Today, a simple man is swept away by the printing
revolution. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Historian Carlo Ginzburg
tells of a miller born in 1532. He was Menocchio, a
friendly, loquacious fellow, always shooting off
his mouth. He could read. Printing presses were
just a century old. And Menocchio knew those new
books held wonderful secrets.
So he read and he talked. He spent his precious
money on even more precious books. He swapped books
with literate friends in nearby towns. Yet the
words made only patchwork sense to him.
Still, those bits and pieces of learning obsessed
Menocchio. He collared friends on the street. He
harangued them about the Trinity, the Virgin Birth,
and cosmic origins.
Finally, of course, the Italian Inquisition haled
him into court. "Keep your mouth shut," his family
told him. Menocchio tried but could not. He faced a
panel of real scholars who were ready to listen. He
faced a notary who would write down every word. It
was a dream fulfilled. Menocchio talked -- and
His theology violated all orthodoxy. It
contradicted itself. It was earthy and filled with
rich metaphors. He'd created a cosmology of
putrefaction. The heavens, he said, formed when the
vast primordial chaos curdled into planets and
stars -- the way cheese curdles out of cream.
Angels came into being in this ferment -- the way
worms appear in rotting cheese.
Now as telescopes reach the far fringe of the
universe, that sounds less silly. For there we can
see stars curdling out of the chaos of 15 billion
years ago, just as Menocchio imagined.
As Menocchio talks, we hear random echoes from all
the great forbidden books of his age -- the Vulgate
Bible, the Decameron, the Koran. He's angry at the
Church for controlling all that knowledge. His
anger keeps slipping out.
The court found Menocchio guilty of heresy and
threw him in prison for life. Three years later, a
sick and thoroughly chastened Menocchio convinced
authorities he'd changed. They released him. He
went back to work.
But those beautiful new printed books still
surrounded him. Presently he was talking again.
This time the trial was shorter. This time they
subjected Menocchio, now 67, to a half-hour of
torture. In the end, they burned him at the stake.
Menocchio had been seized by the magic of the new
technology of printing. Now, 400 years later, we
read those old court records in a book. Now
Menocchio speaks to scholars once more.
So the book itself has let him outlive his
inquisitors. Today, he really does charm scholars.
Menocchio finally takes his own place in the very
medium that changed history -- and ended his simple
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds