Perry Anderson

  • Storia Notturna: Una Decifrazione del Sabba by Carlo Ginzburg
    Einaudi, 320 pp, lire 45,000.00, August 1989, ISBN 88 06 11509 X

Carlo Ginzburg has many claims to be considered the outstanding European historian of the generation which came of age in the late Sixties. Certainly few have equalled him in originality, variety and audacity. He made his debut with a spectacular discovery: the first, and still only, documented case of a magical fertility and funerary cult in the countryside of Early Modern Europe, the trances of the Benandanti in Friuli, stumbled upon unawares by the Roman Inquisition. Next, he transformed the genealogy of religious dissimulation in the age of the Reformation, by tracing the origins of Nicodemism – theological doctrines sanctioning public concealment of private faith – to the defeat of the Peasants’ War in Germany and milieux close to Anabaptism, well before the rise of Calvin, whose attacks on Nicodemism coined the term. There followed his vivid portrait of the autodidact Italian miller Menocchio, whose cosmology of spontaneous generation – the world born as cheese and worms – he referred to a subterranean peasant materialism. Changing terrain again, Ginzburg then suggested a new iconographic explanation of Piero della Francesca’s greatest paintings, linking them through an unnoticed Aretine Humanist to the abortive union of the Greek and Roman Churches, and the crusades projected around the fall of Constantinople. The intellectual unity, and novelty, of these different enquiries can best be grasped in the essays that make up the recent collection Myths Emblems Clues. Its centrepieces are two long methodological reflections, the first on the Warburg tradition of art history, and the second on the heuristics of attribution, from ancient divination to modern connoisseurship.

Ginzburg’s new book, Storia Notturna, more than keeps the promise of this record.[*] It is by far his most ambitious work to date. Subtitled ‘A Decipherment of the Sabbath’, it advances a vast, dramatic reinterpretation of the central image of the European witch craze. Far from being simply a phobic invention of the persecutors, confected from fixed stereotypes of heretical diabolism and garbled scraps of rural magic, the witches’ sabbath reflected the deepest mythological structures of popular culture of the age – a network of beliefs and practices rooted in Eurasian shamanism, stretching from Ireland to the Bering Straits, and running back across millennia past the Ancient World to the darkness of Indo-European and Ural-Altaic origins. In a polemical introduction Ginzburg criticises those historians who have concentrated on the authorities and procedures that set European witch-finding in motion, at the expense of research into the beliefs of those persecuted as witches – Trevor-Roper in the first instance, but also Keith Thomas, charged with reductionism and functionalism. Against this tradition Ginzburg sets what he sees as the superior programme of Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralist treatment of myths as symbolic systems, whose hidden meaning is generated by unconscious operations of the human mind – even though Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology has given insufficient weight to historical research proper. By contrast, Ginzburg’s aim is to combine the morphology and history of the Sabbath – its synchronic significations and its diachronic development – in a single, comprehensive reconstruction.

The argument of Storia Notturna is divided into three parts. The first opens dramatically onto a staccato account of the French pogrom of 1321 against lepers and Jews, accused of poisoning wells in a plot against Christendom orchestrated by the Muslim ‘King of Granada’. It then moves to 1348 and the massacre of Jews as agents of a conspiracy spreading the Black Death, which unfolded further east towards the Alps. In each case, confessions of a phantasmagoric iniquity were extorted, under pressure of torture. By 1380 the Inquisition was ferreting out Waldensian heretics on the southern flank of the Alps. Soon afterwards, Ginzburg suggests, the obsessive fears at work in these persecutions of successive marginal groups were condensed and displaced onto the spectre of a new sect practising witchcraft in the Alpine regions. With this, other dread themes surfaced, absent from the earlier confessions. By about 1440, the full nightmare of the Sabbath – diabolism, anthropophagy, animal metamorphoses, supernatural flight, promiscuity – had been incubated in the Christian imagination.

Ginzburg does not pursue the consequences. Breaking off his historical account here, he switches directly to the meaning of what he terms the ‘folkoric nucleus’ of the Sabbath – identified with the motifs of nocturnal flying and animal transmogrification. The second part of Storia Notturna pursues the archaeology of these motifs. It picks out three cultic origins behind the popular beliefs that went into the compound image of the Sabbath: ecstatic experiences (for women) of a night goddess surrounded by animals, and (for men) of a night battle to ensure fertility or prosperity; and ritual processions (of males) masked as animals. Ginzburg tracks each of these across formidable temporal and geographical distances, starting out from Archaic Greece and Gallo-Roman Gaul: the first in Lombardy, Scotland, Sicily, the Rhineland; the second in Latvia, Dalmatia, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Corsica, the Caucasus; the third in Germany, Bulgaria, the Ukraine. Through every kind of exotic variation, however, all betray a common source – the voyage to the dead undertaken in the shaman’s trance. The journey of the living to the land of death, symbolised in such practices over thousands of years, constituted the clandestine core of the Sabbath as it took shape at the end of the Middle Ages.

