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Being a benandanteAnthony Pagden
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Vol. 6 No. 2 · 2 February 1984

Being a benandante

Anthony Pagden

4045 words
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, 0 7100 9507 4
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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 Josaphat, the two met and did battle for the crops. The benandanti came armed with stalks of fennell, 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.

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 common people, believed to be much given to ‘dangerous novelties’, came in for a great deal of careful scrutiny. Before the late 18th century at least, 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 present him with considerable difficulties. In the first place, the Inquisition was, obviously, only concerned with what it held to be doctrinal deviance. Not of course that all of its victims were deviants: but since the Inquisitors were astute, intelligent, well-trained men who were frequently well-informed about the curiosities of popular ‘superstition’ and generally tolerant of them, most of those whose trials lasted long enough to be of any interest to the historian were, at best, unusual. Nor should it be supposed that the Inquisition’s view of what constituted orthodoxy was not shared by the majority of the people. 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.

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. In every trial, 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. In every trial, too, and this is something which emerges very vividly from Ginzburg’s narrative, there seems to have been a crucial point at which the victim realised that he had implicated himself so far that his only way out was to offer a full ‘confession’. 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.)

Ginzburg sees in these varying responses to the Inquisitors’ demands evidence for the steady transformation of the benandanti from anti-witches into witches. There would seem, however, to be a lot wrong with this idea. It supposes, what Ginzburg assumes throughout, that the benandanti were, in fact, a true sect whose members were capable of passing on information about the changes which had taken place in their beliefs and practices – and about what the Inquisitors had made of those beliefs and practices – from one generation to the next and, since the benandanti came from different parishes, from one region to another. Yet as Ginzburg admits there is little evidence that most benandanti did know each other; nor, except during the night battles themselves, do they seem to have thought of themselves as a group, much less as a sect with clearly prescribed rituals. Their beliefs, as they emerge from the records, are simply too vague, too uncertain in the face of determined and precise questioning – and torture – to be subject to wholesale transformation. Certainly the Inquisitors did attempt to persuade the benandanti that they were closet witches, disguising, perhaps even in ignorance, diabolical activities as ‘God’s work’. But what the benandanti’s reply to these accusations would seem to reveal is less a shift in a body of coherent beliefs than a number of individual responses to a common, though varied experience: the experience of fighting for survival against skilled interrogators whose purpose is never entirely clear. For these peasants had only an imprecise idea of what was heterodox and what was not. They had to choose their words with care. Little wonder, then, that in this overwhelming darkness many chose to follow the lead offered them by their accusers. In Ginzburg’s brilliant reconstruction of the ordeal of one of the last of the ‘good walkers’, Michele Soppe, whose case even came to the personal attention of the Pope and Cardinal Francesco Barberini (though primarily because it confirmed their suspicions that ‘hardly a single trial can be discovered in this matter that has been correctly and legally instituted’), we can watch the behaviour of a man on the run, turning this way and that, first denying and then affirming, and finally accepting nearly everything the Inquisitors put into his mind, in his efforts to save himself from the stake.

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. For 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. Michele Soppe was originally denounced from several sources on this account because, as one of his accusers put it, ‘I thought it was right to denounce this one so that these clever swindlers get the punishment they deserve.’ Although Soppe confessed to being a benandante, he was never involved in night battles with witches. His relationship with them was indeed a close one, for he was a healer, and one of the ways he healed was ‘to find the witch who has cast the spell and beg her to break it’. This is certainly a far cry from the claims of the earlier benandanti such as Paolo Gasparutto and Battista Moduco, but it is not sufficient evidence that Soppe, Gasparutto and Moduco were all members of a single cult whose common body of beliefs had suffered a sea-change in the face of Inquisitorial hostility. They may as well have all been single individuals aware, as the entire community was clearly aware, of the existence of a number of beliefs which linked the possession of the caul to an ability to protect the crops and to cure those who had been bewitched; and they each exploited this knowledge – and confessed to their exploitation of it – in their different ways. Primarily, though their motives were clearly complex, they did so in an effort to eke out a living. As one witness observed of a female benandante, ‘she wants to be paid and well paid at that ... and can tell at a glance those who are able and unable to pay.’

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 is sceptical about the first of these claims (though he rightly insists that the benandanti’s night battles were real enough to them), 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 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.

