Ginzburg’s reponse to the LRB

From Carlo Ginzburg

SIR: In his long review of my The Night Battles (LRB, 2 February) Anthony Pagden, having first praised me for my literary skills, goes on to criticise vigorously the ‘sometimes shaky nature of the arguments and assumptions’ which ‘underpin’ my ‘reconstructions’.

Before examining each one of Pagden’s objections I should like to remind the reader that The Night Battles reconstructs the documented activities of a single sect active in Friuli in north-east Italy between about 1575 and 1675. The members of this sect, who called themselves benandanti (‘good walkers’), declared to the Inquisitors that they had been born with the caul and that they met ‘in the spirit’ four times a year, on the Ember Days, armed with stalks of fennel to fight for the fertility of the fields against witches and warlocks armed with sticks of sorghum.

The Inquisitors tried to make them confess that they were simple witches and that they attended the diabolical sabbath (something which, until that moment, had not been mentioned in Inquisitorial trials in Friuli). After an initial resistance the benandanti began to introduce into their accounts the elements suggested to them by their Inquisitors. By about 1600 their transformation into witches had been completed.

1. Pagden claims that my idea that the beliefs of the benandanti were transformed in response to the demands of the Inquisitors is mistaken (‘there would seem … to be a lot wrong with this idea’), because it implies the existence of a ‘true sect’ whose members were in a position to transmit information from one generation to another and from one region to another. The benandanti, however, ‘except during the night battles themselves [do not] … seem to have thought of themselves as a group, much less as a sect with clearly prescribed rituals’.

Pagden also claims that their beliefs were ‘simply too vague, too uncertain in the face of determined and precise questioning – and torture – to be subject to wholesale transformation’. What, in fact, emerges from these records is ‘a number of individual responses to a common, though varied experience’ – that of struggling for survival against highly skilled interrogators.

That the benandanti constituted a ‘very special sect’, given their ‘almost dream-like quality’, I had myself made clear (page 16). Its peculiarity consisted in the fact that the life of its members was conducted on two levels, one by day and the other by night: for, although rarely documented, the association of its members in everyday life was anything but non-existent. Take, for instance, the dialogue between Giambattista Tamburlino and Menichino da Latisana in which the first, an experienced benandante, explained to the second, who was still uninitiated (although not for long), the nature of the journey he was destined to undertake. ‘You will have to come anyway, one goes as though in a smoky haze, we do not go physically’ (page 79).

Communications of this sort would have directed, and eventually come to modify, through a process of conditioning which we can imagine but whose substance escapes us, the nocturnal ecstasy of the benandanti and the rituals which they practised ‘in the spirit’ (see also the case discussed on pages 129-133). Accounts of the Inquisitorial trials which circulated among the benandanti advising them to exercise caution would have been influential in the same way: the female benandante Narda Peresut di Moruzzo, for instance, advised her client to take care lest she end up like Cappona di Cervignano, who had been tried at Udine for witchcraft (page 79).

This network of daytime contacts may not be sufficient to define the benandanti as a ‘true sect’, in Pagden’s sense, but it does explain how the pressures exerted by the Inquisitors could, little by little, be spread among the benandanti so as to alter the sense of their beliefs.

The terms which Pagden uses to describe these beliefs – ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’ – seem themselves to be thoroughly inappropriate. I cannot understand how a historian who is familiar with both anthropological studies and the history of religion can characterise as ‘vague’ the recourse to such a complex of specific elements as the fact of being born with the caul, the regular trances which this conferred, the night battles during the Ember Days, the use of fennel and sorghum as arms.

As for their supposed ‘uncertainty’, it is clear that the benandanti’s description of their night battles began to slide in the direction of the diabolical sabbath almost half a century after the first trials known to us. Given the difference between the competing forces, half a century cannot be considered a negligible period of resistance. This claim presupposes, of course, the validity of the thesis which Pagden contests – namely, that one can speak of the transformation of the beliefs of the benandanti as a single prolonged phenomenon, rather than merely the sum of individual reactions. But to any one who considers the stages – usually at the beginning of a trial – by which the benandanti came to expound their beliefs, such a single and prolonged transformation must be indisputable.

In fact, while the culminating scene in the drama (the meeting between the Inquisitor and the benandante) follows more or less the same pattern, the initial scene takes on a quite different aspect with the passage of time. In other words, the trial does not always begin at the same point. Little by little, the benandanti came to identify themselves with the witches.

One of the major interests, in my opinion, of this exceptional series of documents lies precisely in the way that it enables us to follow in detail the processes by which a belief transforms itself under pressure from outside forces. The ties between self-conscious modifications induced by force (psychological, not physical, because in these trials torture was present only as a latent threat), and modifications introduced at an unconscious level, throw light upon a series of phenomena which generally eludes us.

