View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.
I have previously posted in this series on the intriguing figure of Menocchio, a peasant miller of the late sixteenth century. One of Carlo Ginzburg’s main arguments in his book (The Cheese and the Worms) is that Menocchio, although extraordinary in being literate, is nonetheless representative of an underlying peasant oral culture. This oral culture, suggests Ginzburg, remained out of the historian’s sight for centuries until this odd case of a literate peasant was combined with the atmosphere of expression and inquisition in the wake of the reformations. Finally, so the argument goes, we are able to witness some ongoing characteristics of peasant attitudes to various aspects of religious life that had remained hidden for centuries. Although the argument is difficult to refute (how do you refute an argument which says that a peasant oral culture remained hidden–it’s an argument from silence, of course), there is certainly some truth in this way of putting things.
There is a sense in which Menoccho’s attitudes regarding judgement and hell, for instance, may reflect some strands of peasant opinion and may, therefore, qualify the notion that all peasants believed in the official church line on hell (which seemed to suggest that the majority of the population would end up there). Menocchio addresses the inquisitors: “No sir, I do not believe that we can be resurrected with the body on Judgment Day. It seems impossible to me, because if we should be resurrected, bodies would fill up heaven and earth. . .” (p. 76). This is Menocchio the late-medieval Corinthian, so to speak (see 1 Corinthians 15), but there is little sign of a philosophical basis for Menocchio’s denial of the bodily resurrection.
Surely we do have clear evidence of anti-clericalism (dislike of the higher-ups in the church hierarchies) among the populous in various sources beyond Menocchio. Mennochio (perhaps along with other peasants) criticizes the notion of hell in connection with his negative attitude towards church leaders: “Preaching that men should live in peace pleases me but in preaching about hell, Paul says one thing, Peter another, so that I think it is a business, an invention of men who know more than others” (p. 76). Hell is neither here nor there, so to speak, for this peasant, and perhaps for others.