"The historian's task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe," says Ginzburg, who holds professorships at the University of Bologna and the University of California at Los Angeles. "He must destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past because they came from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these people's 'mental universe,' the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them."
Clearly this sort of history is not the "distant mirror" that Barbara W. Tuchman suggested the past should be for contemporary humanity. There is no room here either for the old pragmatic view of history as a guide for the present.
In their pursuit of a different vision of the past, scholars like Ginzburg have stretched the bounds of history into anthropology and psychology, literary analysis and linguistics. Occasionally, their work reaches a public far beyond academia. The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's "Montaillou" -- a study of sex and heresy in a 14th-century Languedoc village -- became a best seller in his country. On this side of the Atlantic, Robert Darnton did almost as well with "The Great Cat Massacre," whose title essay tried to explain why apprentices at an 18th-century Paris printing shop thought it great fun to slaughter their bosses' pets. And "The Return of Martin Guerre" by Darnton's Princeton colleague, the historian Natalie Zemon Davis, was made into a popular movie, starring Gerard Depardieu as a peasant who assumed another person's identity so successfully that he managed to fool the man's wife, parents and friends.
Within this school -- called the "history of mentalities" -- nobody has gained more renown among his peers over the last decade than Carlo Ginzburg. Writing about Ginzburg a few years ago, J. H. Elliot, a leading British historian, hailed him as a scholar with "an insatiable curiosity who pursues even the faintest clues with all the zest of a born detective." For Princeton's Darnton, what is most valuable about Ginzburg is his insistence that "common people of the past were not as passive as they are traditionally portrayed. He shows them actively engaged in constructing a mental or cultural world of their own that was often at odds with literate society."
To be sure, there are plenty of scholars who complain that this sort of approach to history is too dismissive of the drama of great events, the influence of political leaders and the power of ideologies. "What was once at the center of the profession is now at the periphery," Gertrude Himmelfarb, recently retired Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York, writes in her collection of essays titled "The New History and the Old." "What once defined history is now a footnote to history."
THE 52-YEAR-OLD Ginzburg is a tall, animated man with a shock of dark hair, bushy brows and a penetrating gaze. Caught by a flashbulb blast, he can look as zealous as the heretics described so vividly in his eight books and dozens of essays. There is much about Ginzburg's personal history that draws him to people of the past who were persecuted for their heretical notions.
Because of his father's anti-Fascism, the Ginzburgs were uprooted from their Turin home and confined by Mussolini's police to an isolated village in the Abruzzi. Then in 1943, the father was arrested for publishing an underground newspaper and beaten to death by the Nazis. "My earliest memories were of people being rounded up and beaten in the square in front of our home," Carlo Ginzburg says. He lived out the remainder of the war hidden under the protection of his maternal grandmother in another rural village. "She was my only non-Jewish relative and to protect me she made me use her maiden name," Ginzburg recalls. "I became Carlo Tanzi. She wrote it on the front page of my very first book. Yes, I still remember the title: 'The Happiest Child in the World.' "
Strangely, for a man acclaimed as a born detective, Ginzburg says he failed to perceive the link between these family traumas and his choice of hidden heretics and witches as prime subjects of his research, until it was pointed out by a fellow historian some 20 years ago. "Freud would have said the fact that I overlooked the connection indicates how deep and important it really was," he says with a laugh.
Another obvious family legacy was Ginzburg's early bent for scholarship. His father, Leone Ginzburg, was a professor of Russian literature. His mother, Natalia Ginzburg, who died last month, was one of Italy's leading fiction writers. His grandfather was an eminent biologist whose pupils won three Nobel Prizes. "There was never any question that I would become an intellectual of some sort," Ginzburg says. "It was like a cobbler's son joining his father's shoe shop."
In the late 1950's, when Ginzburg enrolled in the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, one of Italy's most prestigious secondary schools, he was undecided about studying art history, literary criticism, philosophy or linguistics. (All these disciplines weave their way through his eclectic works.) "I didn't even consider history because I found it so boring," he says. What changed his mind was a seminar in which he was asked to spend an entire week analyzing only 10 lines of a book written by a leading 19th-century historian.
