The Cultures of the People

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)

University of Florence
4 min readNov 1, 2022

Donatella Pallotti, University of Florence

Paola Pugliatti, University of Florence

The culture of the people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong. There are enormous difficulties in such an enterprise … But to regard such forms as ‘saying something of something,’ and saying it to somebody, is at least to open up the possibility of an analysis which attends to their substance rather than to reductive formulas professing to account for them. As in more familiar exercises in close reading, one can start anywhere in a culture’s repertoire of forms and end up anywhere else. One can stay … within a single, more or less bounded form, and circle steadily within it. One can move between forms in search of broader unities or informing contrasts. One can even compare forms from different cultures to define their character in reciprocal relief. But whatever the level at which one operates, and however intricately, the guiding principle is the same: societies, like lives, contain their own interpretation. One has only to learn how to get access to them.

Clifford Geertz, from The Interpretation of Cultures,1973

  1. General Statements

Giacomo Leopardi, from Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi (An Essay upon the Popular Errors of People in Past Times), 1815It is mainly the common people, that is, the largest part of the human species, who are prone to absorbing errors and not easily disenchanted. Their small understanding is unable to comprehend the falsity of certain intimations and evaluate the evidence showing their falsity. Obstinate in their old customs, the common people are also persistent in their old opinions. Slaves by birth, they also choose to be slaves. The other classes of society, too, are deceived by the same errors, but these errors are called popular because they are especially rife among the common people. The history of popular errors, therefore, is the same thing as the history of prejudice.

Carlo Ginzburg, from Il formaggio e i vermi (The Cheese and the Worms), 1976

The existence of different cultural levels within the so-called civilized societies is the premise of the discipline which has been variously defined as folklore, history of popular traditions, anthropology, or European ethnology. How-ever, the use of the term ‘culture’ to define the complex of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural codes, and so on, of the subordinate classes in a given historical period is comparatively recent and was borrowed from cultural anthropology. Only resorting to the notion of ‘primitive culture’ have we come to acknowledge that those people who were once paternalistically defined ‘the common people of civilized societies’ possessed a culture of their own. Thus, the bad conscience of colonialism has joined the bad conscience of class oppression. In this way, at least verbally, we have gone beyond not only the outdated notion of folklore as a mere collection of curious facts, but also the attitude of those who saw in the ideas, beliefs and world visions of the subaltern classes only a discordant mass made up by fragments of ideas, beliefs and world visions which had perhaps been elaborated centuries before by the dominant classes.

Umberto Eco, from Apocalittici e integrati (Apocalypse Postponed), 1964

Then Gutenberg invented movable type and the book was born. A serial object, which must adjust its language to the receptivity of a literate audience which by now had grown (and was growing more and more thanks to the book) and which was vaster than the readership of manuscripts. In addition, the book, by creating an audience, produced readers which were in turn going to condition the book itself.

The first popular printed books of the sixteenth century repeat, on a secular level and using more sophisticated typographical methods, the formula of the biblia pauperum. They were produced by small printing houses for itinerant booksellers and mountebanks to be sold to the common people at fairs and in the public squares. These chivalrous epics, laments about political events or about real-life stories, jokes, jests or fibs, were poorly printed and often lacked mention of the place and date of publication because they had the first characteristic of mass-culture: ephemerality. Furthermore, of the mass-produced object they shared the foremost connotation: they offer sentiments and passions, love and death, made-to-measure according to the effect which they mean to elicit in the reader. The titles of these stories already contain an advertising blurb and an explicit judgement on the story they announce, almost the advice on how to enjoy the story: Danese Ungieri, A pleasing and charming story of love and arms newly reprinted and augmented with the death of the giant Mariotto, which is not to be found in the other versions’; or, ‘A new tale of the cruel and pitiful case occurred in Alicante, of a mother who killed her own little son and fed a dog with his interiors and her husband with his limbs’ … Obviously, it is not possible to speak of mass culture in the sense we understand the term today: different were the historical circumstances, the relationship between the producers of those texts and the people, different was the divide between learned culture and popular culture, which was culture in the ethnological sense of the word.


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