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Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and McKenzie’s “The Sociology of a Text” both focus on discussing written text as representative of a certain culture and its historical path. A written text is understood as a way to reach a target audience that, in turn, should acquire knowledge of its creation and transmission. However, the effects and consequences of a written text may vary, depending on the context, culture, and epoch.
While Ginzburg presents the history of Menocchio and his non-traditional views on Christianity, McKenzie aims at a larger identification of the implications of a written text found in the traditions of New Zealand. This paper attempts to discuss both literary works and addresses the second prompt, exploring the consequences and effects of written material on oral traditions and values.
Examining the Effects of Printed Materials on Oral Traditions
The book The Cheese and the Worms depicts the amazing history of Domenico Scandella, a miller in Menocchio, an Italian province, who suggested a unique vision regarding the process involved in the creation of the world. At first, in his account, everything was chaos, and it all came together in one bundle like cheese in milk. Then, worms arose in it, and these worms were angels. God was also among the angels; he became the Lord, and he had four captains: Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
Because of his pride, God drove Lucifer and others out of heaven and then created Adam and Eve and many other people to fill the places of the exiled angels. Menocchio’s version of the creation story was so atypical and surprising to the inquisitors that they felt they had no choice but to condemn the miller on the grounds of medieval heresies created many centuries ago.
Menocchio’s views were largely based on the literature he had read; Ginzburg briefly analyzes the books that influenced their formation.1 In books, Menocchio noticed small and seemingly insignificant details that strongly resonated in his memory. It is possible to assume that since priests told people about biblical miracles over the years, these stories became routine, even mundane, and miracles were perceived as habitual happenings that did not require special reverence.
Random details, in contrast, aroused interest. Ginzburg states that Menocchio was aware of the biblical account: in a letter to the inquisitors, he asks for an indulgence, comparing his life with that of Joseph, who was sold by his brothers to Egypt.2 The phenomenon of his case lies in the fact that in a culture where intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists ruled all others, a commoner suddenly appeared to offer his own worldview, which frightened the church fathers yet elicited respect and unity in the people who listened to Menocchio.
Menocchio was literate, and his neighbors respected him. It is curious that after his release from prison, this heretic convicted by the Inquisition was elected by his fellow villagers to the post of a church elder. Driven by the idea of educating people and representing the power of written material integrated with great consciousness, Menocchio stands out from folk culture while remaining closely associated with it.3
Namely, he distinguishes himself in his ability to build an abstract global theory as well as having a desire to think about concepts that do not have a direct impact on his life. At the same time, his thinking is determined by the culture in which he grew up—he remains a member of the peasant community, a friend and godfather of his fellow villagers. The Cheese and the Worms enrich the culture due to the provision of innovative ideas whose dissemination makes people think about their own lives, others, and the organization of everything.
In comparison, McKenzie discusses the concept of written materials on a larger scale that includes written, oral, visual, and numeric data. The author views the variety of forms and their complexity as an opportunity to track changes in history and come to relevant conclusions about the traditions of New Zealand. According to “The Sociology of a Text,” even new forms of materials such as computer-based information—“everything in fact from epigraphy to the latest forms of discography”—is regarded as inclusions to an extended bibliography.4 The collection, preservation, and transition of written materials undergird the idea of creating an extensive bibliography as a concept for not only historians but also all those who may show an interest.
The study of the sociology of texts should first be seen as revealing the core meaning of any materials under consideration. For example, historical accounts show that when Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, they agreed to the sovereignty of Britain over New Zealand.5 In fact, these chiefs only printed the picture of their tattoos to sign the mentioned document. Nevertheless, the oral traditions of the local population were rapidly transformed into written texts.
In about 35 years, Maori chiefs created a grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand and printed it. It should be stressed that the process of developing this grammar was long and challenging, involving many people. English missionaries, local chiefs, and religious representatives all contributed to the current version of the printed grammar and vocabulary. In other words, the author emphasizes that the very process of creating written material needs to be understood by the person who wants to understand one or another phenomenon or event.
In the Treaty of Waitangi, orality and literacy are integrated, and since the document was bilingual, it contained some differences. This example illustrates that the consequences embodied in written texts are reflected in the culture, representing and enriching it as well as transitioning to future generations.6 It is essential to point out the fact that even though the meaning may vary, the decision was made to clarify both versions and come to a unified format to eliminate any misunderstanding.
Like in The Cheese and the Worms, “The Sociology of a Text” refers to written materials as the measure and the baseline of traditions that are, as a rule, reviewed and adjusted with time. The documentation of these traditions and beliefs that were previously oral allows a more in-depth understanding of history.
In conclusion, both discussed works focus on proposing an idea of understanding the inherent role of written materials, considering human interactions and motives that were involved in the creation of a book. Reflecting on the example of Menocchio, Ginzburg traces the views of the main character and clarifies the context. McKenzie uses Maori chiefs’ interaction with the British to identify their orality and transition to literacy. While these works consider the effects of written texts from different perspectives, their ideas and conclusions are similar. The introduction of printed materials transforms culture and preserves history and traditions.
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Bahr, Arthur, and Alexandra Gillespie. “Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text.” The Chaucer Review 47 (2013): 346-360.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
McKenzie, Donald F. “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy and Print in Early New Zealand.” The Library 4 (1984): 333-365.
O’Brien, Kathleen C. “Cement, Earth Worms and Cheese Factories: Religion and Community Development in Rural Ecuador‐by DeTemple, Jill.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 34 (2015): 267-269.
- Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese, and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 13.
- Ginzburg, 36.
- Kathleen C. O’Brien, “Cement, Earth Worms, and Cheese Factories: Religion and Community Development in Rural Ecuador‐by DeTemple, Jill,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 34 (2015): 268.
- Donald F. McKenzie, “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy, and Print in Early New Zealand,” The Library 4 (1984): 342.
- McKenzie, 363.
- Arthur Bahr and Alexandra Gillespie, “Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text,” The Chaucer Review 47 (2013): 352.