There is also something slightly worrying about the method Ginzburg occasionally uses to establish these links. On page 35 one Anna la Rosa who claimed to be able to ‘see the dead’, and to have learnt things from them she dared not tell to anyone lest she be beaten with stalks of sorghum, is linked, tentatively, with the benandanti although Anna never claimed to be one and the word was never mentioned at her trial. On page 41, however, the same Anna is referred to simply as ‘Anna la Rosa – one of the benandanti who claimed she could see the dead.’ And Anna’s presence among the benandanti, though it is not crucial to the argument, is nonetheless used to establish a link between them and the followers of the dame Abonde of the Roman de la Rose. This is not an accusation of wilful distortion. Any social historian working with such fragmentary evidence is compelled to attempt to ‘get inside’ his subject and in order to do so he has to employ a great deal of sympathetic imagination – what Vico, describing a not dissimilar enterprise, called fantasia. Ginzburg’s historical imagination is of a very high order and most readers will be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, Anna may well have been, or believed herself to be, one of the benandanti. What is disconcerting is that what Ginzburg claims for his reconstruction is not one possible world among many, or even the mind-set of a number of individuals with similar or overlapping beliefs: it is nothing less than ‘in a broad sense the mentality of a peasant community’. And however much weight we are prepared to give that ‘broad’, it is clear that Ginzburg believes these men and women to stand, in more than a metaphorical sense, for the collective mentality of the entire community. What we may expect to find in this house of inferences is, we are told, not the ‘individual in his (presumed) non-historic immediacy’, but the ‘force of the community’s traditions, the hopes and needs tied to the life of society’.

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 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’. 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 the Asturian or the Sardinian or the 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 cult. He was simply mistaken. A true ‘peasant mentality’ cannot be reconstructed from a handful of cases concerning persons whose very unusualness 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’.

There is another question which this book raises but never asks. For even if the benandanti were marginals, perhaps even in some cases ‘a little crazy’, even if they do not, in the end, add up to a cult or a sect, we still have to ask what did it mean to hold such beliefs? What, for instance, do their nocturnal journeys, the procession of the dead, the belief that if the body was turned while the spirit was absent it would ‘remain dead’, tell us about their understanding of the relationship between body and soul. In their starkly Manichean world where is the redeeming grace of Christ – or was that too alien a notion for a society to grasp which had so little hard evidence of God’s benevolence? However heterodox the beliefs of the benandanti may have seemed both to their neighbours and to the Inquisitors, they were clearly not incomprehensible; and in the interstices of their more straightforward statements other more worrying phrases come bubbling to the surface. What, for instance, did Gasparutto mean when he invited the Inquisitor and his parish priest along on one of the nocturnal journeys? Where in the mind of this man did the frontier between the world of the body and the world of the spirit lie? When another spoke of ‘crossing several great bodies of water and ... at the river Iudri one of his companions became afraid because a great wind had come up,’ how is the geography of Friuli (the Iudri is a local river) laid over an imaginary Biblical terrain which reaches all the way down into the Valley of Josaphat and into the ‘centre of the world’ itself? These men were not, as Le Roy Ladurie absurdly seems (or seemed) to believe of the peasants of the Languedoc, merely pre-rational minds struggling towards enlightenment; nor were they clearly the mouthpiece for some Durkheimian articulation of the community’s traditions (the interpretation which I suspect Ginzburg would favour). The beliefs of the benandanti – their ‘rites’ – are surely grounded somewhere in a set of ‘absolute presuppositions’ (to use Collingwood’s phrase) about precisely 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. Though they are couched in a language the historian has still to learn how to read, these did indeed articulate the community’s traditions by providing the ‘common man’ with an explanation – or explanations – for precisely those things for which his priests could offer none he could understand, and usually none at all beyond the simple injunction to accept the Church’s rulings and believe.

To ask what it means to have a belief, and to regard the believer as, in some measure, a conscious agent, is alien to the mentalité of most historians of mentalités. Yet it is surely wrong to suppose that even the most ‘ordinary’ men and women were merely the unthinking mouthpieces of a mind-set not of their own making, of beliefs which could be so easily manipulated by the institutions of the dominant culture. It may be a long time before we find satisfactory answers to questions of meaning. But if we want to reconstruct a mentality those are the questions we must ask.

