This was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.
In 1583, in the small hill town of Montereale in northeast Italy, a miller called Menocchio was denounced to the Holy Office by a local priest. He was accused of blaspheming, and of compounding his heresies by spreading them. He was frequently getting into arguments with people about theological matters. He thought he knew God better than the priesthood did; besides, he believed that priests ‘want us under their thumb, just to keep us quiet, while they have a good time’.1 Such shrewd disaffection was bound to land Menocchio in trouble, and very soon he found himself being interrogated by the Inquisition.
During his trial, Menocchio veered between espousing his singular opinions — which were clearly deeply felt, whether based on reading or personal experience — and pragmatic attempts to back down and save himself from execution. His convictions won the day — eventually, in 1601, he was burned at the stake.
Among other beliefs that sealed his fate were his refusal of the divinity of Christ, and impious doubts about Mary’s virginity. But perhaps the most curious view he proffered was his bizarre idea about the origins of the cosmos:
I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; 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. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and 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, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.2
The metaphor, comparing God and the angels to worms emerging from decomposing cheese, would no doubt have been supremely distasteful to Church authorities. Just as scandalous was the underlying idea that the cosmos, rather than being made by God, emerged spontaneously, before the angels and the Lord himself also emerged, spontaneously. Carlo Ginzburg, the historian who brought Mennochio’s tale to light, deems this perspective on creation ‘tendentiously scientific’3 (although we should note that many religious traditions in the Far East embrace spontaneous cosmic origins). He goes on to contend that while such cosmological notions may have arisen independently in the mind of this free-thinking miller, observing cheese-making in a dairy, we must also consider the possibility that the records of Mennochio’s trial represent a rare glimpse into the spread of mythical motifs via popular oral culture — below the radar of officially-sanctioned, easily demonstrable ‘history’.
During Mennocchio’s lifetime the region of Friuli, in which he resided, saw the diffusion of ‘a cult with shamanistic undercurrents’,4 the benandanti. These ‘good walkers’ periodically fought witches in out-of-body battles over the fertility of crops and livestock, riding cats and goats, armed with fennel stalks. Ginzburg leaves open the potential that this agrarian cult passed on to Menocchio a thin twig of Eurasian cosmological dairy lore whose major branches may include the Churning of the Milky Ocean in Hindu myth, in which the gods brought forth the nectar of immortality from this sea by using Mount Meru as a churning stick,5 and myths among the nomadic herding tribes of the Altai region of Inner Asia in which, ‘at the beginning of time, the waters of the sea were covered by a solid layer, similar to that which forms on milk, from which plants, animals, men, and gods issued.’6
Ginzburg is credited as one of the originators of the concept of the ‘microhistory’ — a historical study of a small, well-defined unit (an event, a family, or a person) which aims to ask ‘large questions in small places’.7 The Cheese and the Worms, subtitled ‘The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller’, is perhaps his key work in this vein. Such studies are incredibly important for appreciating the finer textures of history’s unfolding. Also, when the focus of works like this delve into the world of ‘common people’ like Menocchio, we get a crucial reminder that ‘history’ as we commonly conceive it is often just the history of more powerful strata of society.
North takes a very different approach, attempting a loose, wide-angle, grand-scale narrative. Not in opposition to smaller-scale studies, but hopefully as a complement, in dialogue with them. But we should never get caught up in grand stories and forget to stop regularly, and ground (or sometimes dissolve) the story in historical details. The Cheese and the Worms is a great opportunity for this. It’s crafted from painstaking attention to primary sources, and a very humane passion for foregrounding the ‘unsung’ lives that most histories forget. And it still manages to keep an eye on the bigger picture, gesturing toward great currents which can sweep through the lives of many thousands without a historical voice, and only register in official records in distorted and diminished ways.