The Benandanti

Historian Carlo Ginzburg on the benandanti witches, clashes between medieval peasants and inquisitors, and the misconception in the inquisition trials

videos | July 13, 2015

Who are the benandanti? How does witchcraft persecution reflect early class struggle? How were inquisition trials conducted? These and other questions are answered by UCLA Professor Carlo Ginzburg.

My first book was published in 1966, the title was “Il Benandanti” literally – people who go for the good. I was 27, my encounter with the benandanti came out by pure chance. I believe that chance plays a big role in research, but chance implies always an interaction with the researcher, which was also the case in my encounter with the benandanti.

When I was 20, I decided to make a triple decision, suddenly, I remember this very well: I was a student at the University of Pisa and I suddenly decided that, firstly, I wanted to try to become a historian, secondly, I wanted to work on witchcraft, and thirdly, I wanted to work especially not on the persecution witchcraft, but on the defendants: their beliefs, their attitudes. I remember that moment I checked the entry stregoneria – witchcraft in the Enciclopedia Italiana. I was completely ignorant about the topic, but I was deeply attracted by the topic for many reasons, including my early exposure as a child, which was not atypical at all, it was obvious, to a lot of fairy tales involving witches and the sort.

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Anyway, I started to work on witchcraft in modern Northern Italy. I started with an assumption which retrospectively seems to be naive – this was a sort of research project which implied the question and also a bias, meaning I was deeply interested, I would say, like every student in my generation in Italy, by Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison notebooks’. Antonio Gramsci – one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party – was put in jail by the fascist regime, and he wrote extensively when he was in jail, and he died in 1937. Then, after the war, after the collapse of the fascist regime, his notebooks were published. Much later he became a sort of international figure, but at that moment his reception was still very much in Italy. He wrote on ‘cultural subaltern classes’ – subordinate, but in order to circumvent the fascist censorship he wrote about ‘subaltern classes’. I was very much taken by his notes.

So there was this, and then the idea that – this was the naive side of my project – that witchcraft could be regarded as a sort of crude, early example of class struggle. What retrospectively strikes me is that first I found a trial which confirmed my hypothesis perfectly. This was, in fact, the first essay I’ve ever published. It was a trial which took place in Modena at the beginning of the sixteenth century, 1519. It was against a woman, a peasant, who had been accused of witchcraft – of having put a charm against the landlady, because that woman, carciorini – the peasant, and her husband were rejected by the land. And so according to the accusation, according to the Inquisition, she had put charms against the landlady as an act of revenge.

I wrote that essay and in the end I wrote: “Well, this case, notwithstanding its specificity, has some general features which could imply that the case itself is in some way exemplary – it’s a paradigmatic case”. This notion of paradigm is today usually associated with a famous book by Thomas Kuhn “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which, in fact, focuses on the notion of paradigm. But my reference was not to Kuhn for a very simple reason – because I published the essay one year before Thomas Kuhn. But, actually, I didn’t use the word “paradigmatic” in the Kuhn’s sense.

The idea was that the case was exemplary, meaning a clash between two world views: the peasant world view and the inquisitor world view.

The idea was that, I was shooting in the dark, so to speak, the case was paradigmatic, was exemplary, not because it implied a sort of class tension, but for a different, broader reason, meaning a clash between two world views: the peasant worldview and the inquisitor worldview. So, instead of stressing – and this was made several times even a few years later by a famous British historian Hugh Trevor Roper – that in a way there was a sort of a shared world of superstitions shared by both inquisitors and the defendants, but at different levels, I stress, on the contrary, the clash and, I think, this was very much indebted to Gramsci.

So anyway, I had my hypothesis confirmed and I was deeply disappointed. I had no research project at that moment, but only vague ideas. So I decided to begin a tour across Italy looking for archival funds related to the inquisition trials, and I started in Venice.

It was in Venice, in the Venice State Archive, and I started to play what I retrospectively called “the Venetian Roulette”. Why? Because the fund is enormous: 150 volumes full of dozens of trials. Every scholar was supposed to ask for a given number, I think, 4 volumes a day. I had no clues except a nineteenth century hand-written inventory of the fund with a sort of vague description of every trial, saying “magic”, “heresy” and names, but names unknown to me. I had no clue, and I entered every day the archive, and I said: “4, 36, 68 and 99”. Then I would get the volumes and I would start to read them.

