Cheese, Worms and Angels: Menocchio the Heretic

Carlos Ginzburg first published The Cheese and the Worms [Amazon] in Italian in 1976, and then in English four years later. It has now been published in more that 100 languages, marking a reference for the writing of "microhistories". The main character of this wildly imaginative story, is the miller Domenico Scandella, known to neighbors as Menocchio, and his two Inquisition trials for heresy. We have access to Menocchio's cosmovision and spiritual imaginary because of these meticulous records of interrogation and torture held in the archives of the Curia Arcivescovile in Udine, Italy. Transcripts from two trials charging Menocchio with heresy reveal that he believed the origins of the world can be traced to when the "…earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk of mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were angels."

Worms as angels, four elements and some churning. Microhistories were given new life, one of curds and curdled stories. Microhistory is a narrative and methodological form of writing history that focuses on a localized event, person or community. The printing revolution and the Reformation are the context of Menocchio's accumulation of knowledge and his theorizations about the origins of the earth. Access to the books and pamphlets circulating at this time, and the ideas and provocations contained within, introduced this miller to possibilities and imaginaries he might otherwise never encountered. These new ideas mixed and mashed with the oral traditions and folk knowledge that organized vernacular imaginaries at the time. Menocchio re-organized and re-interpreted the assumed and common-place meanings given to time and space, to change, and to relationships with spiritual traditions and origin stories.

Loyal to his own principle and theories, as well as the way of living those principles and theories implied, Menocchio's fate was death. In 2018, the director Alberto Fasulobrought this phenomenal story to the big screen in Menocchio the Heretic. A trailer in Italian with English subtitles is available here.