At Cerisy, the countless facets of the work of Carlo Ginzburg, an essential historian


This article originally appeared in Le Monde des livres on 29 September 2022.

For the past seventy years, the colloquiums held at the Château de Cerisy-la-Salle have been one of the main sites of intellectual consecration in France. In the heart of the Normandy bocage, protected by its location away from main roads, this Louis XIII manor house, classified as a historical monument, acquired in the middle of the 19th century by the ancestors of the energetic co-director of the Cerisy International Cultural Centre, Edith Heurgon, is a place of memory for thinkers and writers from France and the world. The beauty of the setting, which derives its particular atmosphere from having been inhabited for a long time by the same family, and the rituals to which the guests are subjected (the bell that summons the participants) favour a liberation and a softening of speech and academic mores.

From 9 to 15 September, this country corner steeped in history welcomed one of the most important contemporary historians, the Italian Carlo Ginzburg, at the invitation of Anne Ber-Schiavetta, Étienne Anheim (École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) and Martin Rueff from the University of Geneva (who acts as translator). For seven days, morning, noon and night, the protean work of a man associated with ‘microhistory’ and who, from article to book, always finds new layers of the past to explore (from witchcraft to Machiavelli, via Piero Della Francesca, Hobbes, Proust or Flaubert...), without ever ceasing to reflect on the founding concepts of historiography, was examined with a fine-toothed comb by a constellation of seventy researchers. Among them, the Collège de France historians Patrick Boucheron and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the other ‘microhistorian’ Giovanni Levi, author of the classic Le Pouvoir au village. Histoire d’un exorciste dans le Piémont du XVIIe siècle 1989), and Franco Moretti, theorist of ‘rapid’ or ‘distant’ reading.

Several generational layers of disciples

The meeting also enabled Carlo Ginzburg, who attended all the debates and reacted to each intervention, to meet several generational layers of disciples. Thus, two of his students from the time of the ‘years of lead’, when terrorism was rife in Italy, and are now high school teachers, Giovana Ferrari and Giovanna Cappelletto, testified to the importance of a seminar where people came not so much to make a career as to understand a world that seemed to them to be in the midst of an ‘apocalypse’. Others continue the paths blazed by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms or Ecstasies, seeking to reread the history of magic or witchcraft not only in the light of clerical oppression, but also as ‘clues’ to the persistence, under persecutions, of a Euro-Asian religion preserved by popular practices.

The idea of identifying a ‘core of truth’, even if distorted, which lends its power to the ‘fake news’ of yesterday and today (the birth of a baby with diabolical features in Chicago in 1910, studied by Tullio Viola; the announcement of the burning of the Louvre by the Communards, analysed by Manfred Posani), thus has its roots in Carlo Ginzburg’s approach, even if it is never a question of him taking the content of a rumour or accusation literally. This attachment to proof and truth, in an era marked by ‘post-truth’, is reflected in the importance given to philological considerations, anthropology and exact dating, which are so characteristic of his work.

An enterprise of ‘defamiliarisation’

Is all this work, exhibited at Cerisy in its many facets, like a coat of many colours? For the past twenty years, literature (Dante, in particular) has been added to the gripping and erudite quest for ‘coups de théâtre’ that characterises Ginzburg’s historical writing. In his new book, Nevertheless, he reveals that one of the secret sources of Pascal’s Provincial Letters was none other than Charles Perrault’s brother, Nicolas Perrault. As Tiphaine Samoyault, feuilletonist at ‘Le Monde des livres’, noted at the colloquium, Carlo Ginzburg’s work is an enterprise of ‘defamiliarisation’ of the past, in which research produces the disturbing and therefore the emotional.

Does Carlo Ginzburg embody the last figure of the ‘total historian’? Echoing the famous distinction made by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin between the fox researcher, who draws on a variety of fields, and the hedgehog researcher, who stubbornly lingers on a single object, Carlo Ginzburg replied: ‘If you look at the variety of subjects I have tackled, I am a fox.’

Translated by David Fernbach