I am going to tell the story of Menocchio.
It has been done before, and better than I can, by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and The Worms. I read this book as an undergraduate, loved it, lost it, remembered fragments and finally bought another copy not long ago.
It has been a three-body-problem experience, reading it again. The memory of an evening in the College Library came back to me such that I could recall which lines in the book I had copied out. Phrases that had been slumbering awoke. Then there was the now, two decades on, reading something slowly that I had once stripped apart for an essay. And thirdly there was Menocchio, the man at the book’s centre, executed in 1600 and a silenced voice until Ginzburg uncovered the records of his interrogation in the archives of the city of Udine.
Menocchio was a miller, born in 1532 in a town in northeastern Italy. He would have lived and died and been forgotten but for his appearance before the Roman Inquisition in 1584 and again in 1599. This mere miller, without disciples, leading no movement, came to the personal attention of Pope Clement VIII. He was put to death in the same year as Giordano Bruno.
Why bother with a miller in an obscure Italian village? Menocchio was a talker for sure. If I had Permission to go before the pope, or a king, or a prince who would listen to me, I would have a lot of things to say,’ he told his trial judge. Snippets from his life preserved in the calm tones of the inquisitorial notaries reveal him wandering and wondering, speculating about this and that to pretty much anyone who he could persuade to listen to him, sometimes on faith, sometimes on politics, elsewise of the stars. This last topic seems to have been unpopular, or so his parish priest recalled: ‘When he was heard talking about the moon and the stars, he was told to be silent.’
His ideas were just that, ideas. ‘I believe that the entire world, the air, the earth and all beautiful things of this world are God,’ he said. Humanity comprised two spirits, seven souls and a body composed of four elements, he seems to have believed. He could imagine eternal life but not bodily resurrection.
His cosmology was peculiar. He asserted the existence of an original chaos: ‘God was imperfect while he was with the chaos, he neither comprehended not lived, but later expanding in this chaos he began to live and understand.,’ he said. This chaos ‘curdled like a cheese, from which great multitudes of worms were born, and these worms became me, of whom the most powerful and wisest was God.’ Menocchio had presumably seen cheese being made and spotted worms coming out of rotting slabs of it. This metaphor made sense of the cosmos.
It will be clear by now that there was no system to what Menocchio thought. Indeed, the inquisitors had a lot of trouble labelling his beliefs in a manner that made sense in the broad history of heresy. He was not a Lutheran although he might have met one. He admired aspects of other faiths and might just possibly have encountered the Koran, but he professed himself a Christian, made confession and took communion. So the judges reached back to the early church, comparing this poor man to the medieval Manichees and even Origen. They attached a past to him of which Menocchio was ignorant.
He was not much of an agitator. In his local community, he held various posts of responsibility, including care of church finances. He did not do badly in his business either, until the Inquisition intervened. Thereafter, forced to wear at all times the garment of the condemned, people seemed less willing to buy his flour.
I ask again, why did he matter such that a Pope and a Cardinal should intervene in his case? Clement VIII ordered personally Menocchio’s death.
For cheese and worms and primeval chaos?
Or for this:
‘He is always arguing... even with the priest.’
And also for this:
‘I believe that sacred scripture was given by god, but was afterwards added to by men... As we see in the passages that one tells us one way and one in another.’
Menocchio was a reader. He represents a moment in western culture when knowledge passed out of the secure care of a professional caste dedicated to protecting it. The revolution caused by printing reached into this Italian village, for the availability of books and of an education to read them gave Menocchio access to a world of ideas that could not be controlled any more. We gain a sense of the books he read, whatever he could get his hands on – not only the Bible but also Mandeville’s Travels, even perhaps the Koran. These books were being lent and shared with unknown others. He thought and talked of what he thought he had learnt.
Menocchio also came to his own conclusions. This exaltation of private judgement is seen especially in his attitude to the sacred text of Scripture. Menocchio read the Bible and he spotted its contradictions. There was of course a literature of concordances that smoothed out these bumps in revelation, but Menocchio had no access to that. he had been told that the Bible told the truth. He found that it told many truths, or possibly none at all.
In this union of books and private judgement, we glimpse the effects of the Reformation and the print revolution at work.
What then was his crime? He thought freely, even wildly, without the interpretative ball and chain of tradition. ‘I also believe that anyone who has studied can become a priest without getting ordained,’ he told the inquisitors at his first trial, equating priesthood with knowledge and the control of it. That knowledge had been concealed much more than ever it had been revealed. ‘The inquisitors don't want us to know what they know,’ he once told another villager. Or, as Menocchio put it in one of his most poignant phrases:
‘I think speaking Latin is a betrayal of the poor.’
Menocchio had hopes. He dreamt of a new world and a new church. ‘I wish that the church were governed lovingly as it was when it was founded. ...Now there are pompous Masses.’ The Lord did not want pomp.
Menocchio also bore memories. Mixed in with his reading are echoes of an earlier, unwritten materialism, the slow, soft mockery of church and faith that had probably existed in villages like his for centuries. Ideas about creation and chaos and even cheese and worms probably circulated in forms altogether lost to us now. It was mightily practical, as revealed when Menocchio explained why he could not believe in bodily resurrection: ‘It seems impossible to me because if we should be resurrected, bodies would fill up heaven and earth.’
Menocchio was not to know that Thomas Aquinas had harboured the same doubt, fudging the issue by distinguishing between different states of eternal life, non intensive sed extensive. Even he had no idea what that meant.
'I said these things through the will of the false spirit who blinded my intellect and memory and will. ...I have done penance in a dark prison for 104 days, in shame and disgrace and with the ruin and desperation of my house and my children.'
But he could not stop himself from talking more. In his second trial in 1599 he was more hesitant, more afraid. ‘This is how it seems to me,’ he said, ‘but I don't know if it is the truth.’ Others knew that he was dangerous: ‘When he sees the moon or stars or other planets and hears thunder or something, he immediately wants to give his opinion on what has just happened,’ his new parish priest told the court. Fewer people wanted to listen.
‘You served up poison.’ So Menocchio’s judges concluded. ‘I thought I was a prophet,’ he told them towards the end. His faith was simple, almost beautiful – ‘I did say that god is all things,’ Menocchio told them many times. But he was not executed for pantheism. Menocchio stands as witness, almost mute but Ginzburg’s fantastic book has allowed him to speak again, to the power of books and private judgement in a society afraid that knowledge was not in the control of those who had once owned it. They were right and it was not. Here is Menocchio one last time:
‘My mind was lofty and wished for a new world and way of life.’