Good Witches

La sorcière de Jasmin

by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
Editions du Seuil, 282 pp., fr79

When, in 1967, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper published a lively essay on what he called “The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” he can hardly have guessed that he was summarizing and synthesizing the conventional historical wisdom on the subject at the very time that this conventional view was being undermined. Trevor-Roper emphasized his concern with the views of educated men and his lack of interest in what he called “those elementary village credulities which anthropologists discover in all times and at all places.”

On the other hand, Keith Thomas, Alan Macfarlane, Erik Midelfort, John Demos, Paul Boyer, Stephen Nissenbaum, and other historians at work in the 1970s studied witchcraft “from below,” in villages, and they all emphasized the relevance of village experience to the traditional problem of the “witch craze,” or, more precisely, to the sharp increase in the number of trials for witchcraft and the number of people executed for witchcraft. In Western Europe, this increase took place between 1550 and 1650, while Eastern Europeans either experienced it later, as in the case of Poland, or escaped it altogether, as in Russia. Looking back, one sees that an early example of the new trend to study witchcraft through the interplay of learned and popular culture was Carlo Ginzburg’s Benandanti, first published in 1966 and now available in a fluent and elegant English translation under the title The Night Battles.

Carlo Ginzburg is now a well-established and controversial figure among Italian historians; his international reputation as a historian of popular culture owes most to The Cheese and the Worms (1976), a brilliant evocation, reconstruction, and interpretation of the cosmology of a sixteenth-century miller, Menocchio Scandella, who came from a village in Friuli, northeast of Venice, and was arrested by the Inquisition on a heresy charge in 1584. However, it was The Night Battles, published when he was only twenty-seven, that made Ginzburg’s name. Like The Cheese and the Worms, The Night Battles is based on a remarkable discovery in the archives of the archbishop of Udine in Friuli, archives that contain the records of the interrogations conducted by the local inquisitors.

When Paolo Gasparutto was interrogated on suspicion of witchcraft, at Cividale in Friuli in 1580, he burst out laughing. How could he be a witch? He was, he explained, a benandante, that is, a “good walker,” and that meant that he fought witches. He and others went out to fight on certain nights of the year armed with sticks of fennel, while their enemies, the witches, carried sticks of sorghum. “And if we are the victors,” another benandante declared, “that year is abundance, but if we lose there is famine.” The accused, of whom there were eventually some 850 between 1580 and 1634, also explained to their interrogators that the benandanti could cure the sick and speak to the dead; that they were born with the caul, or placenta; and also that when they went out at night it was not in the body …

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