The Secret Peasant Book Club

In the countryside near 1500s Venice, most people were illiterate – but not all. A small number of literate peasants swapped books amongst themselves. Some of the books were forbidden. One miller was hauled before the Inquisition, not for reading banned books, but for developing his own theology from them that existed outside the bounds of Christianity. The records from his trial give us a window into this remarkable world of peasant book-sharing. Their network makes a really interesting RPG adventure hook!

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Image credit: Naturpuur, released under a CC BY 4.0 international license.

This is my sixth post drawing on material from the Inquisition. I keep going back to this well because these cases give us insights into the inner lives of ordinary people. The Inquisition kept excellent records, often including transcriptions of all testimony given at trial. The Catholic Church often then preserved these records. That means we can find in them ordinary people describing themselves, one another, and their worlds in their own words. In much of history we have a pretty good idea of what the rich, the powerful, and the influential thought and felt. But Mo or Susan from down the street – people who aren’t lords or prophets or scribes or whatever – remain obscure. These trials give us a window into the lives of the people you or I probably would have been, had we been born in another time and place.

It’s worth noting there was not just one Inquisition but many, often quite independent of one another. These inquisitions differed in important ways: the rights of the accused, standards of evidence, the use of torture, the thoroughness of the record-keeping, and what punishments were commonly handed down. While all were ostensibly governed by Catholic canon law, local customs and the personalities involved meant that two suspects accused of the same heresy in the same year might face very different experiences if apprehended in two different places. This means modern commentators, when making sweeping generalizations about the Inquisition (capital ‘I’), get to pick the inquisition (lowercase ‘i’) that matches the story they want to tell you. I myself have fallen into this habit in the past, presenting you with inquisitions sometimes meek and sometimes barbarous without offering context for the difference.

Our focus this week is on Friuli, a region in northeast Italy at the foot of the Alps and along the border with Slovenia. In the late 1500s, Friuli was under the control of the Republic of Venice but hadn’t been for very long. The local lords chafed at Venetian rule, which meant Venice sometimes fomented peasant unrest to humble the rural aristocracy. The advent of the printing press meant books were cheap enough for works to filter out into the countryside from the book-sellers in the big city. In other parts of Europe, the availability of vulgate Bibles boosted the Protestant cause, but less so here. While there were some Lutherans and Anabaptists about, for the most part the Catholic Counter-Reformation kept a tight lid on religious dissent.

Image credit: Giuseppe Marini, released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The man whose trial shone light into a network of peasant book-swappers was one Domenico Scandella, called ‘Menocchio’ by most. He was born in 1532 and was tried for the first time in 1583 at the age of 51. He worked primarily as a miller, though he also worked as a carpenter, a sawyer, a mason, and a farmer. He read just about anything he could get his hands on. Menocchio was smart – that comes through in his trial testimony – but uneducated. Like a 1728 Chinese autodidact I wrote about three years ago, Menocchio didn’t have the context he needed to make sense of what he was reading. He had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction, serious works from playful ones. He sometimes got the thesis of a text exactly backwards. He was curious, self-motivated, and (my guess is) the smartest person in his village. That meant no one could challenge the increasingly bizarre conclusions he was drawing, since Menocchio could talk circles around everyone he hung out with and make them look like the weirdo instead of him.

Menocchio’s cosmology was basically material. In the beginning, there was a formless chaos of the four elements. This chaos curdled, as anything left out long enough will do. In this primordial cheese, worms formed, as maggots will form naturally in anything left to curdle uncovered too long. These worms in the universe were the angels. The greatest of them was God. When the Lucifer-angel-worm rebelled, the God-angel-worm cast the rebel angels from the part of the universe that was heaven. To replace the fallen angels, God ordered the loyal angels to create Adam and Eve from the curdled elements that were fast becoming the universe as we know it. There was no trinity; the Holy Spirit was the greatest of the loyal angels and Jesus was merely the holiest man to ever live. Mary was not a virgin. Priests had no special authority in the forgiveness of sins. And the gospels were written by abbots with too much time on their hands. Menocchio developed his theology with a remarkable thoroughness, though his Inquisition interrogators were able to catch him on some contradictions in points he hadn’t thought all the way through. This tended to silence the miller as he grappled with the unconsidered implications of the catechism he’d laid out for them.

Menocchio was well-liked in his community. The people who testified against him at trial would recite all the terribly heretical things he’d told them, then add, “But he’s a nice guy and I like him very much.” Menocchio had been talking heresy for years before he got hauled before the court. Almost everyone in his village knew he was guilty of a crime they considered heinous, yet chose not to turn him in. Even the village priest didn’t report him! It wasn’t until the village got a new priest that Menocchio wound up before the Inquisition. The miller was garrulous, kind, and a good neighbor. If he imperiled the souls of those around him by spreading heresy… eh, nobody’s perfect.

Image credit: Lucaduck, released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

From Menocchio’s testimony about where he got his books, we get a glimpse of a network of readers among the Friulian peasantry. Most of the books Menocchio read were never catalogued by the Inquisiton. Of the eleven mentioned by name, he bought one in Venice, three are of unknown sourcing, and the remaining seven he got from his peers.

