Philology and Microhistory: A Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg

In: Philological Encounters
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  • 1 Seminar für Arabistik und Semitistik, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany
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In this Philological Conversation, Carlo Ginzburg reflects on the place of philology in his work and explores the connections between philology, microhistory, and casuistry. We talk about the people who inspired his early thinking, including his father Leone Ginzburg, his mother Natalia, and his grandfather, moving on to Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and Sebastiano Timpanaro. We discuss the ethical and political implications of his research and reflect on the power of philology to give voice to the marginalized and suppressed. The conversation, which was edited for readability, took place during the Corona pandemic over three meetings via Zoom on July 13, September 10, and September 17, 2021.


In this Philological Conversation, Carlo Ginzburg reflects on the place of philology in his work and explores the connections between philology, microhistory, and casuistry. We talk about the people who inspired his early thinking, including his father Leone Ginzburg, his mother Natalia, and his grandfather, moving on to Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and Sebastiano Timpanaro. We discuss the ethical and political implications of his research and reflect on the power of philology to give voice to the marginalized and suppressed. The conversation, which was edited for readability, took place during the Corona pandemic over three meetings via Zoom on July 13, September 10, and September 17, 2021.

Islam Dayeh: Thank you so much, dear Carlo, for agreeing to take part in this conversation. It has been almost ten years since that memorable conversation about philology we had in Berlin. We had just launched our research program Zukunftsphilologie: Revisiting the Canons of Textual Scholarship, and Philological Encounters had not yet come into being. I remember how we spoke about Giambattista Vico’s concept of philology and Sebastiano Timpanaro’s The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method.1 We talked about the connections between philology and microhistory, and about the role philology has played in your research. Our conversation has continued over the years and your insights remain a great inspiration for the work that my colleagues and I have been doing through Philological Encounters. It is such an honor to be able to have this conversation with you about philology and history, and to delve in deeper into your views on the place of philology today.

As a way of beginning our conversation, I would like to start with a biographical question about the development of your ideas and approaches. When did you know that you wanted to become a historian? And what was it that attracted you to history?

Carlo Ginzburg: When I started my university trajectory, I was not planning to become a historian and, even as I became a fellow at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, which is a twin institution of the École Normale Supérieure of Paris, I was not yet sure about the path I wanted to pursue. Unlike Paris, where there is a two-year preparatory program, there is no preliminary selection in Pisa. Students come from all over Italy, and they are selected regardless of their grades. In any case, I was selected, and I started my studies at the University of Pisa where I attended seminars as well as at the Scuola Normale. I was still uncertain about what path I would pursue. At the beginning, I was dreaming of becoming an art historian, but after a disappointing art history seminar, I turned towards literature. I was also very keen on linguistics, which retrospectively, must have had something to do with my father Leone, who was a philologist. When he was young, he taught Russian literature, but his academic career finished early on since he refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the fascist regime. He was in fact arrested for antifascist conspiracy in 1934 and spent two years in jail. Afterwards, he came back to Turin where he started working closely with a prominent Jewish philologist, Santorre Debenedetti, who made a critical edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, an imposing and original work on variants.2 The introduction to the book was written in the first person and my father was never mentioned, but they were very close. My father used to refer to him as his teacher. My father was also very close to Benedetto Croce, who insisted that he should swear allegiance to the regime. Croce made a political point of not leaving the university to the fascists, but my father refused. He sent Croce a series of critical comments on the section on Russian history of his Storia d’Europa.3 That was actually the first history book that I had ever read. I had a copy with Benedetto Croce’s handwritten dedication to my father: “to Leone Ginzburg, with gratitude.”

Islam Dayeh: Did your father’s work as an editor shape your attitude toward philology?

Carlo Ginzburg: I became aware of the relevance of Debenedettis’s work later. But what I want to highlight is my father’s drive towards philology. He regarded himself, I would say, as a philologist, and he actually edited Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti in a series called Scrittori d’Italia (“Authors of Italy”) under the editorship of Croce.4 In the same year in which I frammenti autografi dell’Orlando Furioso came out, Gianfranco Contini published Come lavorava l’Ariosto (“On Ariosto’s Method”).5 The title was a reference to an anecdote concerning the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827). Apparently, one day, while in exile in England, he was taking a walk near Dover with a friend and, looking at the waves, he exclaimed: ‘Così lavorava l’Ariosto!’ (“This is how Ariosto worked!”), meaning that he used ottave like a sequence of waves. Contini’s article was a review of Santorre Debenedetti’s critical edition of Ariosto’s Cinque canti. It marked the beginning of Contini’s obsession with variants: a work that has never become part of the international discussion. For instance, Bernard Cerquiglini’s work In Praise of the Variant completely ignored Contini. 6 It would actually be very interesting to compare the two works. As you can see, although I am not a philologist, I am really interested in philological work. As I have already mentioned, my attraction to linguistics and literature can certainly be ascribed to the invisible presence of my father. In 1940, Italy entered the war, and he lost Italian citizenship because he was a Jew. He was sent to internal exile to Pizzoli, a little village in the region of Abruzzo where I grew up. I was born in 1939 and I had never spoken a dialect except for Pizzoli’s local dialect when I was a child.7 At the time, my father was correcting a translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which had been already published. He wrote the introduction to the new edition and again, being a Jew, he could not sign it. There was an asterisk instead of his name, but later I realized that my father was the one behind it. I could not understand much of War and Peace back then, I was very young, and I was reading it for the first time. However, Tolstoy’s book was essential to my approach to history. In between I had the idea of working on literature, but then I read Marc Bloch. From the very beginning, every year, every student of the Scuola Normale was supposed to do some research and discuss it. The medievalist Arsenio Frugoni suggested that I work on the journal Annales, which Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre had founded in 1929. At the time, I was completely unaware of the existence of the Annales but once I started working on the journal’s first ten years, I fell in love with Marc Bloch’s work. After reading his book The Royal Touch,8 which was a turning point, I decided to become a historian—I have forgotten your question now.

Islam Dayeh: This is fascinating. Can you recall the works that inspired you to become a historian?

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes, I have a vivid recollection of the moment I realized that I wanted to become a historian. I was looking at the library building of the Scuola Normale and I made a triple decision: to try to become a historian, to work on witchcraft trials, and to try and rescue the voices of the victims of that persecution. The works that pushed me in that direction were Bloch’s writings, Ernesto De Martino’s Il mondo magico,9 and Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which I had read before entering the Scuola Normale.10 His reflections on the culture of subaltern classes were absolutely crucial for me. I had also read Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi,11 who was my father’s friend; he is part of my childhood memories. Levi and my father were members of the anti-fascist resistance group Giustizia e Libertà (“Justice and Freedom”). He was sent to internal exile in Basilicata (called Lucania back then). His deep interest in peasant culture (including magic beliefs) implied a critical distance devoid of any patronizing attitude: a mixture which deeply impressed me. All this was part of the political atmosphere of the time. My mother, Natalia Ginzburg, had been a member of the Communist party from 1946 until 1952. She was part of a Catholic-Communist group and the philosopher Felice Balbo, one of the group leaders, was a close friend of hers. She wrote about him in her book Family Lexicon.12 Balbo was the person who encouraged me to enter the Scuola Normale. He was also acquainted with my maternal grandfather Giuseppe Levi, who was a famous histologist (three of his pupils received a Nobel prize). He had been asked by the Party to run as an independent candidate for the 1948 elections. My grandfather was particularly important for me. In retrospect, I think that my reaction to the idea of microhistory, which alludes to the metaphorical use of the microscope, was in some way connected to him. He once invited me to have a look at the microscope in his laboratory, but I was deeply disappointed, which I did not dare to tell him. My grandfather and I had intense conversations. In one of his letters he told a friend that I had suggested that he read Gramsci.

