Mideval Pop Culture Revealed by a Simple Miller: Oral Traditions and Folk Beliefs Filled the Gaps

written July 16, 2009


The trials for herecy of the modest medieval miller Domenico Scandella (1532-1599), called Menocchio, offers the rarest glimpse into the popular culture of the European peasant class that lived in Friuli, Italy; the records of Menocchio’s confrontation before Church inquisitors cracks the hierarchical power structure, from which ancient oral traditions spring forth.   Sixteenth-century Europe was awash in religious upheaval, benefiting and also suffering from the violent shock of confronting “new worlds.” These novel forms came in the advent of printing, the discovery of the Americas, and the Reformation. Lords and bishops- the old power structures- struggled to retain their authority amid revelations that could not be kept from the peasants.  In Carlo Ginzburg’s view the popular culture of Menocchio’s age was a “culture imposed on the popular cultures.”1

Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms  is an examination of the rarest of medieval records: the beliefs and worldview of a commoner.  The Menocchio relieved through religion interrogations, first in 15883 and again in 1599, is  an opinionated, talkative peasant who pleads he has done nothing wrong.  When questioned most often he states his desire for a simple religion of literal metaphors “reduced itself to poverty alongside the poor…rooted in the Gospels, free of dogmatic requirements” and that “illumination was granted to all men in equal measure.”2 To Menocchio and peasants like him, heaven was viewed as a simple feast that was denied to them in life. He was distrustful of relics and ceremony, fearing these acts caused oppression, yet Ginzburg contrasts Menocchio’s statements with contemporary Lutheran and Anabaptist tenants. He finds Menocchio’s views, when so compared, does not entirely align by these standardized beliefs.  Rather, a better picture emerges with a study authors; works that Menocchio names during his two trials. Nicola de Melchiorri’s Songo, as one example, criticized the Church as making “a business of burying the dead” which aligns with Menocchio’s outlook.

Yet Menocchio’s creative “transmissions” drew unusual conclusions that created a variant universal reality from that of the higher, authoritative classes: “Even though fragmentary and partly obliterated,” there remains “the existence of a millenarian cosmological tradition that, beyond the difference of languages, combined myth with science”4. The cosmology he prescribed to, the miller explained with the evidence of his experience and senses, with like a large piece of cheese, with worms crawling throughout:

“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 most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was named lord with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.”

In this melding of folk and institutional beliefs, Menocchio serves therefore as a link between traditional oral history and that of the written word, the “source of power” which had been historically controlled by the ruling structure. The new tool of writing allowed the occasional peasant access to books, yet their inherent alien quality created the necessity of filling the gaps new readers like Menocchio encountered (Such as individual Biblical words he unwittingly met during his trials and did not know). Menocchio’s own popular culture can fleetingly be found in the way he earthily describes his conception of God, of Jesus, and the system of morality he called religion: “using terms infused with Christianity, neo-Platonism, and scholastic philosophy, Menocchio tried to express the elemental, instinctive materialism of generations of generations.”6 Consequently, Menocchio formed his idea of God as an overseeing, distant “lord”, yet “above all a father.”7

Further, Ginzberg argues that Mennochio’s concept of a “new world” was in fact a melding of multiple sources: from the books he would borrow, from the wonders of the Age of Discovery, and from his labor as a miller (just as with Pighino the miller), “an occupational group especially receptive to the new ideas and inclined to propagate them”9 these events expanded his horizons. They caused Mennochio to question reality in the vocabulary of his popular culture, for which he became a target of the Holy Office Mennochio and Pighino, like thousands others, came before the inquisitors and were silenced for their heretical views.

Ginzburg describes each as broken men, willing to relent at their lowest points for forgiveness; yet something from within Mennichio reemerges after his first trial to cause him, like a new Socrates, in 1599 to begin questioning and antagonizing again. Ginzburg offers a fascinating study of a single individual at the crossroads, between the knowledge literacy has granted him, and the conformity the Church expected of sixteenth-century society. Ginzburg boils down the moment of a true coming-of-age as Mennochio tries to square the isolated world of his village with the distant beliefs of Cathay and the New World: “I have read that there are many kinds of races of men, I believe that many different people have been created in various parts of the world.”10 This revelation of other modes of belief across the world unbound by Church, Ginzburg argues, triggered the popular beliefs of ancient days to be reborn from some corner of Mennochio’s mind. Thus, he further argues, much like Geertz and Bakhtin, that we are more tied to our common culture that we can be aware. Mennochio heard echoes of a past culture that he followed them determinedly to his death.

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