Customer Reviews: The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries
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on January 1, 2004
As anthropologists fanned around the world they brought back detailed accounts of shamanic practices of indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia, Siberia & Native America - but not from Europe. European shamanism (including druidism) is thought to have been largely stamped out due to the combined efforts of Enlightenement and the Holy Inquisition. The book opens up the question of the many similarities between Germanic, Latin, Slavic agricultural cults and their relationship to the Dionysian rituals as well as the issue of universality of core beliefs that underly indigenous practices around the world.
The book also pioneers a new understanding of Europeans and their history - one that focuses on the peasant and his relationship with the land (and the Church). The aristocratic elite that controlled the politics and religion of mediaeval Italian city states was just a tiny fraction of the population; Ginzburg therefore opens up a new (and should i say delicious) can of worms.
This book represents a huge step forward in our understanding of European shamanism. Ginzburg burrows deep into the 16th century Inquisition archives from the Friuli region of Northern Italy (where Latin, Slavic and Germanic traditions come together). He returns with a fascinating discovery of an ancient fertility cult, whose participants (the benandanti) represented themselves as defenders of harvest and fertility of the fields. A benandante was someone who four times a year during the Ember days left the body and went "invisibly in spirit" to fight the witches and the devil - "we fight over all the fruits of the earth and for those things won by the benandanti that year there is abundance", said a peasant while questioned by the Inquisition. The benandanti were united by a common element of having been born with the caul (i.e., wrapped in the placenta, which was thought to be an object endowed with magical powers). The departure of the spirit from the body, which was left lifeless, was understood as an actual separation, an event fraught with perils, almost like death. The soul was considered very real and tangible. "We crossed over water like smoke and following combat, everyone returned home as smoke...". The soul was always associated with a spirit animal (usually hare, but also pig, rooster, mouse etc.). This was a world of spells, incantations, evil eye, herbal potions, spirits and communication with the dead.
Ginzburg shows that these beliefs in 16th century peasants were all-pervasive and deeply connected with Earth and its cycles. The Ember Days (i.e., Christmas) festivities had survived from ancient agricultural cults and symbolized the changes of seasons, the passage from the old to the new time of year and a promise of planting, harvest, reaping and autumn vintage. Ginzburg paints a interesting picture of Italian Inquisition - that of a huge centralized organization which was inefficient, swamped with bureaucratic legalisms and in most cases not that interested in prosecuting "ignorant peasants" . The book also champions a rather controversial thesis according to which the Church managed to steer the perception of the benandanti cult from representing fertility rites to that of witchcraft and the devil, almost as if the Church created the very devil that it abhorred. Interesting parallels with modern times, I should say.
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on April 4, 2004
Whether or not Carlo Ginzburg actually discovered evidence of shamanism in sixteenth-century Italy, in this or later books, is in part a matter of how one defines shamanism. What he undeniably found, in the seemingly unpromising records of the Inquisition, was evidence of beliefs so remote from those of official European culture as to be flatly unintelligible to the churchmen who first encountered them. Eventually, the Church courts managed to impose something resembling officially acceptable doctrines on the local population, but the process took generations, as Ginzburg is able to show from trial records.

Briefly, Ginzburg found that, in the Friuli district, there was a widespread belief that certain men and women were marked at birth as defenders against witches and demons, these being regarded mainly as the enemies of the people, their livestock, and their crops. The chosen defenders, the "Benandanti," or "good walkers," ventured forth in their dreams to do battle with the forces of evil. Those born with the mark of the Benandanti regarded themselves as good Christians, the allies of the Church. To those outside the local culture, this position was clearly nonsense; unauthorized and unsanctified supernatural power could only be Satanic in origin, and those who claimed to exercise it were, at best, dangerously deluded. In the end, if the court records are to be trusted, they persuaded even the Benandanti themselves that this was the case. At least, the "absurd" and "outrageous" testimony of self-described Benandanti fades from the records, to be replaced with conventional witch-beliefs endorsed by the Holy Office.

The official tendency, Catholic and Protestant, to lump local witch-doctors together with the witches they claimed to counter had long been recognized by historians. Ginzburg, however, discovered, and offered to surprised historians (in the original Italian edition of 1966), a stratum of belief that, when first recorded, seems to have been entirely outside the mainstream of medieval European culture. There is scattered evidence for similar concepts in other parts of Europe, and abundant evidence from other continents, but the connections and age of the beliefs in and about the Benandanti remain subjects for controversy. The demonstration that diverse local beliefs had been rendered uniform by the judicial process, and by intensive indoctrination of the "lower classes," however, remains a landmark.

