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Cheap Print and the Performance of Poverty 3 59 Introduction Representing the views of the early modern poor themselves, who were mostly illiterate and had little access to manuscript,print,or other media, poses a challenge. If the pronounced ideological bias and social agenda of beggar books, from the Liber vagatorum to A Caveat for Common Cursetors , constitutes a fairly straightforward case of discursive distortion, we may generally ask if the real lives of the early modern poor can ever be glimpsed apart from the haze of overdetermined fear and persecution. Does popular culture exist outside the disciplinary and discursive acts that suppress it? Carlo Ginzburg, in his celebrated study of a sixteenth-century miller constructed primarily from Inquisitorial testimony, challenges the argument , attributed to Foucault, that the exclusions and limits through which popular culture arises prevent us from knowing much besides the acts of discursive control themselves.1 In The Cheese and the Worms, Ginzburg argues that the miller Menocchio’s utterances under testimony , when triangulated by both the judges’ questions during the trial and social and book history, can approximate a relatively autonomous popular voice. Certainly, when we address the representation of the poor in Ruzante, the commedia dell’arte, and Shakespeare, we will not be listening to their unadulterated voices—although the present study argues that these writers and actors were unusually proximate to the disenfranchised . But in the examination of popular songs, poems, and dialogues printed in cheap pamphlets and both performed and peddled by piazza performers, we may occasionally come very close to the thing itself, especially in the early, relatively uncensored days of print before CounterReformation controls began to be issued.As Rosa Salzberg has argued in 60 chap ter 3 her groundbreaking work on the subject,the highly mobile and resourceful peddler-performers, who distributed the new medium to an increasingly larger socio-economic clientele, played an enormously important role in the early days of print by mediating between elite and popular culture. Many of the peddlers were actually poor themselves, capitalizing on a new form of income that provided opportunities but was still economically perilous and increasingly subject to control and repression. And many of these low-end peddlers, adjacent to beggars and destitute performers, composed, published, and performed songs and poems that explicitly addressed their own poverty and that of their intended auditors . Like beggars, the poor performers may well have exaggerated their destitution, filtering their degradation through various distorting lenses. Still, the distortions resemble those of the character Lazarillo in his histrionic begging more closely than those projected onto beggars in the censorial beggar books. To be sure, it cannot be argued that each and every author (most of whom are anonymous) of the popular pamphlets examined in this chapter was actually poor; some of the canterini and cantastorie performing these songs, such as Vincenzo Citaredo and Giulio Cesare Croce, achieved some measure of success. But even some of the successful ones, like Croce himself, never completely escaped from poverty and could speak about it with the authenticity of lived experience. While some of the popular texts represent poverty in a naked and direct manner, other texts favor the forms of distillation and distortion. It is difficult to deny that the visionary hyperboles of the land of Cuccagna, a favorite theme of these pamphlets, constitute a form of escapism. But according to Piero Camporesi, such “escapism” still reveals things about actual early modern hunger, degradation, and disease. Homologous, in Camporesi’s account, to the hallucinogenic states generated by poppy seeds and other adulterated substances mixed into peasant bread, the Cuccagna tropes oppose a “non-Euclidean logic” of deformation, hyperbole , and monstrousness to the rationalities of official culture. Normal measures and proportions are transformed, “making everything much bigger than usual and the whole world upside down.”2 The land of Cuccagna , where one is paid for sleeping and imprisoned for working, and where one enjoys the free, unlabored bounty of the earth, nicely exemplifies the figure of reversal, to which we can add the tropes of exaggeration, cheap print and t he pe r for ma nce of p overt y 61 transference, distortion, fictionalizing, and marginalization discussed throughout this study. The Figure of the Peddler-Performer Beginning as early as the 1470s in Venice, Florence, and other Italian cities, the opportunistic but risky new business of printing often made use of street peddlers in order to distribute, advertise, and sell printed material, especially cheap pamphlets, short books, and flyers that...


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