Carlo Ginzburg and the ‘euphoria of ignorance’: Thinking about how to do history

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‘What do you imagine God to be?… God is    nothing but a breath’. The sixteenth century Italian miller Menocchio’s words seem astonishing to the twenty-first century reader in their strength, coherence and imagination in conceptualising an idea of the world radically different to that of the strict Counter-Reformation Catholicism of his small Italian village. Menocchio came before the Inquisition because someone had finally reported him after long years of preaching his dangerous ideas to anyone in the village who would listen. He believed that God was in nature and the world rather than a sentient celestial being, rejected the immortality of the soul and thought the Church was deeply corrupt. It is his description of the creation of the universe using a metaphor drawn from everyday life – cheese-making and maggots – that gives the book its title and illustrates the deep thought and peasant-like earthiness that his words combined: ‘I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed 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’.

The long transcript of his initial interrogations and trial as a heretic means that the workings of his astonishing mind have been preserved thanks – ironically – to the meticulous record-keeping of the Inquisition. However it is of course Carlo Ginzburg who uncovered his story, recognised its power and painstakingly reconstructed Menocchio’s mental and social universe, revealing the currents of thought and writing he encountered in his life in an effort to understand might have prompted him to form such radical opinions.

Books like Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘The Cheese and the Worms’ make me wish I was an early modern historian. Sometimes contemporary history feels just that bit too familiar and I am envious of the potential in a story like Menocchio’s to illuminate the social, cultural and intellectual workings of a world as distant as that of sixteenth-century rural Italy. It is of course to Ginzburg’s credit that he managed to do this with such skill and imagination, creating a new type of history writing – the micro-history – in the process. When Carlo Ginzburg spoke in conversation with Filippo De Vivo at the Italian Cultural Institute, London last week, he spoke at length about his long career as a historian from his research on witchcraft in the 1960s to his more recent time at UCLA. Hearing him talk about his own approach to research as well as the future potential of micro-history, I also began to think about the ways that I approach research and history writing in my own work.

Describing his approach to historical research, his starting point was always what he termed ‘the euphoria of ignorance’; the act of stumbling across an apparently incomprehensible incident or document and feeling the urge to recover its meaning or even the realisation of little understanding we have of a historical place or time and then attempting to reconstruct or illuminate it. While, Ginzburg said, historical questions are always really anachronistic, they do prompt us to learn how to speak the languages of other people, and past societies and presumably from there to begin to understand them as much as possible on their own terms. For Ginzburg then, it is always imperative to start from a historical detail rather than from a general question. It is the detail that should shape the bigger questions as the historian attempts to understand what it means and what its broader implications are.

I can see immediately how this makes sense for my own work. When beginning my postdoctoral work on post-war Italy, I began from a series of bigger questions – about the relationship between dress, fashion, women and social change – which I formulated before I had really begun to examine the sources. As I did this I gradually came to see that while there were many fascinating connections between dress and the wider social context of the post-war economic boom, they didn’t all quite add up to the bigger picture I had formulated in advance. After spending some time trying to make various pieces fit together into a coherent argument. I realised that they weren’t co-operating and began to re-formulate my ideas. I’ve allowed my current research to be guided much more by the sources, with the project as it was initially funded in 2011 changing shape several times as the diaries, memoirs and popular culture sources I examined took me in their own directions. As a result, a study of youth culture and the experience of growing up has become a study of love, courtship and the emotions; however the central aim of examining the experience of coming of age in a changing post-war society remains the same. Simply following the sources – the historical details – can at least in my experience, lead to finding better ways of answering the bigger questions.

Inevitably in an age increasingly defined by a concern for the ‘global’ – whatever that means exactly – from global economies and global communities to global and transnational histories, we have to consider whether an approach defined by its attention to the smallest details of history, is still of any real relevance or use. Of course the continued success of the micro-historical approach across time and space and right up to the present, from Gene Bruckner to Angela Bourke and Keith Wrightson, would suggest that it has. Ginzburg had an answer to this too.  For him there was no real tension between micro-history and transnational concerns, because what matter are the questions that historians ask, rather than the answers. This is true of course; what historians share is surely their collective attempt to understand the languages of the past and what we can learn from them is the way they try to do this, the questions they pose rather than the specific detail of their findings.

I do wonder though whether contemporary historians can do micro-history too, or whether the ability of Ginzburg and others like him to illuminate a world, and a mindset completely different to our own, would falter under the ‘extreme abundance of evidence’ that the twentieth century offers. While I still think that in some important aspects, 1950s Europe is still a society completely unlike our own, I can see how a the weight of too much evidence – from films, books and magazines to statistics, court records, diaries, memoirs and so on – together with a sense of (perhaps false) familiarity, could make a ‘Cheese and the Worms’ of the contemporary world very difficult to write. Peter Fritzsche’s sort-of micro history of twentieth-century Berlin, as seen through the eyes of meticulous diarist Franz Goll, has come up against some of these criticisms, even though surely the mindset of someone who lived through totalitarianism, even briefly supporting the Nazis, is surely one we still strive to understand.

For the moment though, I think I’ll have to leave these concerns aside and go back to figuring out what questions to ask of my diaries, memoirs and popular culture sources, hoping that I might some day discover a twentieth-century Menocchio worth writing about.

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