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Ginzburg On Trial: An Argument In Defense Of Historian Carlo Ginzburg

1574 words - 7 pages

Historians wishing to study the culture of any preindustrial subordinate class are all challenged by the lack of evidence at their disposal. Such is the case with the peasant class of medieval Europe. Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, in an attempt to better understand the cultural attitudes of medieval peasants, takes on an innovative and controversial task in The Cheese and the Worms. The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. The book is centered on a curious sixteenth century miller named Menocchio and his interactions with the Inquisitorial board while on trial for heresy. Ginzburg, however, intends to do more than just tell the story of a miller’s trial and subsequent execution under the inquisition. Ginzburg scrutinizes, evaluates, and researches the details of Menocchio’s statements in an attempt to understand the origins of his strange worldview. Ginzburg then asserts that by determining the origins of Menocchio’s thoughts, one can understand the cultural and social attitudes of peasants of the time. More specifically, Ginzburg argues that interactions between the ruling class and the peasant class were more common than previously thought and even more importantly, that these interactions were more influential to the cultures of both parties than previously imagined. Although Ginzburg’s conclusion may appear radical, Ginzburg is successful in arguing that a reciprocal dynamic existed between the dominant and subordinate classes and that the latter’s reliance on oral culture was an essential part of peasant consciousness. Ginzburg recognizes the leaps and assumptions in his arguments and is careful to address them and validate them as they appear. It is also essential to note what Ginzburg’s intentions are with his narrative. He is not asserting that every peasant in medieval Europe held Menocchio’s beliefs nor is he attempting to paint a picture of day-to-day peasant life. Rather, he uses the interactions between the Miller and the Inquisitorial board as a representation of the general interactions between the peasant and ruling classes of the time.
While certain criticisms of Ginzburg may have some merit, it is best to discuss the book’s accomplishments before delving into areas in which Ginzburg could have improved. Ginzburg’s primary and strongest argument is in his is detailed recollection of Menocchio’s known book collection. After Ginzburg refutes the influences of popular heretical movements, such as the Reformation and Anabaptist movements, had on Menocchio, he explains the affect of Menocchio’s readings had on his ideas. Over the course of the miller’s two trials, he references eleven books in his testimony as a source of his ideas. From the Inquisitor’s view some works are more benign, such as the bible (in the vernacular) while others, like the Koran, are clearly heretical. Despite the varying content of Menocchio’s library, there is one consistency among his readings; he prooftexts his books in order to substantiate his...

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