Opening a Can of Worms

Carlos Ginzburg makes a commendable attempt to enlighten his readers on the mysteries of Catholic theology, but sometimes he tries our patience

"Hagvina vehatola'im, olamo shel tokhen ben hame'ah hashesh-esray" by Carlo Ginzburg, translated into Hebrew by Ora Eyal, 320 pages, NIS 89 ("The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller," translated into English by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, Routlege & Regan Paul).

Domenico Scandella was a big talker. One might even say an old windbag. A miller, guitar player, teacher and carpenter, he lived with his wife and seven sons in a little village at the foot of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy. Like most people, he would have remained anonymous if historian Carlo Ginzburg had not discovered him. And like most people who get into history books, his fame would have ended with a mention in the index. Fortunately, Ginzburg knows how to write, and the book became a best-seller.

"The Cheese and the Worms" was written 30 years ago and is considered a classic, so it seems a little odd that it has been translated into Hebrew only now. But it is a delightful book, and the translation is well done. What I found surprising was the publisher's presumption that the story of a 16th century miller might have relevance in a tense Israeli summer like this one. But I was wrong: "The Cheese and the Worms" is highly readable, and fits as much for today as for days gone by.

Wading through mountains of scholarly footnotes and references to Italian sources that I have no way of checking, the story emerges as follows: Menocchio, as Scandella was widely known, infuriated the church with his unorthodox views. The world, he told his fellow villagers, was created from a rotting mass, in the same way that cheese was made out of milk. Angels were like the worms that infested this mass.

Some of Menocchio's views were theologically subversive. He maintained, for example, that Mary, mother of Jesus, couldn't have been a virgin. It's a fact, he said. Look at how many mothers there are in the world, and none of them are virgins. He felt the same way about other aspects of Christian dogma. He boldly held forth on the nature of God. Sometimes he was only baiting the priests, and many of his arguments were confused and groundless. He ended up being hauled before a court, and the trial provides Ginzburg with the framework for his story.

Silly intellectualI would present a synopsis of the book, but something tells me it wouldn't be fair to the reader. What I will say is that I'm not sure our Menocchio is worthy of the tremendous admiration Ginzburg heaps on him. In the best of cases, he is a silly intellectual not the only one I know and a tiresome old fool. He is not a hero, but an ordinary mortal, and he has no sense of humor to speak of, which is a great pity. I never really grew to like him.

"The Cheese and the Worms" is written in layers, a little like the Ferrero-Roche chocolate balls they make in Italy. The more you bite in, the richer they are. Beneath the biographical surface and the account of Menocchio's relationship with his sons lies a fascinating description of village life. The book is a must-read for anyone planning a trip to the Dolomites.Under the sociology is historiography. Ginzburg tries to prove that human culture does not necessarily spread from top to bottom in a vertical line, from the elite to the lower classes. Down at the bottom there is also culture, and sometimes it moves upward to the elite in our case, up to the pope himself.

The Catholic establishment could have ignored Menocchio, of course. Who cares what an old miller tells his neighbors, even if it is heresy of the worst kind? They could have said he was just a lunatic. But he was not a lunatic, and that was the point. Words can create power, and the Church was careful to preserve the power it had. They could have got rid of him, but Menocchio challenged not only the political standing of the Church but also the very foundations of its theological existence.

And he did it from the inside, because he continued to be a devout Christian. That is why the Church leaders could not ignore him. They did somersaults to prove that he was wrong, and more importantly, they wanted him to admit that he was wrong.

This was exceedingly important to them. Words were not enough. Anyone could say "Sorry, I was mistaken." The words had to reflect inner conviction. But the more he was asked, the more his ego grew. Menocchio's dream was to explain the tenets of Catholic faith to the pope himself.

The trial was conducted "in the public eye," although the precise setting is not clear. Sometimes the story unfolds as if there were television cameras in the courtroom. Interestingly, Menocchio's standing is not harmed by the trial. On the contrary, he becomes a kind of local celebrity. Ginzburg does not dwell on the "media" aspect of the affair, which is too bad. What does preoccupy him is the origin of Menocchio's beliefs. That is the mystery the book tries to solve.

Like a detectiveGinzburg operates like a detective, writes Yosef Kaplan in an interesting article appended to the book. Menocchio can read and write, and Ginzburg tracks down the books he has read. But at a certain stage, he discovers that Menocchio has also absorbed traditions that have been passed down orally. This is an amazing discovery. These doctrines came to Italy from distant continents. All of a sudden, the world looks very much like a "global village." Here we have proof of a reservoir of culture that does not spring from the elite.

But this is where Ginzburg, a professor whose father was an historian and whose mother was a famous writer, runs into trouble. In his efforts to unearth the sources of Menocchio's thinking, he does not consider the possibility that the miller might not have taken his approach to Christianity from foreign sources, and may have come up with at least some of these ideas on his own. I'd also like to know more about Menocchio's attitude toward the Jews.

Ginzburg makes a commendable attempt to enlighten his readers on the mysteries of Catholic theology, but sometimes he tries our patience. As in the distinction he makes, for instance, between the "fleeting soul" and the "immortal spirit," which "takes us back to the debate between the Ibn Rushdists and the University of Padua theologians who were influenced by Pomponazzi in the first half of the 16th century." Two footnotes are appended here, one of them explaining that Ibn Rushd was a Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, and the other, that Pietro Pomponazzi was an Italian humanist and philosopher. But even so, a sentence like that tends to go over my head.

I read "The Cheese and the Worms" as an intriguing book about ideological insurrection and the limits of intellectual freedom and courage. In that respect, I found it very relevant.