"It was the slowness that fascinated me," Ginzburg says. "Every phrase, every word had to be dissected for their possible implications. I came to understand that texts can have hidden, invisible meanings. It was not an easy lesson. In my speech, my writing, my judgments about people, I tend to be very quick. I learned the importance of reading and rereading one page, even a single passage, for days, weeks."
Ever since, Ginzburg says, there has been a constant tension between speed and lentitude in his work. Quick instinct and sudden emotional response point him to a subject, and then excruciatingly slow analysis -- what he calls "squeezing the evidence" -- takes over.
His first book, "The Night Battles," published in 1966, put this method on display. A few years earlier, Ginzburg had visited the huge Inquisition archives in Venice. "I knew I wanted to write about witchcraft, but I had no particular subject in mind," he recalls. "I decided to guide myself completely by chance, like a gambler at a roulette table. So I picked out volumes at random."
Eventually, Ginzburg came across the trial of a 16th-century shepherd from a village north of Venice. The man said he belonged to a sect called the "benandanti" or "good walkers." And he claimed that on certain nights of the year the benandanti -- either in their dreams or in a trancelike state -- rode wild animals to an isolated field, where armed with fennel sticks they battled the devil's witches for the fertility of the village's farmland.
"The case was so reminiscent of a fairy tale, and I suppose that's why I reacted immediately to it," Ginzburg says. "It was like the Sicilian fables my mother read to me as a child. Those fairy tales molded my mind and emotions. I'm very conscious that my attraction for witches and werewolves goes back to those first books. That's why I'm against the idea of protecting children from scary tales. Horror stories can unlock the imagination. I read them to my own daughters when they were very young."
In another Inquisition archive, Ginzburg found numerous other trials of benandanti, all of them repeating the essential details of the shepherd's story. The Roman Catholic Church was baffled by these peasants who, in their trances or dreams, asserted practicing what sounded like black magic for benevolent ends. And so the Inquisitors bullied the benandanti into making their confessions conform to conventional accounts of witches' sabbaths: night gatherings with the devil, marked by orgies, desecration of Christian rituals, and dire plots against local communities.
With painstaking slowness, Ginzburg traced the non-Christian elements in the benandanti's accounts until he could reconstruct what was obviously a popular, pagan cult that drew upon myths predating Christianity. He then showed the step-by-step process by which the Inquisitors chipped away these pagan elements and pressured the benandanti to accept in their place the Church's orthodox version of devil worship. In the end, the benandanti came to believe they had unknowingly been guilty of practicing -- or at least fantasizing about -- witchcraft.
For Ginzburg, the benandanti trials point out the way ideology and politics are imposed on ordinary people. "You have to dare to ask questions like, how can power shape people's thoughts or even their dreams? Traditional historians just say someone ordered something and it happened. Well yes, but how?"
Few other scholars were addressing these issues in the 1960's, when Ginzburg embarked on his research. Witchcraft and heretical cults weren't viewed as serious historical subjects. There was little interest in discovering what peasants of centuries past actually thought and believed. Ginzburg was operating on the margins of his profession, "out on a limb," as he says.
At the University of Rome, where he was assigned to teach modern Italian history, he was viewed as an eccentric aloof to the intellectual radicalism sweeping the classrooms. His students were eager to learn about the labor unrest that paralleled the rise of Fascism in Italy during the 1920's, and what lessons it held for the mass worker strikes of the late 60's. "It was a terribly frustrating time for me," Ginzburg recalls. "I shared my students' political concerns. But I had to admit that my professional interests had nothing to do with the turmoil around me. I learned in a painful way that history must be studied even when it has no visible relation to contemporary issues."
By the 1970's, though, history-writing shifted directions. There was a growing emphasis on powerless social groups of the past: women, ethnic minorities, peasants. Academic presses churned out accounts of isolated rural revolts in pre-Revolutionary France, 19th-century bandits in southern Italy and witchcraft throughout pre-industrial Europe. This cult of the underdog aroused serious reservations among some scholars. One exasperated British historian, J. H. Plumb, felt it necessary to remind his colleagues that "the life of Sir Isaac Newton is more important than a description of all the witch trials of 17th-century England."