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Vol. 6 No. 7 · 19 April 1984

SIR: In his long review of my The Night Battles (LRB, 2 February) Anthony Pagden, having first praised me for my literary skills, goes on to criticise vigorously the ‘sometimes shaky nature of the arguments and assumptions’ which ‘underpin’ my ‘reconstructions’. Before examining each one of Pagden’s objections I should like to remind the reader that The Night Battles reconstructs the documented activities of a single sect active in Friuli in north-east Italy between about 1575 and 1675. The members of this sect, who called themselves benandanti (‘good walkers’), declared to the Inquisitors that they had been born with the caul and that they met ‘in the spirit’ four times a year, on the Ember Days, armed with stalks of fennel to fight for the fertility of the fields against witches and warlocks armed with sticks of sorghum. The Inquisitors tried to make them confess that they were simple witches and that they attended the diabolical sabbath (something which, until that moment, had not been mentioned in Inquisitorial trials in Friuli). After an initial resistance the benandanti began to introduce into their accounts the elements suggested to them by their Inquisitors. By about 1600 their transformation into witches had been completed.

1. Pagden claims that my idea that the beliefs of the benandanti were transformed in response to the demands of the Inquisitors is mistaken (‘there would seem … to be a lot wrong with this idea’), because it implies the existence of a ‘true sect’ whose members were in a position to transmit information from one generation to another and from one region to another. The benandanti, however, ‘except during the night battles themselves [do not] … seem to have thought of themselves as a group, much less as a sect with clearly prescribed rituals’. Pagden also claims that their beliefs were ‘simply too vague, too uncertain in the face of determined and precise questioning – and torture – to be subject to wholesale transformation’. What, in fact, emerges from these records is ‘a number of individual responses to a common, though varied experience’ – that of struggling for survival against highly skilled interrogators.

That the benandanti constituted a ‘very special sect’, given their ‘almost dream-like quality’, I had myself made clear (page 16). Its peculiarity consisted in the fact that the life of its members was conducted on two levels, one by day and the other by night: for, although rarely documented, the association of its members in everyday life was anything but non-existent. Take, for instance, the dialogue between Giambattista Tamburlino and Menichino da Latisana in which the first, an experienced benandante, explained to the second, who was still uninitiated (although not for long), the nature of the journey he was destined to undertake. ‘You will have to come anyway, one goes as though in a smoky haze, we do not go physically’ (page 79). Communications of this sort would have directed, and eventually come to modify, through a process of conditioning which we can imagine but whose substance escapes us, the nocturnal ecstasy of the benandanti and the rituals which they practised ‘in the spirit’ (see also the case discussed on pages 129-133). Accounts of the Inquisitorial trials which circulated among the benandanti advising them to exercise caution would have been influential in the same way: the female benandante Narda Peresut di Moruzzo, for instance, advised her client to take care lest she end up like Cappona di Cervignano, who had been tried at Udine for witchcraft (page 79).

This network of daytime contacts may not be sufficient to define the benandanti as a ‘true sect’, in Pagden’s sense, but it does explain how the pressures exerted by the Inquisitors could, little by little, be spread among the benandanti so as to alter the sense of their beliefs. The terms which Pagden uses to describe these beliefs – ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’ – seem themselves to be thoroughly inappropriate. I cannot understand how a historian who is familiar with both anthropological studies and the history of religion can characterise as ‘vague’ the recourse to such a complex of specific elements as the fact of being born with the caul, the regular trances which this conferred, the night battles during the Ember Days, the use of fennel and sorghum as arms. As for their supposed ‘uncertainty’, it is clear that the benandanti’s description of their night battles began to slide in the direction of the diabolical sabbath almost half a century after the first trials known to us. Given the difference between the competing forces, half a century cannot be considered a negligible period of resistance. This claim presupposes, of course, the validity of the thesis which Pagden contests – namely, that one can speak of the transformation of the beliefs of the benandanti as a single prolonged phenomenon, rather than merely the sum of individual reactions. But to any one who considers the stages – usually at the beginning of a trial – by which the benandanti came to expound their beliefs, such a single and prolonged transformation must be indisputable.

