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The Night Battles and Friulian Society

Jul 12, 2008
Friulian society was one of superstition, a rural society in which the old traditions, many of them pre-Christian traditions died hard and were completely foreign to the non-Friulian inquisitors. Many of the people in the society were uneducated and sought to explain hard times they encountered through supernatural means, such as witches and the benandanti. The evidence put forth in Carlo Ginzburg's book The Night Battles shows a society that is completely saturated with superstition and one that evolves its myths of the good benandanti vs. the evil witch into the idea that the benandanti are evil witches. He shows the roles of the peasants, the inquisitors, and the church in this change.

The Friulian peasants in the 16th and 17th century revolved their lives around agricultural cycles. Considering this was a rural society, agriculture was probably the most important aspect in their day to day lives. The calendar revolved around these cycles as exhibited by the Ember Seasons (22), and their very livelihood depended on a good harvest. The Friulian people attributed a good harvest to God, because they were after all a Catholic state, when the harvest was bad they attributed it to the devil. Early in their society witches were in essence the devils pawns; who did the devil's bidding. And the benandanti literally meaning well-farers (back page) were doing the work of God by fighting these witches. Witches were responsible for most of the unexplainable negative things that happened in Friulian society. When a child experienced an unexplained illness and dies, it was attributed to witches and when the harvest was bad it was attributed to witches. Early on the benandanti were the great equalizers who fought the witches on their own turf, countering there evil deeds with good.

A key aspect to the mind set of Friulian society is that of fate. In order to alleviate the feeling of helplessness when it came to such things as a bad harvest, or the unexplained death of a child the peasants created reasons to explain them. The reasons for explaining the good were God, and early on in their culture the benandanti; the bad is attributed to witches and the devil. Witches and the benandanti were created in order to explain the unexplainable. In the minds of those who believed in them, this was the only logical explanation for the bad and hardship that was continually facing them in there society.

The major difference between the Friulian peasants and the inquisitors was the level of education they each had. The inquisitors were educated by the church usually through monasteries as is exhibited by the majority of their titles being Fra (meaning monk or brother). The peasants were educated by each other many times in the local superstitions and myths of the geographical area in which they lived. The monks were educated exclusively in Catholic doctrine and to them the myths of the peasants were completely foreign and were not sensible. Early on the inquisitors didn't seem to really pay the benandanti much attention, they seemed to believe that there beliefs were more of a hassle and did not threaten church doctrine as much as some of the other beliefs of the period. This is exhibited by the fact that from the years 1575-1619 no trial brought against the benandanti was brought to a conclusion except the trial against Paolo Gasparutto and Battista Moduco. (71) The repression of Lutheranism was much more on the inquisitors mind at this point in history. (71)

The first description of the benandanti is given in the two trials of Paolo Gasparutto, and Battista Moduco (1575, 1580). The benandanti were chosen from birth by being born with the caul (the amniotic sac covering the child), which held a special meaning to the Friulian. Local legend said that being born with the caul was a sign that the child was to be called into the benandanti once they became older, and would have to fight the witches to ensure a good harvest. Masses were said over the caul implying that the caul was not considered a curse early on in Friulian society. The benandanti were not at odds with local church priests as can be exhibited by their willingness to say multiple masses over the caul and thereby blessing it. The caul was than worn around the individuals neck, for they could not be called into the benandanti unless they themselves possessed this sacred sign of there calling. When the benandanti are called they are called in spirit (usually on Thursdays) (151); their body stays in bed, and their soul is released to go out and fight the witches at the games (150). The benandanti fight with fennel and the witches fight with sorghum stalks. They fight over "all the fruits of the earth and for those things won by the benandanti that year there is abundance." (155)
The witches on the other hand are the polar opposites of the benandanti; there is a constant battle continually ensuing between them early on in Friulian society. The witches participate in the sabbat, which is described as witches "dancing and sporting about, gorging themselves with food and drink, and who threw themselves on beds and publicly committed many dishonorable acts".(108) They are said to eat children, sucking all the life out of them; destroying the harvest, and cast spells on certain people they do not like.

The evidence for the existence of agrarian cults in the Friuli is compelling as Ginzburg meticulously documents the trials of benandanti in The Night Battles. Ginzburg states that "we are not dealing with fossilized superstition, but with an actual living cult". (84) Ginzburg believes that the extensive records kept by the Holy Office which document these trials point to an existence of a cult which was based off the ancient fertility goddess Diana. The evidence he puts forth are the similar testimonies given by multiple people at different times which virtually always contained similarities.

It is clear that this cult did in fact exist; and it was originally a pagan offshoot of Christianity. The benandanti themselves early on thought they were doing God's work as is exhibited by their early testimony in front of the inquisitors. On the 26th of September, 1580, Paolo Gasparutto testifies that an "angel of God called him into the benandanti."(157) The early benandanti although they knew that there activities were not accepted by the official catholic doctrine as shown by many initially denying there involvement in front of the inquisitors, still seemed to believe that they were doing the work of God, by fighting Satan's servants the witches.

