The book Cheese and Maggots: A 16th Century Miller’s World, recently published in Chinese, tells the story of a 16th century miller’s knowledge world. He lived in a village in friuli all his life. A book by Italian historian Carole King ginzburg focuses on the life of a nobody who used to be a footnote for historians. In the book, we see the life of Miller Menoqio, the religious beliefs of ordinary people, and how the Enlightenment, the Reformation and printing influenced this “marginal little person”.

Cheese and maggots were first published in 1976, which had a far-reaching impact. It is a model of “micro-historiography”, and the Chinese version has long been in the forefront of Douban’s popular non-fiction list. Why are today’s readers willing to read this book published nearly half a century ago? Gintsburg believes that this is because there are two factors in Menoquio’s case that we can easily understand at present: the infiltration between oral culture and written culture, and his own challenge to political and religious authority. As an unknown person, he is still remembered today because of the courage of this challenge. What Gintsburg didn’t say is that the persistence of cheese and maggots is also related to his writing style-he called historical narrative “truffle for all” and public readers can appreciate its charm.

Zzburg, Carole King (Source:
Gintsburg received his doctorate from the University of Pisa in 1961, and later taught at the University of Bologna and UCLA. His research focuses on the Italian Renaissance and early modern European history, and he has made contributions to art history, literary research and historical theory-why does he have such a wide range of research? When he first became a historian, he wanted to “salvage and find a peasant culture that was persecuted, obliterated and forgotten” from the trial records of the Inquisition-where did this idea come from? A few days ago, Interface Culture made an exclusive interview with Gintsburg. This paper not only discusses how he began to pay attention to the bottom and write about cheese and maggots after receiving elite education, but also asks whether he is a “fox” scholar or a “hedgehog” scholar in isaiah berlin’s mouth. An unavoidable topic in interviewing Gintsburg is, of course, micro-history. He also shared with us his understanding of micro-history and his views on historical writing.

From cheese and maggots to the birth of micro-history.
Interface culture: In the preface, you said that you came across the original information of cheese and maggots when you were writing Battle at night. I never forgot it, and I didn’t come back to write this book until a few years later. Why are you so fascinated by this little guy’s story?

Tszburg, Carole King: At the beginning of the research that paved the way for my first book “The Night War”, I saw a document written by an inquisitor in the 18th century: a list of the first 1000 trials conducted by the Inquisition in friuli. friuli is an area on the Italian northeast border. Each trial entry is followed by several lines of case introduction. There are trials of heretics, witches, etc. On the list, I was looking for benandanti (the protagonist in The Night War)-suddenly I found that I mentioned “two trials of a farmer (his name was Domenico Scandella), who thought the world was created by corruption”. In other words, I was faced with a few lines of introduction at first, rather than the original materials I analyzed later: a small detail made me understand the research that led me to write Cheese and Maggots. At this point, a question inevitably arises: why is my attention attracted by one of the 1000 articles, so that I can copy it on a small piece of paper at once?

In retrospect, I think three factors attracted me: a) the abnormal argument put forward by farmers; B) It may be related to an unknown aspect of peasant materialism; C) Suddenly (for no reason), I linked the woodcut painting in a famous altar painting created by German painter Mathis Grunewald in the early 16th century with the farmers’ argument about the origin of the world, and it flashed in my mind. Kenneth Clark, a famous British art historian, once described this painting, which shows the meeting of two hermits in the landscape.

“Some strange intuition about the primary slurry (the origin of life) seems to push Gruenewald. To our surprise, his two hermits were not accompanied by dinosaurs.

There is no doubt that this passage in Clark’s landscape painting left a lasting impression on my memory, establishing a connection between an image (Grunewald’s) and a paragraph (the interrogator’s brief introduction to the trial of Menoqio). Incidentally, when I recently looked up Clark’s book (which is kept in the Archiginnasio Library in Bologna today), I found that its former owner, Francesco Arcangeli, an outstanding art historian, marked the same paragraph with a symbol in the margin. “Pay attention to N(ota) B(ene)”

Landscape in Painting (Yilin Edition, 2020)
As you can see, the spark that ignited my research project a few years later is a heterogeneous mixture. I think this is often the case, although most of the time, the spark is wrong.

