The LRB on the Benandante

Anthony Pagden

The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi

Routledge, 209 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9507 4

In the mountainous district of Friuli in Northern Italy there were good witches and bad, ‘good walkers’ (benandanti) and evil ones. On certain nights of the year during the Ember Days, in the valley of Jehoshaphat, the two met and did battle for the crops. The benandanti came armed with stalks of fennel, the witches and warlocks with sorghum and sometimes the wooden palettes used for cleaning ovens. Ranged like armies with their captains and their banners, they fought all night long. If the benandanti won, then the harvest would be safe, but if the witches won then there would be famine.

The benandanti could also on occasion cure the bewitched and protect people’s homes from the vandalism of the witches: as one of them explained, the witches ‘go into the cellars and spoil the wine with certain things, throwing filth into the bungholes’. Unlike the witches, who had sold themselves to Satan in exchange for their supernatural powers, the benandanti, who fought only for ‘Christ’s faith’, were born to their profession. Every man whose mother had preserved the caul (the placenta) in which he was born and wore it about his neck was compelled to ‘go forth’ when called to defend the crops. These night battles did not, however, take place in this world but ‘in the spirit’.

The soul alone ‘went out’, sometimes in the form of some small animal, leaving the body behind inert and as if dead. In the morning, before dawn, the spirit returned, but if someone should attempt to turn the body or ‘come and look for a long time at it’, the spirit would never again be able to re-enter its former home and would be compelled to join the horde of those who had died ‘before their time’. Being a benandante was clearly a risky business.

 

==isn’t that interesting that the body be taken away and thus the benandante be lost?

Carlo Ginzburg’s account of this Friulian ‘fertility cult’, as he calls it, first appeared in Italian as I Benandanti in 1964, and has now been skilfully, even elegantly translated into English by John and Anne Tedeschi. Night Battles follows the fortunes of the benandanti through a series of Inquisition trials from 1575, when they first appear in the records, until 1676, when both they and the witches had ceased to be of much interest to the Church authorities.

 

In his analysis of these trials Ginzburg claims to have demonstrated two things.

First, that the benandanti formed part of a widespread fertility cult traces of which could be found all over Central Southern Europe; and second, that under constant pressure from the Inquisitors, who could see no difference between good and evil witches and believed that the benandanti were merely attempting to cover up the true nature of their activities, the ‘good walkers’ were slowly assimilated into the evil ones, so that by the 1670s their cult had lost all but the most superficial traces of its original rituals and had largely forgotten its purpose.

Since the appearance of his best-selling The Cheese and the Worms, whose material, the trial of a 17th-century Friulian miller with highly idiosyncratic cosmological beliefs, comes from the same archive as the benandanti trials, Ginzburg has acquired an international reputation as one of the most interesting living historians of popular culture.

 

In Italy I Benandanti has also appeared, much modified, as both an adult comic-book and as a play. Ginzburg himself is unhappy with the uses to which his work has been put: but to be oneself made into an object of popular interest is surely the highest tribute a historian of popular culture can have paid to him. The reason for this popularity, both in and outside the academy, are not hard to find. The material he has discovered is truly exciting; it offers a glimpse into a wholly alien world which historians have only recently begun to take at all seriously; and it possesses an immediacy which appears, though this may be a delusion, to allow, as he claims, ‘the voices of these peasants to reach us directly, without barriers’.

Carlo Ginzburg is also a highly sensitive and imaginative historian whose prose style reproduces much of his mother Natalia’s clarity and precision. He has been able, as few others would have been if presented with the same material, to make his historical characters live. Night Battles, like The Cheese and the Worms, is also a tour de force of reconstruction, building out of scattered and fragmentary sources a whole world for the reader to inhabit.

Ginzburg’s well-merited success, together with the increasing professional interest in the social history of ‘lesser people’ in general, has, however, obscured the sometimes shaky nature of the arguments and assumptions which underpin many of his reconstructions.

The most obvious problem is to be found in the documents he has used. We know little about the daily lives of peasants for the simple reason that the so-called ‘dominant culture’ took very little interest in them. Of their mental world we know next to nothing, and most of what we do know comes from a single source: the records of the trials of the Inquisition. Since the Holy Office was concerned with maintaining the orthodoxy of the entire population, the Inquisitors were the only members of the dominant culture who made any attempt to discover what peasants and artisans believed. Trials for heresy and blasphemy, recorded with all the precision of Europe’s first efficient bureaucracy, thus provide the historian with an enormous wealth of information on the ‘mentalities’ of the ‘common’ man.

They also though present Ginzburg with considerable difficulties. Most of its victims, and in particular most of the poor (who did not broadcast their beliefs), only came to its attention because they had been denounced by their neighbours, and this was the case with most of the benandanti.

Not only that, the ‘trials’ were also, in fact, extended interrogations, frequently carried out with the use of torture. Their transcripts record the suspects’ responses to questions posed by men who were only concerned to establish quite specific things. Sometimes other information leaks through, particularly when the Inquisitor is not entirely sure what species of heterodoxy he is dealing with.

In the case of the benandanti, what the Inquisitors wanted to know, what indeed they seem to have set out to establish, was the association between these supposed anti-witches and the witches themselves. For, on the evidence which Ginzburg provides, what seems to have worried them most was the benandanti’s claim to be able, indeed destined, to act as God’s champions, and their potentially heretical belief that their spirits could depart from, and then return to, the body at will.

The victims, for their part, knew full well that they were in considerable danger, possibly of death and certainly of torture, confiscation, humiliating public penance, exile or excommunication while under investigation particularly as the Inquisitors suggested, and finally persuaded the benandanti, that what they were doing was in fact not so very different from the activities of ‘ordinary’ witches.