As described in the "Preface to the English Edition," the Italian version rather quickly received favorable -- and some unfavorable or uncomprehending -- notice from historians of European witchcraft. It was interpreted, or perhaps misunderstoond, by Mircea Eliade, the influential figure in "History of Religions" at the University of Chicago, one of the great authorities on shamanism (and much else). Although sections had been published in English earlier, the whole book became available in English in 1983, in the present translation, from Routledge & Kegan Paul in Britain, and Johns Hopkins University Press in the U.S. I first read it a few years later, and eventually acquired a copy of a Penguin Books re-issue of 1986. (All the English-language editions seem to differ only in cover art, besides the name of the publisher.) I have re-read it from time to time over the years. Although historical views of European witch-beliefs and popular culture have both been in flux, this book remains among the most fascinating in its crowded field.
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VINE VOICEon October 14, 2002
This is not Ginzburgs only book on Shamanism. He also covers the subject in his book "Ecstasies". Nonetheless, this is a superb book. In it, he deals with a group of men in northern Italy who believed that their souls left their bodies while they slept to do battle with malignant forces. However, he does not view this as either a hard-line skeptic or a muddle headed New Ager. He approaches it as a historian and treats it no different from any other subject, thus creating an unbiased account of what happened. And what he constucts is an account of shamanism and witch trials in a northern Italian village. This is a fascinating account, and certainly well worth the read. If you appreciate this book, then I strongly recommend you check out "Ecstasies", his other book on European Shamanism and the witch-hunts.
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on February 19, 1998
Ginzburg's research on the benandanti was path-breaking when it first appeared in the 1960's. It has become a classic, a required read for any student of history who is interested in the topic of the early modern European witch hunts. Ginzburg reconstructs a narrative in which the notion of what it was to be a "witch" was fundamentally changed by the Friulian peasants' encounters with the Inquisition.
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on November 4, 2005
In his book, The Night Battles, Carlo Ginzburg addresses the historical problem of why, during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, did the Friulian fertility rituals of the benandanti, or "good-walkers", gradually assimilate into witchcraft. The benandanti, marked at birth by the sign of the caul, served Christ and their community by leaving their bodies at night to fight evil witches that had attempted to destroy or steal their harvest. Because of the ignorance of the Friuli language and benandanti rituals, the Church conducted incessant inquisitions and trials against the self-proclaimed benandanti, which in effect, pushed the benandanti toward witchcraft and participation in the sabbat.

In support of this argument, Ginzburg employs inquisitorial records that reveal an unmistakable gap between the beliefs and mentalities of the benandanti with those of the inquisitors. Brian P. Levak's review, published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, notes the significance of Ginzburg's exploration of the mentalities and culture of the Friuli. Levak writes, "The Night Battles is a milestone in the history of popular culture, for it was one of the first studies to use judicial records to gain direct access to popular beliefs." In addition, by skillfully using his primary source material, Ginzburg is able to discern between the "genuinely expressed popular ideas and those that reflect the more learned notions of [the] interrogators, especially when the accused was faced with either the threat or the reality of torture." To Ginzburg's credit, he allows the strength of the inquisitorial records to stand alone in support of his thesis and in exposing the popular culture of the Friuli. Furthermore, Ginzburg's use of comparative methodology demonstrates, not only the evolution of the benandanti fertility rituals under inquisitorial pressure, but also the vast cultural and spiritual gap between the Church and the peasantry.

While Ginzburg's work is an example of ground-breaking historical writing, there are several critiques that can be made of The Night Battles. First, Ginzburg's book makes way for more questions regarding the experiences and participation of the benandanti in the fertility rituals. For example, Ginzburg admittedly does not address why the benandanti, spread out over a vast region, testify to similar experiences and physical participation in their night gatherings. How is it that these people all testified to a common experience during the inquisitions? Ginzburg would be well-served to investigate the parallels in testimonies, if only to further personify the popular culture and mentalities of the Fruili. Secondly, as Alby Stone noted in her Folklore review, "the book would be improved by making the index more comprehensive and, alas, there is no bibliography." The Table of Contents page is too simplistic, almost juvenile, and does not reflect Ginzburg's reputation as a consummate and seasoned historian. Ginzburg does offer a comprehensive appendix and notes section. However, he fails to include a bibliography - a necessity with historical writing. While the Contents and the Bibliography do not impact the overall significance of his work, these are areas that should be improved.
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on September 28, 2012
I had to read this book for my Italian Renaissance class in University. It was AMAZING. Do you hear me ladies and gents? VERY good. I loved this book. It is translated and written quite well and can be understood easily, despite the constant re-telling of the same content. It can be verbose in this aspect. Many things are mentioned several times over, but that is one way the author re-enforces his point so that the reader will remember what is happening from page to page (I have a horrid recall memory so it was a plus for me, even though it did tend to get annoying). In fact, I wrote several pages of notes while reading this because I wanted to remember every bit of it for future reference.