Andrea Bionima, Menocchio’s village priest – the one who tolerated him, not the one who turned him in – loaned him a copy of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville that he’d found while going through some documents in another town. I wrote two blog posts about Mandeville a few years ago. It’s a travelogue that’s at least partly fictional but contains a powerful argument that the Catholic Church has no monopoly on religious truth. I favor the claim that the travelogue portions of the book are a disguise that let it escape many censors. Father Andrea wisely denied that he’d ever given Menocchio such a dangerous text. He suggested one Vincenzo Lombardo may have taken it from Father Andrea’s home, then passed it on to Menocchio.

Menocchio’s uncle, Domenico Gerbas, loaned him two uncontroversial books. The first, the Golden Legend, was a popular collection of saints’ lives. While Menocchio had it, he accidentally got it wet and tore it. The second book was a Bible translated into the local language. Menocchio then gave the Bible to his cousin, Bastian Scandella, a landowning peasant who’d served as mayor of their village. Menocchio borrowed the Bible back from Bastian occasionally until Bastian’s wife, Fior, burned the Bible in her oven. Her reasoning was not recorded.

A woman named Anna de Cecho loaned Menocchio a popular illustrated devotional text, the Rosary of the Glorious Virgin Mary. By the time of Menocchio’s trial Anna had died, but her son testified that she had once owned many books, but her village priest had confiscated all but two or three.

A man named Nicola de Porcia loaned Menocchio the long poem The Dream of Caravia, which describes a dream where a dead friend of the author returns from beyond the grave to recount what he has seen. It contains considerable criticism of the Church and praise for Martin Luther, though it is not a Protestant text. It’s also a funny poem; the dead friend was a famous clown.

A Nicola de Melchiori – who might be the same person as the above Nicola de Porcia – loaned Menocchio an unexpurgated copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron. This collection of fictional short stories was hugely popular. But it has a strong anti-clerical bent and was often burnt. Nicola didn’t pass the dangerous Decameron to Menocchio directly, but used an intermediary named Lunardo della Minussa.

The one book we know Menocchio bought, Il Fioretto della Bibbia, he loaned to a young man named Tita Coradina. The book is a chronicle of the history of the world (a popular genre) and pulls from varied sources. Some are normal for the era, like the Chronicon of Isidore of Seville. Others were outside the mainstream, like apocryphal gospels: writings about Jesus by early Christians that were not ultimately endorsed by the Church. Not surprisingly, when young Tita Coradina told his priest about the book, the priest made him burn it.

Menocchio received a book as a gift from Tomaso Mero da Malminis: the Supplementum Chonicarum by Giacomo Filippo Foresti. It was written as a supplement to all these chronicles of world history that were floating around. It treats a lot of classical myths as being real history. That approach was reasonably mainstream for the era (Christine de Pizan did the same), but not all scholars thought it was OK.

I love how practical this book-sharing network was. All these people were poor (probably including Father Andrea), so they bought little. Instead, they shared. They weren’t treating these books like sacred relics, hoarding them and keeping them safe. They loaned them widely. Books got wet and got ruined. Books got loaned to untrustworthy people like young Tita Coradina and got burned. A book left unread is a book wasted, so the network took risks with their books – and with themselves.

Image credit: gianca1969, released under a CC BY 3.0 license.

At your table, a fictionalized network of generous, sharing readers might come up against knowledge that is genuinely dangerous. In a lot of campaigns, this would be an evil book that damns the reader. If the PCs learn the network has such a book, can they get it out of the readers’ hands before anyone else gets hurt? Can they do it without imperiling the network’s members when your fictional equivalent of the Inquisition comes knocking?

The premise also lends itself well to espionage adventures. A collection of reports from a spy could, in the wrong hands, get the spy killed. If the people the spy is spying on get hold of it, they can look at the information in the reports, figure out that only five people had access to all of it, then kill all five to be safe. The people the spy is working for might be willing to kill the people who have the reports to keep that from happening. If the PCs become aware that this network of information-sharers has somehow lucked into a misfiled dossier of spy reports, can the PCs get the information-sharers through this unhurt?

Or the MacGuffin text can be dangerous for other reasons. Maybe it teaches a criminal skill like safecracking, and the authorities don’t appreciate it. Maybe the mafia also wants this document for its own purposes, and the network of readers is caught in the middle. Can the PCs get them out?

I see a lot of myself in Menocchio. None of my degrees are in history, yet I sure have devoted a lot of time and effort to writing a history blog – just as Menocchio devoted a lot of time and effort to theology, despite not having the basic grounding he needed to fully comprehend what he was reading. There’s a real danger in teaching yourself. It’s easy to come to conclusions not supported by the evidence, because you’re not interacting with instructors or peers who can challenge you. Menocchio’s conclusions were based on misreading some texts that were intended as fact and not understanding that a lot of what he was reading was intended as fiction – or as a complicated superposition of the two. He wound up burned at the stake after his second trial in 1599 at the age of 67. Fair warning to you and me, reader. Humility and self-criticism might save our lives.

Rather get content like this in podcast form? Every two months I appear on the Dicegeeks podcast to talk about three recent posts. Here’s a link to my most recent episode!


Source: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John and Anne Dedeschi (1976)

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