Carlo Ginzburg, “The Night Battles” (1966) (translated from the Italian by Ann and John Tedeschi) – Carlo Ginzburg was something of a visionary, which can be both a strength and a liability for a historian. Ginzburg reliably shot well past of the attested historical record in his books. There’s little evidence for his overarching theses, presented here and in undergrad-historiography favorite “The Cheese and the Worms,” about early-modern popular thought. His major claim in “The Night Battles,” that major strains of early modern witchcraft are the continuation of ancient Central European paganism, has been torn apart by the vast majority of other practitioners in the field.
But Ginzburg remains a compelling figure nevertheless. He was the great pioneer of “microhistory,” taking the social history turn of the mid-twentieth century into the nitty-gritty of early modern Italian life and convincing the Vatican to release the records of the Inquisition. These records provided grist for Ginzburg’s mill; every oddball who thought he talked to God, or figured out that the universe was actually like a wormy cheese, or who did good magic to fight the evil magic of witches at night, wound up in front of the Inquisitors at some point, it seems. In this case he follows appearances of the “benandante,” roughly the “well-farers,” a group of men and women in and near Friuli, Italy, who claimed that they engaged in nocturnal battles with witches to guard their crops. These took the form of astral projection and fighting with various vegetables (shades of the second Super Mario!). The Inquisition was looking for Lutherans to root out, or at least straightforward diabolic witches- they didn’t know what to make of the benandante.
Similar beliefs turn up in Germany and Switzerland, or similar-ish. That’s the rub- how many incidents do there need to be before you see a trend? And if you see this trend, to what do you attribute it? Ginzburg takes a small number of cases of similar (but far from identical) claims made by a few Italians and Germans as evidence for the continuation of a Central European pagan tradition. Certainly, this stuff does sound like fertility ritual. But there’s not a ton of evidence that it was organized practice handed down the generations, certainly not centuries. It seems a lot simpler to think that these were visions or self-made rituals. But the paganism thesis is certainly evocative, enough that it’s made its way into pop-cultural understandings of European paganism. And how many of Ginzburg’s critics can claim to have had that kind of influence? ****