Islam Dayeh: Your grandfather was a professor at the University of Turin.

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes, but he was ejected in 1938 because he was a Jew. A former student of his invited him to Liège in Belgium. He spent a couple of years there until the German occupation in 1940. He managed to leave, but it was extremely difficult. Apparently, he was so absorbed by his work that he did not realize what was happening. However, he managed to come back to Italy. I vividly remember that time, I remember when the English tanks arrived in 1944—we were hiding near Florence. And I also remember the sense of defeat after the 1948 elections! It was as if the whole family had invested emotionally and politically in the Fronte Popolare (“Popular Front”), the coalition the Communist party participated in. Garibaldi’s head was on their logo. So, I certainly belonged to the Left even if I have never been a member of any party. My reading of Gramsci was related to my political commitment and to my identification as a Jew.

Islam Dayeh: You have mentioned elsewhere that the experience of the war and the death of your father made you a Jew.

Carlo Ginzburg: There is a specific episode that I remember clearly, which I mentioned in the post-face to the newly published edition of The Night Battles.13 I was near Vallombrosa (Florence) with my mother and my maternal grandmother Lidia Tanzi. We were hiding and I still remember the German soldiers and the officers who were there. My grandmother, who was the only non-Jewish member in my family, told me that if anybody had asked about my name I would have to reply ‘Carlo Tanzi’. It was her father’s name, but I was not aware of it back then. She wrote his name on the frontpage of one of my childhood books, which was Il più felice bambino del mondo (“The Happiest Child in the World”).14 In retrospect, I think that in that moment I became a Jew. I was unable to make sense of that, I was five, but how could I forget?

Islam Dayeh: What was it like to grow up in Turin in a Jewish family? Many of the figures you mentioned are Italian Jewish intellectuals and artists, many of whom were Marxists. Can something be said about an Italian Jewish culture in the first half of the twentieth century that played a role in shaping your intellectual world at the time?

Carlo Ginzburg: I would be unable to generalize; we were a family of secular Jews. I have never received a religious education, but I slowly realized what it meant to be a Jew. Strangely enough, an important step was my first meeting with Giovanni Levi while playing soccer in a park (we were twelve). We started talking and I realized that we belonged to the same milieu—antifascist, secular Jewish. Twenty-five years later, Giovanni and I were both involved in the discussions which paved the way for microhistory. In a recent interview with a Brazilian historian, Deivy Carneiro, Levi described our first meeting and recalled that the two of us had three things in common at that time: soccer, painting, and Donald Duck drawings by Carl Barx—and now we even joke about whether we should call ourselves ‘Barxists.’ Giovanni Levi and I used to call Barx’s drawings ‘genuine Donald Ducks.’ I retrospectively regard that identification, based on stylistic traits, as an early approach to connoisseurship. The implications of being a diasporic secular Jew developed over the years. In 1979, I wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II in which I argued that the central archives of the Holy Office should be made accessible to scholars. I started the letter by presenting myself as “a Jew, an atheist, and a historian.” Now, I think that being an atheist was irrelevant, but being a Jew was not. Cardinal Ratzinger read the opening sentence of my letter at a conference that took place at the Accademia dei Lincei to celebrate the opening of the Holy Office archives. I was unable to attend, but I have kept those reflections about being Jewish with me until today. I am correcting the proof of a collection of essays which will come out in mid-September [2021]. Its title, La lettera uccide (“The Letter Kills”),15 refers to a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians [2 Corinthians 3:6]. Jewishness is not the only thread of the book, but it is very relevant, starting from the title. In my case, being a Jew started with the persecution, that is for sure. When I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew,16 whose argument I do not fully accept, I realized that it actually applied to my case. In other words, the persecution made me a Jew.

Islam Dayeh: To what extent did your father’s work and his anti-fascist activism shape your identity?

Carlo Ginzburg: My father was a Russian Jew. He was born in Odessa, and he left Russia with his family after the Revolution. They first went to Germany, then to Italy. One of my father’s closest friends, Vittorio Foa, who was also involved in an anti-fascist conspiracy (and then spent nine years in jail), brought to my attention the fact that my father entered the anti-fascist conspiracy only after acquiring Italian citizenship.17 The idea of being Italian was extremely important to my father. When he was in exile in Pizzoli, he wrote an essay, La tradizione del Risorgimento (“The Tradition of Risorgimento”), which was published after his death. He also wrote an essay on Garibaldi and Herzen.18 When Mussolini’s regime collapsed in July 1943, my father left Pizzoli and went to Rome. During the German occupation, he directed an underground newspaper, L’Italia libera (“Free Italy”). He was arrested in November 1943 and as soon as his true identity was recognized, he was transferred to the German branch of the Roman prison, “Regina Coeli,” and tortured. He died in February 1944. His invisible presence affected my entire life.

Islam Dayeh: Who were the authors that inspired you the most at university?

Carlo Ginzburg: First of all, Leo Spitzer—I read his essays in Italian, they were translated pretty soon since he had a strong connection to Italy—and Erich Auerbach. They shaped my trajectory towards microhistory. And there we are, back to the significance of philology. The ‘detail’ became crucial to my approach to microhistory. I followed Auerbach’s approach in Mimesis by starting from the page and from the details on that page.19 I recently had a long online conversation with Deivy Carneiro, the Brazilian historian I mentioned earlier, who compares my approach to microhistory, based on philology, and Giovanni Levi’s approach, based on economic and social history.

Islam Dayeh: I have always seen your work as philological.

Carlo Ginzburg: I would identify with a broader notion of philology as advanced by Giambattista Vico, even though, when you mentioned Marxism, I immediately thought of Gramsci, who in his youth, while studying at the University of Turin, was deeply attracted to linguistics. In the late 1950s, when I first read his writings, he was not yet an international figure. I have a little anecdote, but this is a digression. I first went to India in 1988; I was invited by the Annales group to give a lecture at the Nehru University in Delhi because Jacques Le Goff had organized a conference with Indian historians in Calcutta. Unfortunately, I do not remember the topic of my lecture, but what I do remember is the discussion that followed. I was under the impression that we were speaking a shared language, which made me think of Marxism and of Gramsci as well. A selection of Gramsci’s Notebooks had been translated into English and when I was in Calcutta, a very distinguished Indian historian asked me about the exact meaning of the Italian word ‘subalterno.’ I gave him a sort of literal explanation, tracing the term back to military hierarchy. Only much later, while I was writing an essay on De Martino,20 I realized that as he was writing from jail, Gramsci was both circumventing fascist censorship and distancing himself, willingly or unwillingly, from the language of the Third International. For instance, he used the word ‘subaltern’ instead of ‘proletarian.’ The same goes for ‘philosophy of praxis,’ which Giovanni Gentile had already used instead of ‘Marxism’ and, of course, the use of ‘hegemony’ and its connection to dictatorship. So, you can see that Gramsci’s international impact was related to those words and to how he reflected on them.

