On the night battles

17 03 2009


Catholic Witchhunters in Italy and the Decline of the Enchanted World

For a little over a year now, I have been contemplating the idea of a “marginal Catholicism”: a religiosity in contact but not necessarily controlled by the official hierarchy. One can call it, “popular Catholicism”, “folk Catholicism”, or even “underground Catholicism”. I write on it not because I have some romanticist vision of an unspoiled peasant past or because I idolize the voice of the people over and above the voice of their leaders. Nor is it an issue of a religion of the heart versus a religion of the head; such dichotomies ultimately prove trite and useless. There is, nevertheless, a great loss that we have experienced in modernity with relation to our “pre-modern” beliefs; a sense that how we believe and the principles behind those beliefs are fundamentally different from those of the past. At times, one generation removed or even right under our noses now, we realize that the way people saw God, the world, good, and evil is different from our own way of seeing things. The project that I have undertaken is to chronicle those differences; those things that have been silenced during the “purification” of popular religion in the continuing march of modernity.

In the book, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century, the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg tells the story of the relationship between the benandanti (or “good walkers”) and the Inquisition. In the region of the Friuli in northeastern Italy, a group of people born with a caul were summoned on the nights during Embertide to leave their bodies and fight witches for the good of the village. Under the command of an angel or a lead benandante, they would have ritual battles with witches during their “black Sabbaths”. The benandanti would attack with fennel stalks, and the witches would fight back with sorghum stalks. If the benandanti  won, the crops of the village would be safe for the year, but if they lost, disaster and famine would sweep the land. During these episodes, it was claimed that the bodies of the benandanti remained behind in their homes, still as if they were dead.
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