2. The attempt which I made in The Night Battles to link the beliefs of the benandanti with groups with similar beliefs in Central and Southern Europe seems to Pagden to be ‘even more dubious than the transformation thesis’. The connections which I proposed between Germanic and Baltic phenomena seem to him to be both ‘tenuous’ and at the same time obvious. Others, however, might find it surprising that Pagden seems to be willing to speak of analogous material, economic and religious conditions when referring to an area which includes Dalmatia, Switzerland, Bavaria and Livonia – apart of course from Friuli itself. Differences in geographical location, in environmental conditions, confessional adherence, modes of production, are all casually disposed of in the interest of a more than slightly dubious deterministic thesis.

But when I see that the – in my view indisputable – connections between the descriptions of their night battles against the witches and warlocks provided by two benandanti from Cividale in 1575-1580 and those described a century later by Thiess the old werewolf from Livonia (pages 28-32) are described as ‘tenuous’, I can only wonder if what separates me from Pagden is really a radical difference over what is commonly described as ‘historical method’. I should at once add that this suspicion is mutual.‘There is also,’ Pagden writes, ‘something slightly worrying about the method Ginzburg occasionally uses to establish these links. On page 35 one Anna la Rossa, who claimed to be able to “see the dead”, and to have learnt things from them she dared not tell to anyone lest she be beaten with stalks of sorghum, is linked, tentatively, with the benandanti although Anna never claimed to be one and the word was never mentioned at the trial.
On page 41, however, the same Anna is referred to simply as “Anna la Rossa – one of the benandanti who claimed she could see the dead”. And Anna’s presence among the benandanti, though it is not crucial to the argument, is nonetheless used to establish a link between them and the followers of the dame Abonde of the Roman de la Rose. This is not an accusation of wilful distortion,’ he concludes, but rather an abuse of the historical imagination, an indispensable tool of the social historian compelled to make use of fragmentary information.Well then, let us see. On page 35 I wrote: ‘It was not stated that Anna la Rossa was abenandante, in fact the word was not even mentioned.’

On page 36, after having listed the facts which emerged from her trial, I commented: ‘these are scattered elements which still do not constitute a coherent pattern.’ Then on page 37 I claimed that ‘the connection between the benandanti and those who, like Anna la Rossa, claimed to see the dead emerges more clearly’ because of the trial of a certain Aquilina from which it appeared that those born with the caul were gifted with the power to see the dead.

On page 38 I found an ‘explicit confirmation of a link which had been suggested hypothetically’ in a statement made by a certain Caterina la Guercia (‘I am not one of the benandanti, but my deceased husband was; he used to go in procession with the dead’). At this point I dared to define Anna la Rossa as ‘one of the benandanti who could see the dead’.In his review Pagden has simply ignored the stages in the argument between pages 35 and 41. This is not an accusation of ‘wilful distortion’.

I simply think that he must have been distracted or in a hurry when he read my book. Anyone can see, in fact, that the claim ‘Anna la Rossa is a benandante’ explicitly assumes the integration of a series of documents – the trial of Aquilina, the trial of Caterina la Quercia – which establishes other convergent links: ‘he who is born with the caul can see the dead,’ ‘who goes in procession with them is abenandante’, and so on.

If, when I wrote The Night Battles, I had been able to read Wittgenstein’s notes (published posthumously in 1967) on The Golden Bough, I could have emphasised the need in establishing morphological connections to find ‘intermediate links’ (Zwischenglieder). The connections, which to Pagden seem ‘tenuous’ – between, for instance, the benandanti and those who could see the ‘Furious horde’ or participated in Diana’s ride – are based on intermediate links of this kind.3. What was the meaning and importance of the benandanti and their beliefs? Curiously, Pagden ignores my hypothesis whereby the Friulian experience can be seen as an example common throughout Europe of the way in which judges and Inquisitors diffused and superimposed upon heterogeneous cultural strata a stereotype of the sabbath. What Pagden denies, on the basis of the socially marginal position of the benandanti, is the possibility of linking their trances with ‘the force of the community’s traditions, the hopes and needs tied to the life of the society’. The available documentation does not, in fact, provide any clear indication as to the marginality or otherwise of the benandanti. It is true that, as Pagden says, one witness said of one female benandante: ‘some of us think that she is crazy.’

But this is only an isolated claim. Of Pagden’s other assertions, the first (‘few seem to have had an established place in the community’) seems to me undemonstrable, while the second (‘most were poor, some destitute or women afflicted by domestic problems’) certainly does not describe a condition of marginality.

