Individuality in the Age of Heresy

The question of individuality is an important one. What makes us individuals may not be similar in fundamental terms to what makes us people, but it is an essential component of personhood. Being different, being unique – these are facts to treasure, and there is something redeeming in being able to notice such things in others and in oneself. This uniqueness ought to extend beyond the intimately personal and into other areas of life; the right to act individually, without coercion of compulsion, is a vital one. And the ability to go about one’s business uninterrupted and unmolested is a fundamental aspect of living in a free society. The same can be said for the ability to think individually, to harbour different thoughts, some of which will be entirely unique. Even if they are incorrect or offensive to the current orthodoxy, the right to do so must be protected; and it follows that the same rights should be extended to speech.

Those are, with a few minor disagreements, some of the axioms of contemporary society and indeed modern life. For us, freedom is our watchword – no matter how tasteless we occasionally find those who deploy it ostentatiously or repetitiously. No matter how embarrassing it is to witness yet another recitation of this truism, it is something many millions hold to be correct and even morally imperative – and something we all take to heart in some way or other.

The same cannot be said, however, when looking back in time at other societies and other perspectives on life, freedom and the fundamental value of individuality. In the past, things were different; morality was constructed differently; and those ideas which we swear by today and would (at least in theory) die to defend, would have held no power in the past; to enunciate them would have been effectively futile: their very essence would have been seen to contain no value. They are, after all, little more than words, even in our own time. The fact of their importance and acceptance is fundamentally extrinsic. In a society where such things are not seen to be important – and where individual thought in matters religious could come with denunciation as a heretic or a heresiarch (one who founds or sustains heretical doctrine, rather than merely coming to believe in its veracity).

Such a designation – that of heresy – would often be accompanied (or elicited) by torture and a common sentence for this crime was death. A pertinent example here can be found in the case of Domenico Scandella, a miller from Montereale, Friuli, in Italy, who lived for nearly 70 years in the 16th century and was known by the nickname Menocchio. As described and chronicled in Carlo Ginzburg’s book The Cheese and the Worms, Menocchio (as I will refer to him henceforth) occupies and interesting place in the history of early modern religious life. He alone, according to Ginzburg’s introduction, espoused a peculiar heresy based on the notion of ‘putrefaction’.

This heresy caught Ginzburg’s eye; it was original and different; it seemed unique; and it struggled with the intellectual conformity preached by the church on several levels. It was the opposite of dogma, in that it appeared to be built on the intellectual activity of one man. It was the opposite of doctrine, in that it was idiosyncratic. And it came up against the established church in many areas, differing on the nature of the Trinity, the essentials of creation, the nature of the afterlife (whether it existed at all), and the usefulness of priests and monks – whose influence, Menocchio suggested, had rendered the Gospels untrustworthy.

He had read the Bible in the vernacular, and shared some intellectual leanings with the newly threatening Lutherans. Millers were also common among the deeply troubling Anabaptists (another contemporary heresy), but neither was Menocchio an Anabaptist. He was not only a divergent being in that regard; he was also a sincere thinker, and one who personified to an extent the place where popular culture – the mainly oral culture of the peasants and the lower born – came together with the written word, which was experiencing a real flowering as a result of the revolution ushered in by the advent of the printing press.

The man himself was more than a raving lunatic, and he was not simply a loudmouth. Though it was certain the he enjoyed expressing his particular perspectives to the less educated – he could read and write, but many of the uneducated peasants and artisans who lived in his locale could not – he longed for higher things; he wanted to discourse with kings and bishops – even the personification of the papacy himself. He wanted to expound his unique worldview, and eventually, pressured into answering this challenge, the miller of Montereale was arrested and put on trial.

He was brought before the authorities and challenged to justify his assertions: that the world was chaos before it was created, that God not necessarily eternal and did not necessarily predate creation, that the priestly class was corrupt and the tradition of restricting the Bible to Latin repressive, and that his own perspectives were worthy of wider exposition. On all of these questions the man himself ran up against orthodoxy, and the powers that were.

He was cross-examined at length, and allowed to express himself in a similar vein; this is a challenge he relished, and it seems from the records that he made excellent use of the opportunity to give his ideas a real public premiere. Those who heard what he had to say were shocked; they were appalled; and they worried – quite rightly – about what exposure to what Menocchio had to say would do to the peasants, the uneducated, and those less able than they were to counter his forceful arguments with logic and rhetoric and doctrine.

The effective and powerful nature with which Menocchio argued his case is evident even from the transcripts which have survived; and they themselves survive translation from contemporary Italian into English. Reading Menocchio is a treat: he is forthright in his denunciations, and he is almost lyrical – as well as fundamentally earthy and provincial – in his description of how he believed the world came to be and how it presented itself to him. He returned frequently to the rough-hewn metaphors and analogies of his simple life: the beginning of the world, its origin in putrefaction, came about like the cheese and the worms which grew upon it – the origin of the book’s title. His was a dual culture: an oral tradition mixed with the new power of the printed word; Menocchio was a reader, a dedicated one, and he found himself included with an exciting network of readers both within his locality and outside it. The world opened up for him; and it did so in both physical and metaphorical ways.

First, it is worth examining the oral culture Ginzburg describes in such detail: after this, one can piece together the written and spoken elements which combined to give Menocchio his animating energy.

