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Rats or Cheese?

Faith, Reason, and the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Tuscany

by Carlo M. Cipolla, translated by Muriel Kittel
Cornell University Press, 113 pp., $9.95

The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller

by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John Tedeschi, by Anne Tedeschi
Johns Hopkins University Press, 208 pp., $14.00

The plague of 1630—that plague so graphically depicted in Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi—was carried into Italy by German soldiers in the Imperial army on their descent toward Mantua. From Milan it spread to Tuscany, which it reached in August, and it was soon ravaging Florence and the neighboring communes and villages. Some places, like Altopascio,1 were lucky enough to escape. Others succumbed all too easily. Among these was the little walled village of Monte Lupo, some twenty miles to the west of Florence.

Carlo Cipolla’s Faith, Reason, and the Plague is a study of the reactions of the villagers of Monte Lupo to the onslaught of the plague and to the attempts of the local authorities to check it. Professor Cipolla is one of a number of remarkable Italian historians who, over the past few years, have done an enormous amount to enrich our understanding of the history of early modern Europe. If he is primarily known as an economic historian, he has never allowed himself to be narrowly typecast; and as he wanders engagingly down the highways of European history, he is always ready to explore an interesting by-way if he thinks it can offer us new views of the terrain. Whatever he discusses, whether it be clocks, guns, or literacy, he treats with a lightness of touch which enables him to entertain us even as he instructs.

Any student of early modern European history, staggering beneath the weight of the latest French thèse, would be churlish not to feel a sense of gratitude to Professor Cipolla for this Italian light relief. And yet, and yet…it is hard to escape the feeling that here we are being shortchanged. The story of Monte Lupo is not Professor Cipolla’s first brush with the plague. Seven years ago he gave us a slight, but attractive, book about the plague in Prato.2 Now we have an even slighter book (eighty-five pages, excluding appendices) about the plague in Monte Lupo. Perhaps it is in the nature of epidemics, but a little plague seems to be going rather a long way.

The story that Professor Cipolla has to tell is such a fascinating one that it seems a pity he should have decided to ration it out. He has rightly seen that a well-documented catastrophe can provide the historian with a unique insight into public and private attitudes. The bubonic plague which raged through northern Italy in the early 1630s is just such a catastrophe. Not only can its passage be closely traced in the archives, but it happened to occur at a moment when the conflict of responses within the population was sufficiently sharp to point to a confrontation of mental worlds with European-wide dimensions.

It would be easy to describe these mental worlds as “medieval” and “modern,” or “religious” and “rationalist,” but Professor Cipolla is far too subtle a historian to fall into this trap. Instead, he gives us a beautifully nuanced story, in which little ironies abound. On one side we see the public health officials of Florence, conscientious, dedicated, overworked men, attempting to make use of the methods of modern government—the marshaling of statistics, the application of controls—in their desperate attempt to check the spread of a disease whose origins and character they only imperfectly understand. While they would not necessarily have disagreed with the assertion of the Prior of St. Marco that the plague was a scourge sent by God to punish the people, they were also persuaded that there were more mundane reasons for its alarmingly rapid spread. If they remained ignorant of the role of rats and fleas, they were convinced that large concentrations of people served to spread the infection, and so their natural inclination was to quarantine and segregate. But in doing so they found themselves in conflict with the clerics—some clerics at least—whose equally natural instinct was to gather the people together in great religious processions as an act of expiation. As for the people themselves, they not unnaturally preferred processions to quarantine regulations which condemned them to appalling misery and the almost certain loss of their livelihood.

