Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department

Book Review

Carlo Ginzburg. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by Anne and John Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. 

In 1966 when Carlo Ginzburg published I Benandanti, now translated from the Italian as The Night Battles, it was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking work on the subject of witchcraft. Since then, Ginzburg, formerly a professor at Bologna and now Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies at UCLA, has become known as one of the chief proponents of microhistory. His books, such as The Cheese and the Worms, study a small slice of history intensely in order to find larger truths. The Night Battles, while certainly a great piece of historical research, is weaker in some of its more general conclusions.

The subject is a group of peasants in the Friulian countryside near Venice, and their inquisitors, over a seventy-year period. The name benandanti translates awkwardly as "those who go doing good," a vague name, and one that inquisitors found singularly inappropriate. These men and women, who were born with the caul (amniotic sac around the head), claimed to have gone out, at least in spirit, during the four periods each year known as Ember Days and battled witches for the success of crops. This fighting took place with stalks of fennel and sorghum as weapons wielded by the spirits of those involved. If the benandanti triumphed, the harvest would be good; if the witches won, the harvest would be poor. The benandanti also claimed that the witches would ruin the villagers’ wine and cause property damage on their return home from the battles.

The real story of the book is how the benandanti came to the attention of the inquisitors and eventually "realized" that they themselves were witches. This epiphany came after a fitful persecution of the benandanti; nobody really seemed to care at first about these peasants or their foolishness. The very first of the benandanti to be mentioned before the court was Paolo Gasparutto of the village of Iassico in 1575, but the court decided that the stories told of him were simply peasant tall tales. The accusation was not followed up at the time. The inquisitors stepped up things a bit when the non- and pre-Christian elements of the benandanti practices became evident, thus suggesting heresy: fighting for the success of crops instead of praying; the dealing with witches, even in an adversarial role; and the idea of spirits leaving bodies for the combats. By 1581, Gasparutto had seen the error of his ways, confessed his sin, and agreed to perform penance for his activities. The prosecutions would continue until the mid-17th century.

Ginzburg does an excellent job with the primary source material, which consists for the most part of the records of the benandanti trials he discovered in the archiepiscopal archives at Udine, shows that most benandanti interrogations followed the pattern of first evasiveness and denial on the part of the accused, who feared being punished by the witches or by other benandanti for talking about their combats. The accused were then either tripped up by the doggedness of the inquisitors or the multitude of accusations against them. They made thorough, if sometimes confused and reluctant confessions, and received sentences of various penances and warnings not to engage in such activity in the future. Not one trial ended with an execution.  The impression we are left with is that the judges considered the peasants too silly to have been heretics. The inquisitors may well have wished to be involved in greater things and more important matters in Rome itself.

Another factor in the light sentences and half-hearted prosecutions is that the Venetian government was not very happy with the Inquisition. Venice felt its own power vaguely undermined when its citizens were hauled before what it viewed as a foreign court. It is worth remembering that Inquisitorial courts operated only with the approval of local political authorities. Ginzburg brings up the point from time to time, and it is a crucial one. Secular courts and the Inquisition had to cooperate in order for heresy prosecutions to be successful. 

The importance of the benandanti trials is that they constituted to the inquisitors the first real evidence of a witch conspiracy. There was nothing diabolic about what the benandanti claimed to have done; they were convinced that they were fighting on the side of God and their fellow villagers. Forced to become participants in the battle against evil by birth, they took their duties seriously. The stories they told at trial, haltingly and fearfully, were enough for the courts to conclude that the Devil was at work in the Friuli on a grand scale. The inquisitors exhibited in their investigations a microcosm of the history of European witch-hunting, which began with scornful dismissals of the reality of witchcraft, moved on to acceptance of at least the illusion of occult activities, and ended with the pronouncement of the diabolic heresy of the practitioners of real and dangerous magic which needed to be rooted out and destroyed by the Church.

Ginzburg also writes about the case of a 17th century Livonian man condemned for believing that he became a wolf, at least in spirit, in order to combat crop-ruining witches at night. The parallels between this case and the stories of the benandanti lead Ginzburg to posit them both as surviving elements of an otherwise extinct European fertility cult. While this may be true, more evidence than this is needed to make such a leap. It is clear that common pre-Christian elements exist in both cases, but it is not clear that these spring from the same specific cultic source. 

The trials of the benandanti came to an end in the middle of the 17th century. They never were a priority for the investigators. The benandanti became more like a fairy tale or legend in later years; by the end of the 17th century, people could come forward and claim to have been benandanti without really knowing much about them. Some elements, such as the caul, or the fighting with witches, remained in the later stories, but essential parts of the original cult, like the reason for the battles in the first place, disappeared. The benandanti ceased to be. Ginzburg tells one story of a local priest who begged for someone to investigate what he called "bellandanti" in 1668, but nobody cared enough to pursue the case.

Ginzburg has done a painstaking job in researching his sources and assembling his material. The main players in the narrative, such as Paolo Gasparutto, come across as distinct and genuinely human characters rather than as numbers. It is especially appealing to see the emotions of the accused peasants, simple and sincere people whose fear and sorrow, evasiveness and reluctance come through in the included trial transcript. The appendix contains the transcript of the trial of Gasparutto and Battista Moduco, which began in 1575 and dragged on in fits and starts until 1581. The final sentence of the court shows the mindset of the inquisitors and the beliefs that drove them.

The book is important for anyone researching European witchcraft and inquisitorial methods; Ginzburg gathers his primary sources well, and creates a compelling narrative. If it does not entirely succeed in making the case for a single, pre-Christian fertility cult in Europe, it is an excellent introduction to the microhistorical approach.  The Tedeschis translate the original into clear idiomatic English. The one fault with their translation is their use of ‘warlock’ to mean a male witch; the Italian has masculine and feminine forms of one word (strega). This unfortunate choice only reinforces the misconception that ‘warlock’ is the correct term for a male witch.

Annotated Reviews

Midelfort, H.C. Erik. "The Night Battles" Catholic Historical Review 72 (1986): 648-650.  
Midelfort believes that Ginzburg’s evidence is scant, and emphasizes that the kind of logical leap Ginzburg makes is something that would have appealed to 16th century demonologists. Midelfort states, however, that the book is a fine example of "counter-interrogation" of the original inquisitors.

Burke, Peter. "The Night Battles" New York Review of Books 32 (1985): 32-34.
 One reviewer who has great praise for Ginzburg: he admires his research and his analysis, but wonders whether the connections between the Baltic werewolf and the benandanti are very strong. Burke does say that the book is very important in the field of European witchcraft, especially given the time of publication and Ginzburg’s work since then.

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