On December 5, 1916, two children – a ten year old boy and a girl of seven – crouched in the gutter in front of 37 boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris, an icy wind whipping their scarves and mussing their straggly hair. The boy held out a cap while the girl moaned to passing strangers, “Please! Give us anything! Or take us home and feed us!”
One passer-by stopped and shared a bag of peppermints.“Oh, thank you! You’ve saved our lives,” the children cried, “Our parents give us nothing but paper to eat!”
“You poor creatures! And with no socks on!”At that moment, the door opened behind the two children and a nicely dressed woman stepped outside in a warm winter coat. She looked down at the two children in the gutter and shook her head.
“What are you two doing out here?”The children, teeth chattering, looked meekly up and then back to the kindly woman who’d given them the peppermints. Suddenly, they leaped to their feet and bolted behind the woman and in through the door, giggling their way up the stairs.
“Those are my children, I apologize if they were bo-,” but her words were cut off by a slap to the face.“You wretch! How could you? Not dressing them for the cold! Making them eat paper!”
Shocked, and yet not surprised, the mother turned and made her way back inside to find her mischievous children.The “poor children” pranks were always planned by Andre but he soon found other ways to occupy his time and grew to become one of the mathematical geniuses of the 20th century.
Simone Weil’s part in the pranks, however, was a foreshadowing of the voluntary suffering she would partake in as philosopher and mystic for the remainder of her short life.
Settled in the valley between the Adriatic and the Alps, not much happened in Montereale, Italy. The main source of excitement for most of the town was the local miller, whom everybody knew as “Menocchio,” and the excitement was in never knowing what he was going to say next. On February 4, 1584, he sat down beneath a tree near the church to share a lunch with his friend Giovanni.
“Consider the worms,” Menocchio said, unwrapping the cloth from a wheel of pulsating cheese.
“Ah! Formaggio marcio,” Giovanni said, “it’s finally ready!”
A few maggots popped up into the air and landed on the grass. As Giovanni leaned to pick them up and plop them back onto the weeping cheese, he noticed the priest poking his head out of a window in the church, a fierce scowl on his face.
“Menocchio, you know I always enjoy your philosophizing but I think maybe you read too much. You might be going too far, especially the silly things you say to the priest…”
The miller shrugged him off and pointed at the cheese, “…as I was saying: earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together, and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels, and there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass…”
Menocchio’s explanation of creation was cut short when the priest appeared behind him.
“Domenico Scandella, you are to appear before the Inquisition for propagating heresy!”
Menocchio avoided judgment in that first trial but his inability to keep his self-educated views private led to him being burned at the stake fifteen years later amid the growing fears and reactions of a church facing a burgeoning and painful “protest.”