In the third part of the book, Ginzburg explores possible explanations for the morphological unity of a folklore extending far into Siberia and Turkestan. He starts by suggesting that it could have derived from the nomadic migrations which spilt out of Central Asia in the eighth century BC, bringing the Scythians – an Iranian people – into the Caucasus and the steppes to the north of the Black Sea, where Greek traders and colonists encountered them, absorbing certain shamanistic features of their culture. In the sixth century, Scythian contingents penetrated south, establishing themselves in the Dobrudja, where they ruled over a local Thracian population, subsequently joined by Celtic settlements. Could this Scythian region have been the original scene of a cultural synthesis, fusing mythological elements from all three peoples into a millennial substratum of beliefs and customs, capable of spreading across the continent and surviving in the depths of folk memory from the age of Herodotus to that of Galileo, if not beyond? Does the remarkable similarity of ‘Animal Style’ art, whose decorative forms stretch from China to Scandinavia in a continuum where the Scythian achievement was outstanding, testify to comparable historical connections? After dwelling on the plausibility of these hypotheses, Ginzburg then points to the limitation of all diffusionist explanations, which leave unanswered the question of why external contact between societies should lead to the internal reproduction of the forms of one in another. The problem posed by the persistence over time and space of shamanistic motifs can only be resolved, he concludes, by postulating the existence of general structural characteristics of the human mind.

To demonstrate these, Ginzburg proceeds to examine – in another sudden shift of focus – myths and rites involving lameness. This motif had already been discussed by Lévi-Strauss, who related it to the change of seasons. Rejecting this interpretation, Ginzburg scours (in the first instance) Greek mythology for every manifestation of a deeper category which he dubs ‘asymmetrical de-ambulation’, in which lameness is only one variant, along with the wounded leg, the perforated foot, the vulnerable heel, the missing sandal. Oedipus, Perseus, Jason, Theseus, Dionysus, Achilles, Philoctetes, Empedocles and a host of other figures display this motif – as do Cinderella, the most far-flung of all folk-tales, and the Chinese crane-dance. Its symbolic meaning is a journey to the world of the dead. But if the pervasive recurrence of this motif belongs to a unitary Eurasian mythology, it is anchored in a universal human experience, ‘the self-image of the body’. Asymmetrical de-ambulation is the privileged signifier of contact with death, because all living beings are symmetrical in form, and among them humans are specifically biped. The impairing of the capacity to walk amounts to putting a figurative toe in the waters of extinction. There is thus in the end an ontological foundation for the symbolisation of the voyage beyond human experience, to the world inhabited by the dead. Myths dictate the limits of their own variation because they are constrained by the formal structures of the imagination.

Storia Notturna ends with a brief Conclusion which is in fact more like a coda. Here Ginzburg suggests that if the image of the witches’ sabbath could so effectively fuse clerical obsessions from above and folk myths from below, it was in part because they shared a common fear of conspiracy whose popular form was the belief that those who had recently died were moved by resentment towards those who were still living. Perhaps too, he speculates, there was a psychotropic element in the trances (hallucinogenic rye or mushrooms) which either contributed to or was projected onto the whole complex. However that may be, the myths which flowed into the Sabbath all converged on the notion of a journey to the beyond and back again, of a crossing over to the world of the dead and returning from it. Ginzburg ends by arguing that the permanence of this theme, through hunting, pastoral and agricultural societies alike, may have a simple but fundamental explanation: the voyage to the dead is not just one narrative among others, but the original matrix of all possible narratives. In the cauldrons of Walpurgis Night are concocted the ingredients of every human tale.

By any standards, this is a bravura performance. It is difficult to think of any other historian who combines such polymathic cultural erudition, grasp of textual and visual detail, and high theoretical aim – not to speak of literary skill. The result is a work of vertiginous effect. There can be little doubt of the audience it is destined to win. To do it critical justice, however, may not prove so simple. For with all its extraordinary gifts, Storia Notturna poses a series of difficult problems, concerning the methods it adopts, the conclusions it reaches, the outlook it suggests. It is best to begin with the first of these.

Ginzburg tells us at the outset that the procedure of his book was inspired by a comment of Wittgenstein’s on Frazer’s Golden Bough, to the effect that mythological materials did not need to be set out historically, as Frazer had done (situating them in an evolutionary sequence), but could equally well be presented ‘perspicuously’ – that is, he explained, ‘just by arranging the factual material so that we can easily pass from one part to the other’ and therewith ‘see the connections’. Hence, Wittgenstein went on – here is the motto Ginzburg took for his research – ‘the importance of finding intermediary links’, ‘as one might illustrate the internal relation of a circle to an ellipse by gradually transforming an ellipse into a circle’.

For Ginzburg this was the charter for the kind of morphology he was looking for. A more formalised version of it was to be found, as it happened, in an essay on ‘Polythetic Classification’ by the English anthropologist Rodney Needham, which Ginzburg duly uses. Needham, too, was much impressed with Wittgenstein’s insights, although he relied, rather, on the familiar text from the Philosophical Investigations which describes the notion of a game as indicating no more than a ‘family resemblance’, without any common feature in the set of which it is used, just as ‘the strength of a thread does not reside in the fact that some one thread runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’ Whereas monothetic classification requires the presence of at least one common trait in the class identified, polythetic classification – Needham argued – merely demands that each member of the set display a large number of the range of relevant traits, and that these traits are displayed in a large number of the members. He illustrated the basic idea with three descent systems, the first exhibiting features p/q/r, the second r/s/t, and the third t/u/v: such was the type of overlap that sufficed for polythetic purposes.

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[*] Ecstasies, an English translation of Storia Notturna, will be published by Radius next year. The translator is Ray Rosenthal. Myths Emblems Clues, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi, was published by Radius in January (231 pp., £16.95, 0 09 173023 6).