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. read more

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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