In the 1950s, I read Lukács in translation. I was fascinated but also irritated by his observations on Dostoevsky and Kafka, even though he changed his opinion on the latter afterwards. I loved both Dostoevsky and Kafka and I thought that Lukács’s emphasis on the irrationalist element in them was absurd. Actually, I mentioned this in the introduction to my first collection of essays, Miti emblemi spie (which was translated into English as Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method).21 So, from very early on, I became fascinated with the idea of looking at irrational phenomena from a rational perspective but not from a rationalistic point of view. I was certainly under the impact of Sigmund Freud’s writings. He analyzed irrational phenomena like dreams or slips, but he tried to understand them from a rational point of view. De Martino’s attitude was very different, he believed in magical powers—I never did, but I was fascinated by his writings about it.

Islam Dayeh: Was that a kind of dissatisfaction with rationalism or with ‘scientism,’ so to speak?

Carlo Ginzburg: I do not think so. The focus was science in a broader sense. For instance, I have always regarded Freud as a scientist, even when he said something absurd. Therefore, no, I was not distancing myself from science. Let me tell you a little anecdote about my grandfather. He was a great mountain climber; he went to the Caucasus and to the Himalaya when he was young. He once told me that in India he met a fakir, who made a plant emerge from the ground as he lifted his arm. I could not possibly believe what my grandfather was telling me. I was flabbergasted because he was a great scientist and I also regarded him as the embodiment of positivism. I asked him how that could be possible: he just shrugged. At a later point, I realized that, as a true positivist, he was alluding to an experience that he was unable to explain.22

Islam Dayeh: This reminds me of Wittgenstein’s notion of silence in the Tractatus.23

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes, exactly!

Islam Dayeh: For most of your life you have been preoccupied with what we might call ‘irrational’ phenomena such as witchcraft, religious practices, and shamanism. How would you explain that?

Carlo Ginzburg: Let us start with the idea of studying witchcraft. I did not believe in magical powers and my initial choice was to work on the attitudes of the victims of persecution. In that moment, I had not realized that there was something paradoxical about that project since the inquisitors, who generally made use of torture and suggestive questions, had turned their questions into answers. I have a vivid recollection of a movie by the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer that played a role in my decision to study witchcraft. I do not know whether you have seen it; it is a black and white movie, which was shot in 1948. The movie’s title is Dies irae (“The Day of Rage”) and it tells the story of an old woman who is accused of being a witch. While debating her case during trial, the judges seem rational people in their elegant seventeenth-century clothes, which shocked me. That scene played a role in my idea of working on the topic.

Islam Dayeh: Am I reading too much into this when I say that you were relating the victims of fascism to the plight of the witches? I am not suggesting any deterministic relation or cause, of course, but the inquisitors were rationalist, they were organized and powerful, and you viewed the witches not so much as victims—poor peasants—but as agents of political and social change. Their views were suppressed, right?

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes, but I was unaware of this internalized analogy. After the publication of The Cheese and the Worms,24 Paolo Fossati, an art historian who worked at Einaudi publishing house, pointed to the obvious connection between my Jewishness and my work on heretics and witches. I was taken aback because the analogy was so obvious—but I had not realized it yet. However, to put it in Freudian terms, I believe that this connection could have worked at a deeper level if it had remained unconscious. In other words, it was part of an unconscious strategy.

Islam Dayeh: But some of your readers clearly see it.

Carlo Ginzburg: Well, it also became manifest to me at a later point. For instance, when I wrote Ecstasies,25 I was very well aware of it. When I started my project on witchcraft, I started from a kind of Gramscian analogy: witchcraft trials as a crude form of class struggle. To combine Gramsci with Michelet’s The Sorceress as the embodiment of the revolt was undoubtedly naive.26

Islam Dayeh: So you were pitting the idea of popular religion against the official religion or the clergy?

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes, and I even found evidence for it. The first essay that I have ever published dealt with this topic.27 Its title was Stregoneria e pietà popolare (“Witchcraft and Popular Piety”) and it focused on the story of a peasant, Chiara Signorini, which seemed to verify my hypothesis. In 1519, she was accused of having cast a spell on her landlady. When the inquisitor asked her about the reason behind the spell, she replied that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her and told her to. As I was reading these documents, I was as shocked as the inquisitor was. After torturing her, the inquisitor succeeded in having her confess that she actually saw the devil. And so, that was the beginning of my research, in a sense. Actually, at the end of my essay, I wrote that its specificity notwithstanding, that story probably had a paradigmatic value. I read that passage again some years ago and I saw it as an echo of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.28 However, I published my essay in 1961, one year before the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s book: I had used the word “paradigmatic” as a synonym of “exemplary.” I was very young when I published that essay, but the idea that an anomaly can have a paradigmatic value stuck in my mind. Afterwards, I came across the story of “the good walkers,” which I published in The Night Battles—and that was an even bigger anomaly.

Islam Dayeh: Did the idea of revisiting the history of the Inquisition come from your reading of the Annales? How did the idea of using the Inquisition archives as a source for the everyday life and culture of the peasants come about?

Carlo Ginzburg: The idea of using the Inquisition archives for that purpose came from my mentor, Delio Cantimori: a great historian, who wrote a famous book on Italian sixteenth-century heretics.29 At that moment my familiarity with the Annales school was just beginning. Some years later, another great historian, Franco Venturi, asked me to translate Marc Bloch’s The Original Characters of the French Rural History from French into Italian.30 That was my first translation, I was still a student.

Islam Dayeh: I did not know that you translated in your early days. What else did you translate?

Carlo Ginzburg: I translated Edward Hallet Carr’s What is History?,31 and together with my brother Andrea, who was an economic historian, I translated the Russian economist Alexander Gerschenkron’s essays—which he wrote in English.32 But going back to peasants and rural history, I wrote about my experience as a child in Pizzoli and there is also a beautiful piece written by my mother, titled Inverno in Abruzzo.33 She describes a young girl who took care of us children and who used to sing us songs about witchcraft stories. This struck me at the time, and I also remember being fascinated by the illustrations of a book by the nineteenth-century Sicilian writer Luigi Capuana. It was a collection of tales. One of them told the story of a young girl who encountered a dwarf-like creature wearing a turban with a long feather.34 I will never forget how surprised I was when, turning the page, the creature had become a wolf. I also remember being more scared of the creature than the wolf. That was how I discovered werewolves, which became so important in my research.35 And, actually, as somebody wrote in a review of my first book The Night Battles, inquisitors did not have a big role in my approach. Only at a later point, I started to focus on them, which is when I wrote an essay on the inquisitor as anthropologist.36

Islam Dayeh: That is a fascinating perspective, which actually required taking the view of the inquisitor.

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes, and I learnt from the inquisitors’ method. And, again, the implications of this approach bring us back to philology.

