Q: Tell me when you first decided you would be a historian. What was it that did it for you?
A: I would have liked to be a novelist. My mother is a novelist. At the beginning of my stay in Pisa as a student I decided to try and become a historian. I would have liked to write a different kind of history because I found many, many, maybe most, historical books quite boring.
A while ago I was at the Library of Congress and I saw an exhibit of Paul Strand's photographs. In the late '50s, Paul Strand went to Europe because he had problems during the McCarthy era. He went to Italy and France and published a book about an Italian village with Cesare Zavattini, an Italian writer. That book, "Un Paese" A Village , had photographs by Strand of people and objects, streets in the village, with some small comments, usually comments by the people portrayed by Strand, transcribed by Zavattini.
I remember very well that book when it come out and just this morning I thought probably that book had some influence on my attitude towards history.
The most fascinating thing about writing history is trying to catch something which is really different from your own attitude, your own world. If you can really catch that and convey that to the reader, that's something very important. A lot of historians spoil that possibility because they knowingly project their own beliefs in those past societies. I don't think military or political history or history about kings and so on is boring in itself, but it can become boring if you look at those people or events in a boring way.
Q: So the trick is to be able to think like a 16th century miller.
A: Yes, at the same time this is impossible, so there is a contradiction between trying to understand that miller without betraying him and the possibility of being that miller, being his contemporary. All meaningful history arises from that contradiction. You have to look at the past from your own point of view, at the same time you have to reconstruct the past on its own terms.
Q: Do you feel that there is some difference in the way the general subject of history is perceived between, say, Italy and the United States? A lot of people say that throughout Europe and in Italy there is a sense of history. You're surrounded by it and feel it stretching back. Do you think the historian is perhaps more revered in Italy than he might be here?
A: No, I don't think so. But certainly it's true that you have a kind of historical thickness in the landscape in Europe which you don't have here. Part of the thrill of being here is also related to that in a way, to the fact that it's so different. The lack of historical elements in American landscape is something which is really striking to me. It's fascinating. In America you often see landscapes in which no human trace can be seen and this is really fascinating.
Q: Tell me why you don't have a television set.
A: I'm fascinated by images but I think that Italian television and different countries can be really bad. I am fascinated by commercials, you know, so in a way I must protect myself from television. Otherwise I think I would swallow a lot of trash. American television is related to an audience which ignores elite culture and in principle is meant to ignore it for all its life.
Q: So you're one of these people who can't tune things out, is that it?
A: I think I have both attitudes but in rather an extreme way, maybe. I can read or stand ignoring the context in which I am, and at the same time I feel invaded by the surrounding situation.
Q: Where did the title of your book "The Cheese and the Worms" come from?
A: It's a book on a man, a 16th century miller who lived in a small village at the northeastern border of Italy, not very far from Venice. That man was tried by the Roman Inquisition -- he had two trials -- and after the second trial he was put to death. I was working on witchcraft, on a sect of counter-witches in the same region, and I came across the trial where that man said he believed that the world came out from rotten matter.
The miller used to talk about his own beliefs to fellow villagers. He could read and had very radical ideas about religion and society. He was strongly opposed to the Catholic Church because he said that the priests were against the poor, they used Latin in order to oppress the poor and so on.
Q: Where did the cheese and worms come in?
A: He had also a very peculiar cosmology, kind of deeply materialistic cosmology. He said that actually the world has not been created by God but in the beginning there was a kind of a confused matter and from that matter angels came out, as, he said, we can see worms coming out from rotten cheese. The most powerful of those angels was God, and then there were men and so on. He tried to figure out a kind of cosmology excluding God's creation. He tried to convince his fellow villagers that his beliefs were true. Actually he didn't get a real audience. He used to say that he wanted to speak to the pope and the emperor. He was a very isolated but stubborn man. He went on for years and years thinking about those things.
He had a quarrel with a local parish priest and the priest denounced him to the Inquisition. The trial began. The amazing thing is that he talked a lot. He tried to convince the inquisitors. There are some extraordinary dialogues between the inquisitor and that miller in which they talk about creation. Apparently the inquisitors were at the same time scared and fascinated by that man. Amazed by the fact that a miller could have that kind of independent mind, but also scared because in a way he was dangerous. At his first trial he was condemned to wear a dress with a red cross. He had to abjure his own beliefs. He spent some time in jail and then he was released. Then he began to think about these things. Apparently he met a Jew and they talked about the Koran. He was open to all kind of ideas.
Q: Then he had another trial?
A: Yes, he was caught again and this time put to death. At the end of the book I used rather extraordinary correspondence that I found between the local inquisitors and the pope. Cardinals from Rome got a copy of the two trials and decided that that man should have been put to death. The local inquisitors were not so ready to put him to death, so there was a correspondence and the pope himself, Clement VIII, urged to have him put to death. So he died.
