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 1584.1 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 but “in the spirit,” so that “if by chance while we were out someone should come with a light and look for a long time at the body, the spirit would never re-enter it until there was no one around to see it that night; and if the body, seeming to be dead, should be buried, the spirit would have to wander around the world until the hour fixed for that body to die.”

The inquisitors seem at first to have been amazed and indeed quite nonplussed by the discrepancy between these accounts and the standard portrait of the witch presented in the various manuals on the subject, notably the notorious “Witches’ Hammer,” or Malleus Maleficarum, first published in the late fifteenth century by two Dominicans, Sprenger and Kramer. If the original idea of the witch had come from below, from popular culture, it had been elaborated to such an extent by the learned that the testimony of the herdsmen of Friuli was no longer intelligible. To use the language of Professor Thomas Kuhn, we may say that the benandanti were an “anomaly” that would not fit the official paradigm of witchcraft with its sabbaths and its diabolical pacts. Hence the puzzlement of the inquisitors, who were so disconcerted that they let the cases drop. Until 1619, virtually no trial against a benandante was brought to a conclusion.

Historians of witchcraft were almost equally disconcerted when Ginzburg’s book first appeared, thanks not only to the strangeness of his material but also to his boldness in interpreting it. Even more important than his discovery in the archives was the fact that Ginzburg knew what to do with the benandanti when he had found them, that he saw the implications of his discovery and turned the benandanti from an anomaly into part of a new paradigm. His book teems with ideas. Some of them concern historical method, like his criticism of the history of “collective mentalities” as it has been practiced in France by Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Robert Mandrou, and their successors, in the name of a more concrete approach emphasizing individual experience. Ginzburg also offers his readers a number of suggestive and fascinating interpretations of his material. I should like to single out three of his points as particularly important.


In the first place, he suggests that the benandanti were engaged, in imagination at least, in a fertility cult, fighting “for the crops,” as one of them put it, for “if we are the victors, that year is abundance.” He conjectures that the night battles “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 destruction, symbolically flayed their loins with stalks of fennel and sorghum to stimulate their own reproductive capacity, and by analogy, the fertility of the fields of the community.” Whether this was the case or not, he has produced new evidence in support of the old thesis of Margaret Murray, in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), that witchcraft derived from an ancient fertility cult, though it should be added that Murray was sure that the witches met to perform their rituals, while in the case of the benandanti Ginzburg leaves this question open.

His second point is that this fertility cult, real or imagined, was not unique to Friuli but simply survived longer in that rather remote region. Ginzburg draws attention to an apparently analogous phenomenon in seventeenth-century Livonia (later Estonia), the phenomenon of the good werewolf. At a Livonian trial in 1692, the accused claimed that he was a werewolf who fought witches three nights a year, in hell, in order to bring back up to earth the animals and crops that the witches had stolen. More generally, benandanti were said, on occasion at least, not only to go into trances but to visit the beyond, cure the sick, and prophesy the future, and this leads the author to suggest a possible connection between them and shamans, a suggestion he does not develop.

Ginzburg’s third point concerns changing perceptions. Initially disconcerted, the inquisitors came in the long term to recover their nerve. Faced with the discrepancy between what the benandanti told them and what they read in the witch-hunters’ manuals, they insisted that the benandanti had got their story wrong. They adapted the testimonies to fit in with their own preconceptions. Under pressure from the interrogators, the benandanti came, in the course of a generation or so, to see themselves as witches after all. By 1618, a certain Maria Panzona went so far as to admit that the nocturnal meetings she attended were actually witches’ sabbaths, with the devil presiding. From that time on, the benandanti were condemned. Thus the encounter between the inquisitors and the good walkers, who were turned into bad walkers, shows how popular culture, the culture of the subordinate classes, can be transformed by the ruling class, who have the power to impose their definition of the situation. Where Trevor-Roper sees static “village credulities,” Ginzburg sees a dynamic process of interaction.