The story of Monte Lupo in 1630 is the story of how a village sought to evade the health regulations, and how a priest organized a procession. It is as simple as that, and Professor Cipolla tells it with his customary humor and charm, and with the occasional deft vignette of local characters like Pandolfo, who made the mistake of looking out of his window. But Monte Lupo, unfortunately, is not Montaillou, and Cipolla’s documentation is simply too thin to give us that sense of the texture of rural life which comes so strongly through the pages of Le Roy Ladurie. This in turn affects our appreciation of the story itself. For example, while Father Dragoni, the Dominican vicar of the priory of St. Niccolò, makes an early appearance as the man responsible for enforcing the health regulations, it is not until half way through the book that we learn of the existence of the parish priest, Bontadi, the organizer of the village procession. We are told nothing of the pattern of religious life in this Tuscan village; we learn that Bontadi was at one moment surrounded by “other priests,” but have no idea where they come from; and we have no clues to the previous relationship of Dragoni and Bontadi, which would seem to be central to this tale of village life.

Historical voyeurism is a frustrating occupation when the keyhole is too small. In Cristofano and the Plague and Faith, Reason, and the Plague, Professor Cipolla has given us two delightful half-books which do not quite add up; and this in turn is likely to diminish the impact of what he has to tell us. If only he had been willing to extend himself a little more, and give us that composite picture of urban and rural responses to the plague which he is uniquely equipped to draw! It is amusing to be told about Il Macchia, who was a mattress maker by day and a thief by night; but could we not have been introduced, however briefly, to the world of the seventeenth-century mattress-maker, at a moment when, as it happened, the Florentine authorities were beginning to realize that an official distribution of mattresses might be one means of checking the spread of contagion among a population which slept on stinking straw?3

This is the kind of device employed by another remarkable Italian historian, Carlo Ginzburg, whose The Cheese and the Worms (excellently translated by John and Anne Tedeschi) is a wonderful book.4 Dr. Ginzurg made his name with a study of the benandanti of sixteenth-century Friuli, peasants who set out to combat the witches, and finished by being tarred with the same brush. The Cheese and the Worms is another journey of exploration into an obscure mental world—but this time the mental world of a single person, a miller of Friuli called Menocchio, who was put to death by the Inquisition in 1599. Menocchio was not even a name until Dr. Ginzburg discovered his dossier in the archives, and it is the patient reconstruction of Menocchio and his world, on the basis of the Inquisitorial proceedings against him in 1584 and 1599, which forms the subject of this extraordinary book.

Dr. Ginzburg is a historian with an insatiable curiosity, who pursues even the faintest of clues with all the zest of a born detective until every fragment of evidence can be fitted into place. The work of reconstitution is brilliant, the writing superbly readable, and by the end of the book the reader who has followed Dr. Ginzburg in his wanderings through the labyrinthine mind of the miller of Friuli will take leave of this strange and quirky old man with genuine regret. The closest analogy to this book which comes to my mind is The Road to Xanadu, where we find a similarly skillful reconstruction of a mysterious mental world. But there is an obvious difference between these two works which does raise questions about the nature of the project on which Dr. Ginzburg is engaged. J.L. Lowes was exploring the imaginative world of Coleridge; Ginzburg, that of an uneducated sixteenth-century Italian miller, whose only permanent legacy consists of a series of rambling answers to the questions of his judges.

Why, then, bother with Menocchio? The question becomes even more pertinent when we start to learn what he has to say. For this, of course, we are dependent on Dr. Ginzburg’s reading of the information extracted by sixteenth-century inquisitors who themselves clearly found it a baffling task to follow the thought processes of so alien a figure. Already, then, there is a double screen between ourselves and the mind of Menocchio, and this itself may give us some cause for concern. Yet Menocchio was so patently pleased with his intellectual achievements, and so eager to have the chance to explain them to so learned an audience, that it is reasonable to assume that—unlike most victims of the Inquisition—he was more willing to reveal than conceal. This bonanza, both for the inquisitors and for Dr. Ginzburg, makes it a fair guess that the elements of incoherence which emerge from the proceedings are as much a reflection of the elements of incoherence in Menocchio’s world-scheme as a consequence of the way in which the questions were framed.