Islam Dayeh: Definitely! So, when you started working in the archives, you imagined yourself as an inquisitor, which led you to focus on the observer as the agent in your historical narrative. Would you like to continue in this direction?

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes. As I said, I first started my project with a specific focus on the people who were accused of being witches because I wanted to give them a voice and shed light on their attitudes. Only much later I realized that there was a sort of intellectual contiguity between my research method and the inquisitors’, which I found disturbing. In my essay The Inquisitor as an Anthropologist, I drew some parallels between the inquisitor and the historian as anthropologists, and I realized that besides the intellectual contiguity, I was indebted to some of the inquisitors for their insights. The most blatant example of intellectual distance between an inquisitor and the defendants is a sermon delivered by Nicholas of Cusa, which I reflected upon in Ecstasies. His comments were based on some trials (now lost) which took place near his bishopric in Brixen (Bressanone). He must have delivered his sermon in German, but we have the Latin translation. Everything is indirect, but there is an extraordinary piece of evidence in his reconstruction of a case. He talks about two old peasant women, who saw the appearance of a goddess named Richella. He connects the goddess’s name to richness, and, in fact, the two women asked her for prosperity and wealth. The sermon describes the goddess touching one of the women with a hairy hand, which is a stunning detail. In my reconstruction, I connected it to the representation of a bear-goddess. However, what is striking is Nicholas of Cusa’s efforts to understand the beliefs that emerged from that trial from a historical point of view both as a philologist and as a historian. He described those women as superstitious, but he also showed understanding and compassion.37 Be that as it may, have I told you about the reception of The Inquisitor as an Anthropologist in Moscow? I went there to give a lecture and during my stay I received a call from the historical and human rights society Memorial, founded in 1987 (now suppressed by Putin). They were protecting human rights during the war that was going on in Chechnya, and they were also collecting evidence related to the prison camps during the Stalin era. They had read my essay and wanted to discuss it with me, which flattered and surprised me at the same time. When I met them, they suggested that my oblique reading of inquisitorial trials could provide an analogy for an oblique reading of political trials during the Stalin era. Now, a few years ago, the Italian historian Francesco Benigno criticized my notion of popular culture, marking it as outdated.38 I reacted to that criticism in the postface to the latest Italian edition of The Cheese and the Worms by defining that view as “nothing short of myopic.”39 Why? Because I think that what I tried to do with inquisitorial trials can be used in a much larger perspective. For example, the same method can be applied to the study of documents pertaining to colonization as it is possible to read them obliquely. And this is what I learnt from the encounter with the Memorial group: there is something between the lines that escaped the attention of the inquisitors and that is what historians can actually retrieve. I made this point on a more general level in an essay titled “Alien Voices”40 in which I analyzed a text, History of the Mariana Islands (1700), written in French by the Jesuit Charles Le Gobien.41 It included a harangue allegedly delivered by Hurao, the leader of a native revolt. I started from the assumption that the harangue must have been fictitious (years later, I searched for the Mariana Islands on Google and I found a reference to that harangue as if it were authentic). The Jesuit seemed to have relied upon a famous page of Tacitus’s Agricola: a harangue which denounced the aggressive policy of the Roman empire.42 I actually remember that a passage of it (“They destroy everything, and they call this peace”) appeared on big posters, which some students of the Scuola Normale of Pisa used to protest against American imperialism in Vietnam. But then, I came across a footnote that criticized a passage in which Hurao accused the European invaders of carrying illnesses and insects to the Islands.43 So, there was a clear divergence between the footnote and that section of the speech, which I regarded as a fragment coming from oral culture, which the Jesuit must have found and made fun of.

Islam Dayeh: I wonder what is required of the historian to be able to listen to these alien voices. Earlier you spoke about compassion. I find this remarkable because we are often reminded that the historical method should focus on exactitude and rigor, and that we should be wary of, or even, disregard compassion, on the ground that compassion might lead to bias and misinterpretation. Yet you insist on its importance for historical research. What is the place of compassion in historical work?

Carlo Ginzburg: Compassion is certainly a very helpful ingredient. It is insufficient in itself, but I wonder whether it would be possible to look for the marginalized attitudes and suppressed voices we were talking about without compassion. I think that a combination of compassion and rigor is necessary. I published a book called Wooden Eyes in which I made nine reflections on distance,44 but I have recently republished it in Italian, and I have added one more reflection, which is about double-blind experiments.45 It is based on a lecture that I gave long ago in Zurich. I was invited to give a Ludwig Fleck lecture there. Now, Fleck wrote Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact,46 originally published in German in 1935. It would have been completely forgotten had it not been for Thomas Kuhn, who in the introduction to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions emphasized his intellectual debt towards Fleck’s book. In any case, I worked on the notion of double-blind experiments, which fascinated me because I thought that there was a possible comparison to the historian’s work. As you know, blind experiments consist in testing two different groups of patients. One group receives a medicine to be tested, the other receives distilled water. So, either group is aware of what they are actually receiving. However, if the doctor who administers both the medicine and distilled water is aware of the experiment, there is a risk of distortion in the results. That is why there has been a switch to double-blind experiments. This interested me so much that I tried to unpack the methodological implications of this analogy with the historian’s work. As soon as you mentioned the word ‘bias’ I was reminded of that essay.

Islam Dayeh: Do you think that it is possible to carry out double-blind experiments in historical research?

Carlo Ginzburg: Well, Marc Bloch would not have approved. He believed that experiments are not available to the social sciences—but he referred to simple experiments, not to double-blind ones. That was possibly the first time that I disagreed with him. In my essay Microhistory and World History,47 I argued that if we take experiments as mental experiments, then Marc Bloch’s argument would be unacceptable because they are available both to historians and to physicists. The essay actually begins with a genealogy of mental experiments from Hobbes to Vico. And we are back to biases and to the distinction between ‘etic’ and ‘emic.’ I worked on this distinction in Our Words, and Theirs, an essay that I originally wrote in English.48 I developed my argument from the Protestant missionary Kenneth Pike’s reflections. Pike was also a linguist and an anthropologist, and he proposed a dichotomy based on the linguistic categories of ‘etic’ and ‘emic.’ The former refers to the observers’ language, which is based on phonetics, whereas the latter refers to the actors’ attitudes and language, which are based on phonemics, that is to say, phonology.49 I argued that Pike’s reflections had been anticipated by Marc Bloch, who approached the same issue, though using a different terminology, in an essay on the possibility of using the notion of class for the Middle Ages. We assume that social classes existed in the Middle Ages, but at that time the word ‘class’ did not exist in that sense. I started from Bloch’s and Arnaldo Momigliano’s works to reflect on Pike’s categories.50 Basically, I argued that historians inevitably start with etic, anachronistic categories, and through a dialogue with the actors’ categories, they can rework their initial questions in order to get emic answers. It is a kind of endless dialogue because those anachronistic questions obviously change according to generations, backgrounds, and so on. However, I realized that very often historians project their own categories into the actors’ language, something that they should actually avoid. Moreover, in my essay “Microhistory and World History,” I reworked the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce’s famous dictum “All history is contemporary history” which is true if referred to the questions we ask as historians. However, he did not take into account the answers and the possibility of anachronisms. My reworking of Croce’s sentence was “All history is comparative history,” provided that we compare two contexts and two languages—our own and the actors’.

