Historian Carlo Ginzburg

A brief look his career and his seminal work The Cheese and the Worms.

Bibliography for further reading included.

A well known and often read historian examining witchcraft, art history, and peasant belief in early modern rural Italy, Ginzburg is often cited as a practitioner of the art of micro-history, a methodology where a larger historical perspective is studied through the close analysis of singular events. Professor Emeritus at UCLA, Ginzburg is one of the most famous historians working today.  The International Balzan Prize Foundation, which Ginzburg won in 2010, has called Ginzburg “ one of the most original and influential historians of our time,” calling his oeuvre “impressively large,” and declaring his work on the heretical miller, Menocchio, The Cheese and the worms, a classic. 

The Cheese and the worms is not primarily a work of book history, rather it is a history that uses book history to illuminate its larger story, which is an examination of pre-Christian peasant beliefs held within the rural districts of north eastern Italy in the 16th century. For Ginzburg, these beliefs are given voice by the miller Menocchio who finds a language to express his heretical beliefs through exposure to the written word. Thus, The Cheese and the worms is an example of book history that intercepts the so-called book circuit of Darnton at the point of the reader, in this case Mennocio. 

The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg
The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg

We learn the titles of several books to which Mennocio was exposed during the years that he developed his heretical views by his reference to these works in his testimony. We also learn of other works which his language mirrors to which he may or may not have had access. Of primary concern to the author is how Mennocio read these works, both physically, through borrowing them, as well as intellectually, using them to articulate positions that were his own by adapting their language to his own philosophical speculations. Of course, there are some other aspects of book history that arise in Ginzburg’s analysis, we must of course be aware of what books were available when and where. 

But the primary concern of the author is how Mennocio read. It was the technology of print that “enabled him to confront books with the oral tradition in which he had grown up and fed him the words to release that tangle of ideas and fantasies he had within him.” (xxxi) One of the books, a travel log that told tall tales of Prester John and strange lands, had been translated from the English work The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. According to Ginzbug, “By means of Mandeville’s accounts, his largely imaginary descriptions of distant lands, Menocchio’s mental universe expanded enormously.” (42)

We learn the price of another book, 2 lira, which becomes a stumbling block to repairing Mennocio’s relationship with the church. We also hear of lending groups and traveling booksellers, though these ideas are only on the periphery of the primary narrative, which is ultimately the testimonies and trials of the miller as he faces prosecution by the learned and surprised inquisitors of the church courts. 

Ginzburg, C. (1980). The Cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Annotated Bibliography:

Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
A study of a group of 16th century peasants, born with a caul, and known as the “benandanti,” they comprised a special class of people believed to have special powers of incorporeal travel and the ability to do spiritual battles with witches at night.These peasants ran afoul of the Inquisition and were themselves charged with witchcraft for their claims of special powers. Ginzburg studies their cases through the use of Inquisition archives. The use of reference books describing the activities and characteristics of witches provides another primary source of inquiry.

Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
A series of essays concerning historical method. According to the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, as quoted on the back cover, “Ginzburg reflects on how easily we miss the context in which we read, write, and live. Only hindsight allows some understanding.” Some topics covered include witchcraft, eroticism in 16th century art, the Freudian interpretation of lycanthropy, and German mythological thinking in Nazi teutonism.

Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books.
A broad study of the Witches Sabbath covering the 14th to the 17th century. Like other works in this bibliography, Ginzburg supposes a thread of truth behind accusations of witchcraft, supposing a pre Christian survival or at least a parallel strata of alternative belief pervading Late Medieval and Early Renaissance peasant culture in Europe.

Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
A challenge to postmodern historical theory that supposes that all historical truth is constructed and that there is no such thing as historical knowledge. Ginzburg admits that there is a lack of absolute certainty in historical analysis and construction but holds that such analysis might still profitably reveal the imminently probable. Chapters of the book are case studies that Ginzburg uses to prove his points.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso.
A work of art history, this book examines the iconography and origins of three masterpieces of Renaissance Art, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, the Flagellation, and the Arezzon cycle. By combining his study with an examination of the patronage and commissioning of such works, Ginzburg tries to bring a new sensibility to interpretation by considering the conditions of the works’ origin. Black, quoting the book’s introduction, notes: “one of this book’s most remarkable features is the range of sources it exploits without regard to the frontiers between disciplines” (Black, 1986: 69).

Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.
A series of four essays that examine English literature in relationship to its reception in outside contexts. One essay concerns Lucian and his influence on Thomas Moore, author of Utopia. A second essay deals with the Elizabethean English rejection of poetry based primarily or solely on meter, as in the ancient Greek and Latinc classics, and working instead with rhyme as a primary component of verse formation. A third essay deals with the formal structure of Early Modern novel Tristram Shandy. The final chapter deals with Robert Lewis Stevenson and the relationship of his short fiction “The Bottle Imp” to exotic island locales.

Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press.
A series of essays reflecting on distance as a metaphor for historical analysis.

Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Another case study of an Inquisition trial this one takes place at the end of the 17th century in Livonia, where a peasant is accused of having commerce with the devil. This book is not solely the work of Ginzburg but includes transcriptions from the trial, and interpretive essays by both Ginzburg and  Lincoln Old Theiss was an 80 year old man who, while in court for a theft trial, was accused of being a werewolf. Ginzburg reads the testimony, as he does in The Cheese and the Worms, as indication of an unattested because non-literary layer of pagan belief and culture coexisting alongside the official Roman Catholic religion.

Bibliography:

Black, R. (1986). The Uses and Abuses of Iconology: Piero della Francesca and Carlo Ginzburg. Oxford Art Journal, 9(2), 67-71. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/1360419

Campbell, J. (2000). Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 3(2), 300-302. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/41940236

Darnton, Robert (Summer 1982). What is the history of books? Daedalus, 111, 65-83.

Den Hollander , J., Paul, H., & Peters, R. (2011). Introduction: The Metaphor of historical distance. History and Theory, 50(4), 1-10. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41342617

Ginzburg, C. (1980). The cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books.

Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 International Balzan Prize Foundation. (n.d.).  Carlo Ginzburg – Balzan Prize European History (1400-1700), www.balzan.org/en/prizewinners/carlo-ginzburg.

Levack, B. (1986). The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 16(4), 729-731. doi:10.2307/204549

López, M. (2001). Utopian Studies, 12(1), 186-188. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/20718265

Martin, J. (1992). Journeys to the World of the Dead: The Work of Carlo Ginzburg. Journal of Social History, 25(3), 613-626. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/3789031

Schutte, A. (1976). Carlo Ginzburg. The Journal of Modern History, 48(2), 296-315. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1879831

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Old Thiess, A Livonian Werewolf: A Classic Case in Comparative Perspective, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 88, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 859–869, https://doi-org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/10.1093/jaarel/lfaa043

The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), 8(4), 143-143. (1984). doi:10.2307/40256790

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