For Menocchio did have a world-scheme, and we might as well hear it explained in his own words: “I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and 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….” Not surprisingly, the inquisitors were startled by this unusual theory of creation, and there were further shocks to come. Menocchio denied the Virgin Birth, rejected the sacraments, believed that Christians, heretics, Turks, and Jews all partook of the Holy Spirit and were saved in the same way, and announced that “Holy Scripture has been invented to deceive men.” “My mind,” he told the inquisitors, “was lofty and wished for a new world and new way of life, because the Church did not act properly, and that there shouldn’t be so much pomp.”

It is easy enough to hear in these words the muffled echoes of the great debates that had been raging in Reformation Europe, but Dr. Ginzburg has naturally wished to probe deeper and discover more precise origins for Menocchio’s do-it-yourself cosmogony. Unfortunately no inventory was made of the books in Menocchio’s possession at the time of his arrest, but a number of books were mentioned in the course of the proceedings, so that Ginzburg starts with several important clues. At one point, for example, Menocchio attributes his troubles to reading “that book of Mandeville about many kinds of races and different laws,” and we begin to realize how Sir John Mandeville’s tall stories about his fabled new worlds could get a hold on the consciousness of an impressionable Italian miller in search of a new world of his own.

But this is a relatively easy clue to follow, and others are more difficult. Had Menocchio, for instance, really seen the 1547 Italian translation of the Koran, as Dr. Ginzburg at one point speculates? By this time, in any event, the reader is bound to be wondering what kind of miller this is—a miller who reads some oddly assorted books, and is actually known to have bought one of them in Venice. Can this man really be considered representative of that sixteenth-century peasant society to which Ginzburg wishes to relate him? Were there indeed innumerable Menocchios scattered through the villages of northern Italy, or does this book tell us about one man, and one man only—Menocchio himself?

The inquisitors decided that Menocchio was “sane, not mad”; but as we read about the miller of Friuli, we can hardly fail to recall the knight of La Mancha, another rural figure who, at just about this time, was also being disoriented by books. Was Menocchio any more representative of the Italian peasant than was Don Quijote of the Castilian hidalgo? Dr. Ginzburg is prepared to concede that Menocchio “cannot be considered a ‘typical’ peasant of his age,” but he also thinks that Menocchio’s distinctiveness had “very definite limits,” and that “a few soundings confirm the existence of traits reduceable to a common peasant culture.” In fact, he presents Menocchio to us not just for the intrinsic fascination of his story, which he amply proves, but also because he believes that the miller’s tale can tell us something of importance about the nature of “popular culture” itself.

It is at this point that the extreme difficulty of Dr. Ginzburg’s enterprise becomes apparent, for Menocchio lived at the intersection of the worlds of oral tradition and the written word, shortly after the coming of the printed book. From which of these worlds does he draw the central tenet of his cosmogony, the creative putrefaction of cheese? Dr. Ginzburg comes down firmly against the printed word—“Menocchio hadn’t taken his cosmogony from books.” Instead, he refers us to an Indian myth in the Vedas which tells how the universe originated from the coagulation of the sea “so that it curdled like cheese,” and postulates the existence of a millenarian cosmological tradition drawn by Menocchio from the very depths of peasant society.

Where Dr. Ginzburg points to peasant oral tradition as the starting point for the miller’s cosmogony, his critics have pointed to the Aristotelian naturalist tradition of the University of Padua, and to the doctrines of spontaneous generation prevalent in Italian philosophical circles of the time. It hardly seems plausible that this obscure miller, who understood neither the word “predestination” nor the meaning of justification by faith, should have been conversant with the latest doctrines of the philosophers. On the other hand, Menocchio did not live in total isolation. He went to Venice, and he seems to have talked a great deal with visitors from the outside world. It does not seem intrinsically impossible, then, that he should have got wind of some of the current topics of debate in the universities.

