Radical Cowherds - Believer Magazine

Radical Cowherds

Carlo Ginzburg and the Internet's Effects on Our Identities
Albrecht Dürer, St Anthony (1519)

The work of Carlo Ginzburg broke into my life at a time of confusion and lack of faith. It was London and it was the summer of 2017. The city was not only swollen with heat but with feverishness over Brexit. Bylines about exiting the European Union co-opted most newspapers. The online press environment was thick with vitriolic sentiments and stories pegged to rouse outrage: the Home Office had been sending EU nationals deportation letters in error, and Jeremy Corbyn supposedly had a ‘secret plan’ to allow thousands of unskilled workers into the UK. I was particularly conscious of the online press environment because my job required me to surf it. At the time, I worked in a small team that handled media relations for a large university in central London. Part of my role was media monitoring. Every day, I scoured the internet for any references—big or small—to the organization I worked for. Although collating and summarizing this information was basic, dull work, I enjoyed plumbing the depths of the internet for stories that I otherwise would have had no reason to read.

I became interested in digging for outlandish information or unknown histories—for topics I hadn’t thought deeply about before. I read longform articles on Sicilian mob bosses and the stupid amounts of land held by the English gentry. The specificity of this information-gathering operated as a kind of balm against the erstwhile goopiness of internet culture and the unreliable, polemic qualities of online political debate. These small acts of knowledge collection, totally within the remit of my interest and control, felt like little rebellions. Brexit felt personal to everyone, myself included. I was in London on an Italian passport, and I had felt, on that morning of 24 June 2016, a firm feeling that I was irrelevant to the country and its interests.

One lunch time, listless and looking for a kick, I followed a bread crumb trail and ended up reading about the persecution of witches in Italy. This was how I found Carlo Ginzburg—a key historian on the persecution of witches and magic users in early modern Europe.

My interest in this subject came from two areas. Firstly, stories about witches and the witch as a radical figure was zeitgeist in my social sphere at the time. Secondly, I was interested in researching and understanding whether women had been killed for witchcraft in the area my grandparents were from, above Lake Como in Northern Italy. If they had been, I would feel vindicated. I would be able to associate the patriarchal tendencies I had seen at play within my family with real and tangible historic violence.

I ordered two of Ginzburg’s best known works, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. When the books came, I shelved them and looked at their spines: the titles in the no-nonsense typeface of academic texts, with the Johns Hopkins logo stenciled out in white. It was as though I could tell, even then, the wildness that was contained within them and the way they would change how I felt about history and myself.


Via rigorous study of inquisitorial trial records, The Night Battles describes a system of beliefs prominent at the turn of the 17th Century whereby peasants in the Friuli—a region of what’s now northeast Italy, abutting Austria and Slovenia—believed their souls left their bodies at night to roam freely and participate in battles that would determine the outcome of the season’s crops. They called themselves benandanti, or ‘good walkers’, and they believed they were doing the work of God. In these spiritual battles, the benandanti fought against ‘witches’, mischief-makers who pillaged cellars of wine and ruined crops. It isn’t clear how benandanti experienced the state of leaving their bodies. Ginzburg rationalizes that there are two possibilities: either benandanti were individuals afflicted by epilepsy, ‘hysteria’ or ‘other mental diseases’, or the visions described by them were hallucinations attributable to sleep-inducing or narcotic substances. Travelling ‘in a dream’ or ‘in spirit’ was experienced as something real and, moreover, a means to access far distant territories where secret, raucous gatherings would take place. Being a benandanti was a calling of a special status. You were compelled to be oneonce summoned, you could not refuse the charge. It’s clear that the benandanti, whose rituals were firmly tied to the agrarian calendar and movement of the seasons,were important to the spiritual and communal life of the communities they operated in. I love imagining their early modern swagger, their renegade beliefs about riding cats and hares to secret night time cavalcades. Further, their history as articulated in Ginzburg was completely surprising. I had assumed that the region existed in the stranglehold of Catholicism for at least the last thousand years. The benandanti attest to a variance of beliefs operating pluralistically, in parallel with one another.

