and prayers instead of reading, in order to prevent commoners from thinking for themselves.  As shown in The Cheese and the Worms, however, Menocchio goes against the cultural norm of oral tradition and educates himself through written history. Menocchio is tokenized and eventually put on trial for being “a simple miller [who] had dared to think of speaking out, [and voiced] his own opinions about the Church and the world” (56). Menocchio’s trial alone is indicative of the Church’s command on the institutions of education and improvement among people of all social classes.

The most radical aspects of Menocchio’s ideals were his viewpoints that “contrasted the rich and corrupt Church he saw with the poverty and purity of a mythical primitive Church” (73). While it seems that he did not intend to preach his ideology to others, witnesses attested that through casual conversation Menocchio’s beliefs were becoming well known. By reading numerous texts through the lense of an insurgent, Menocchio hoped to revitalize these outdated and simplified ideas of religion, if only in his own life. 

The Cheese and The Worms features complex accounts of conflicts between the Roman Catholic Church ideology and contrasting viewpoints like Menocchio’s, and to supplement this the author includes analyses of these thought processes. But even with the provided analyses, the book can be challenging to grasp for a non-expert on the topics of heresy and cultural anthropology. Additionally, while the book is short in length, it is extremely heavy in content, which can also be difficult for the reader. However, Ginzburg made an artistic choice to have numerous chapters of various lengths as a way to easily express what he wanted and needed to say at the right time without giving equal emphasis to all portions. This calculated decision was a way to keep the presentation of information succinct and concise, while also explicitly showing the sections of large importance. Most notably Ginzburg utilized an obscure phrase as the novel’s title, to spark interest. 

Throughout his novel, Carlo Ginzburg illustrated the notion of convention and rebellion through Menocchio’s conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. The literate peasant was able to defy his government by reading material that the elite hoped to conceal from his social class and project the nearly lost beliefs of his fellow peasants. Ginzburg uses the trial of Menocchio against the Inquisitors to demonstrate the clash within the social hierarchy and the overbearing rule of the Church in Italy during the sixteenth century. The overarching theme of challenging authority and the status quo continues to be relevant and fascinating to modern scholars and students alike. 

Sources:

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Robert A. Houston, Literacy (European History Online, 2011), http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/backgrounds/literacy

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