But before we reascribe to the “great tradition” of the educated elite what Dr. Ginzburg ascribes to the “little tradition” of the masses, it is worth considering a recent anthropological study which could afford some support to Dr. Ginzburg’s cause. Sainte-Engrâce in the French Pyrenees is a Basque sheep-raising community in which the men are responsible for making the cheese. Dr. Sandra Ott, in a study of this community, found that its inhabitants understand and explain the process of human conception by reference to cheese-making. 5 Northern Italy is a good deal closer to the Pyrenees than to the Himalayas, and the case for Dr. Ginzburg’s oral tradition is correspondingly strengthened. But Dr. Ott, who appears to be unaware of Ginzburg’s work, also reminds us that Aristotle in his De Generatione Animalium made use of the same analogy, and that it was one which had currency in the literature of medieval Europe. Are we to assume, then, that there existed side by side a “great tradition” and a “little tradition” equating human conception with cheese-curdling? Did the Aristotelian analogy enter the popular consciousness, or did Aristotle himself derive it from popular tradition? Or may it be that the analogy is sufficiently obvious to a rural society for it to spring up independently in different places and at different times?

For the present, at least, these are unanswerable questions, but it is still possible that Dr. Ginzburg has created more difficulties for himself than are really necessary. He is a shrewd and sensitive historian, but he is also a very engaged one. In the preface to the English edition he specifically rejects charges that he believes in “the absolute autonomy and continuity of peasant culture,” and opts instead for “a circular relationship composed of reciprocal influences, which traveled from low to high as well as from high to low.” But he does tend to use phrases like “an autonomous current of peasant radicalism,” and “the elemental, instinctive materialism of generation after generation of peasants.”

One has the impression of a man who, while far too scrupulous a scholar to play around with his evidence, has an emotional commitment to a particular image of the people and the rural community—an image which may, at certain moments, instinctively predispose him toward one interpretation rather than another of the information at his disposal. The consequence may be a tendency to polarize too sharply “higher culture” and “popular culture,” which he then has to bring closer together again by means of “reciprocal influences.” But social stratification does not entail as a necessary corollary cultural stratification along the same divide. When one considers the growing evidence for the mobility both of people and ideas in early modern Europe, might it not be more profitable to take as our starting point not division but unity—a common fund of culture upon which groups and individuals draw, forming, deforming, and elaborating as they go along, in order to make some sense of their own special world?

Menocchio and the plague victims of 1630 sought as best they could to deal with situations, ideas, and experiences that were open to various interpretations, and that no doubt formed a conflicting kaleidoscope of jumbled impressions. It would seem unwise to expect an excessive degree of coherence or uniformity in their responses, or to categorize them too neatly into groups labeled “the high” and “the low.” As Professor Cipolla reminds us, “history is made by men and not by categories,” and the special delight of both his own book and Dr. Ginzburg’s lies precisely in their revelation of how specific people were struggling in their own individual ways to extract order from the chaos. The impression left by both these historians is of the ingenuity and determination of the human spirit in face of every kind of adverse circumstance. And if we are occasionally tempted to smile at their efforts, it is salutary to ask ourselves if we are really doing any better than the public health officials who overlooked the rats, or the miller of Friuli who made too much of the cheese.

  1. 1

    Frank McArdle, Altopascio: A Study in Tuscan Rural Society, 1587-1784 (Cambridge University Press, 1978).

  2. 2

    Cristofano and the Plague: A Study in the History of Public Health in the Age of Galileo (University of California Press, 1973).

  3. 3

    Daniela Lombardi, “1629-1631: crisi e peste a Firenze,” Archivio Storico Italiano, no. 499 (1979), pp. 3-50.

  4. 4

    A shorter English version of this book, with the title of “Cheese and Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller,” was published in 1979 as chapter III of James Obelkevich, ed., Religion and the People, 800-1700 (University of North Carolina Press).

  5. 5

    Aristotle among the Basques: The ‘Cheese Analogy’ of Conception,” Man, vol. 14, no. 4 (December, 1979), pp. 699-711.

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