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This review is from: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Paperback)
Carlo Ginzburg, an Italian historian of the early-modern period, first published The Cheese and the Worms in 1976. The book is an early example of the emerging and now ubiquitous cultural history, but it is also credited with having started micro-history. Micro-history, a movement more specifically popular in Italian academia, consists of the interpretation of ultra-specific subjects, of ordinary events and individuals, for the light they might shed on broader historical subjects. Another example might include Robert Darnton's Great Cat Massacre, dealing with French popular culture in the ancien régime.
Here Ginzburg goes through the records of two Inquisition trials of the late sixteenth-century. The individual on trial is Domenico Scandella, a miller from a small village in Venetia. Scandella was in many ways special. He was literate, to begin with. And he had very set and unorthodox notions about the cosmos, creation, the Trinity, the soul, and many other things. He preached to fellow villagers and strangers alike, and on occasion defied the clergy. His story is fascinating in its own right: Ginzburg takes us through the books the miller read, what he appears to have taken away from them and how, his social views, what can be known of his private fate. And it also resonates with broader contemporary change: the Reformation and counter-Reformation, the growth and repression of heretical movements in Italy, social and political upheaval in the region. (The book, abundantly footnoted, is nevertheless accessible to the non-academic reader and is moreover an excellent yarn). Yet Ginzburg makes even more ambitious claims. According to him, Scandella's ideas were derived from a long-held peasant oral tradition, a tradition that had for centuries survived and adapted to Christianity but was finally being threatened by the diffusion of print. This credo, according to Ginzburg, was pagan in origin and pan-European. Each reader will be left to judge whether the miller's story can sustain such claims, and micro-history its own, bold aspirations.