The Night Battles is full of rich details about the consciousnesses of people occupying the deep past. In the course of the work, Ginzburg draws correlations between the benandanti and the belief in nighttime processions led by the Roman goddess Diana or the Germanic goddesses Holda and Perchta. Diana led an entourage of women to remote places; Holda and Perchta looked over vegetation and fertility and led a Furious Horde of the prematurely dead. According to Ginzburg, these beliefs can be connected to the benandanti because of the common feature of nighttime gatherings. Some characteristics of benandanti practices were shared by other people who claimed that they could converse with the dead. In another section, Ginzburg connects the benandanti to the trial of a man who, in 1692, freely admitted to inquisitors that he was a werewolf. This man claimed to visit hell with other werewolves to retrieve livestock, grains and other ‘fruits of the earth’ that had been stolen by witches. Ginzburg points out how this is similar to the accounts of the benandanti because both involve fighting with witches to secure fertility of the fields and abundance of the harvest. Within Ginzburg’s book, the myriad of beliefs form a rich tapestry, whose parts complement each other in strange and vibrant patterns. To the contemporary reader, they expand the remit of how it is possible to think.

The Night Battles narrates what happened when representatives of the Catholic church started finding out about the benandanti. Ginzburg argues that, faced with rituals they didn’t understand, the Holy Inquisition pushed these practices into something they recognized—the heretical practice of witchcraft—even if this wasn’t how benandanti viewed their own practices.

The voices narrated in Ginzburg’s work speak with a veracity that is almost confronting to read now, in our age marked by uncertainty, hesitation and jargon. These beliefs were strongly held despite the dominance of the Catholic church in public and political life. In private, community-based circles, benandanti subsisted on a radiantly unique realm of belief that wasn’t swayed nor discouraged by the dominant ideas existing in society (at least for a time). In the context of the time and place I was living in—London in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum—when the dominant political ideology felt utterly discordant with the reality of the lives of most people I knew, I yearned, perhaps misguidedly, for elements of the benandanti creed. They had, or so it seemed, a private reality tethered to food and home; time carved out for mystery, revelry and joy; and a mutually-agreed-upon system of spiritual plenitude that was generative and community-building.


In the second book I bought, The Cheese and the Worms, Ginzburg takes his instinct towards microhistory further. Here, he focuses on a single individual: Domenico Scandella, or ‘Menocchio’, a miller who lived in the Fruili in the 1500s. A free thinker, Menocchio wanted to come up with his own ideas about how the world was created and how God existed within it, and he rebelled against the doctrines of the Catholic church. One of his more famous theories is that living creatures are created by spontaneous generation—‘just as worms are produced from a cheese.’ Utterly scornful of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, he blasphemed ‘beyond measure’ and also ‘insisted that to blaspheme is not a sin.’ He developed his philosophies by mixing folk knowledge with his own interpretation of texts he came across.

Even though he speaks to us from the 1500s, many of Menocchio’s statements are utterly lucid. He is critical, for example, of how the poor are excluded from participating in the legal system because of its complex and lofty language. On this, he says: ‘I think speaking Latin is a betrayal of the poor because in lawsuits the poor do not know what is being said and are crushed; and if they want to say four words they need a lawyer.’ This observation could just as readily apply to many legal systems today. Menocchio was also extremely critical of the entrenched wealth of the church and skeptical of its rituals.  On the usefulness of confession, he once said: ‘You might as well go and confess to a tree as to priests and monks.’ Menocchio was not happy being expected to swallow Catholic, ruling class beliefs with no concrete justification as to why he should do so. He wanted the freedom to explore his own ideas and live by them: ‘I have an artful mind, and I have wanted to seek out higher things about which I did not know.’ From his station as a miller, he conducted research and swapped ideas with the energy and agitation of a public intellectual.

