BREAD OF DREAMS <i> by Piero Camporesi translated by David Gentilcore (University of Chicago Press: $27.50; 212 pp.) </i>

The fact and fear of starvation, Piero Camporesi points out, are foreign to our experience today. However, from the 14th through the 18th centuries, the time period covered in this book, the specter of starvation was very real to millions of people in Europe. In Bologna during the second half of the 18th Century, Camporesi estimates that there were 16,000 beggars wandering the streets out of a population of about 70,000.

Bread therefore acquired symbolic meanings. “Bread,” notes Camporesi, “becomes a cultural object in impoverished societies, the culminating point and instrument, real and symbolic, of existence itself.”

Camporesi seeks to bring alive the “vissuto"--lived experience-- of the poor, and to give a voice to those who have none in traditional histories. One of his primary methods is to introduce literary texts. The logic of the privileged classes is the logic of plenty, he says. The logic of the poor, by contrast, is exemplified by the mythical Land of Cockaigne, which appears in popular legends of the time. There “macaroni falls from heaven like edible rain; the earth is no longer worked, miraculously produces pre-cooked foods; the trees do not toss down buds and leaves but hams and clothes; the animals, their own butchers, spontaneously roast themselves for the comfort of men’s stomachs.” Aligning himself with historians studying “mentalities,” Camporesi has written a quirky, imaginative but frustratingly impressionistic book that meanders through the subject of poverty and hunger as these are represented and experienced in Europe. He emphasizes how poverty increases the effects of epidemics and how hunger produces horrible psychological effects, even contributing to collective hysteria. The image of the witches’ sabbath, he postulates, represents the visions of the wretched in a sort of “toxicological delirium.” In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante refers to hunger as the supreme human calamity, since it “forces many to cross the limits of nature” by eating kith and kin. In a confused and disjointed discussion of cannibalism, Camporesi evokes the popular sociobiological rationale: People eat other people because they lack protein in their diets.