These confessions inevitably tended to contain everything the Inquisitor was believed to want to hear. Some of the benandanti, particularly in the earlier trials, when their case was still a subject of some bewilderment to the authorities, persisted in their claims that they were not witches, that they had not attended the sabbat and were only doing God’s – and by implication the Church’s – work. Some were believed and released or had their cases suspended. Some made minor confessions.

Later suspects, like Olivo Caldo, a peasant from Ligugnana, and one of the last cases with which Ginzburg deals, confessed to having attended the sabbat, to having ridden on a billy goat, to having sold his soul to the Devil. (The Inquisitors themselves, however, came to suspect the veracity of these statements, all of them extracted under torture, and Olivo, who then denied everything he had previously said, claiming the only act he had ever committed was to have once ‘made a sign over some people who came to him’, was finally pronounced to be only ‘lightly’ suspect of apostasy and banished from the parish for five years.)

There is another significant change between the earlier and the later trials. It is one which Ginzburg barely notices, but it may help to explain why the later benandanti appear in a far more obviously diabolical light than their predecessors.  The earlier victims, though they do speak of being able to cure the bewitched, were primarily concerned with their role as defenders of the crops – an activity which, since it took place at night, and then only in the spirit, and might just do some good, could have caused little offence to their neighbours.

As the trials progress, however, we hear less and less about this aspect of their calling, and more and more about their powers as healers, as the undoers of the spells cast by witches. Here they came up against the uncertainties of the community’s attitude towards magical doctors, an attitude which could rapidly change from wary acceptance to outright hostility if the practitioner either failed to cure, refused to cure or demanded too much for his services but also because that was the province of priests.

Ginzburg’s other claim, that the benandanti of Friuli were members of a fertility cult linked to others throughout the whole of Central Southern Europe, seems to be even more dubious than the transformation thesis. It derives in part from Margaret Murray’s frequently discredited claims that the nocturnal rites described by those accused of witchcraft did actually take place, and that they were the remnants of a pagan fertility cult hostile to Christianity.

Ginzburg though is sceptical about the first of these claims, but accepts that the second contains a ‘kernel of truth’.

Certainly the principal concern of the benandanti was with fertility, and they clearly did have some tenuous links with those who could ‘see the dead’, with the German belief in Diana or Holda or Perchta, as goddess of fertility and leader of the ‘Furious Horde’ of those who had died prematurely, and also with the cult of the Livonian werewolf who claimed to be one of the ‘hounds of God’.

Given, however, that we are dealing with peoples who all shared similar economic and material preoccupations, lived under the aegis of the same set of (orthodox) religious beliefs and in very similar communities, given, too, that theirs was a culture which was slow to change and transmitted orally by groups who migrated widely in search of a livelihood, it would be surprising, particularly in frontier regions like Friuli, if Slav and German beliefs did not crop up. But the fact that some who were, or claimed to be, benandanti also claimed to be able to ‘see the dead’ on Ember Days does not of itself demonstrate that they and those who could see the German ‘Furious Horde’, or followed the goddess Diana, belonged to the same cult.

The benandanti are surely too marginal a group to carry the burden of such a claim. All too often they appear to have been regarded by their neighbours in much the same light as they were by the Inquisitors. ‘Some of us think she is crazy,’ remarked one woman of the self-declared benandante Florida Basili.

Few of the benandanti seem to have had an established place in the community. Most were poor, some destitute or women afflicted by domestic problems. Even their name, benandanti, seems sometimes to have become conflated with ‘vagabond’ or “gypsy”. We know that peasants in this period were highly eclectic in their beliefs, that they were prepared to use Holy Water or the Host to cure the sick or ease the birth of a calf together with ‘white magic’ – or even black – if the need arose. But we have no evidence to suggest that they belonged to large-scale cults practising elaborate and controlled rituals, cults which could reasonably be said to constitute their ‘mentality’ and which they sustained, as best they could, in the face of opposition from the dominant culture.

Most peasants seem to have been somewhat hazy about the exact nature of much Christian doctrine. The benandanti were, for instance, genuinely surprised that the Inquisitors should have found their claim that their souls left their bodies so worrying. But the ‘superstitions’, many and confused, which made up the peasant versions of the Christian faith owed their existence largely to the ignorance of their priests and the lack, in must of rural Europe, of any adequate religious education.

When the Calabrian peasant (or Asturian or  Sardinian or Polish, for the story is repeated again and again) who, on being asked by a Jesuit missionary how many Gods there were, replied that he was uncertain but he thought possibly nine, he was not asserting his belief in an ancient polymorphic mystery cul; he was simply mistaken. A true ‘peasant mentality’ cannot be reconstructed from a handful of cases concerning persons whose very casualness about facts was what marked them out.

Ginzburg’s claims for the centrality of the benandanti to the ‘hopes and needs tied to the life of society’ is also weakened by the apparent attitude of the Inquisitors towards them. Few benandanti were actually convicted, and when they were, the sentences were generally light. In most cases, however, the proceedings were, as so often happened with Inquisition trials, merely abandoned. True, the Inquisitors were, at this period, more preoccupied with other matters: with the belief in justification by faith or predestination or the spiritual authority of the Papacy. They were looking for real heresies, not mere ‘superstition’ or ‘mild apostasy’.

But since the benandanti claimed nothing less than the power to act as independent agents of Christ, it is unlikely that the Holy Office would have treated the whole matter so lightly if there had been any substantial evidence to suggest that these people were, in effect, members of a secret sect, an integral part of ‘the community’s traditions’.

The beliefs of the benandanti & their ‘rites’  are surely grounded somewhere in a set of ‘absolute presuppositions’ (to use Collingwood’s phrase) about such matters as the crucial relationship between body and soul, between this world and the next, between past and present, the living and the dead.
Vol. 6 No. 7 · 19 April 1984

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