Islam Dayeh: Could we extend this concept even further and say that all historical research involves some kind of mental experimentation? For example, would not the use of the term ‘class’ to describe and understand social dynamics in medieval societies qualify as a thought experiment?

Carlo Ginzburg: Absolutely! As I said, I started my essay with a genealogy from Hobbes to Vico, who read Hobbes in Latin. I clarified this last point, which was not obvious at all since Croce ignored Hobbes while dealing with Vico’s gnoseology. This issue was brought up in 1940, I think, by Max Harold Fisch, the American translator of Vico’s autobiography. I verified it, of course, and I also checked the discrepancies between Hobbes’s original version of the Leviathan and its Latin translation. In the end, I demonstrated that Vico actually started from those discrepancies in order to rethink Hobbes’s work. After Hobbes and Vico comes Marx. There is a long, peculiar footnote in Marx’s Capital about Vico, which I tried to analyze by relying upon what Antonio Labriola had written in re-reading Vico through Marx.51 This sparked a discussion about Vico in the late nineteenth century, especially in France with Georges Sorel. The mental experiment genealogy then continues with Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile, and Robin George Collingwood, whose work is impregnated with Italian idealist philosophy (Croce, Gentile, De Ruggiero, etc.). Collingwood’s notion of re-enactment is in fact, I argued, the last link in a long chain which started with Hobbes. Re-enactment is obviously a mental experiment, although there is a more literal and a kind of grotesque version of re-enactment, let us say. It is called ‘public history’ in which people disguise themselves as Napoleon’s soldiers to fight in Waterloo, just to give you an example.

Islam Dayeh: And would you also extend thought experiment to counter-factual history? By that, I mean experimental narratives that imagine a course of events different from what actually happened, the purpose of which is to explore historical contingencies or the potentialities of historical events—not to deny historical events but to understand them better.

Carlo Ginzburg: Absolutely! I mentioned counter-factual history in my argument, but I think that there is a difference between focusing on the mental experiment, which lies behind counter-factual history, and writing books on counter-factual history in such a way as Charles Bernard Renouvier did in late nineteenth-century France, for example. My argument was in fact that we should not isolate counter-factual history. Instead, we should look at it as a case within the broader category of mental experiments.

Islam Dayeh: Counter-factual history is sometimes suggested as a response to deterministic theories of history. Perhaps this is a good moment to ask you about philology and Marxism, and particularly about Italian Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci and Sebastiano Timpanaro, who authored The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method. What can be said about Italian Marxism and philology?

Carlo Ginzburg: Well, Gramsci studied linguistics, which is different. Timpanaro, however, studied philology with Giorgio Pasquali, who was a great philologist. Strangely enough, his Storia della tradizione e critica del testo (“History of Textual Tradition and Textual Criticism”) has not been translated into any language.52 Now, I will answer your question in a devious way. I wrote an introduction to a volume edited in French, dedicated to the historian Gertrud Bing,53 who was preparing—but never completed—a biography of Aby Warburg. Now, Bing wrote that Warburg referred to Ludwig Traube as the “great master of our order,” which was a joke about masonic jargon. Traube was a great philologist and a paleographer, and, in a way, he was the ideal master of Pasquali, who in turn wrote an essay on Aby Warburg after his death.54 You will see how my argument works. There is a connection between Traube, Pasquali, and Timpanaro. Timpanaro studied with Pasquali but he was also very much committed to politics, which led him to create a peculiar connection between a specific kind of Marxism and philology. I was lucky enough to have a friendly relationship with him when I was studying in Pisa. He actually felt theoretically closer to Engels than Marx, whom he found too much of an idealist. Timpanaro started his work as a historian of philology with a book on the great poet Giacomo Leopardi, who was also engaged in philology.55 Timpanaro referred to himself both as a ‘vulgar materialist,’ which was obviously a derogatory label, and as ‘a Leopardian Marxist.’ As you may know, I played a kind of undeliberate role in the development of Timpanaro’s book The Freudian Slip.56

Islam Dayeh: No, I was not aware of that.

Carlo Ginzburg: In 1970, I started teaching in Bologna and I received Timpanaro’s collection of essays titled On Materialism.57 In the book, he fiercely rejected Structuralism and bluntly stated that Freud’s work on psychoanalysis had no scientific value. I found his stance unacceptable, and I wrote a letter to him in which I referred to the second chapter of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life.58 In that chapter, there was a discussion about a slip connected to the Latin word aliquis in a work by Virgil.59 I basically provoked him because Timpanaro was not only a classical philologist, but also worked on the transmission and reception of Virgil. He replied with a four-page letter in which he impressively destroyed Freud’s argument on a philological basis. At that point, I suggested that he should write a book about it, which he did in the end—it is an extraordinary book that has been translated into English (and will be, hopefully, translated into other languages). I did not agree with his argument completely, but the technical part is fascinating and very witty. The way he dismantled Freud’s explanation by providing a textual counter-explanation for those slips is absolutely convincing. He took it too far, though.

As I mentioned in the introduction of our exchange of letters, Timpanaro and I had been friends for many years until our friendship collapsed. I think it happened because of a comment I made in my essay on clues, which he certainly did not agree with. I insisted on the role that divination, as a philological technique (divinatio), plays in the human sciences.60 He must have thought that I was leaning too much towards irrationalism. Retrospectively, I am surprised that I did not include any discussion about proofs in that essay; in that sense, Timpanaro was right.61 Proofs became very central to my work shortly after. However, I am still convinced that divination is close to the notion of mental experiments, if you wish. In other words, when we start a mental experiment, we do not have enough evidence. Therefore, we test that evidence, and this is when divination jumps in. I am really sorry that I was unable to discuss this with Timpanaro.

Islam Dayeh: Among the issues you discussed in your exchange of letters was anti-Semitism. What did you discuss in particular?

Carlo Ginzburg: Timpanaro objected to the issue of anti-Semitism directed at Jews as if a hostile attitude against them did not exist anymore, which I found absurd.62 I mentioned that there was still anti-Judaism in the Soviet Union—and I knew that he held a very critical stance towards it—but this was just an exchange of opinions. In a following letter, he referred to that issue as if it were the main point in our disagreement, but the real point was my essay.

Timpanaro was an isolated and an exceptional figure; in Italy the recognition of his work was posthumous. He had no students who followed in his footsteps. So, I would hesitate to say that a connection between Marxism and philology existed in Italy beyond Timpanaro. I would certainly say that Italian philologists did not regard Marxism and philology as incompatible. The question is: how are they connected? For example, Timpanaro engaged in the editing of texts but most of his activity was related to the history of philology. Therefore, I would not say that there is a Marxist touch in The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method. It is more of an intellectual history that considers the importance of the political context, but it is not oriented toward Marxism. Then again, Timpanaro wrote about Marxism and ecology in a Marxist perspective—one of his collections of essays is called Il verde e il rosso (“Green and Red”).63 Ecology and Marxism were certainly compatible for him. However, philology is a different matter.

