Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Religious Syncretism and Social Reform in the Cosmologies of Giordano Bruno and Domenico Scandella, Pt. 1

Here's the paper that I presented at the Sixth Annual Graduate Student History Conference at the University of North Carolina State last weekend. Technically, it is my first peer reviewed academic paper, and also (technically) my first published paper. The "published" part is a bit of a stretch because it's published in their online journal as "proceedings" of the conference, and I was a bit unclear as to what they meant when they said it would be "eligible" for publication. In any case, it can go on my curriculum vitae, so I'm claiming it as a piece of published work. It has undergone some major edits since I first submitted it for consideration last November, and I've re-edited it for this post for typos, but the argument presented here remains largely the same. I'll add something at the end about the constructive criticisms leveled by the moderators at the conference, but for the most part, it was relatively well-received. As with most of my writings, it is rather long, so I'm going to break it up into three chunks, and hopefully post them successively throughout the week. I've left the footnotes in for this one because a good deal of important information that I left out due to constrains of space and time were contained therein. Enjoy (hopefully).

In August 1599, after enduring a lengthy trial and languishing in prison, the Italian Inquisition executed a peasant named Domenico Scandella, known as Menocchio, for “heretical depravity.” This included, among more than twenty other offenses, a belief in the equality of all religions; a denial of the efficacy of the “human inventions” of the Eucharist, baptism, and ordination; and, perhaps his greatest transgression of all, persuading others of his unorthodox beliefs.[1] Less than six months later, the Hermetic philosopher Giordano Bruno met a similar fate for his belief in the plurality of worlds and the infinity of the universe. Both were condemned for holding erroneous opinions on the nature of Christ, the Virgin, transubstantiation, and the Trinity.[2] In spite of their immense social differences, they represent an attempt by both elite and peasant classes to reconcile and syncretize seemingly divergent philosophico-religious ideas. To counteract this movement, the Catholic Church augmented the authority of the Counter Reformation throughout the sixteenth century by rigorously enforcing orthodoxy through the office of the Inquisition. Although the Catholic Counter-Reformation reacted against heterodox religious movements, it also sought to educate the masses for the first time in the codified theology of the Church elites.[3] The trials and executions of Giordano Bruno and Menocchio epitomize the overarching authority of the Catholic Church as it sought greater control over the laity at all social levels. Their distinct worldviews reflect the shifting conceptions of the cosmos at a time when a multitude of contradictory scientific, philosophical, and religious ideas proliferated. These categories had not entirely disentangled themselves from one another by the late sixteenth century, and Bruno’s affinity for religiously syncretic language aroused the suspicion of the Inquisition.[4] He was also an early proponent of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, and though his reasons for adopting it were not empirical, he has earned a place in the history of science. Menocchio’s efforts to explain a cosmology unlike the prevailing Catholic models indicates the growing potency of the newly literate proponents of popular religion.[5] Although Bruno and Menocchio differed in social status and educational background, the similarities between their religiously syncretic cosmologies and their trials and executions signify that the sweeping reforms of the Catholic Counter Reformation and the authority of the Inquisition transcended the increasingly indistinct boundaries between classes in early modern Europe.

Although the Counter Reformation is often depicted as a direct response to the rise of Protestantism, many modern scholars have portrayed it as a “parallel movement,” under the direct control of the Church, designed to address precisely the issues introduced by Protestants. It simply obtained a new immediacy following the events of 1517.[6] As a reform movement managed hierarchically and emanating from the elites, the Counter Reformation may be characterized, in the words of one scholar, as “a movement directed by bishops, implemented by parish priests, and aimed at the laity.”[7] By the early sixteenth century, many Church officials became alarmed by the growing spiritual distance between the clergy and the laity. For example, Erasmus, though many of his works would later be banned by the Church, represented the spirit of the early Counter Reformation through his desire that

…even the lowliest woman read the Gospels and Epistles. I would that they were translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood not only by the Scots and Irish, but also by the Turks and Saracens… would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum parts of them to the movement of his shuttle.[8]

This elite acknowledgment of the lack of lay comprehension of religious texts and liturgy necessitated an educational program in order to advance orthodoxy. In the words of its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuit Order—introduced in the 1530s out of the Church’s desire to more effectively proselytize—regarded the “advancement of souls and propagation of the faith” as the ultimate goal of Catholicism. The global scope of spreading the Gospels to “the Turks or to the New World or to the Lutherans or others, be they infidel or faithful” expressed the need for religious education among diverse groups of people.[9] Similarly, in order to facilitate better lay comprehension of doctrine, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) proscribed specific rules for a priest’s explanation of the “efficacy of the sacraments” and the “sacred scriptures…during the celebration of the Mass”:

