The Cheese and the Worms
Elena Montazemi Safari
23 May 2021
Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms is a microhistory written in 1976. It follows the life and trials of the sixteenth century miller of the Friuli, Domenico Scandella, also known as Menocchio, who had been accused of heresy and being a heresiarch. Ginzburg aims for this book to be multi-functional in that “it is addressed to the general reader as well as to the specialist”, as indicated by the extensive notes at the end of the book. Additionally, Ginzburg has redirected anthropological tools and concepts such as that of the importance of ‘primitive’ culture and not judging with modern European concepts into the discipline of historical research. The outcome is not a dichotomous lens on elite and popular culture in Early Modern Europe but rather one that casts the complexity of this transmission, which is exemplified by Scandella’s complex position in his community as a literate and well-read miller.
The book was used in my anthropology approaches module for my History degree. The intention was to look at history through an anthropological and micro-history lens. One could argue that micro-history is a reaction against the generalisations that have developed of these disciplines. Ginzburg comments that “although the lower classes are no longer ignored by historians, they seem condemned, nevertheless, to remain ‘silent’”. Ginzburg therefore suggests we look at subordinate classes through qualitative methods rather than quantitative.
Overall, Ginzburg adapts anthropological tools and applies them alongside his skilful source analysis to uncover and bring to life the forgotten history about a remarkable miller in the 16th century. Micro history should not be underrated as not only can it give a voice to the ‘silent’ subordinate class who can be unfairly dismissed as being uniform as well as help historians understand trends and relations in macro history. Ginzburg finishes off with “about Menocchio we know many things, about Marcato or Marco – and so many others like him who lived and died without leaving a trace we know nothing.”