Last updated: April 11, 2019
Topic: ArtBooks
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For decades historians have created pictures for us today of how ancient and past civilizations lived. They have used ancient artifacts, science for dating, and more importantly the record keeping of those who lived during those times. Such as in 1976, Carlo Ginzburg has done just that in The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, he has shed light on the peasant culture of the sixteenth century and is successful at analyzing the power relationship between the dominant classes and the subordinate classes.

Ginzburg utilizes all of the written documents and texts possessed by Menocchio, his thoughts and recollections of the events, and court inquisitions at the time of the trial with the help of other relevant texts to successfully illustrate a general picture about sixteenth century life and the differences between the high and low culture; and it is with those tools that he shows that the church felt that it had the right, even the duty, to discriminate against those who differed in the views of the church and by doing that using it as a tool to maintain power, however eventually failing to maintain its traditional power in society as the corruption of the church became more obvious and the popular culture of literature became more widespread. During the sixteenth century, the church was in power. Not only does it becomes evident that the church was corrupt, but the peasants of society during this time were becoming aware of the situation. Ginzburg quotes Menocchio where he paints a clear picture of what power the church had and how they maintained that power.

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According to Menocchio, “they make a business of burying the dead As though they were a sack of wool, or peppercorns: In these matters they are very shrewd in not wanting to receive the deceased if first the money is not delivered into their hands; then they go to eat and drink it up laughing about those who made such payments and enjoying good beds and heavy-laden boards. Business of even greater they make of the church that was mine, among themselves drawing in every abundance not bothering about those who go without. In my opinion this is an evil practice to turn my church into a marketplace…” (26) It is clear that Menocchio thought that such exploitation was non Christian and that the church was abusing its power as religious figures to profit and monopolize on the hierarchical status of an elite.

Menocchio even goes on to say that, “the Church was an accomplice and participant: ‘And it seems to me that under our law, the pope, cardinals, and bishops are so great and rich that everything belongs to the church and to the priest, and they oppress the poor, who, if they work two rented fields, these will be fields that belong to the Church, to some bishop or cardinal. ’”(9) Which was even more proof that the church was corrupt because for a institution that was established to spread the principles and values of God and Jesus Christ, there are none that state that the church should profit, and in fact deviated from the practices our Gods son, Jesus Christ. However nonetheless, proof of how the church used its influence to do what they felt they had a right to do, which is make sure that the power of decisions about religion rested entirely on them.

Carlo Ginzburg looks at detailed records in which he “stumbles” upon from the Roman Inquisition trial of a sixteenth century miller named Menocchio whose heresies include the rejection of the divinity of Christ, the rejection of the idea of Virgin Birth, and his own views of cosmogony which strayed from that of the church; and all of which he believed justified and logical for a man of his status. Unfortunately for Menocchio, the sixteenth century church was not known for its understanding and acceptance of different views on religion; and it is in his situation where the church makes an example of him to others that followed in his shadow. By finding him guilty of heresy they could then punish him, thus cementing their place in hierarchy society.

But instead of falling into the submissive role to the church, Menocchio speaks up and sees that there is nothing wrong with his statements and actions, he goes on to say that,“ ‘priest want us under their thumb, just to keep us quiet, while they have a good time’” (2) Showing that the peasant culture were slowly becoming evident of the control of church on low “culture” and were surely fighting this form of oppression. In addition to his free thought, the church found him a threat because of his use of literature to prove the claims he was making but also using literature to disprove theories and judge common church practices that took place. It was becoming evident that the peasants were no longer just accepting the “culture” that was being handed down to them by the dominant class, the church, without questioning it; but instead were creating a rift in the social order of society.

Menocchio said that “ ‘I based my belief on the fact that many men have been born into the world, but none of a virgin woman; and when I read that the glorious Virgin was married to St. Joseph… and I read this in a book called II fioreto della Bibia’”(28) This could be evidence to show that they were comparing their everyday life in comparison to those in the literature to come to conclusions of their own and not those forced upon them by the church. And when the church found books that contradicted their authority they would simply, claim that they had read it and declare that it was a forbidden book finally burning it. ( 31) Clearly demonstrating to what lengths they would use their standing in society as tools to maintain their power over the peasants.

But now with the use of the printed word more individuals were not only reliant on the words of the church but instead they were able to read and interpret them themselves and discover whatever truths they themselves discover; and with the forbidding and burning of books that threaten the power of the church it is no wonder the reformation took place in neighboring years. Ginzburg cleverly summarizes from Menocchio statements that there was, “ No difference existed between clergy and laity. The sacrament of ordination was ‘ a business’. All the sacraments and laws of Church, for that matter, were ‘ merchandize,’ ‘inventions’ upon which the priest grew fat. Against this enormous edifice built on the exploitation of the poor, Menocchio set forth a very different religion, where all members were equal because the spirit of God was in all of them. (17) It is evident that Ginzburg is able to analyze the texts from the inquisition and from Menocchio that help illustrate how and what peasants during the sixteenth century felt of the church; and by doing it helps shed light on the unavoidable events that lead to reformation of the church and eventually the different types of religious practice. It is no wonder, why people such as Menocchio and Martin Luther were disgusted with their clergy eventually leading them to voice their opinions about how the church was handling affairs of religion consequentially leading to the Protestant reformation.

Ginzburg even continues to state that it was the call for the common people,“…for a church that would abandon its privileges and reduce itself to poverty alongside the poor was tied to a different religious concept, rooted in the Gospels, free of dogmatic requirements, and reduced to a core of practical precepts.. (9) It later can be seen in history that it is the church’s neglect to return to less controlling and corrupt practices which causes for their loss of power because their inability to control the “popular culture” results in defiance and to following reformations as seen all over Europe and not only in Italy, but also in Germany, England and France. In conclusion it can be seen that Ginzburg was successful in analyzing the power relationship between the dominant classes (Church, Inquisition) and the subordinate classes (peasants, Mennochio). He established through the texts of Menocchio and of the Inquisition that the church traditionally maintains power in society by punishing those who have opposing views of those of the church.

He even continues to illustrate and set an example of how slowly the church was not able to maintain complete control over the masses through the use of Menocchio as an example as to why future religious defiance and rebellions occurred; and through his analysis of these texts Ginzburg was successful in stating and supporting that as literature became more common and education rose, free thinking proved to make the task of the church to maintain is control over popular culture impossible resulting in the reformation that took place in the sixteenth century and differences in the practice of religion from then and following decades, forever changing the dynamics of the high society and the common peasant.