The handwritten notes I wrote in 1962 have been buried in my file for eight years, but they will appear in my memory regularly. In 1970, I decided to go to Udine to inspect the trial of farmers: when I started reading documents, I was attracted by them. I think many historians may only mention this case in footnotes. Then why did I decide to write a book about it? Maybe when I deal with your next question, I will have the answer.

Night War: Witchcraft and Agricultural Worship in 16th and 17th Century
[Italian] Zhuyitzburg
Guangxi Normal University Press 2021-6
Interface culture: your mother. It can be said that you were born an elite and received an elite education. It’s hard to say you belong to Gramsci’s lower class. So what caused you to pay attention to the lower social culture?

Carole King Zzburg: Choosing the starting point to shape my academic trajectory is driven by different motives, cultural and personal, conscious and unconscious. At the age of twenty, I read “Christ Stopped in Epoli” (1945) by the Italian writer Carlo Levy: this book was written according to his experience in a small village in southern Italy imprisoned by the fascist regime in 1935-1936. Carlo Levy and my father Lionel Gintsburg are friends. They are all Jewish intellectuals and members of the same underground anti-fascist organization-Giustizia Elibertà. My father spent two years in prison for anti-fascist activities. From 1940 to 1943, he was imprisoned in a village called Pisoli, in a southern area called abruzzi. My mother and their two children (I am the eldest son) followed him, and my sister was born there. I spent my childhood in that village. After the war ended and my father died, my mother wrote a touching article about her life and described the rural environment in which we lived. A girl who takes care of my brother and sister often tells us stories about magic and ghosts in her local dialect. When I read Gramsci Antonio’s Prison Notes and Carlo Levy’s Stop Christ in April, this partial infiltration of peasant culture appeared again. These two books act on me in different ways, just like filters. Through them, I relived the memories of the years I spent in that small village when I was a child.

I am well aware of the political implications of my personal experience. So far, the cultural elements I have been dealing with are part of the heritage that our generation (or at least some people) inherited from the previous generation. Since the end of World War II, the discovery of cultural richness of peasants in southern Italy has played an important role in italian communist party’s political strategy. Later, Gramsci Antonio’s thinking about the “underclass” had a worldwide influence. Carlo Levy’s works have achieved international success. He has close ties with members of italian communist party, although he has never joined the party. He tried to analyze the peasant culture he met in prison, although he didn’t agree, which left a deep impression on me. In his book Christ Stopped in Epoli, deep sympathy and ideological distance coexist. I was fortunate to know Carlo Levy and became a close friend of one of his nephews, Giovanni Levy. Many years later, Giovanni and I devoted ourselves to the construction of micro-history.

Italian writer Carlo Levy
However, in the early days of my research, these choices also had a dimension that I didn’t realize for many years. Paolo Fossati, an art historian, once said to me in a casual tone, “You are a Jew, and it is not surprising that you study pagans and witches.” (Cheese and Maggots was just published at that time) I was shocked: the connection was so obvious-how could I not know it? In retrospect, I attribute this to an unconscious strategy to make this connection more effective. If I remember correctly, my article Benadati Fifty Years Later has been included as a preface in the new Chinese version of The Night War. I mentioned some details related to the memory of the war, which made me a Jewish child.

Interface culture: When you and your friends are engaged in micro-historical research around Quaderni Storici founded in 1966, do you realize that you are engaged in a career that changes history? What drove you at that time?