Ginzburg asserts that the elite theological opinion of the inquisitors are what transformed the original good qualities of the benandanti into what they became in the later half of the 17th century, no different than witches. This is shown as he describes the fate of the werewolves in Germany "just as with the benandanti in the Friuli, under pressure from the judges, the original positive qualities of the werewolves began gradually to fade away and become corrupted into the execrable image of the man-wolf, ravager of livestock." (31, 32) The benandanti over a period of roughly one hundred years became transformed from "well-farers" to witches, who participated in the sabbat, kissed the devils ass and participated in infanticide.

Ginzburg's assertion that the inquisitors wanted to root out this superstitious belief by suggestive questioning is supported in many cases; as those who appear in front of the inquisition originally state they are "doing God's work" by being benandanti and later after questioning are convinced that the benandanti are not of God. The first and clearest example of this takes place in the trial of Paolo Gasparutto. Paolo originally testifies that he believes that the angel of God originally led him into the company of the benandanti. (157) After further questioning he recants stating "that the apparition of that angel was really the devil tempting me, since you have told me that he can transform himself into an angel." (162) Another example takes place when the inquisitor Fra Gerolanmo tries turning Gasparo's testimony into an admission of witchcraft. (85, 86)

The evolution of the benandanti into witches is a slow one. The benandanti go out and fight for the crops, against witches who are trying to destroy the harvest in order to bring hardship upon the town. The benandanti are the good, the witches are the bad. Than as more trials come to pass and more people are brought in front of the Holy Office different stories develop and the nature of the benandanti changes. The first such major change came in 1582 as a result of testimony from Anna la Rossa, a widow. Anna la Rossa adds a new element to the benandanti equation. She states that she is a benandanti and that she can see dead people. This brings two different types of benandanti into the picture, one which goes out at night to fight for the harvest and the other which goes out at night in spirit to see the dead. (39) There are striking similarities between these two testimonies. Anna states that if she is to talk about her experiences she will be beaten by sorghum stalks, and that when she goes out in spirit, it is as if her physical body is dead to the world. (35) There are many more similar testimonies in front of the Holy Office such as the testimony of Caterina la Guercia, in which she describes a similar out of body experience as the others (38) and the wife of a tailor, Aquilina. (37) Out of the once purely agrarian cult of the benandanti comes an element that is connected to death and the dead.

In the trial of donna Florida in 1599 it is the first in which a proclaimed member of the benandanti is accused of witchcraft and of giving the "evil eye". (65). She states that she participates in the processions of the dead, and that she fights witches. All the same a servant who lived in her neighborhood asserted that Florida dries up the milk of nursing women, and that she eats little children. (65)

There are two characteristics of the benandanti which are prevalent in peasants mind in the early part of the 17th century; these are: 1.) The ability to heal victims of witchcraft and 2.) The ability to recognize witches. (78) This is a dangerous new development for the benandanti because the ability to heal victims of witchcraft implies that they are able to cast counter spells, which in turn implies that they are witches themselves. In 1618 during the trial of Maria Panzona for the first time a direct connection between the benandanti and the devil is established. Panzona states that she herself attends the sabbat, and that the devil presides over the witch's games. She states the devil has given her a present which she in turn uses to free bewitched people, and she admits to having paid homage to the devil himself. (100, 101) The culmination of the transition from benandanti to witch is achieved during the trial of Giovanni Sion. He originally claims to be a benadante, describes his participation in the witch's sabbat, and admits to worshipping the devil; after first denying these things. Soppe admits to killing three children at the devil's command. (123, 124). Surprisingly, Soppe is saved by Rome which instructs the inquisitor to reopen his case and verify all of his claims most importantly his claims of infanticide. (125) The cardinal's directions came directly out of a tract entitled Instructio pro formandis processibus in causis strigum sortilegiorum et maleficiorum which directed all inquisitors to use extreme caution in witch trials. This tract effectively eliminated witchcraft persecutions in Italy in the second half of the 17th century. (126, 127)

The Friulian peasants in the 16th and 17th centuries held to a set of beliefs that originated in antiquity and were later infused with Christianity. The idea of the good benadante as a counter to the evil witch was a widely held belief among the uneducated peasants of Friuli. The inquisitors who were educated by the Church found the ideas of the Friulian peasants to be strange and heretical. The inquisitors through suggestive questioning eventually changed the essence of the benandanti into that of a witch. Popular conceptions of the benandanti changed as well, and before long the benandanti themselves considered themselves to be virtually the same as witches.

Works Cited:

Ginzburg, Carlos. The Night Battles. Trans. John and Anne Tedeschi.
Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992.
About the Author
John Schlismann has in interest in renaissance European history. If you want to purchase The Night Battles goto: http://www.amazon.com/Night-Battles-Witchcraft-Sixteenth-Seventeenth/dp/0801843863
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