Ginzburg shows how Menocchio’s ideas were the product of a deep melding of influences. They are intractably involved with the cycles of nature and bear the marks of the miller’s existence in pre-industrial society. His beliefs also ‘echoed ancient and distant myths’ of varied sources. His cosmology involves ideas about the creation of the sky that suggest a reading of the Koran. In the next breath, they evoke the writings of an unknown Luccan poet, who articulated in his verses an egalitarian peasant utopia where ‘orchards and woods, fields, rivers and ponds,’ sit near celestial rivers filled with butter and precious gems. In Menocchio’s musings, Ginzburg finds references to Bocaccio’s Decameron and a translation of a medieval Catalan chronicle containing ecclesiastical texts. In his mind and over his life, the ideas he gathered stewed in concert and became conjoined. The process was organic and interchanging, akin to the countryside bursting in spring. The strongest impression left by Ginzburg’s work is the bell-like clarity of Menocchio’s voice in his attempts to understand the power structures that shaped his world and the underlying quality of the human condition as it appeared to him. His ardent wish to think, understand and communicate is crystalline over the duration of several centuries and across languages. Here, the natural, the theological and the experiential sit side by side.


That year, reading Ginzburg was profoundly soothing. I enjoyed the focus and the consistent energy that the texts required. I found my dialogues with the books to be different from a lot of the communication I was having with social media platforms, which struck me as one-sided, a projection of my own ideas and delusions about myself rather than an interaction where I received something of substance in return. In recent years, online activity has (justifiably) been given a bad rap: it shortens our attention spans, addles our measure of time and seeks to co-opt our basest instincts in order to keep us clicking. Perhaps most pernicious is the internet’s effect on our identities: via a limitless slide carousel, we are battered by videos of comparable humans doing things we could be doing, but are not. In Ginzburg though, I found a salve for this—long texts which fixed my attention in place and which made me feel spiritually and emotionally held.

There are other reasons—both personal and political—that I found reading Ginzburg to be a worthwhile experience. Firstly, I felt proximate to Ginzburg’s subjects because of the geographical nearness between the Friuli, where the night battles took place, and the province of Sondrio, where my mother’s family has lived for hundreds of years. Their environment, a small village on one side of a valley that is dwarfed by mountains, feels utterly sealed off from the rest of the world, and, within it, one gets the sense that popular belief systems—a mix of Catholicism and locally rooted culture—hold sway. This is part of what makes the peasant cosmologies set out by Ginzburg so identifiable. My familial life, as in the peasant utopias described in The Cheese and the Worms, was ascribed by ricotta, ravioli, and strict rules relating to what should be done with the earth at what times of the year. Firmly agrarian, as a sixteen-year-old my grandfather was responsible for taking the cows up into the mountains in the summer so that the family could produce butter and milk. The accoutrements of life as described by the peasants in Ginzburg’s books—the fields and the fennel stalks; the way that the creation of the universe can be analogized by the way that cheese is formed—are the same reference points that loomed large in my life growing up. There was something holy about the way that cheese was handled in my childhood, even in Australia: we would take trips to the Western suburbs of Sydney, where there was a cheese factory run by Italians. There, we bought kilos of parmigiano, tubs of white bocconcini and wrapped paper packages of ricotta. These products, to us, were as sustaining as any religion. It is in this context that Ginzburg’s peasant cosmologies have a ring of the real.

Elements of religion and folklore feel relatable, too. In that valley, and within my family life, internalized Catholic rituals dictate what behavior is condoned and what behavior is censored. Similar to the circumstances of the benandanti and Menocchio, this Catholicism is blended with popular beliefs that border on occultism or superstition. For example, when I visit my family members in Valtellina, I always remember a spindly pathway called ‘risc di mort’ or ‘path of the dead people,’ which leads from via Prada (a street in my grandmother’s village) to the church. It’s a spindly passage, laid with light-colored stones and surrounded by vineyards. The name puts me in mind of the pronouncements made by Ginzburg’s peasants in The Night Battles, when they talked about witnessing visions of the deceased. On risc di mort, in the coldness of winter and among thick banks of snow, it is easy to imagine apparitions of dead cowherds or a wandering band of the recently departed. The dead, too, are part of the language within that valley.