…the Holy Council commands all bishops…explain their [sacraments’] efficacy and use but also that they shall see to it that the same is done piously and prudently, by every parish priest, and in the vernacular tongue if need be and it can be done conveniently, in accordance with the form which will be prescribed for each of the sacraments by the holy Council in catechism, which the bishops shall have faithfully translated into the language of the people…[10]

In spite of these lofty goals, the decrees of the Council of Trent pushed the institutional Church into more rigid and reactionary discourse with its perceived enemies, especially in areas where the interpretation of cosmology and metaphysics infringed upon doctrinal authority. In order to fully understand the Counter Reformation’s complementary goals of combating Protestant reform and educating the laity, one must examine both upper and lower class interpretations of these new intellectual and religious paradigms.

The lives of Bruno and Menocchio offer ample comparison of this twofold approach. The details of Menocchio’s life are rather scant and it is only by chance that its details have become known to history. They derive almost entirely from his trial records before the Inquisition, which include his own statements and the testimony of others regarding his heresies. Menocchio was born in 1532 in the village of Montereale in the Friuli region of the northeastern Italian peninsula, and he spent almost his entire life there.[11] He was a literate miller who, in many ways, bridged the ever shrinking gap between the lay peasantry and the educated elites. His profession exposed him to a greater degree of cultural diversity and pluralism than the typical lay peasant, and he benefited intellectually from the rise of the printed word. As a miller, Menocchio performed an integral function in Montereale, and his association with both upper and lower class members of society marked him as something of a transitional figure in the intermingling class structures of early modern Europe. He was brought before the Inquisition in 1583 for spreading heretical ideas about Christ but he was released on the condition that he repent and discontinue teaching his personal philosophy. His execution in 1599 took place due to a relapse.[12]

It is significant to note that Menocchio was a miller because millers were popularly regarded in as devious, crafty, or simply as thieves. In late medieval and early modern Europe, millers occupied a social position in the upper stratum of the peasant class. They certainly did not approach nobility—for they were neither highborn nor landowners—but neither were they among the lowest of the peasant class because they possessed an occupational knowledge that set them apart from their peers.[13] Economic, geographic, and social factors all contributed to the negative stereotype of a miller. Firstly, a miller might double as a proxy for the economic power of a lord. Peasants often distrusted millers because millers were the key partners in a system that worked to their disadvantage. In the medieval system, mills were expensive to build and operate, and consequently, they were usually owned by lords who exerted monopolistic control over their use. Peasants brought their grain to the mill and paid the miller a fee—essentially a tax—to grind it. This system ensured not only a steady source of income for the local lord but also the loyalty of the miller whose own lucrative share of income depended upon his participation.[14] A popular contemporary song from Tuscany attests to this negative typecast of millers:

Listen and now I’ll tell you.
Look who is grabbing with his hands,
It’s the miller of the white flour.
Look who is stealing with his hands,
It’s the miller of the white flour.
He passes the quarter off as the full bushel;
The biggest thief of all is the miller.[15]

A similar song from Germany during this time period describes “millers and thieves” as “all blood brothers.”[16] This arrangement engendered a popular suspicion in the general occupation of miller and the particular person who filled this position in a community.

Geographically, mills tended to be located on the outskirts of villages and this peripheral setting hindered a full integration of the miller into the community. Millers constantly received not only local villagers but merchants and traders frequenting the mill to grind grain for food production, and a trade of ideas accompanied this trade of goods. However, by the mid sixteenth century, feudal economics does not accurately describe the situation of Montereale. The exact economic circumstances of the village are unknown, but Menocchio rented both mills he operated and at least one of them was privately owned.[17] In any case, Menocchio served as a middleman between the peasants and an elite property owner.

Menocchio was well educated for a peasant and his ability to read and write indicates the intellectual prowess a miller might possess.[18] He possessed copies of Jacob Voragine’s The Golden Legend, a whimsical compendium of hagiographies, a translation of Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, as well as an apocryphal gospel and a copy of the Bible in the vernacular.[19] A degree of education beyond that of the average peasant was a part of the late medieval image of a miller. For example, Chaucer’s miller had completed a liberal arts education:

With him there was dwelling a poor scholer,
Had lerned art; but all his fantasye
Was turned for to lerne astrologye—
And koud a certain of conclusiouns,
To deemen by interrogaciouns,
If that men asked him in certain hours
Whan that man shold have drought or ells showres,
Or if men asked him what shold befalle
Of everything—I may not reckon hem alle.[20]

