??the focus is on popular culture, specifically, ?the religious attitudes and, in a broad sense, the mentality of a peasant society? (p. xvii). The subject matter, however, is such that Ginzburg aims also at a contribution to ?our understanding of the significance and nature of popular witchcraft, as distinguished from the learned conceptions of inquisitorial origin? (p. xviii).? (Shumaker, 130)
Shumaker, Wayne. Renaissance Quarterly 38, no. 1 (1985): 130-32. doi:10.2307/2861342.
I. The Night Battles
??witches like Gasparutto himself, ?who are good, called vagabonds and in their own words benandanti? who prevent evil? while other witches ?commit it?.? (Ginzburg, 2)
The author begins by recalling recorded testimony from a judicial gathering around Cividale in the second half of the sixteenth century. (Ginzburg, 3)
?The witches and warlocks who congregate on Thursday nights to give themselves over to ?dancing,? ?games,? ?marriages,? and banquets, instantly evoke the image of the sabbat ? the sabbat which demonologist had minutely described and codified, and that inquisitors had condemned at least from the mid-fifteenth century. And yet there are obvious differences between the gatherings described by the benandanti and the traditional popular image of the diabolical sabbat. It appears that in the former, homage was not paid to the devil (in fact, there was no reference at all to his presence), there was no abjuration of the faith, trampling of crucifixes, or defilement of sacraments. The essence of these gatherings was an obscure rite: witches and warlocks armed with sorghum stalks jousting and battling with benandanti armed with fennel stalks.n? (Ginzburg, 4)
Next, the author recalls the recordings of a second legal proceeding five years after the first, in which new details about the Benandante and their battles emerge.
??at the core of the nocturnal gatherings of the benandanti we see a fertility rite emerging that is precisely patterned on the principle events of the agricultural year. Moduco added that he had not belonged to the company of the benandanti for more than eight years: ?one enters at the age of twenty, and is freed at forty, if he so wishes.?? (Ginzburg, 6)
?But the inquisitor demanded still more information, and above all the names of the other benandanti. Moduco refused: ?i would be beaten by the entire company,? and he even declined to reveal the names of the witches. ?If you say that you fight for God, I want you to tell me the names of these witches,? Fra Felice insisted. But Moduco was stubborn. He declared that he could not accuse anyone ?whether he be friend or foe? because we have a life-long edict not to reveal secrets about one side or the other? This commandment was made by the captains of each side, whose we are obliged to obey.?? (Ginzburg, 7)
The author then jumps to a third court proceeding, where Gasparutto is again questioned about his actions as a benandanti. This time, however, the inquisition attempts to match the witness? testimony to that of the demonological sabbat in order to incarcerate him. Fra Felice attempts and succeeds in convincing these benandanti that the angel bringing them to battle the witches is in fact the devil. (Ginzburg, 10-11)
?were these retractions sincere? It is impossible to reply with certainty. What counts is that the events in this trial ? the crisis of belief evidenced by the two benandanti, their incorporation, at the inquisitor?s insistence, into the latter?s mental and theological world ? epitomized and anticipated the general evolution of the cult that was to define itself, little by little, over more than half a century.? (Ginzburg, 11)
?In this period the benandanti constituted, as we perceive from their confessions, a true and proper sect, organized in military fashion about a leader and linked by a bond of secrecy ? a relatively weak bond which the benandanti were continually breaking, either out of loquacity or naive boastfulness.? (Ginzburg, 14)
??various superstitions were attached to this object, the ?caul,? or placenta: it was supposed to protect soldiers from blows, cause the enemy to withdraw, and even help lawyers to win their cases? To increase these powers Masses were even celebrated over it, as we know from a superstitious practice already in vogue in the time of San Bernardino?? (Ginzburg, 14)
?Either is has been supposed that witches and warlocks were individuals afflicted by epilepsy, hysteria, or other mental diseases not well defined: or else the loss of consciousness accompanied by hallucinations, described by them, have been attributed to the effects of ointments containing sleep-inducing or narcotic substances.? (Ginzburg, 16)
When the soul left the body for the night battles, it was believed that witches souls were represented by cats, while benandante?s souls were in the form of mice. (Ginzburg, 18)
?Should the nocturnal gatherings and the battles which they described be understood as dreams and fantasies, or as real events? There were no doubts on this score, as we have see, among the benandanti themselves: conventicles and battles were very real, even if only their spirits participated. But the judges refused to go along with this division: in the sentences concluding the trial, Gasparutto and modulo were condemned for having ?gone? with the benandanti, and for having dare ?to believe and affirm? that the spirit could, on these occasions, abandon the body and re-enter it at will.? (Ginzburg, 20)
?The benandanti went forth on Thursday nights in the Ember seasons: festivities which had survived from an ancient agricultural cycle and which were eventually incorporated in the Christian calendar, that symbolized the changes of the seasons, the perilous passage from the old to the new time of year, with its promise of planting, harvasting, reaping and autumn vintage. It was during these occasions, on which the prosperity of the community depended, that the benandanti went forth to protect the produce of the earth from witches and warlocks, and from those forces that they thought secretly threatened the fertility of the fields: ?And if we are the victors, that year there is abundance, but if we lose there is famine.? To be sure, the benandanti were not alone in fulfilling this propitiatory function. The church itself labored to protect the harvests and ward off those all too frequent and ruinous famines by means of Rogations, processions around the fields, usually during the three days preceding the Assension. Obviously, we are not suggesting by this that Friulian peasants at the end of the sixteenth century attempted to safegaurd their crops and their harvests exclusively by means of religious precessions or superstitious practices, but the careful performance of work in the fields could and in fact did easily co-exist with faith in the benefits of ecclesiastical rituals or even in nocturnal battles fought victoriously by the benandanti.? (Ginzburg, 21)