The second reason I fell hard for Ginzburg was by way of his explicit decision to focus on the ‘subaltern’ classes and his insistence on seeing this populace as worthy of study. Speaking on this in the preface to the 2013 edition of The Cheese and the Worms, Ginzburg says: ‘I, instead of doing research on the privileged classes, had embarked on the study of a miller who had a name, who had strange ideas, and who had read a number of books […] The persecuted and the vanquished, whom many historians dismissed as marginal and usually altogether ignored, were here the focus of the research.’ In this decision, Ginzburg consciously distinguishes himself from the majority of historical practice to date. In popular consciousness, the history that most people know is the history of kings, conquests, political maneuvering and wars—stories that largely exclude the lived realities of anyone who was not exercising dominant powers, among them workers, vocal iconoclasts, refugees, the poor, and women. I was reminded of this when I visited castles and monuments in Britain—or anywhere else, for that matter. In the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace, the lives of the workers were only relevant insofar as they contributed to the upkeep of the King. What about their dreams? What desires and habits attended to their daily life? What ideas structured their thoughts and feelings about the world? With Ginzburg, history is inclusive. He explores the lives of everyday people in a certain region of Italy that, before his work, had been hidden from contemporary consciousness. It is a mode of honoring. By writing in unwritten stories, Ginzburg insists on a history in which more people feel at home.

The action of digging into a spiritual or intellectual heritage has benefits that are particularly relevant to our age. Commentators on modern social and political life, including Jia Tolentino and Peter Pomerantsev, have spoken about the internet propensity to hollow reality out, making us lose perspective, proportion, objectivity, and the capacity to judge things on their merits. Pomerantsev said in his most recent book: ‘The very form of social media scrambles time, place, proportion: terror attacks sit next to cat videos; the latest jokes surface next to old family photos. And the result is a sort of flattening, as if past and present are losing their relative perspective.’ The online realm has a murky and slippery quality. We are prompted to define ourselves in ways that are fixed, surface-level, and posited towards how compelling we think they will be to an online audience. While promising to render the world’s complexity, instead we find ourselves among grabby headlines, appeals to our attention and polarized opinions. It is not in the interests of the internet that I have a cogent, firm and grounded identity; it is in the interests of the internet that I constantly seek to define myself with reference to the ideas of others, that I spend hours scrolling Instagram wondering how to best represent myself. Investigating a society that’s close to my own cultural lineage has given me a sense of the deep past that is unshakeable and that cannot be buffeted by the internet’s continual attempts to co-opt my attention and my identity. Looking into the historical context of my forebearers helps me engage in my own historiography, itself a way of enunciating my power in my own terms.


On the front cover of my edition of The Cheese and the Worms, there is a black and white engraving of a shoeless man wearing a hooded cloak and reading a book. Behind him looms an intricately detailed medieval town, with square church towers and castle crenellations. The engraving depicts St Anthony the Great, a widely venerated fourth century monk, and was created by Albrecht Dürer, a German painter and printmaker of the German Renaissance. Although the print seeks to depict an ageing saint, the implication the reader is invited to draw from the artwork is that it is Menocchio: sitting by a river, lost in contemplation. The figure’s eyes are cast downward, and the way that his hood slopes low over the brow highlights his extreme focus. The engraving is that of an outcast: he has a long and straggling beard, his face is lined, his fingers and toes stretch from the voluminous folds of his cloak. It is a sympathetic portrait depicting focus and devotion.

I am trying to get inspired by this spirit of commitment. In reading Ginzburg, I have found a narration of different lives—one that has shown me something profound. By learning about Menocchio and the Friulian night battlers, I have, further, discovered new intellectual and spiritual role models. It was Ginzburg who said that Menocchio was a ‘free and aggressive spirit intent on squaring things with the culture of the dominant classes’. The benandanti, too, insisted on a belief system that was intuitive, community-focused, self-sustaining, and connected with the natural world. In an information age where, in Pomerantsev’s words, ‘sense is ceaselessly unstable’, where populist politics rely on shifting, hollow notions to co-opt attention and corral votes, the tenacity with which the benandanti and Menocchio insisted on the value of their own ideas is exhilarating. They provoke me to insist on the legitimacy of my own ideas, research and instincts—and those of others I admire—in a world context where political and business language is largely informed by grandstanding, elision and evasion. Ginzburg has given me a roadmap for how to find a personal history: a meaningful mythology of lineage that I can feel intellectually and spiritually contingent with.

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