In Menocchio’s talk we see emerging, as if out of a crevice in the earth, a deep-rooted cultural stratum so unusual as to appear almost incomprehensible. This case … involves not only a reaction filtered through the written page, but also an irreducible residue of oral culture. The Reformation and the diffusion of printing had been necessary to permit this different culture to come to light. Because of the first, a simple miller had dared to think of speaking out, of voicing his own opinions about the Church and the world. Thanks to the second, words were at his disposal to express the obscure, inarticulate vision of the world that fermented within him. In the sentences or snatches of sentences wrung out of books he found the instruments to formulate and defend his ideas.

In this combination of influences one can see the generation of some of Menocchio’s ideas. Eleven books are mentioned in The Cheese and the Worms. In addition to a vernacular Bible, he read the Decameron, a translation of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and even, it was suggested, a version of the Qur’an. All of these books gave him pause for thought; his world widened. He realised that other people in other lands not only had different ways of looking at the world, but that they were as sure as he was of his own views (and his professed Christianity). They did not know any better – and they did not know anything different: ‘each person holds his faith to be right, but we do not know which is the right one’. And furthermore, the conclusion he came to was one of toleration. ‘[S]ince I was born a Christian I want to remain a Christian, and if I had been born a Turk I would want to live like a Turk’, he said.

As Ginzburg reminds his own readers, Menocchio’s reading was ‘one-sided and arbitrary, almost as if he was searching for confirmation of ideas and convictions that were already firmly entrenched’. But it still involved a degree of intellectual acquisitiveness which appalled and intrigued those whose job it was to examine his heresies.

Christopher Hill, in his review of Ginzburg’s work for the London Review of Books, identifies the following utterance of Menocchio’s as being worthy of further discussion: from what Hill terms ‘a less plausible source’, Il Fioretto della Bibbia, the miller ‘got my opinion that, when the body dies, the soul dies too, since out of many different kinds of nations some believe in one way, some in another’. As Hill points out, this is a non-sequitur, but the strength with which this view was held demonstrates something essential to Menocchio’s intellectual being: ‘The inquisitors could easily lead him into logical traps, but could not get him to renounce his deeply-held ideas’. These ideas were deeply held at least partially because they were divergent, because they were formulated with great difficulty and great effort by a single man; and this remains true regardless of all his intellectual influences – Menocchio was his own man and these were his ideas. The possessive is both implied and justified in this case.

But his ideas were not entirely unique. Hill was surprised, he writes, to see how much of what Menocchio thought and said was not completely individual. Ideas he expressed were not his alone. ‘They included rejection of the Trinity, of the divinity of Christ, of the sacrifice of the Cross; denial of the immortality of the soul, of the existence of a local heaven or hell, of the virgin birth, of the sanctity of marriage’; and such ideas, in Hill’s telling, could be found in the heretical village of Montaillou and also among England’s Lollards.

Some uniqueness remains. ‘Yet even if such contacts [with other heretics] could be established, they are not enough to account for Menocchio’s heresies’, Hill writes. This suggests that Ginzburg is right in his description of ‘an oral culture that was the patrimony not only of Menocchio but also of a vast segment of 16th-century society’, but also that Menocchio’s personal story is different – a fusing of the written and the spoken, the culture of the intelligentsia and that of the peasantry. ‘Books, as we have seen, were not “sources” for Menocchio’, Hill writes; rather, they were something which gave him more evidence for some of his own views and for a wider peasant perspective, one which, as Ginzburg postulates, could be seen to represent ‘the tenacious persistence of a peasant religion intolerant of dogma and ritual, tied to the cycles of nature, and fundamentally pre-Christian’. But still Menocchio’s individuality holds the attention not only of the inquisitors but of the readers of Ginzburg’s book.

Even if much of his perspective was derived from that of a wider peasant tradition, which served as the source for other heresies and ideological diversions from mainstream Catholicism, his is a unique story; his voice – that of the lonely individual, solely expressing a downtrodden perspective – is one which retains some power through the pages of history. He stands almost uniquely, and alone.

He was also different from many heretics in that he was tried twice for that crime. In the first instance, Menocchio was imprisoned and forced to wear a visual reminder of his sins. After he had served a considerable term in prison, and appeared to demonstrate true contrition and a return to orthodoxy, he was eventually allowed to return to his village in order to provide for his family. For a time this arrangement seemed to work. But Menocchio continued to talk of his proudly acquired opinions, and he eventually came under suspicion and eventually inquisition once more. By this time Menocchio was an old man, and a tired one – a man who had seen his wife and favourite son die and whose life had lost the stability and relative security of the miller’s trade.

Though his ideas can be seen to have surfaced in many other guises and in the mouths of many other men, Menocchio himself had no followers. Or none of any real note. Tortured in the course of his second trial, Menocchio managed to avoid more suffering by naming as his associate the lord of his village; the inquisitors, not wanting to press further into a delicate issue and to tangle with the Count of Montereale, did not persist. But he was still executed, as was seen to be the only true fate of the heretic. Hill relays this act of brutality alongside a final victory won by Menocchio’s rustic cunning: ‘That last piece of peasant shrewdness was enough: the inquisitors were not anxious to get involved with a count. So Menocchio was not tortured again, so far as we know, until he died in the fire.’

One fact about his eventual execution is of note, however – and it is an ironic one. Menocchio’s death was ordered on the basis of ‘the express desire of his Holiness’, Pope Clement VIII. He who had sought to converse with the great and good – the popes and kings – had succeeded in frightening one of the above so much that the latter ordered his death. This, for a man who declared his willingness to die if he got his chance to debate the great issues with real personages of influence, was something of a result. And it was quite a lot, in a way, for one man, a humble miller, to have done. In this bittersweet way, Menocchio left his mark on the world.


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