Some scholarly attempts to measure or quantify social attitudes bordered on the bizarre. For instance, one notable French historian suggested that changing popular views toward death in 18th-century France could be demonstrated by the number and size of votive candles offered for the repose of the dead. The fact that fewer and smaller votive candles were burned in the latter part of the century presumably indicated milder feelings of bereavement or declining faith in the afterlife. Skeptics also chortled over the efforts of some historians to explain the slowness of population growth in 18th-century France compared with that of England by theorizing that coitus interruptus was more prevalent among the French peasantry.
But it was this obsession with popular culture of the past that gave rise to the so-called history of mentalities. Ginzburg's main contribution to the genre was "The Cheese and the Worms," the story of Menocchio, an obscure miller burned at the stake by the Inquisition for his insistence that God and the universe were created from rot. As poignant as a tragic novel, it was also a landmark study on the impact that the introduction of books had on villagers who had always lived within the oral culture of folklore and church sermons.
Ginzburg tracked down the dozen volumes that Menocchio told the Inquisitors he had read before forming his heretical beliefs. But the historian discovered that Menocchio's ideas greatly distorted the material contained in the books. For example, in a text by an Augustinian monk, Menocchio had read that the universe began as "a great and inchoate matter." But in his confessions to the Inquisitors, he embellished this concept beyond recognition: "All was chaos . . . 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 . . . and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time."
Ginzburg wondered where Menocchio had come up with these images, and why he had cited the monk's book as the source. The missing piece in the puzzle, according to Ginzburg, might have been an ancient myth that spoke of the world first rising from a milky, curdling sea. "It was not the book as such, but the encounter between the printed page and oral culture that formed an explosive mixture in Menocchio's head," Ginzburg explains. What Menocchio may have absorbed from folklore somehow found confirmation in the writings of men he considered much more learned than himself -- and led the miller to amalgamize a cosmology all his own.
It was Menocchio's great misfortune that he expanded his mind and loosened his tongue at a time when the Catholic Church was in panic over the spread of Luther's Reformation. That the miller's beliefs had nothing in common with Protestantism mattered little to the Inquisitors. They declared Menocchio guilty of voicing heretical opinions "not only with men of religion, but also with simple and ignorant people," thus undermining their faith and loyalty to the church.
And so, it turns out that a miller -- the sort of "peripheral phenomenon" that fascinates Ginzburg -- helps elucidate the central turmoil of his age. Menocchio, asserts Ginzburg, was expressing notions in his insular rural world that were every bit as subversive to religious authority as the essays of his famous contemporary, the French philosopher Montaigne, that circulated in cosmopolitan Paris. Or as Menocchio himself said it more pungently to a fellow villager who entreated him to keep silent: "Can't you understand, the Inquisitors don't want us to know what they know!"
His book "The Cheese and the Worms" placed Ginzburg in the mainstream of his profession. It was not a comfortable vantage point for someone who prefers to think of himself as a maverick. "The bad thing about success is that you're under great pressure to repeat what brought it about," he explains. "I could have gone on writing several more books like 'The Cheese and the Worms.' But I was more attracted by the idea of risking a heroic failure."
What resulted is his latest book, "Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath," a controversial work that has returned Ginzburg to the cutting edge of history-writing. It asserts that a hidden, popular culture, rooted in Central Asian myths, flourished throughout Europe for thousands of years until it was denounced as witchcraft and ultimately repressed by the Inquisition. Underlying this culture, Ginzburg maintains, was the belief that certain "chosen" people -- shamans, witches, werewolves -- were able to journey back and forth between this world and the hereafter.
"Ecstasies" stretched to the limit even Ginzburg's generous criteria of what the province of historians should be. The book's time frame, reaching back thousands of years, seemed overly ambitious for any scholar. And the evidence appeared to be too veiled, too unorthodox for historical analysis. "There were many constraints," Ginzburg says, adding with bravura, "but if there are no constraints, then there is no game."
GINZBURG ISN'T embarrassed to discuss some of the wild hunches and mental connections that led him on whenever the book stalled: "I started with very vague ideas: in ancient cultures, a shaman traveled to the beyond to seek out the places where his people could find wild game. . . . Then came the image of hunters looking for traces or footprints of these animals. . . . Next, I had the idea of hunting as a metaphor for history -- like a hunter, the historian looks at traces to locate a prey that isn't yet visible."