In fact, while the culminating scene in the drama (the meeting between the Inquisitor and the benandante) follows more or less the same pattern, the initial scene takes on a quite different aspect with the passage of time. In other words, the trial does not always begin at the same point. Little by little, the benandanti came to identify themselves with the witches. One of the major interests, in my opinion, of this exceptional series of documents lies precisely in the way that it enables us to follow in detail the processes by which a belief transforms itself under pressure from outside forces. The ties between self-conscious modifications induced by force (psychological, not physical, because in these trials torture was present only as a latent threat), and modifications introduced at an unconscious level, throw light upon a series of phenomena which generally eludes us.

2. The attempt which I made in The Night Battles to link the beliefs of the benandanti with groups with similar beliefs in Central and Southern Europe seems to Pagden to be ‘even more dubious than the transformation thesis’. The connections which I proposed between Germanic and Baltic phenomena seem to him to be both ‘tenuous’ and at the same time obvious. Others, however, might find it surprising that Pagden seems to be willing to speak of analogous material, economic and religious conditions when referring to an area which includes Dalmatia, Switzerland, Bavaria and Livonia – apart of course from Friuli itself. Differences in geographical location, in environmental conditions, confessional adherence, modes of production, are all casually disposed of in the interest of a more than slightly dubious deterministic thesis. But when I see that the – in my view indisputable – connections between the descriptions of their night battles against the witches and warlocks provided by two benandanti from Cividale in 1575-1580 and those described a century later by Thiess the old werewolf from Livonia (pages 28-32) are described as ‘tenuous’, I can only wonder if what separates me from Pagden is really a radical difference over what is commonly described as ‘historical method’. I should at once add that this suspicion is mutual. ‘There is also,’ Pagden writes, ‘something slightly worrying about the method Ginzburg occasionally uses to establish these links. On page 35 one Anna la Rossa, who claimed to be able to “see the dead", and to have learnt things from them she dared not tell to anyone lest she be beaten with stalks of sorghum, is linked, tentatively, with the benandanti although Anna never claimed to be one and the word was never mentioned at the trial. On page 41, however, the same Anna is referred to simply as “Anna la Rossa – one of the benandanti who claimed she could see the dead". And Anna’s presence among the benandanti, though it is not crucial to the argument, is nonetheless used to establish a link between them and the followers of the dame Abonde of the Roman de la Rose. This is not an accusation of wilful distortion,’ he concludes, but rather an abuse of the historical imagination, an indispensable tool of the social historian compelled to make use of fragmentary information.

Well then, let us see. On page 35 I wrote: ‘It was not stated that Anna la Rossa was a benandante, in fact the word was not even mentioned.’ On page 36, after having listed the facts which emerged from her trial, I commented: ‘these are scattered elements which still do not constitute a coherent pattern.’ Then on page 37 I claimed that ‘the connection between the benandanti and those who, like Anna la Rossa, claimed to see the dead emerges more clearly’ because of the trial of a certain Aquilina from which it appeared that those born with the caul were gifted with the power to see the dead. On page 38 I found an ‘explicit confirmation of a link which had been suggested hypothetically’ in a statement made by a certain Caterina la Guercia (‘I am not one of the benandanti, but my deceased husband was; he used to go in procession with the dead’). At this point I dared to define Anna la Rossa as ‘one of the benandanti who could see the dead’.

In his review Pagden has simply ignored the stages in the argument between pages 35 and 41. This is not an accusation of ‘wilful distortion’. I simply think that he must have been distracted or in a hurry when he read my book. Anyone can see, in fact, that the claim ‘Anna la Rossa is a benandante’ explicitly assumes the integration of a series of documents – the trial of Aquilina, the trial of Caterina la Quercia – which establishes other convergent links: ‘he who is born with the caul can see the dead,’ ‘who goes in procession with them is a benandante’, and so on. If, when I wrote The Night Battles, I had been able to read Wittgenstein’s notes (published posthumously in 1967) on The Golden Bough, I could have emphasised the need in establishing morphological connections to find ‘intermediate links’ (Zwischenglieder). The connections, which to Pagden seem ‘tenuous’ – between, for instance, the benandanti and those who could see the ‘Furious horde’ or participated in Diana’s ride – are based on intermediate links of this kind.

