witchcraft and agrarian cults in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (book reviews)

The  night  battles:  witchcraft  and  agrarian  cults  in  the  sixteenth  and
     seventeenth centuries. (book reviews)
 Norman Cohn
 New Republic  v192 p39(3) Feb 25, 1985
    When this book first appeared in Italian under the title I Benandanti it
was hailed for throwing new light both on peasant mentality in the early modern
period and on the nature of European witchcraft. That was a long time ago--I
Benandanti was published in 1966. Since then the popular culture of the 16th
and 17th centuries has been explored on a massive scale, and research on
European wittchcraft and witch-hunting has also been abundant. How does
Ginzburg's book look now? Re-reading it in this very competent English
translation, I find what Ginzburg discovered about the beliefs and practices of
certain Italian peasants as exciting and thought-provoking today as it was all
those years go. On the other hand, I still can't see that the book throws any 
light at all on the nature of European witchcraft.
     By patient research into the records of the Inquisition, Ginzburg has
established that between the late 16th and the mid-17th century there lived in
the district of Friuli, in the extreme northeast of Italy, certain peasants who
called themselves "benandanti," or "good walkers." A benandante was always a
person who had been born wrapped in the amniotic membrane, or caul; a
circumstance which (as in many other societies) was believed to bestow
supernatural powers. In the case of the benandanti those powers manifested
themselves chiefly during the Ember Days of the year--to be precise, on a went
to the witches, they would bring famine on the land.
     The benandanti were believed, and believed themselves, to possess other
powers as well. It was throught that witches on the way home from their
nocturnal gatherings were apt to break into wine cellars and, after helping
themselves to wine, spoil the rest by urinating into it or throwing filth into
the casks. It was the task of the benandanti to thwart them in this vexatious
activity. Again, if witches had sucked a child's blood so that it was on the
point of death, the benandanti could always save it if they arrived in time.
All this they did while asleep: while a benandante's body lay motionless, wrapt
in slumber, his or her spirit would go wandering, intent on frustrating witches
in all their doings. On the other hand, nobody doubled the reality of these 
struggles--the benandante's spirit, temporarily sundered from the body, was
imagined as itself material, tangible.
     The status of benandante was not something to which one aspired but
something that was thrust upon one, and which was often felt as a burden. Once
a man or woman born with a caul had reached maturity, it was only a matter of
time before he or she would receive a summons in a dream. An angel, or else an
older benandante--who might be a real person, known to the dreamer, but was
just as likely to be a figure of fantasy, imargined as living in some distant
place--would call the dreamer to join in the perennial struggle against the
witches. And that call could not be resisted: from then on, the new benandante
was fated to take part, at regular intervals, in night battles against the
     IN The late 16th century and the first half of the 17th, official
witch-hunting was at its height. That was the time when, over vast areas of
Western Europe, ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike were obsessed by
fear of demonic witchcraft. They were convinced that great numbers of
people--mostly but not exclusively women--were meeting clandestinely, at night,
to adore the devil in person, to perpetrate every kind of blasphemy and
sacrilege, and to indulge in promiscuous orgies. This notion of a witches'
sabbath was new--during the thousand-year span we call the Middle Ages nobody 
had thought of witchcraft that way--and once it became implanted in the minds
of the elite it produced a suspiciousness, a nervous vigilance, which were also
new. In Friuli the task of tracking down devil-worshipping witches was
entrusted to the Inquisition; and it was only to be expected that from time to
time a benandante would find himself being questioned by an inquisitor about
his noctural experiences. What transpired during those interrogations was
faithfully recorded. Ginzburg is to be congratulated on the skill with which he
has extracted, from such an unlikely source, such a coherent account of an
otherwise unkown set of peasant beliefs.
