Wednesday, 9 February 2011

History and Icons: The Cheese And The Worms

Carlo Ginzburg’s micro-history follows the trials, tribulations and re-trials of a sixteenth-century miller, Menocchio. Inquisition records following Menocchio’s interrogation for heresy provide the basis for this historical exploration into his ‘cosmos’, which Ginzburg reveals was informed by a surprising range of texts as well as oral traditions. I rarely stray into early modern territory, being firmly of the belief that history really began with the building of Edinburgh’s New Town, but even I can’t resist a good heretic! And the broad range of Ginzburg’s analysis considering ideas, reading practices and oral culture of the Italian peasantry in the 1500s, provides a delicious labyrinth of historical possibilities.
Peter Burke described Menocchio as an ‘extraordinary ordinary man’, and indeed it’s the insight into the creativity of the millers thinking that is so absorbing to the reader. You’ve got to respect someone who under interrogation from the holy Church admits they’ve had doubts about the virginity of the virgin Mary and proceeds to describe his singular cosmology:
“in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were fixed 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 the angels.” (pp. 5-6)
How’s that for a creation story!?!
Of course, while this kind of eccentricity makes Menocchio endearing, it’s how Ginzburg traces his engagement with a wide range of literature and ideas that has assured The Cheese And The Worms iconic status in historiography. Through his analysis of Menocchio’s cosmos Ginzburg reminds us that the content of metaphors is never accidental. In Menocchio’s case his mental and linguistic world was rigorously literal and must be understood as such when studying his speech. He didn’t use the metaphor of ‘cheese and worms’ to illustrate his thoughts, rather it was the product of his engagement with the world around him, and evidence of ‘organic intellectualism’ in sixteenth century Italy.
As a historian of the twentieth century I hope to I can inject a similar dynamism into our historical understandings of popular culture. Histories of post-1950s pop culture too often relegate people to the role of ‘consumer’ rather than ‘producer’. While there is agency in being part of the audience, or the crowd, surely there is also room to explore how elements of extraordinary creativity figured in the ‘everyday’?