3. What was the meaning and importance of the benandanti and their beliefs? Curiously, Pagden ignores my hypothesis whereby the Friulian experience can be seen as an example common throughout Europe of the way in which judges and Inquisitors diffused and superimposed upon heterogeneous cultural strata a stereotype of the sabbath. What Pagden denies, on the basis of the socially marginal position of the benandanti, is the possibility of linking their trances with ‘the force of the community’s traditions, the hopes and needs tied to the life of the society’. The available documentation does not, in fact, provide any clear indication as to the marginality or otherwise of the benandanti. It is true that, as Pagden says, one witness said of one female benandante: ‘some of us think that she is crazy.’ But this is only an isolated claim. Of Pagden’s other assertions, the first (‘few seem to have had an established place in the community’) seems to me undemonstrable, while the second (‘most were poor, some destitute or women afflicted by domestic problems’) certainly does not describe a condition of marginality. As for the benandanti’s increasing cultural marginalisation, this was clearly the result of the behaviour of the Inquisitors. But the problem, as Pagden himself ends by recognising, is different. The beliefs of the benandanti, he says, ‘did indeed articulate the community’s traditions by providing the “common man" with an explanation – or explanations – for precisely those things for which his priests could offer none he could understand, and usually none at all beyond the simple injunction to accept the Church’s rulings and believe’. They were, in fact, ‘surely grounded somewhere in a set of “absolute presuppositions" about precisely 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’. Not bad for beliefs which have been defined as ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’.

Pagden says that the beliefs of the benandanti ‘are couched in a language the historian has still to learn how to read’. Here I agree with him. My attempts at interpretation are far from having exhausted the richness of the documentation, which today, after twenty years, seems to me more unsettling than ever. A deeper analysis might lead above all to an enrichment of the comparative structure in which the benandanti may be located. I have been working in this direction for some time and on the basis of such an inquiry I think that it will be possible to provide an answer to the question Pagden raises about the significance of these beliefs. To this end, however, I think that it should be stressed that any inquiry into meaning cannot be limited exclusively to conscious meaning. From the beginning to the end of The Night Battles I have insisted on the importance of the benandanti’s self-conscious attitude towards their beliefs; and I stressed, in contrast to any notion of ‘collective mentality’, the variety of individual reactions to be found in these documents. But there does exist a stratum of unself-conscious meanings and it is the historian’s task to analyse them. By what means? Any answer would carry me too far from my present purpose. I would like to say only that neither the concept of a ‘collective mentality’ nor that of the ‘collective unconscious’ would be among them. Nevertheless the legitimacy of such an inquiry may be reaffirmed in opposition to claims such as ‘Yet it is surely wrong to suppose that even the most “ordinary" men and women were merely the unthinking mouthpieces of a mind-set not of their own making …’ These words strike me as being popularist and wrong. For the benandanti and their losing struggle against the Inquisitors I have shown the greatest respect and sympathy – sentiments which I did my best to communicate to the readers of my book. But I truly do not see why it is insulting to suppose that their beliefs constitute a ‘mind-set not of their own making’. Does our relationship with language, for instance, not seem like that to all of us? This does not, of course, exclude the possibility of innovation, transformation, or of individual articulation of the complex cultural heritage of which each one of us is a repository.

Carlo Ginzburg
Bologna

Anthony Pagden writes: I should like to comment briefly on each of Professor Ginzburg’s rejoinders. But first let me dispel any suggestion that my praise of his literary gifts was in some sense intended to devalue his equally considerable historical ones. It is a vulgar error, in which Professor Ginzburg’s Italian enemies have all too often taken refuge, to suppose that ‘good’, substantial history can only be written in a heavy pedestrian style. The historian’s language is as vital to his craft as the philosopher’s, and the social historian whose task is the reconstruction of forgotten worlds is in greater need of a literary gift than any other.