     Ginzburg also tries to show that the inquisitors directed their
interrogations toward proving that the benandanti were simply witches; and
that, after generations of steady effort, they succeeded in convincing the
benandanti themselves. It does not seem to me that there is any solid evidence
of such a process. Naturally enough, the first thought of an inquisitor,
confronted with unfamiliar tales of night battles, was to try to interpret them
in terms of the all-too-familiar tales of witches' sabbaths. But in the various
Friulian cases described, the inquisitors were clearly unable to convince even
themselves. As Ginzburg observes, "the basic indifference of the inquisitors is
obvious from the way these investigations were lazily protracted over the
years. And it is symptomatic that in the span of almost half a century . . . no
trial against a benandante was brought to a conclusion"--save only one, and 
even that ended with a few days' imprisonment and a public recantation. This at
a time when other people were being burned alive by the hundreds on charges of
attending the witches' sabbath! And as for the benandanti's view of
themselves--in the couple of late cases where a benandante did confess to being
a witch and attending the sabbath, Ginzburg himself wonders whether the
confessions were not dictated by fear of torture. Certainly the Holy Office in
Rome refused to take them at their face value. So may we: there are really no
good grounds for doubting that at all times a benandante knew himself or
herself to be no witch but the very opposite: a "Good walker."
     This is minor criticism, not weighty at all when set against the vividness
with which Ginzburg portrays the relationship between inquisitors and
benandanti. The gulf which divided popular culture from the culture of the
educated elite, the incomprehension with which a cleric, his mind steeped in
the new demonology, approached the mental world of the peasantry--all this is
evoked most persuasively. The most serious defect of The Night Battles lies
     "Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults": this phrase, which figures in the book's
subtitle, fairly indicates its central thesis. Ginzburg is convinced, and tries
hard to convince his readers, that the benandanti constituted an organized sect
and that their practices constituted a fertility cult. What is more, he 
suggests that it was fertility cults such as this, misinterpreted by the
inquisitors, which gave rise to the belief in demonic witchcraft. In all this
he follows a tradition that goes back to Margaret Murray's Witch-Cult in
Western Europe. In my view, it has led him badly astray.
     FERTILITY cults do of course exist, but the rites they involve--such as
ritual dancing--are performed physically and publicly. The object of those
rites is to solicit and placate supernatural powers imagined to be responsible
for the changes in the seasons, for the rising and setting of the sun, for
rainfall and other factors conductive to the fertility of vegetation and of
animals. That is not something one can take part in by lying in bed and
dreaming. Nor can it even be said that the dreams of the benandanti were always
concerned with fertility. Though in some of their dreams benandanti fought
witches who were intent on destroying the crops, in others they rescued
children who were being inwardly devoured by witches, or else they prevented
witches from urinating into wine: not notably "agrarian" occupations at all.
     There is a context within which all the experiences of the benandanti make
perfectly good sense. Quite independently of the educated elite and its
newfangled demonology, there existed among European peasants an age-old belief
in purely destructive, antisocial witchcraft. The dream-activities of the
benandanti were directed against that kind of witchcraft. Only because witches 
were supposed often to attack crops and cattle could those defensive activities
be mistaken for a fertility cult. Anti-witchcraft cults and fertility cults are
in fact very different things; and if only Ginzburg had come across the
writings of anthropologists who have studied anti-witchcraft cults in
present-day Africa, he would surely have recognized the difference.
     Then there is the matter of standardized, culturally determined
dream-experiences. Ginzburg does indeed recognize that such experiences are not
confined to the benandanti; he has even devoted a chapter to describing some
other medieval examples. But these examples are not the most relevant he could
have found. For instance, there exists irrefutable evidence that some women
have regularly felt themselves to leave their bodies at night, to fly abroad,
and to kill and devour people. This evidence comes not only from modern Africa
but also from medieval Europe, many centuries before official witch-hunting
began. By looking further into the records of spontaneous statements of this
kind, made without any kind of duress, Ginzburg might have come to see
traditional, popular witchcraft in a different light. He might also have come
to recognize in the beliefs and experiences of the benandanti the mirror-image
of beliefs and experiences current among peasants who thought of themselves as
     In my view, then, Ginzburg has partly misinterpreted his materials. 
Nonetheless, I'm as sure now as I was when it first appeared that this book is
a most original and imaginative work and a major scholarly achievement.
         COPYRIGHT The New Republic, Inc. 1985