Islam Dayeh: Considering the politics of philology, how do you view the growing interest in philology, a “return to philology”, to which Philological Encounters aims to contribute?64

Carlo Ginzburg: In my view, philology is a technique, not an ideology. It aims at recovering truths and it certainly has political implications. The idea that philology is old and conservative is grotesque. There is certainly a polemical side to this “return to philology,” namely, against postmodernist neo-skepticism, for instance. We have been talking about Marxists and Timpanaro. Now, I think that Marxists can either ignore or accept philology. However, in the case of postmodernist neo-skeptics, there is a mutual incompatibility between their attitude and philology. When I think of philology, I always think of Giambattista Vico’s encompassing approach to it. Obviously, his method was very distant in time from Lachmann’s, but it embraced texts as well as images. I have never edited a text—well, once—but I only engaged with one manuscript.

Islam Dayeh: Was that part of a book?

Carlo Ginzburg: No, it was a trial record against a sixteenth-century heretic.65 I also published some documents related to The Night Battles as an appendix, but there were no philological problems in the strict sense of the word. So, to go back to the idea of philology, it is absolutely crucial in my work in this broader perspective. But we need to distinguish between philology as a technique and philology as an ideology. The technique can be used correctly or incorrectly by all kinds of scholars, be they left-wing, right-wing, or racist. The difference lies in their objectives.

Islam Dayeh: Considering philology as a technique, can we say that there are techniques that are more conducive to the aims of philological research than others? I am thinking here of digital philology, or what has come to be known as digital humanities. Do you see a qualitative difference between a classical approach to philology and its various techniques, including Lachmann’s, and the mining and analysis of large amounts of data, sometimes referred to as distant reading?

Carlo Ginzburg: As for the digital humanities, I have a question. Does digital philology use the same techniques that “traditional” philology used? And again, there were conflicting techniques. Just think of Joseph Bédier, who selected the best manuscript, which was the opposite of Lachmann’s approach. I would be curious to know whether digital philology implies a substantial change in the techniques. As for big data, are they able to detect anomalies? Or do they tendentially erase them? I have actually debated this topic in a written dialogue with Franco Moretti.

The danger of working with big data lies in the erasure of anomalies because they focus on convergences and norms. In fact, in my dialogue with Moretti, I referred to Carl Schmitt, who in his Political Theology quoted Kierkegaard without mentioning him directly—he referred to him as “a Protestant theologian.”66 Now Kierkegaard’s argument, which I advanced myself before reading either his work or Schmitt’s, was that exceptions are richer than norms from a cognitive point of view. The exception must necessarily make a reference to the norm. The norm, on the contrary, cannot mention all possible transgressions. And I think that this is a powerful thought! I mean, you may look at it from an ontological perspective, as in Schmitt’s perspective, or in a cognitive perspective, which is my own. In other words, when you come across an exception, is it possible to detect the norms between the lines?

Islam Dayeh: The significance of anomalies in your research leads us to microhistory. What connections do you see between philology in its preoccupation with contingencies and variants, and microhistory in its shifting of the perspective of the scale of historical inquiry?

Carlo Ginzburg: Microhistory has been a collective project, and there have been several people involved, each one with a different intellectual background. The connection between philology and microhistory is prominent in my work. As I said, I came to microhistory through Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach—from the relationship between details and larger texts to the relationship between anomalous details, which was Spitzer’s topic in his early work on Rabelais and neologisms.67 My approach to microhistory has been deeply shaped by these readings and that is why I have been engaging in a metaphorical dialogue with Auerbach several times. Somebody argued that there are two versions of microhistory, one focusing on social phenomena, the other focusing on culture, but this distinction does not make any sense. To prove my point, I wrote an essay, called Latitude, Slaves, and the Bible, in which I tried to look at a Calvinist’s case—Jean-Pierre Purry—as closely as possible.68 I came across this case by chance—and this reflects the intriguing polysemy of the word caso in Italian, which means ‘case’ but also ‘chance.’ In the early eighteenth century, Purry drafted a project about colonizing South Africa and part of Australia, which he sent to the India Trading Company in Amsterdam. In my essay, I followed his trajectory, and staged a metaphorical dialogue between Karl Marx and Max Weber because Purry, the Calvinist from Neuchâtel, used the Bible as a justification for colonial expansion. This is an anomalous case because in Weber’s argument about Protestant ethics there was something missing, that is the use of violence, which was at the core of Purry’s argument. On the other hand, what is missing from Marx’s description of primitive accumulation and colonization is the role of religion. Finally, I concluded the article with a marvelous quote by Proust which highlights the importance of understanding individual stances in the analysis of social phenomena.69 I believe that I showed the irrelevance of the distinction between cultural and social microhistory through this case. I find it fascinating to use the same method across different disciplines, from one domain to another.

Islam Dayeh: I find your work on casuistry intriguing, and I was honored to have contributed to that exemplary volume which you edited on casuistry from a comparative perspective.70 However, it is sometimes not clear to me whether you are studying the history of casuistry, or rather employing casuistry as a tool for your historical work. In other words, do you feel that you occasionally assume the role of the casuist, as you did before in assuming the role of the inquisitor? Is this inevitable?

Carlo Ginzburg: At the end of my very first essay, I used the word ‘case’ instead of ‘trial’, and when I read that passage again at a later point, I was surprised by that. That case opened a series of constraints which affected my later work. Recently, I have been reflecting on the casuistic tradition and I have been looking at my work in retrospect and from afar through a series of post-faces to my books. 71 What interests me is that this entails the possibility of discovering the role of crypto-memory. In other words, this hidden memory reveals how much acted upon we are even when we think we are acting. In fact, what I am thinking of here is Luther’s famous sentence “actus non agens,” which my mentor Delio Cantimori used in his essay on Martin Luther in the Italian translation of Table Talk.72 I have not been able to find the source, unfortunately.

Islam Dayeh: The links you draw between philology and casuistry are fascinating. The interest in norms and exceptions is common to both approaches. Can we attribute this to their close affinities to the fields of ethics, law, medicine, and philosophy? I would love to hear more about your interest in casuistry. How do you situate your work The Judge and the Historian?73

Carlo Ginzburg: Let us start with the origins of the casuistic approach. I think there are three converging traditions. As you said, there is law, medicine, and there is also theology. Now, my book The Judge and the Historian dealt with a specific case, the unjust accusation against my friend Adriano Sofri, whom I was sure was innocent of having instigated a political assassination. After the outcome of the first trial, he had been condemned to twenty-two years of jail. My friend Adriano Prosperi, a well-known historian, signed, among others, a letter published in the newspaper La Repubblica. The letter defined the trial as a witchcraft trial. I thought “Well, I have been working on witchcraft trials for years,” and so I asked for the transcripts of the trial—three-thousand type-written pages. My book is based on a close reading of the trial transcripts, but I also tried to look at the issue from a distance. I focused on the relationship between law and history, especially by looking at the evidence and at the different role that it plays in a trial and in the historian’s work. My aim was to convince the jury of the appeal trial that my friend was innocent, but I failed. He was acquitted and then condemned again; he spent nine years in jail where he nearly died. Then he was put under house arrest, and now he is free. Despite its failure, the book has been translated into many languages, including Russian.