Q: This concept that so much of history is concerned with the doings of kings and queens and popes and princes. It seems to me that you're taking a look at the sort of people the Renaissance left behind. Do you think that there is a neglect of the peasantry? And are you trying to fix that?
A: I began to work as an historian at the beginning of the '60s and I think that at that time that kind of work was a bit unusual. I started a book on night battles, using those inquisitional trials in order to write a different kind of history -- concerned with peasants and their relationship to religious power. I tried to reconstruct their beliefs and in the case of the miller, Menocchio, I tried to reconstruct his mental world.
What's interesting to me is the way his mind worked. That interplay between oral and written culture. I think that that single man is not only a very fascinating individual but also reveals a kind of world which has been ignored for a long time.
Q: Another way you've looked at some of the interplay between the lower and the upper classes is through witchcraft. Witchcraft is essentially something that arose from the peasantry. Is that correct?
A: We have at least two different images of witchcraft. There is a stereotype about witchcraft which has been developed by theologians who wrote on demonology, inquisitors and so on. They tried to build up an image of witchcraft with some very detailed theological implications. In those trials which are used in that book "The Night Battles" we can see how those inquisitors tried to project their own image about witchcraft on the peasants.
But since the beginning, I was especially interested in trying to reconstruct the ideas, the beliefs about witchcraft of people having been accused of being witches. In that region at the northeastern border of Italy I found something very peculiar -- men and women who talked about something different from the stereotypical image of witchcraft. They said there were counter-witches. Actually they said that four times every year they went in spirit to fight against witches, for the fertility of the crops. They said they could do that because they were born in a caul. They went out, riding on animals and they fought against the witches and they called themselves benandanti -- doers, so to speak. We have long, amazing descriptions about night battles against witches.
Q: What's a night battle entail?
A: They say that they had fennel branches and they fought for fertility against witches who had sorghum sticks. They say that actually they fell in ecstasy -- they had that kind of experience. But for them it was very real. They couldn't believe that it was a fantasy inspired by the devil, as the inquisitors said. The inquisitors tried to convince them that they were not counter-witches but witches, and what they were describing was the witches' sabbath. The benandanti couldn't believe that.
I found 50 trials, some of them rather long, so it's a kind of a slow motion movie. You can see how those people slowly interjected the inquisitors' theme about witchcraft, about the witches' sabbath. And how they slowly transformed their own beliefs into the witchraft beliefs. It took 50 years.
I was fascinated by the possibility of reconstructing that kind of interjection -- you interject a self-damaging image, a cultural pattern which is foreign to your own culture, from your enemy, from those judges. No torture was involved in those trials but certainly a strong psychological and cultural pressure was coming from the inquisitors. I think that the whole thing is deeply related to the way power relationships impinge on culture.
Q: Do you find yourself admiring these people? I sense an affection for this miller.
A: I was fascinated by that miller. He was really an extraordinary man. I was very happy because after my book those people in the village some years later . . . used his name -- he was called Menocchio but his real name was Domenico Scandella -- for a kind of institution for elderly people. They became proud of that totally uknown fellow villager. I am fascinated by the benandanti. Sometimes they had a very ironical attitude toward the inquisitors. They were joking, in a way, because the inquisitors didn't understand what they said about those night battles, those night experiences.
Q: It's hard to imagine somebody joking with the inquisitors!
A: I was surprised. The inquisitors were obviously very conscious about their own cultural superiority, but in a way even those people felt a kind of cultural superiority because the inquisitors couldn't believe what benandanti meant, that very word. It was a complex relationship.
Q: I was interested in your statement that the inquisitors were not necessarily convinced that the man should be put to death but the pope told them that this should be done. When most of us think of the Inquisition, I'm sure is quite stereotypical. We think of people with a blood lust to kill anyone who varies even slightly from whatever the dogma is. You seem to give a more complex picture of the people who were running the Inquisition.
A: Obviously, there was something horrible in the Inquisition. I wouldn't deny that. But those friars were usually learned men and they could be fascinated by a man like Menocchio. In my book I quoted that dialogue on cosmology, which is a kind of platonic dialogue between people looking for truth. The Inquisition notaries transcribed in a very detailed way for pages and pages those tales by the benandanti and those sentences by Menocchio.
Q: So after all this time are you sorry you weren't a novelist?
A: No, I don't think that I will ever become a novelist. I like those documents. I think that my imagination is much lesser than what I can find in those documents.
Q: So the truth is stranger than fiction, right?
A: In a way, yes. It's difficult to get it but it's true.