Being a 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 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.