Islam Dayeh: Do you mean that the book was a failure because it did not help your friend’s case?

Carlo Ginzburg: Exactly. For the first and only time in my life, I had written a book which had a definite and practical purpose. Of course, while writing it, I was also reflecting on law and history, but I had a practical purpose in mind. I worked very hard to make my arguments accessible. I showed in detail that there was no evidence at all against my friend. However, that was not casuistry yet. Casuistry came later and I think that there was a kind of resistance on my side which was connected to my background. If you think about the Jesuit tradition of casuistry that Pascal targeted in his Provinciales,74 I would say that my background was close to a secular reading of Pascal. I never received a religious education, so I dodged casuistry. However, I unexpectedly confronted myself with that tradition when the Twin Towers were attacked in 2001. Back then, I was teaching at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and I was preparing my seminar for graduate students. After 9/11, I thought of approaching secularism through Machiavelli’s Prince as the focus of my seminar.75 As I was preparing my syllabus, browsing on the internet for the casuistic tradition (once again, a case of crypto-memory), I came across a surprising convergence between Machiavelli’s dark comedy, The Mandrake,76 and the fourteenth-century jurist Giovanni d’Andrea’s Quaestiones Mercuriales (“Mercurial Questions”).77 Both texts presented the same argument rejecting adultery and usury, respectively, as sins. So, I started from this point. Going back to The Prince, after reading it for the hundredth time, I discovered that Machiavelli opened some chapters by using the conjunction nondimanco (“nevertheless”), and by doing so he mentioned both the norm and the exception. In a way, it was a kind of Spitzer-like trick, but it was not just a stylistic device. It was a theoretical, political, and juridical gesture. I followed this strand in my book Nevertheless, which is a translation of Machiavelli’s nondimanco.78

Islam Dayeh: How did the events of 9/11 shape your thinking about the general political climate and the state of emergency?

Carlo Ginzburg: The state of emergency came later, and it was not the topic of my research. My starting point was the attack on secularism, and I thought that it would be interesting to go back to the roots of a secular attitude, which goes through Machiavelli and Pascal. In my book, I emphasized the importance of reading Machiavelli in Pascal’s development. And even in Pascal’s case there is a ‘nevertheless.’ The book’s subtitle is Macchiavelli, Pascal. I start from the comma in it. A comma can be either a disjunction or a conjunction. In this case, it is both because today Machiavelli and Pascal can be connected to political theology but, as far as I know, nobody noticed that the center of Carl Schmitt’s arguments about norms and exceptions comes from Pascal’s reading of The Prince. The proof, if you like, of this undeclared source is Schmitt’s unexpected comparison between exceptions and miracles, which is exactly what Pascal does in one of his Thoughts.79

Islam Dayeh: From listening to the way you describe the connections between styles of writing, citations, and punctuation signs on the one hand, and the formation of political and theological ideas on the other, I would like to turn to the morphological method, which counts among the many innovations you have brought to the historian’s craft. In one of your essays, you have illustrated how suspending chronological and geographical differences between phenomena and comparing forms can yield important insights.80 Your work can be read as an exploration of how the epistemological takes on certain forms, and how these forms shape, limit, make apparent but also obscure ideas. Anomalies can therefore only be detected through morphological analysis. Could you elaborate on the role of morphology in your work?

Carlo Ginzburg: Let me go back to that very interesting point you made about the attention to forms and the epistemic perspective. I would say that forms are the main road to the epistemic perspective. However, an epistemic perspective in abstract terms is not interesting. Form paves the way for comparison. In other words, morphology implies comparison. I often come up with an answer and my work is to reconstruct the question, which might take years. Is this intuition? I do not like this word so much, but we can say that it is a kind of anticipation, it is divination. And we are back to philology.

Islam Dayeh: Perhaps the difference between philology and morphology might be that morphology is ahistorical, it is an exercise in comparing forms—be they images, sounds, languages, texts, or practices—whereas philology is not?

Carlo Ginzburg: You are absolutely right, but if we wanted to carry out morphological comparisons, we would have to establish a historical connection through philology. For instance, I can imagine a philologist who, while working on the edition of a text, is confronted with manuscripts which show morphological similarities in handwriting, parchment, and so on. And based on a detailed analysis of the texts transmitted by those manuscripts, he or she may try to prove that there actually was a historical connection. In principle, morphology is outside time and space, but after all Georges Cuvier tried to turn those morphological similarities into a historical argument.

Islam Dayeh: This brings us back to our previous discussion about historical research as a form of mental experimentation. Morphology as an approach, or even as a method, is also a form of experimentation. Are there other things in the world that cannot be compared to each other? Or is everything comparable?

Carlo Ginzburg: I doubt it. In fact, in my discussion with Franco Moretti I referred to an essay titled The Bond of Shame in which I reflected on what an individual is and on the boundaries of the ego.81 We can think of an individual as the intersection between several sets, in a mathematical sense. For example, I am a member of the animal species homo sapiens, I am a member of the masculine moiety, I am a member of a set which includes retired university professors born in Turin, and so on. However, there is also another set in which there is just one member because it depends on fingerprints. And if we try to think about history in a historical perspective, we are confronted with individuals who are not only unique but also the outcome of generic affiliations. This interaction between unique and generic traits seems absolutely crucial to me. I realized this in a kind of retrospective reflection on The Cheese and the Worms. I started with an individual, Menocchio, who was seen as anomalous by his fellow villagers. Then, I used his way of reading books as a clue indicating a connection to a shared oral culture which was being exposed to the printed book. I also tried to analyze the features of that oral culture as a peasant culture, which presumably shared some features with other peasant cultures in the world—with various nuances, of course. So, I think that the idea of moving from the specific to the general is at the core of the casuistic approach.

Islam Dayeh: Indeed, and there is also a political aspect to morphology and philology, which is that they converge in their interest in the anomaly. Listening to the victims and persecuted, as you said earlier, and engaging with marginalized voices raises the issue of reintroducing philology and morphology in the humanities. This ethos could have wider implications for democracy and emancipation, for example. In this sense, philology and morphology are not just tools, they enable us to see and understanding the world better. I see this ethos very clearly in your work, and I believe that this is why so many people are drawn to it. You raise provocative, yet compassionate questions and show the possibility of comparison where there is no historical connection, which many historians might shy away from doing.

Carlo Ginzburg: I completely agree. Philology is a technique but one of its purposes could be political and this is at the center of most of my work. In fact, I tried to understand the translatability of Menocchio’s case through his personality as well as through other elements such as the challenge to religious and political authorities as well as the impact of the printed book upon an oral culture. These elements travel.

Islam Dayeh: So, you would prefer to speak of translatability here rather than universality?

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes. Translatability is a very interesting phenomenon. I mean, all translations are defective, but they offer us useful tools to work with.

Islam Dayeh: What would you suggest to scholars who are reading your work now and who are seriously interested in philology? What advice would you give them on how to bring their philological work closer or in tune to the morphological approaches that you have developed?