Out of these conjectures, Ginzburg arrived at the novel notion of using human and animal anatomy to piece together evidence for his theory of a hidden popular culture. He began to decipher myths, fables and witches' tales in Europe and Asia by focusing on images of animals and body parts that recurred in these accounts. He was struck by the fact that people who claimed to travel to the afterworld seemed to have physical abnormalities.
"There is a sign in the body which betrays that extraordinary feat," Ginzburg says. "Abnormalities were considered proof of the journey to the beyond."
Many of these "chosen" ones were born with a caul, or fetal membrane. Others suffered from lameness or foot problems of some sort. Still others temporarily metamorphosed into animals, especially wolves. And in some cases, the chosen exhibited all these physical elements. To cite just one of Ginzburg's examples: In the late 17th century, Baltic peasants, who were born with the caul, claimed to transform themselves into werewolves and be led by a lame child into hell to battle with the devil for the fertility of their fields.
Given the mixed reviews "Ecstasies" has received among historians -- their comments range from "big, bold, brilliant" to "entirely subjective" -- Ginzburg concedes it is too early to judge whether the book is the crowning intellectual success he hoped for, or the heroic failure he was prepared to risk. Ginzburg insists he doesn't mind negative critiques of his work. "Pleasing everyone is a disaster," he says. Yet he was peeved enough at a recent article panning "Ecstasies" in The New York Review of Books to write an angry letter. "He's as thin-skinned as the rest of us," says a historian who considers himself as a friend.
A reputation for controversy certainly hasn't harmed Ginzburg's stature in the academic world. He is among a handful of elite scholars who hold tenure in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. Ginzburg and his second wife, Luisa Ciammitti, divide the year between Bologna and Los Angeles. In Italy, she is a curator at the National Museum of Art in Bologna, and in California, she works as a research associate for 18th-century Italian documents in the Getty Center's collection. Though he is a full professor at the University of Bologna, Ginzburg has no teaching responsibilities there and can spend his time entirely engaged in research. "The archives are among the best in Europe," says Ginzburg, adding that should be no surprise given the university's 900 years in existence.
At U.C.L.A., where he spends the winter and spring terms teaching a graduate course on the Italian Renaissance, Ginzburg lives a few blocks from campus. "He must be the only professor who walks to work," Ciammitti says over a bowl of spaghetti-with-clams prepared by her husband.
"Next year, I'm hoping to bring some of my U.C.L.A. students over to Bologna to do research," Ginzburg says. But first, he intends to guide them through the same sort of exercise that spawned his own enthusiasm for history more than 30 years ago. "I'll have them spend the term analyzing just one work, perhaps a brief essay by Montaigne," he says. Maybe squeezing the evidence can be taught. But intuition, boldness, creativity? His students are definitely on their own.Continue reading the main story
What does the academic study of religion have to contribute to public discussions concerning Major Hasan’s religious identity? What do we know about religion and religious identity? We are worried about stereotypes and we are anxious, but what do we know?
It is common in the academic study of religion to speak of groups of people–Muslims, Christians, atheists—as enjoying certain common characteristics over time and space, even while we give attention to the limitations of these denominations. In these conversations we work on further specifying characteristics—evangelical Christians—catholic Christians—orthodox Christians. Or further still—liberal Catholics—conservative Catholics—Irish Catholics—Hispanic Catholics. Or cradle Catholics, Catholic converts. In all these efforts we are speaking of collectivities, of the characteristics of collectivities, generalized across these populations. We know about these characteristics from our study of historical evidence and from sociological research.
We also write about individuals—usually virtuoso individuals. Ibn Arabi, Asoka, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Anne Hutchinson, Martin Luther King, Gandhi. Prophets, saints, seers, shamans, visionaries . . . innovators and conservators of traditions.
Linking these two ways of speaking is almost always awkward. Are we fascinated by these individuals because they are exemplary or because they break the mold? Is Luther properly regarded as Catholic or Protestant? Is he better understood using psychology or theology? Was Anne Hutchinson more or less true to the church than those who condemned her? Was her fate sealed by her gender or by her religious ideas and practices? Was the Buddha a Buddhist? If these famous exemplars do not fit the crude forms we make, what about ordinary people?
I recently re-read a classic text that attempts to specify the life of a single historical individual who was not a world historical figure. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. I did so during the week of the shooting at Ft Hood. I found the parallels between Major Hasan and Mennochio striking. Or perhaps, more carefully, the cautionary lesson we might take from Ginzburg’s masterpiece in trying to understand Major Hasan.
