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


‘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. read more


Love and Courtship in the time of Franco: Growing up in Catholic Spain

Unknown   Continuing my exploration of the themes of love        courtship and growing up in post-war Europe, on my reading list in the British Library this week was Carmen Martín Gaite’s book, Courtship customs in postwar Spain. Best known for her novels about post-war and contemporary Spain, through which she manages to explore both the experiences of living in and remembering life in Franco’s Spain, this is a different, even an odd sort of book. It is both a non fiction account of coming of age in 1940s and 1950s Spain, and an attempt to write a history of the collective experiences of one’s own generation. First published in Spanish in 1987, it’s unusual too in that Gaite focuses her attentions completely on the private sphere, on love, courtship and especially on the lives of girls and young women, in her portrait of the first generation to grow up and come of age under Francoism. It’s only more recently that, as far as I have found anyway, historians have begun to pay serious attention to themes like this when looking at the history of twentieth century Europe, and life in fascist societies. Even though themes of gender and women’s lives have been a concern for much longer, the spheres of private life, intimacy and expectations about love are only recently getting the attention they deserve. read more

Coming of age in Catholic Ireland: Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl

43Edna_OBrien_294633kI finished reading Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl on the plane back to Milan last week. Considering      how much      the memoir is bound up with place, spiralling out from rural Clare to Dublin, London and further afield and coming back again (sort of) to Ireland, it seemed fitting to be reading it while on my own travels. Having read a couple of the original Country Girls novels a few years ago, I was really curious to read the book for the insights it might offer into living in 1950s Ireland. Edna O’Brien was also born in 1930, her life spanning the same years as my ‘post-war generation’ of Italians coming of age in the 1950s, although Ireland was quite a different place to Italy, with its experience of economic boom and rapid social change in the late 1950s and 1960s. read more

Confessions of a wannabe early modernist…

Watching television at the bar in 1950s Italy

Watching television at the bar in 1950s Italy

I’ve been thinking lately about why certain historical periods seem to get all the attention. For the topics I’m most interested in – emotions, fashion, the city and gendered spaces, consumption – much of the recent scholarly attention focuses on the early modern period. Some of the most exciting work – the studies that try to reconceptualise history and look for new ways of examining how people’s minds, lives, living spaces and communities worked – seems to be happening there. While I love reading great books and articles that are outside my period – the more different and apparently random the better sometimes – I do wonder, as a contemporary historian, why so much of the innovation seems to be happening in much earlier centuries. read more

Love in the time of miracles

The following advice was given to a reader of the popular Italian magazine Grand Hotel who wrote in 1955 with the pseudonym ‘Gone with the wind’, and it manages to capture in a few words, the complex meanings and expectations associated with love and marriage in 1950s Italy.

“It wouldn’t have been very nice of you to marry (the first man) just to have a comfortable life. As for the other one, if he really loved you and had serious intentions, he would be able to persuade his parents to break his obligation. Be careful then dear, (…) neither a marriage of convenience nor a clandestine relationship with a man who is engaged to another. You’ll be left with empty hands and a bitter smile.” read more

Historians, technology and images – is it just window dressing?

This Tuesday I went to the launch of Archivi della moda del novecento (Archives of 20th century fashion), a web portal that aims to gather Italy’s rich contribution to modern fashion together in one place.  Information about designers and famous dress-makers, the clothes themselves as well as printed sources like magazines and catalogues are all there to browse through. So far the website is only in Italian, unfortunately, but it should still prove an excellent resource and hopefully an English version might follow at some stage

Listening to the talks by the various people involved in the project, I found the points it raises about public and private archives and what constitutes a national or shared cultural heritage, particularly interesting. read more

‘Tell me, please, is it true that the city is a dangerous place for a good girl?’ Work, independence and leaving home for young women in 1950s Italy

The fotoromanzi, all Italians know, are about love, escapism and fantasy. Occasionally the stories take their readers to exotic locations like the American wild west, medieval Venice, ancient Rome or pre-revolutionary Russia where adventure and intrigue are added to the basic ingredients of romance and melodrama, but these are always at the centre of the story. What then might such magazines have to say about the opportunities, expectations and choices that young women had to face in the 1950s as they set about building their lives? I spent last week going through my notes on the magazines I’ve been reading, and putting my research together to write a paper for the Social History Society conference taking place next week. As I read back through my summaries of the stories and letters I found that the magazines actually had a surprising amount to say on the subject of work, career and leaving home as well as the more familiar themes of love, dating and marriage. read more

Worthless escapism or a part of history? Women’s magazines in 1950s Italy

I’ve been spending the last few weeks reading through women’s magazines from the 1950s, in particular an illustrated weekly called Grand Hotel, one of the biggest-selling fotoromanzo or photo-story magazines that such had great success in 1950s Italy. New technologies were making it possible to mass-produce magazines that heavily featured colour photography and illustration, and the fotoromanzi, with their unique blend of serialized, illustrated stories – always melodramatic and always about love – met with huge popularity in these years. Their highly visual nature also appealed to the less educated. Readers could also write into the magazine with their (mostly romantic) problems so that we get glimpses not just of what Italians were reading but also of what how it related to their own lives. They have been traditionally dismissed as rags read by rural southern women, not literate enough to read anything else and too poor or isolated to go to the cinema for their fix of escapist entertainment. read more

The post-war generation: Growing up and coming of age in 1950s Italy

Italy in the late 1940s was still struggling to absorb the experience of war and to move beyond the crippling legacies of fascism, occupation and civil war. Poverty and deprivation were acute, particularly in the rural south and north-east. Peasant women still dressed in grim floor length blank skirts and dresses, spending most of their lives in mourning clothes, and donkeys not cars were still the accepted mode of transport. The infrastructure of many cities – Rome, Naples, Milan, Turin, Genoa – was nearly destroyed by bombing while poverty and disease dominated life in Naples and the rural south.

For anyone living through these bleak times, it must have been difficult to comprehend just how much Italy would change in the course of a decade. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Italian society was transformed by an economic boom so strong it was dubbed a ‘miracle’. read more