?It may be supposed that this combat re-enacted, and to a certain extent rationalized, an older fertility rite in which two groups of youths, respectively impersonating demons favorable to fertility and the maleficent ones of desctruction, symbolically flayed their loins with stalks of fennel and sorghum to stimulate their of reproductive capacity, and by analogy, the fertility of the fields of the community.? (Ginzburg, 22)
?More plausible perhaps is the analogy between the battles of benandanti against witches and ritual contests between Winter and Summer (or Winter and Spring) which used to be acted out, and still are today, in some areas of north-central Europe.? (Ginzburg, 23)
The author argues that the unifying of agrarian practices with religious ones could be the result of pressure to justify ancient pagan traditions during a time when the church enjoyed considerable authority over the peasants of Europe. Synthesizing the two allowed them to continue practicing their history and tradition without overtly objecting to Christian hegemony. (Ginzburg, 24)
?Something must have taken place in the Friuli akin to what has been documented for another part of the peninsula, the area around Modena: the gradual but continuous transformation of ancient popular beliefs, which, under the unconscious pressure from inquisitors finally crystallized in the pre-existing mould of the diabolical sabbat? In Modena, the earliest references to nocturnal meetings of witches in fact do no concern the adoration of the devil, but the cult, still innocuously magical, of a mysterious female divinity, Diana, about which we have knowledge in northern Italy at least from the end of the fourteenth century.? (Ginzburg, 25)
The author states that this kind of story was told over and over again in witch trails throughout Europe across the century. The one outstanding exception was the trail of a werewolf in Jürgensburg in 1692 in Germany.
?The accused, a certain Thiess, an old man in his eighties, freely confessed to his judges that he was a werewolf (wahrwolff)? With other werewolves Thiess had also gone down into hell and had fought with Skeistan. The latter, armed with a broom handle (again, the traditional symbol of witches) wrapped in the tail of a horse had struck the old man on the nose. This was not a casual encounter. Three times each year on the nights of St. Lucia before Christmas, of Pentecost, and of St. John, the werewolves proceeded on foot, in the form of wolves, to a place located ?beyond the sea?: hell? by doing so they could bring back up to earth what had been stolen by the witches ? livestock, grains, and the other fruits of the earth. If they failed to do so? [they] had failed to bring back the grains and buds carried off by the witches? At this juncture, as might have been foreseen, the judges tried to get Thiess to confess that he had entered into a compact with the devil. The old man reiterated, in vain, with monotonous obstinacy that he and his companions were ?the hounds of God? and the enemies of the devil, that they protect men from dangers and guaranteed the prosperity of harvests.? (Ginzburg, 26-7)
II. The Processions of the Dead
This second chapter begins with the trial of a woman who various witnesses claim holds the ability to speak with and see the dead. Similarities between this account and those of the benandanti are of note, including the fear of being beaten with sorghum if anyone discovers their powers or information. Similarly, those who can communicate with the dead ?must have been born with the caul.?
?Anna la Rossa was trying, it would appear, to alleviate her own and her family?s poverty by exploiting an extremely common but also insatiable desire, the longing to know something about the fate of a departed loved one (and linked with the hope of life beyond the tomb), mingled inextricably with the instinctive inability to think of a dead human being without restoring to it the life it no longer possessed.? (Ginzburg, 32)
?Gradually, instead, this ?power? took the form of a widespread belief (and not just of an individual stratagem), and for those who claimed to possess it, namely the benandanti, it became a destiny.
?In his instructions to bishops, Regino of Prüm (d.915), along with various other superstitions, condemned the belief of women who, deceived by the evil, claimed that they rode on certain nights with Diana, the pagan goddess, and her entourage of women, traveling to remote places.? (Ginzburg, 37)
?It is important, instead, to note that this belief in nocturnal cavalcades had a wide diffusion, as witnessed by the ancient German penitential works. In these writings, however, the name of Diana was occasionally replaced by such popular Germanic divinities as Holda, endowed with attributes which, in a contradiction frequently encountered, were related to both life and death. Holda, in fact, like her sister deity in souther Germany, Perchta, was at the same time goddess of vegetation, and thus of fertility, and the leader of the ?Furious Horde? or ?Wild Hunt? ? namely of the ranks of those who had died prematurely and passed through village streets at night, unrelenting and terrible, while the inhabitants barricaded their doors for protection.? (Ginzburg, 37)
There is more evidence of these pagan or ancient European mythological traditions grafting with Catholic hegemony. On the Catholic All Souls? Day, ?the deceased pass through the town in long processions, carrying candles, and re-enter their former homes where the charity of the living has placed food, drink and clean beds at their disposal.? (Ginzburg, 38-9)
Side note ? the popular story of Cookies, sweets or food left for Santa Claus during the Christmas holiday is probably linked historically and mythologically to this same practice of leaving food and fresh bedding out for the souls wandering with the deity who goes by Diana and many other names. The Western traditions surrounding the celebration of Christmas are mostly incorporated from earlier pagan traditions within Europe during the middle ages. Somewhere along the timeline of history, Saint Nicholas was added to the mythological lore.