1. Our principal disagreement would seem to be over what constitutes a sect. Ginzburg appears to accept that the benandanti, by being a ‘very special sect’, were also a very weak one. Their daytime contacts were clearly few and ambiguous (I never claimed that they were non-existent) and nothing that Ginzburg says here obliges me to change my mind about their significance. A cult, however special, must surely possess a clear sense of membership which extends beyond the adoption of a name whose purpose, it would seem in this case, was only to describe a set of activities. A sect should also have a ritual structure and I cannot accept that, by any definition, dream-states constitute rituals. Ginzburg and I also seem to be in some disagreement about what constitutes a belief. Throughout his letter (and The Night Battles itself) he speaks as though beliefs could be held unself-consciously and thus transformed by the pressure of Inquisitors without their holders being aware of what had become of them. But men do not change their beliefs unless they have reasons for so doing, although they may well, of course, change the accounts they give of them. Despite the brilliance of Ginzburg’s reconstructions I remain unconvinced that what we are witnessing is the transformation of an entire belief system. The evidence is too fragmentary, the benandanti’s own descriptions too imprecise, to be described in such terms. I should also add, in reply to Ginzburg’s incredulity over my description of the benandanti’s beliefs as ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’, that what I took to be beliefs were not merely the details of the conditions, or the descriptive content, of their trance slate but what they assumed their role to have been, the fact that they were ‘good’ witches, not bad, that, therefore, their gatherings were unlike those of the sabbath, and so on. It is this which would seem, on Ginzburg’s account, to have been under pressure and surely this which he believes to have been transformed.

2. I had not thought that the lives of peasants differed so significantly over much of Central and Southern Europe; certainly much current work on peasant beliefs and social behaviour would seem to rest on an assumption that they do not. Ginzburg, however, knows far more about the social history of peasants than I do. But if their social and spiritual needs were so very different how are we – how is he – to explain that they were catered for in such very similar ways? Ginzburg would, of course, reply by assuming the existence of precisely the kind of self-identifying sect which he believes the benandanti to have been, and I do not. I must confess that I fail to identify the ‘deterministic thesis’ in whose interests I suppressed the difference between these peasant communities. Nor do I understand what he means by saying that our differences are ones of ‘historical method’. We differ surely only over what counts as evidence. I have no quarrel with his ‘method’ – how could I since it relies on the syllogism, a device as ancient as logic itself?

I do seem to have misrepresented Ginzburg’s argument with respect to the role of Anna la Rossa, although it is merely petulant to claim that I did so because I had read his book with insufficient care. My objection to the chain of his argument (for which he hardly needs to invoke the authority of Wittgenstein – Aristotle would have done just as well) lies precisely in the weakness of his middle terms. Caterina la Quercia, for instance, said only that her husband used to go in procession with the dead and that he was a benandanti. Not all benandanti – in fact, on Ginzburgs own evidence, very few – claimed to go in procession with the dead. We are therefore, it seems to me, not entitled to assume that all those who go in procession with the dead are also benandanti. It is by the use of such links as these that a collection of statements whose relationship to each other is indeed ‘tenuous’ are built up into something quite unlike the sum of their individual parts.

3. My rejection of Ginzburg’s claims for the centrality of the beliefs of the benandanti was not based exclusively on their marginality. It is simply not plausible to claim that any society, however simple, could find a satisfactory expression of its ‘hopes and needs’ in so restricted a set of beliefs or in a group of individuals who found themselves so often denounced or rejected as swindlers by their neighbours. And I do not see how their increasing marginalisation (which Ginzburg seems to accept), nor their apparent assumption of the role of healers over that of defenders of the crops (which Ginzburg does not deny), can be attributed to pressure from the Inquisitors, unless we assume that the majority of the community shared their suspicions of the heterodox; and if we do that then, of course, the benandanti cannot be said to be tied in any way to ‘the force of the community’s traditions’.

On his last two points, I did not say that the beliefs of the benandanti with which he was concerned in his book provided the common man with explanations the Church could not. The beliefs to which I referred (and which he barely mentions) were those concerning the relationship between the body and the soul, the living and the dead, and they were, I claimed, surely underpinned by a set of ‘absolute presuppositions’ I assumed to have been shared by the entire community. These, I am certain, are far from being ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’. Neither did I wish to suggest that Ginzburg had shown either disrespect or lack of sympathy for the plight of the benandanti. His book is a tour de force in this respect. Neither was my point a popularist one. It was, once again, a statement about the nature of beliefs. No matter who holds them, they cannot be assumed to be capable of unthinking transformation. A peasant as much as a philosopher has to have a reason to believe. And it seems to me that the simple answer to Ginzburg’s rhetorical question is no. I do not believe that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. As for the reference to a collective mentality and the rejection of the possibility of any kind of Jungian ‘collective unconscious’, I can only say that I hope he does not believe that I intended to accuse him, wittingly or unwittingly, of wishing to employ such a ‘method’. I look forward to his work on the origins of the sabbath, which, I am sure, will, as he says, provide answers to many of the questions I have raised.

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