The Night Battles is a work of genuine intellectual distinction. It is an unusually original contribution to the study of witchcraft in early modern Europe, but its importance is far from being exhausted by that description. It is at once a careful reconstruction of a local milieu, a piece of “micro-history”—the title of an Italian series in which another of Ginzburg’s books has appeared—and a discussion, bold and speculative, of the wider implications of the material discovered. I should like to discuss three matters arising from his account, three cases in which his comments, suggestive as they are, seem to demand further development.

The first of these issues concerns the unity or variety of the beliefs of the men and women of Friuli, as retailed to the interrogators. Some of them may not have told all they knew. Others may have told more than they knew, as also happens not infrequently in such circumtances. The fact that hundreds of witnesses who did not know one another told what was basically the same story suggests that neither the inquisitors nor the historian were seriously misled. All the same it may be worth lingering for a moment on the numerous minor discrepancies between the testimonies, which resemble oral variants of a folktale.

The night battles took place on Wednesdays, or Thursdays; four times a year, or once a week. Some participants mentioned riding on animals, or feasting, or the involvement of an angel or devil. One man visualized the battle between benandanti and witches as a battle between men and women. Women, on the other hand, stressed not the fighting but the speaking to the dead. It was not only the inquisitors who adapted what they heard to their preconceptions. Everyone was engaged in this process of bricolage.


The second question is a geographical one. Ginzburg writes of a complex of traditions to be found not only in Friuli but in a region “stretching from Alsace to the eastern Alps,” and he also quotes one parallel from Livonia. How widespread were these popular traditions, and others like them? Since The Night Battles was first published, nearly two decades ago, some scholars have come up with more parallels to the benandanti, in Rumania, for instance, and in Hungary. The Rumanian case, discussed by Professor Mircea Eliade, concerns the strigoi, or witches, who were born with the caul, and went out on certain nights of the year, in the spirit, to fight among themselves. 2 This example makes one ask whether the diabolization of the benandanti was really the work of the inquisitors alone, as Ginzburg thinks; and in fact some of his own evidence suggests that popular attitudes to the benandanti were sometimes hostile or at best ambivalent. The Hungarian case, recently discussed by Dr. Gábor Klaniczay, compares the figure of the benandante with that of the Hungarian táltos or shaman.3 Some benandanti, like shamans, cured the sick. Some shamans, like benandanti and witches, rode animals. The trance into which the benandanti fell when their spirits went forth to fight might be interpreted as a case of shamanic ecstasy.

Ginzburg deliberately refrained from discussing what he called “the relationship which undoubtedly must exist between benandanti and shamans.” This was understandable enough, since Eliade’s famous study of shamanism is concerned not only with Orpheus and Odin but also with Asia, America, and Australia. Actually, the one continent Eliade omits, Africa, offers another kind of parallel to the benandanti. Among the Nyakyusa of Tanganyika (as it then was), according to the anthropologist Monica Hunter Wilson, writing in 1951, “It is thought that in every village there were ‘defenders’ (abamanga), who see the witches in dreams and fight them and drive them off.”4

This range of analogies, or semi-analogies, or apparent analogies, is astonishing. Everything starts to dissolve into everything else. Might it be significant, for example, that ancient Greek bacchants, like the benandanti, armed themselves with sticks of fennel? Eliade warns us that “Bacchic enthusiasm does not resemble shamanic ecstasy,” and his distinction is no doubt a valid one. However, it should be clear that what Ginzburg discovered in the archepiscopal archive early in the 1960s was only a small part of a phenomenon of European or even world dimensions. This “benandante complex” deserves a careful comparative study which would bring out similarities and differences between beliefs recorded in different regions and would also discuss whether the similarities are due to diffusion or to independent responses to similar circumstances.

A third fascinating general question raised by Ginzburg’s book is a question of psychology. Could the testimonies of the benandanti reflect actual experiences? One of the most interesting things that Margaret Murray did when investigating what she called “the god of the witches” was to collect recipes for witches’ ointments and to ask the professor of medicine at Edinburgh whether these recipes could work. The reply, phrased with proper medical caution, was that “it seems quite possible that the combination of a delirifacient like belladonna with a drug producing irregular action of the heart like aconite might produce the sensation of flying.” Ginzburg notes the possibility that some of the benandanti may have used ointments, just as he notes the possibility that some of them may have been epileptics; but he insists that “the puzzle of the benandanti and their beliefs must be resolved on the basis of popular religiosity, not on that of pharmacology or psychiatry.”

