At the start of the literate age…

Booknotes looks at the beliefs of a man who straddled two eras.

Mike Selby

In a small Italian village in the 16th century, a middle-aged miller came up with a truly unique vision of the cosmos; and it had something to do with worms and cheese.

As he approached his 60s, Domenico Scandella — who went by the nickname Menocchio — found himself living in two worlds. The ancient and oral tradition of the peasants was being replaced by a more literate culture brought about by the advent of printing.

Having being raised in the oral culture, Scandella was understandably fascinated by the printed word, and spent his adult life reading what he could. This ‘best of both worlds’ mixture produced in him the belief that all life had evolved from rotting cheese, and the worms which crawl through this cheese were angels.

Somehow, Scandella synthesized a number of older pagan beliefs and folklore with the modern books of his time. Although he considered himself to be well-read, he was known to only have read less than a dozen books. Besides the bible and common prayer books, he had read the “Travels of Sir John Mandevile,’ ‘The Decameron,’ ‘The Bible Foil’ (a medieval romance), and a book about a clown in hell titled ‘Zampollo.’

Whether Scandella took his beliefs system from these books, or used these books to support theories he already held, remains unknown.

Unfortunately, Scandella’s remarkable and strange conclusions came at exactly the wrong time in history. He lived during the height of the Inquisition, and his cheese and worms views resulted seen as heretical. After numerous warnings, he continued to vocalize his beliefs. The Inquisition branded him a heretic, and burned him on a stake.

It is only from the Inquisition’s court records that the titles of his books became known. The record of his horrific end gives a unique look at a unique person at the end of the middle ages.

Or was Scandella unique? Did others conform to his cheese and worms theories? Since he was the only one to attract the attention of the Vatican, this too remains unknown.

Today, in the village of Montereale Valcellina, a cobblestone wheel of cheese stands outside the Domenico Scandella Social Center. Water pours through the wheel’s wormholes. Much like our own Sam Steele, Scandella has become part of the town’s folklore; taught in schools and celebrated in annual festivals.

“Okay, so he was a heretic,” commented a town leader. “But he was our heretic.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

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