Not only is Chaucer’s miller educated in the liberal arts, he also studied the art of astrology. Astrology maintained a precarious and complicated position in late medieval European thought. Various universities held academic chairs in astrology while authorities simultaneously accused numerous charlatans of heresy due to their practice of this proto-science. This double standard signifies the legal disparity between upper and lower class practitioners of similar arts and sciences, but it also implies that lower class figures were perfectly capable of intellectual pursuits typically reserved for educated elites. Menocchio had referred to himself as an astrologer on occasion because of its applicability to his philosophy.[21]

Like Menocchio, Chaucer’s miller was literate and used this literacy to his advantage:

His Almageste and bookes greet and smalle,

His astrelaby longing for his art,

His augurim stones, layen fair aparte

on shelves couched at his beddes heed.[22]

Chaucer himself was an astrologer and wrote an important treatise on the astrolabe, and his insertion of these particulars within his tale likely points to his own personal interest in the subject. Nevertheless, poetry and popular lore typically depicted millers as educated beyond their social station and economic means, and these stories tend to portray them engaged in activities that authorities were justified in questioning. Just as the economic structures of feudal manors differed from that of early modern towns, so too did the cultural perceptions of millers in Chaucer’s England and Menocchio’s Italy differ. Although we must not glean too much information from this comparison, the stereotype of a miller as figure of disrepute seems particularly resilient across time and space during this era. Gratuitous education mixed with an unwarranted rise in social standing proved a dangerous combination for the image of early modern millers.

[1] Andrea del Col, Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio: His Trials Before the Inquisition, 1583-1599, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 1996), 156-159.

[2] Ingrid Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher Heretic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 288 and Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 354.

[3] Martin D. W. Jones, The Counter Reformation: Religion and Society in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 96-98.

[4] Giuseppe Candela, “An Overview of the Cosmology, Religion, and Philosophical Universe of Giordano Bruno,” Italica 75 (1998): 356.

[5] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1980), xxiv.

[6] John C. Olin, Catholic Reform: From Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 1495-1563 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990), ix and 4-7, and Martin D.W. Jones, The Counter Reformation, 28-29. Olin traces the origins of the Counter Reformation to 1495 when Savonarola, firmly in control of Florence, preached publicly on the wickedness and decadence of the institutional Church and its hierarchy. Among those influenced by his message was humanist scholar Francisco Ximenes, a patron to Ferdinand and Isabella, and future Archbishop of Toledo. His later life’s work entailed “ecclesiastical, intellectual, and religious reform” within the Catholic Church. Jones traces it as far back as c. 1480 by pointing out the sharp rise in apocalyptic discourse among Catholic writers and thinkers due in part to the perceived decline of the Church’s authority on earth. For Jones, the direct reaction to the Protestant Reformation describes only the years from 1517 to 1545.

[7] Martin D.W. Jones, The Counter Reformation, 96.

[8] Quoted in Martin D.W. Jones, The Counter Reformation, 32. Erasmus occupies an uneasy position in Church history. Pope Paul IV regarded him as a harbinger of the Protestant Reformation and banned all his works in the 1560s. Though Catholic liturgy would still be spoken in Latin, Catholic reformers as early as Archbishop Ximenes noted that the Latin Bible itself was a translation and understood the necessity of translation for lay comprehension.

[9] Quoted in John C. Olin, Catholic Reform, 84.

[10] Ibid., 111.

[11] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and Worms, 1.

[12] Ibid., 110-112, and Andrea de Col, Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio, 154-155.

[13] George Fenwick Jones, “Chaucer and the Medieval Miller”, Modern Language Quarterly 16 (1955), 6.

[14] Richard Bennett and John Elton, History of Corn Milling: Feudal Laws and Customs (London, 1898-1904; reprint ed. 1966), 106-108. This is a contested assertion. Millers were popularly regarded as intellectually superior to their lay peers due to their increased contact with traders and merchants. However, Bennett and Elton describe millers as among the poorest of the peasant class and nearer the lower end of the social spectrum than their counterparts because their occupation produced no goods directly as did other serfs. This argument does not correspond to popular conceptions of millers in legends, fables, and the literature of late medieval Europe, nor does it accurately describe Menocchio’s status. Menocchio not only worked a miller but also served as mayor of Montereale and camararo, or administrator, of a local parish church.

[15] Quoted in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, 119.

[16] George Fenwick Jones, “Chaucer and the Medieval Miller,” Modern Language Quarterly 16 (1955), 15.

[17] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, 96 and 120, and Andre del Col, Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio, xiv.

[18] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, 119-120.

[19] Ibid., 29-30. See Ginzburg for a full list of Menocchio’s books.

[20] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ed. Donald R. Howard (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969), 165.

[21] Andrea del Col, Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio, lxxv.

[22] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 165.