Carlo Ginzburg: Well, I think that the approach I used to study Inquisition documents can be applied to analyze the documents produced by European colonization. I am not only thinking of court records, but I am also referring to documents in a broader sense. If we think about how the Jesuits described their propaganda in Southern Italy in the seventeenth century—which they defined as ‘the Indies of this side of the world’—we could reflect on colonization from within and on the way in which peasants from all over Europe have been “colonized.” One task could be, for example, to use philology to analyze evidence that has already been used and looked at. I am thinking of Leo Strauss’s notion of reading between the lines and of reading texts born in an age of persecution. I think that everybody should read Persecution and the Art of Writing.82

Islam Dayeh: Philology as a means to achieve justice?

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes. I have just mentioned Strauss, let us go back to Walter Benjamin now. I interpret Walter Benjamin’s remark about the necessity of reading historical documents “against the grain” in this way:83 every document has some meaning that escaped the attention of those who produced it. So, in this sense, we must dig and look for something between the lines, we must re-interpret every word. Benjamin affirmed that all documents are documents of oppression. With this in mind, we can actually read Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss together. They are in conversation, and I think that philology is the method that can be used to develop that dialogue. It is curious because if you think about the two texts, they were written nearly at the same time.84

Islam Dayeh: Yes, and a few years later, Auerbach wrote about the Ansatzpunkt and the anomaly.85 He even criticized the encyclopaedic approaches of his fellow philologists.

Carlo Ginzburg: Indeed, he argued that large categories and abstractions, such as Romanticism or the Baroque, should be avoided, and I think that he was absolutely right. In other words, these categories can be helpful but not as a starting point for understanding historical and cultural phenomena.

Islam Dayeh: Thank you so much, dear Carlo! We have covered so much, and I am grateful that we had this opportunity to discuss the fascinating connections between philology, microhistory, casuistry, and morphology in your work.

Carlo Ginzburg: I am also extremely grateful, and I deeply enjoyed our conversation, thank you!


Carlo Ginzburg. Photo: copyright Danilo De Marco

Citation: Philological Encounters 7, 1-2 (2022) ; 10.1163/24519197-12340082


We would like to thank Rossella De Luca for transcribing and editing the conversation, and for providing the footnotes.

Carlo Ginzburg is a renowned historian and proponent of the field of microhistory. He has taught at the University of Bologna, The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and at the Scuola Normale of Pisa. His books, translated into more than twenty languages, include The Night Battles; The Cheese and the Worms; Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method; The Enigma of Piero della Francesca; History, Rhetoric, and Proof; The Judge and the Historian; Wooden Eyes; No Island is an Island; Threads and Traces; Fear Reverence Terror: Five Essays in Political Iconography; Nevertheless. Machiavelli, Pascal; La lettera uccide. He received the Aby Warburg Prize (1992), the Humboldt-Forschungs Prize (2007), the Balzan Prize for the History of Europe, 1400–1700 (2010).

Islam Dayeh teaches Arabic philology and Islamic intellectual history at Freie Universität Berlin and is the editor of Philological Encounters.


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  • Carr, Edward Hallet. Sei lezioni sulla storia. Edited by Robert William Davies, translated by Carlo Ginzburg. Turin: Einaudi, 1966.

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  • Contini, Gianfranco. “Come lavorava l’Ariosto.” In Esercizi di lettura sopra autori contemporanei con un’appendice su testi non contemporanei. Turin: Parenti, 1938.

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  • Foa, Vittorio, Il cavallo e la torre. Riflessioni su una vita. Turin: Einaudi, 1991.

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  • Gerschenkron, Alexander. Il problema storico dell’arretratezza. Translated by Carlo and Andrea Ginzburg. Turin: Einaudi, 1974.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Alien Voices: The Dialogic Element in Early Modern Jesuit Historiography.” In History, Rhetoric, and Proof, 7191. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “De Martino, Gentile, Croce: Su una pagina de Il mondo magico.” La Ricerca Folklorica, 67/68 (2013): 1320.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Giuseppe Levi, mio nonno.” Medicina nei secoli 30, no. 1 (2018): 281284.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Inquisitor as Anthropologist.” In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, translated by John and Anne C. Tedeschi, 156164. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Latitude, Slaves, and the Bible: An Experiment in Microhistory.” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 3 (2005): 665683.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Our Words, and Theirs: A Reflection on the Historian’s Craft, Today.” In Historical Knowledge: In Quest of Theory, Method, and Evidence, edited by Susanna Fellman and Marjatta Rahikainen, 97119. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Postfazione 2019.” In Il formaggio e i vermi. Il cosmo di un mugnaio nel ’500. Milan: Adelphi, 2019.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Réflexions sur une hypothèse vingt-cinq ans après.” In L’interprétation des indices. Enquête sur le paradigme indiciaire avec Carlo Ginzburg, edited by Denis Thouard, 3747. Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2007.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Streghe e sciamani.” In Il filo e le tracce. Vero falso finto. Milano: Feltrinelli, 2006.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Stregoneria e pietà popolare: Note a proposito di un processo modenese del 1519.” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Lettere, Storia e Filosofia 30, no. 3/4 (1961): 269287.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “The Bond of Shame.” New Left Review 120 (Nov/Dec 2019): 3544.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Unintentional revelations: reading history against the grain.” Exploring the Boundaries of Microhistory, The Fu Ssu-nien Memorial Lectures, 2015, Institute of History and Philology, 4181. Taipei: Academia Sinica, 2017.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. “Witches and shamans.” In Threads and Traces. True False Fictive, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi, 215227. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi, 116. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. La lettera uccide. Milan: Adelphi, 2021.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Lincoln, Bruce. Old Thiess, a Livonian Werewolf: A Classic Case in Comparative Perspective. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2020.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Miti emblemi spie. Morfologia e Storia. Turin: Einaudi, 2014 [1986].

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Nevertheless: Machiavelli, Pascal. London: Verso Books, 2022.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Occhiacci di legno. Dieci riflessioni sulla distanza. Macerata: Quodlibet, 2019.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Translated by John and Anne C. Tedeschi, with a New Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes on a Late-Twentieth-Century Miscarriage of Justice. Translated by Antony Shugaar. London: Verso, 2002.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. I benandanti. Stregoneria e culti agrari tra Cinquecento e Seicento. Milan: Adelphi, 2020.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo and Sebastiano Timpanaro. “Lettere intorno a Freud con una nota di C.G.” In Sebastiano Timpanaro e la cultura del secondo Novecento, edited by Enrico Ghidetti and Alessandro Pagnini, 326328. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2005).

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance. Translated by Martin Ryle and Kate Soper. New York [NY]: Columbia University Press, 2001.

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  • Ginzburg, Leone. Scritti. Edited by Domenico Zucàro, preface by Luisa Mangoni, introduced by Norberto Bobbio. Turin, Einaudi, 2000.

  • Ginzburg, Natalia. “Inverno in Abruzzo.” In Le piccole virtù, edited by Domenico Scarpa, with a preface by Adriano Sofri. Turin: Einaudi, 2015.

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  • Ginzburg, Natalia. Family Lexicon. Translated by Jenny McPhee, afterword by Peg Boyers. New York: New York Review Books, 2017.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Joseph Anthony Buttigieg, 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

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  • Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012 [1962].

  • Labriola, Antonio. Saggi sul materialismo storico. Edited by Antonio A. Santucci. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 2000.