At a certain moment I came across a short, not even a trial, but an interrogation in 1583 against a young peasant, Menithino Dalatizana. The interrogation started with the inquisitor asking: “Are you a benandante?”, – I had never come across this word before – and the peasant said: “Well, I’m not, but people say that the benandanti are people born in a caul, and since they are born in a caul,” meaning the amniotic sac, “they are supposed to leave their body in spirit four times a year in order to go to the Meadow of Jehoshaphat in order to fight against the witches”. And what is at stake in those fights is the fertility of the crops, and the benandanti, who are fighting in spirit against the witches, have as a weapon fennel branches, and the witches have sorghum sticks.

I read this, there were further details, and I remember that when I left the archive, I was so taken by this discovery that I started to walk in front of the archive across the street in Venice, close to one of the most marvelous churches in the world that has a wonderful, famous painting by Titian, actually two of them, and a polyptych by Giovanni Bellini. At that moment I was still smoking, I was smoking one cigarette after the other thinking how lucky I was.

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Retrospectively, when not that book, but another book, which was related to the benandanti discovery, but related to the effort of placing the benandanti in a much wider, in fact, Eurasian context, when the further book was translated into Japanese, I was invited for the presentation of the book in Tokyo. And so I was there, that was in 1991, I think. At this moment I can retrospectively look at my discovery of the benandanti in Venice, trying to understand why I was so excited, because it was not so obvious that those few pages written by a late 16th century notary could have triggered such a reaction, so I tried to understand my own reaction. I was unable to understand at that moment which was the crucial feature in the trial, meaning that it took place in a little town in Friuli.

The next stop in my Italian tour after Venice was Udine, so I tried to enter the Ecclesiastical Archives in Udine, I couldn’t. The archive was not available to scholars, so I went to the Biblioteca Comunale in Udine – to the town library in Udine. Then I had a further lucky encounter, meaning somebody had stolen a handwritten volume from the Ecclesiastical Archive, and the volume was an index listing the first thousand trials, Inquisition trials, which took place in Friuli. That hand-written list written by an inquisitor in mid-18th century, that volume was stolen and then bought by the Biblioteca Comunale.

So I was able to have a look at the menu of a meal which I was unable to eat, because the trials were unavailable, but I looked at the trials and I discovered a lot of benandanti. What happened was that later I was able to consult the trials, more than fifty of them, some of them very long. I was able to transcribe them, to make microfilms to work on a book, which I ultimately published, in which I showed that the inquisitor’s reaction to the benandanti was first a surprise and then an attempt to turn the benandanti, the counter-witches, into witches.

I explained that in my view this truly exceptional case, exceptional from a documentary point of view, pointed to a trajectory which took place in other parts of Europe as well. What was so impressive and exceptional about the case of the benandanti was the gap between the benandanti’ beliefs and inquisitor’s expectations. In other words, the inquisitors were completely unaware or all those beliefs about leaving the body in spirit, because they were born in a caul and so on, and so forth.

So all the details which I discovered in “About the Night Battles” (that was the title which I suggested for the English translation of the book) – everything took place in the night, in spirit, experiences unavailable to anybody except the actors – they were described in detail and then transcribed in detail by the notaries. A truly exceptional case!

Every scholar who had previously argued that witchcraft trials were the projection of inquisitor’s expectations with no counterpart on the peasant’s side had to change his mind.

Because in this case it was absolutely clear: there was a rich counterpart, rich layer of popular believes, which emerged from that gap – the gap was crucial. I think, that the relevance of the benandanti case was accepted, but nobody tried to work on the benandanti for a long time. I did myself and I published a book in which I tried to locate the benandanti case in a much wider perspective.

More recently there has been another book by an Italian scholar named Nardon, and he worked on the benandanti in a different perspective on the benandanti trials, in the different perspective – stressing not their exceptionality, but their family resemblances with other characters like magicians. I must say, I was not particularly convinced by this approach.

Certainly, witchcraft which, when I started to study it, was regarded as a marginal topic among historians, then became very fashionable. This was related to a sort of growing dialogue between historians and anthropologists, although, in my view, the result of this dialogue should have been a deeper concern for the defendant’s attitudes and beliefs, which was not always the case. But I must say that now witchcraft became fashionable as a topic and the benandanti became very popular in Friuli. If you look up the benandanti on the web you may find a rock group in Friuli – they named themselves Benandanti, and so on and so forth, but this is a brief role.

What I would regard as important is the idea that a single case can lead to further conclusions that witchcraft was not only a label for the persecution of it, but also had a popular counterpart. Also, in a broader perspective that so-called popular culture is a very rich topic.

Franklin D. Murphy Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies , UCLA
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