Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms is one of the first and most famous microhistories, focusing in-depth on a relatively small subject—in this case, a particular miller in 16th century Italy, and his heretical views.
It’s a fun book, in a bunch of ways. One is that it’s a picture of the life of an ordinary everyday person in this period; usually there’s not a whole lot of documentation about randos, but turns out that if you spend a lot of time talking to the Inquisition, well, you’ve left yourself a document trail. But another is that it’s a fascinating look at this guy’s idiosyncratic cosmogony (which does involve both cheese and worms), and how he’s taken a handful of books that he read and turned them over in his mind, and come to these novel conclusions about the nature of god and man and souls and the construction of societies.
Because in one sense, he’s just kinda this blowhard, right, the guy who goes down to the bar and has a few drinks and proceeds to go on about how all these big fancy bishops are full of shit. But in another sense, there is a kind of cleverness and ingenuity in his ideas, and it reminds us of how much human potential was (and still is) squandered by the accidents of social class or whatever else might keep someone from getting an education and being able to fully participate in the exchange of ideas.
And of course, it also reminds us of how a lot of ideas got kept down rather deliberately by a Church that was adamant about everyone very specifically believing a narrow range of opinions. The Inquisition here isn’t the gratuitously evil one you might be thinking of—they’re scrupulous in giving a fair trial, and merciful where they can be within the scope of their duties—but at the end of the day, they really are people who will use imprisonment, torture, and death to ensure that only orthodox ideas are expressed. And the miller in this book expresses some wildly unorthodox ideas, some of which seem common-sensical to a modern (and some of which seem even wackier now than they would have then), and rather than be able to bounce his ideas off other people and refine them, he got imprisoned, told to stfu, and eventually killed.
Anyway, this is a quick, absorbing, down-to-earth read. Recommended for anyone who is even tangentially interested in folk theology in post-Reformation Italy.