If you enjoy learning anything about the Witch Craze of the 16th century then you would love this book. The "Benandante" (what these people referred to themselves as) were part of (as the title says) an "Agrarian cult". These "cults" consisted of farmers and everyday citizens that were chosen to protect their land and crops from evil-doers by fighting them with various stalks. Usually Fennel for the Benandante and sorghum for the witches, (please excuse my vague language, it has been several months since I read through this). They would not do this physically however, they would leave their bodies while asleep which would render them into a cataleptic state. Instead, they would fight in their spiritual form. If the body was moved or messed with while in this form, the spirit could not return the body and would die. Also in this book, are the real accounts of these people via Inquisition paperwork. You can read what these people actually said, which to me? Gives this a much more personal and real feel to the book.

I cannot write a comprehensive review because of my rusty memory on the subject. Suffice it to say though, it is worth being read. It has great references, evidence, and a really cool premise. I would definitely recommend this book :)
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on February 21, 2014
Had to read this for a medieval history class, and I was pretty impressed. Drawing on memory from when I read this, it deals with the Inquisition finding a strange part of Italy where men claim to go out and fight evil with fennel stalks in dream visions, women claim to have danced with and kissed the devil, etc. It sounds like a David Lynch movie, and perhaps should be one someday, but its all found in this book. Ginzburg handles the topic well, writing about as academically as one can given the topic, and you can tell he has a boyish interest in these bizarre antics as much as the reader hopefully does.
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on September 7, 2013
For information on the benandanti, this book is the best place to look. The benandanti have interested me over the years and getting down to reading this book was a nice treat. The book provides what historical documents say on the benandanti and helps give a framework for the progression of time and what all was going on.

This book is an interesting look into what there is known on the benandanti as well as try to over explanations and ideas onto why the believed what they did, how they were reacted to during the witchhunts, and what might have been doing on,
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on January 13, 2007
This is by far my favorite historical account of a witch hunt. The book looks at a northern Italian area called Friulian and the fertility rituals people performed in the 1600s and 1700s. The benandanti, marked at birth by the sign of the caul, served Christ and their community by leaving their bodies at night to fight evil witches that had attempted to destroy or steal their harvest. The Catholic Church believed the benandanti were witches and conducted inquisitions and trials. If you've ever been fascinated by the witch trials and don't know where to begin, I suggest this book as a fun yet informative read.
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on May 20, 2013
This book presents an extraordinarily complex set of historical data that even beginning to write about it seems like a daunting task. Making matters short and sweet for the sake of reviewing a book of such scholarship might not be advisable, but that's what I'll try to do here.

This book carefully combines an analysis of folklore, popular tradition, and culture. In the Friuli region of Italy, a group known as the "benandanti" (literally "well-farers" or "good walkers" but literally translated here as the "night battlers") leave their villages on prescribed nights of the year to engage in fights with witches. These men and women who identify themselves as benandanti are born with the caul - that is, a piece of amniotic sac around their necks - and are thereby marked as benandanti from birth. According to them, the purpose of these nighttime adventures were to fight witches who were trying to infect and kill crops; they saw themselves as protectors of the crop. Therefore, they are usually identified as an "agrarian cult." The origins of this cult are ambiguous, but seem to date back to older German divinity cults, and especially the auspices of the goddess Diana. No matter their origins, this is most important: the benandanti always imagined themselves as warriors for the Christian God, and completely Christian themselves.

The most fascinating part of the book, which by far takes up most of its content, is what happens when this cult meets the Catholic Church in the form of the Inquisition. Over a very long period of time, this interaction slowly turns a very Christian cult into a devilish coven of witches convening at a sabbat fighting against God, and therefore against the Church. Members were called before Church trials and demanded to explain their experiences. Some claimed that the night battles were oneiric visions, while others insinuated that they were quite "real." Other irregularities were quickly latched onto by the Church, and it was soon turned into, at least in the eyes of the Church, nothing short of witchcraft.

Because Ginzburg spends most of his time showing this careful transformation, the numerous - perhaps a few dozen - case studies presented are all carefully examined, sometimes dropped, picked up later in the text, and then re-examined; this can make the thread of the argument and its most prominent actors difficult to keep straight. Despite Ginzburg's tight, short presentation, parts of the book can seem repetitive. Of course, this aspect of the book is essential for scholars of the Italian folklore of the time, but it can be more than a little tedious for someone just interested in one of the more seminal texts in the development of what we now call "microhistory." While this might be difficult for someone with a less-than-scholarly interest in this material, it is nonetheless a careful and very important study that deserves the attention it has garnered.
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