Carole King Zzburg: Our discussion is absolutely free, and we don’t feel any constraints, whether academically or politically. We are all leftists with different nuances and do not belong to a political party. We feel that we are exploring a new field of knowledge-each of us has a different research track. I think at that time (that is, in the late 1970s), we didn’t consider the impact of what we did. Later, the international acceptance of micro-historiography surprised us (I still do)

Cheese and Maggots: A 16th Century Miller Universe
[Italian] Rui translated in Pittsburgh
Utopia | Guangxi Normal University Press 2021-7
Interface culture: Cheese and maggots are in China, and even under the label of “micro-history”, your ideas are still different. What do you think of this ranking?

Carole King Zzburg: Let me start with your general question: Is it possible to rank scientific or artistic works? At a very high level-for example, Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael, who is the better painter? This question sounds ridiculous. But the idea of refusing to rank itself means denying the concept of quality, so it is absurd. “Quality” can cause a simple reaction-yes or no-but a detailed demonstration will be more helpful. In the preface attached to the Italian translation of Davis’s The Return of Martin Gail (1984), I tried to clarify my reaction to this outstanding and challenging work, which was launched in the “Macro” series directed by Giovanni Levy and myself. We think this label is absolutely suitable. By the way, there is a reason that the word “micro-history” never appears in Cheese and Maggots: this concept also comes from the controversy surrounding my book.

Interface culture: When talking about micro-history, people may have some misunderstandings, such as thinking that micro-history is a biography of little people, or that they care too much about daily trivia, or that micro-history means seeing the big from the small, so many books that see the big from the small are divided into micro-history. Reading your works, you can feel that in fact, micro-history and macro-history are inseparable. In an interview with the media, you said that you saw many books labeled as “micro-history”, but they were not really micro-history works. So, what is the real micro-history writing?

Carole King Zzburg: As people have said many times (but perhaps not enough), the prefix “micro” in the word “micro-history” refers to the analysis method, not the size of the analysis object, whether it is real or symbolic. “Micro” refers to a microscope: you can put fragments of insect or elephant skin under the lens of a microscope. The first book in the “Mini Story” series is my book about Piero Della Piero Della Francesca, a giant in the history of art. There are many versions of micro-history, some of which ignore the dimension of analysis, which is the core of our original project, but there is no orthodoxy of micro-history.

02 “All true history is comparative history”
Interface culture: In the preface of Cheese and Maggots, you said that your research is closely related to “populism closely related to my growing environment” and has many connections with your choice as a historian. This kind of driving force will make you make some mistakes and sometimes exaggerate them. We talk about populism in today’s context, such as Trump’s populism, which seems to be different from what you mean. Can you talk about the meaning of “populism” in your growing environment?

Carole King Zzburg: I fully understand your doubts. The populism I mentioned as a background element is Russian populism: a political and cultural movement in the 19th century aimed at establishing close ties between the intellectual elite and farmers. The Italian historian Franco Venturi wrote a classic book on Russian populism (1952). He mentioned that my father (both members of Giustizia e Libertà, an anti-fascist underground organization) was “a new and original embodiment of the populist spirit”. Through his story, I reinterpreted my childhood memories related to the place where my father was imprisoned. Today, Trump’s populism is a completely different phenomenon, although the label is the same.

Interface culture: You are a left-wing historian, but your works still keep a certain distance from politics. Is this rare among your contemporaries? Why is this happening? What distance do you think history and politics should keep? Do you agree with the view that “all history is contemporary history” put forward by Italian scholar Croce in 1917?

Carole King Zzburg: I criticized Croce’s assertion that “all history is contemporary history” in my article Our Discourse and Their Discourse, which was also translated into Chinese. See New History (18th issue): Carole King’s Argument: Micro-history, Details and Margins, 2017, pp. 236-252.

New History (No.18): Carole King’s Argument: Theme-History, Details and Margins
Editor-in-Chief Chen Heng
Elephant Press, April 1, 2017
According to Kenneth, an anthropologist and linguist, I think historians put forward the “theme” problem formed in contemporary history in order to save the “theme” answer related to the category of actors through the analysis of evidence.

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