Immediately after the news broke, major news sources produced theories of who Major Hasan is/was and what/who might have motivated him to violence: his religious commitments, his lack of a wife, his dead-end career, his treatment by fellow soldiers, his suffering from vicarious PTSD. Everyone had a theory.
I will leave the psychological theories to those who understand them better than I. From the perspective of religious studies, however, I think it is interesting to consider in this context exactly what we mean when we assign a religious identity to a particular individual, or when we assent to such assignments.
What do we mean precisely when we ourselves assign or assent to the identification of Major Hasan as a Muslim? Or to the religious identity of any particular individual? Does this mean simply, as liberal theory would have it, that he has chosen certain religious beliefs, as is his right? How do we, as scholars, know that he is a Muslim? Because he associates himself with other Muslims? Because his parents were Muslim? Because he follows the precepts of a collectivity within the world-wide collectivity of those identifying themselves with Islam? Or because he says so? And what do we know when we have made such an assignment? What does saying that someone is a Jew or a Christian tell us or allow us to say further about a particular individual?
Menocchio’s judges seem to have struggled with these very questions. They were the religious experts of their day, members of the Inquisition, and yet they seem to have been uncertain of how to assess Menocchio’s religious identity. What exactly was Menocchio up to when he speculated in un-orthodox ways about the origins of the earth or the virginity of Mary? We can see the same struggle among the forty-five judges at the trial of Joan of Arc, judges who were mostly faculty at the University of Paris, the religious experts of their day. What claim was Joan of Arc making when she asserted that God spoke to her through the voices of Sts. Catherine, Margaret, and Michael? Both Menocchio and Joan also made highly pious statements of association with the Church and its teaching. Were they heretics or Christians? Or both?
One of the features of the time in which we are living—a time in which it seems newly salient to speak of religion—is a certain lack of care about the assignment of religious identity. It is as if we had not learned the dangers of such assignments in the last century.
Today we lack institutionalized and legally-established religious authorities whose work it is to define the parameters of religious collectivities, and we profess to be committed to a completely unfettered individual right to define such identities on an individual basis. And yet we continue to speak as if such assignments carried with them certain non-negotiable habits of mind and practice. Catholics must be obedient to the Pope. Evangelical Protestants must read the Bible in a literal way and be intolerant of persons of other religious commitments. Jews must reject inter-marriage. Muslims must favor jihad.
How do we mean these attributions? Is it that by individually choosing to associate ourselves with a religious community, we sign on to a set of precepts and practices that are required for membership? Or do we mean something more involuntary? Either in a biological or social scientific way? That we act this way because we are either genetically or psychologically predisposed—even hard-wired—to such actions because of our involuntary membership in such groups? That they control us in some way?
To say “his religion made him do it” is to ascribe to an understanding of religion that is at variance with liberal theories of the individual. But it is also to make a claim for the predictive quality of sociological groupings that is largely unwarranted by the evidence. While sociological and historical evidence might permit the claim that Protestants work hard, there is no evidence that should be permitted in court or in any context with rigorous standards of evidence, given our present state of knowledge, to warrant a claim that a particular person, because he is a Protestant, works hard—or worked hard on a particular day. Or that because a person might be denominated Muslim due to his social location, or his personal choice, he performed any particular action.
What does Ginzburg tell us about Menocchio? Before Menocchio we thought everyone in the sixteenth century had a defined religious identity. Certainly all peasants. After Menocchio we know that even peasants invented their own identities. And Ginzburg says we also know that there was another possible religious identity that we had under-valued—the identity of the orally transmitted religion of agricultural peoples over centuries, a religion characterized by a this-worldly practicality and immanent mythology. Ginzburg claims that by reading about Menocchio we can have access to this other religious form. But even knowing of this new religion, we wouldn’t have been able to predict that Menocchio himself, as a member of that collectivity, would act or believe in a certain way. How to parse the individual and the collective remains largely uncharted territory in the academic study of religion.
Why do we assign these identities? It could be because our brains are so structured as to require such categories in order to think. Or maybe we do so because it reassures us as to the order of the world. Or maybe it is because we are moderns. Or is it because we are Christians?