I think he is absolutely right to resist these forms of reductionism, but psychology may help to resolve some problems associated with the benandanti, such as their testimony that they were “summoned” to the night battles and had no choice but to go. Bastiano Menos, for example, declared that one night a certain Michele “called me by name and said, ‘Bastiano, you must come with me,’ ” and he did. This looks like an example of psychological suggestion, or, to put it another way, of culturally patterned dreaming, for which anthropologists have found parallels in the “dream fasts” of the Ojibwa and other Indian tribes early in this century.

It is no criticism of The Night Battles, but a compliment to it to say that the author raises more questions than he, or anyone else, can solve in a study of this length. It has already aroused the interest of scholars throughout Europe, and it is to be hoped that it will now reach a much wider English-speaking audience.

In contrast, the latest study by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, another leading exponent of the new historical anthropology, is a rather slight one. La sorcière de Jasmin is a story about a story about a single witch. Jacques Jasmin was a nineteenth-century barber from Agen, in southwest France, who wrote poems in Occitan, including one called Françouneto. Françouneto was a pretty peasant girl from Roquefort, a village not far from Agen, who was considered by her neighbors to be a witch, “possessed by the devil,” “poussedado del Demoun,” because she seemed to bring bad luck and because her farm was spared by a storm which damaged the crops round about. She was boycotted by the village, with the exception of her faithful suitor Pascal. Pascal married her regardless, and on seeing the happy couple the next morning, the others declared that they would never again believe in witches; “jamay plus nous creyen as sourciés!

La sorcière de Jasmin contains the poem Françouneto both in Occitan and in Jasmin’s French translation, together with two essays by Le Roy Ladurie designed to explain both the girl and the poem and the connections between them. Jasmin’s poem was inspired by local oral tradition, and Le Roy Ladurie in his turn has visited the village of Roquefort to inquire about Françouneto. In a brilliant tour de force of research and imagination, he argues for redating the original episode. Jasmin set his poem in the time of the French religious wars of the sixteenth century, the time of “bloody Blaise,” Blàzy lou sanguinous, in other words the soldier Blaise de Monluc. Le Roy Ladurie, on the other hand, dates the incident on which the oral tradition and the poem are based to the later seventeenth century, on the grounds that the name “Pascal” can be found in Roquefort only in that period. He also suggests that no mere boycott but a trial would have followed an accusation of witchcraft in the late sixteenth century, while a hundred years later the magistrates were no longer taking witches seriously. Le Roy Ladurie, whose collected essays include an important study of witchcraft and magical castration, or the fear that witches could induce impotence by symbolic means, goes over the same ground again here, and also discusses various “models” or theories of witchcraft, including those of Margaret Murray and Carlo Ginzburg.

In short, the girl is firmly placed in her historical and cultural setting. On the other hand, Le Roy Ladurie is rather disappointing on the poem, despite the fact that his previous book, Love, Death, and Money in the Pays d’Oc (1980), also dealt with a writer in Occitan, the eighteenth-century abbé Jean-Baptiste Fabre. He describes Jasmin as a mediator between the learned and the popular culture of his time, but he has little to say about the increasing interest in witches on the part of educated men in nineteenth-century France. The age of Jasmin, who lived from 1798 to 1864, was, for example, the age of Etienne-Leon Lamothe-Langon, sometime subprefect of Toulouse and Carcassonne, whose “most successful hoax,” as Professor Norman Cohn showed a decade ago, was the discovery of an “imaginary witch-hunt in fourteenth-century Languedoc.” It was also the age of the historian Jules Michelet, whose essay La sorcière (1863) narrowly escaped being banned but was, when published, an immediate success. What lay behind this revival of interest in witches? Le Roy Ladurie does not tell us. Despite his choice of Jasmin, he limits himself to the peasants as Trevor-Roper limited himself to the ruling class. But we shall never understand the history of European witchcraft until the views from above and below are brought more closely together.

This Issue

February 28, 1985