It is common to find reviewers these days griping about the ‘perhapses’ and ‘probablys’ that hedge history books. I’ve never understood this complaint. It would be marvellous if we had been endowed with all-encompassing archives, and if memories were not subject to the attrition of time and self-interested fabrication – but since we live in a fallen world, it seems wiser and more humble to recognise the limits of our knowledge than to pretend that historical record is complete and uncomplicated. Montaigne, the patron saint of quizzically raised eyebrows, thought so too: ‘I am drawne to hate likely things,’ he wrote (in John Florio’s translation), ‘when men goe about to set them downe as infallible. I love these words or phrases, which mollifie and moderate the temeritie of our propositions: “It may be,” “Peradventure,” “In some sort,” “Some,” “It is saide,” “I think,” and such like.’ Carlo Ginzburg and Charles Nicholl are masterful practitioners of subjunctive history, finding intellectual excitement in those cases from which it’s hardest to draw conclusions or generalisations, but never falling into the despair of scepticism.
Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976), despite being only 120 pages long, has a strong claim to being the most influential history book of the second half of the twentieth century. It reconstructs the mental world of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Friulian miller whose heretical beliefs led to his execution