As for the benandanti’s increasing cultural marginalisation, this was clearly the result of the behaviour of the Inquisitors. But the problem, as Pagden himself ends by recognising, is different. The beliefs of the benandanti, he says, ‘did indeed articulate the community’s traditions by providing the “common man” with an explanation – or explanations – for precisely those things for which his priests could offer none he could understand, and usually none at all beyond the simple injunction to accept the Church’s rulings and believe’.
They were, in fact, ‘surely grounded somewhere in a set of “absolute presuppositions” about precisely such matters as the crucial relationship between body and soul, between this world and the next, between past and present, the living and the dead’. Not bad for beliefs which have been defined as ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’.Pagden says that the beliefs of the benandanti ‘are couched in a language the historian has still to learn how to read’. Here I agree with him. My attempts at interpretation are far from having exhausted the richness of the documentation, which today, after twenty years, seems to me more unsettling than ever. A deeper analysis might lead above all to an enrichment of the comparative structure in which the benandanti may be located. I have been working in this direction for some time and on the basis of such an inquiry I think that it will be possible to provide an answer to the question Pagden raises about the significance of these beliefs. To this end, however

, I think that it should be stressed that any inquiry into meaning cannot be limited exclusively to conscious meaning. From the beginning to the end of The Night Battles I have insisted on the importance of the benandanti’s self-conscious attitude towards their beliefs; and I stressed, in contrast to any notion of ‘collective mentality’, the variety of individual reactions to be found in these documents. But there does exist a stratum of unself-conscious meanings and it is the historian’s task to analyse them.

By what means? Any answer would carry me too far from my present purpose. I would like to say only that neither the concept of a ‘collective mentality’ nor that of the ‘collective unconscious’ would be among them. Nevertheless the legitimacy of such an inquiry may be reaffirmed in opposition to claims such as ‘Yet it is surely wrong to suppose that even the most “ordinary” men and women were merely the unthinking mouthpieces of a mind-set not of their own making …’These words strike me as being popularist and wrong. For the benandanti and their losing struggle against the Inquisitors I have shown the greatest respect and sympathy – sentiments which I did my best to communicate to the readers of my book. But I truly do not see why it is insulting to suppose that their beliefs constitute a ‘mind-set not of their own making’. Does our relationship with language, for instance, not seem like that to all of us? This does not, of course, exclude the possibility of innovation, transformation, or of individual articulation of the complex cultural heritage of which each one of us is a repository.

Carlo Ginzburg

Anthony Pagden writes: I should like to comment briefly on each of Professor Ginzburg’s rejoinders. But first let me dispel any suggestion that my praise of his literary gifts was in some sense intended to devalue his equally considerable historical ones. It is a vulgar error, in which Professor Ginzburg’s Italian enemies have all too often taken refuge, to suppose that ‘good’, substantial history can only be written in a heavy pedestrian style. The historian’s language is as vital to his craft as the philosopher’s, and the social historian whose task is the reconstruction of forgotten worlds is in greater need of a literary gift than any other.

1. Our principal disagreement would seem to be over what constitutes a sect. Ginzburg appears to accept that the benandanti, by being a ‘very special sect’, were also a very weak one. Their daytime contacts were clearly few and ambiguous (I never claimed that they were non-existent) and nothing that Ginzburg says here obliges me to change my mind about their significance. A cult, however special, must surely possess a clear sense of membership which extends beyond the adoption of a name whose purpose, it would seem in this case, was only to describe a set of activities. A sect should also have a ritual structure and I cannot accept that, by any definition, dream-states constitute rituals. Ginzburg and I also seem to be in some disagreement about what constitutes a belief. Throughout his letter (and The Night Battlesitself) he speaks as though beliefs could be held unself-consciously and thus transformed by the pressure of Inquisitors without their holders being aware of what had become of them. But men do not change their beliefs unless they have reasons for so doing, although they may well, of course, change the accounts they give of them. Despite the brilliance of Ginzburg’s reconstructions I remain unconvinced that what we are witnessing is the transformation of an entire belief system. The evidence is too fragmentary, the benandanti’s own descriptions too imprecise, to be described in such terms. I should also add, in reply to Ginzburg’s incredulity over my description of the benandanti’s beliefs as ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’, that what I took to be beliefs were not merely the details of the conditions, or the descriptive content, of their trance slate but what they assumed their role to have been, the fact that they were ‘good’ witches, not bad, that, therefore, their gatherings were unlike those of the sabbath, and so on. It is this which would seem, on Ginzburg’s account, to have been under pressure and surely this which he believes to have been transformed.

2. I had not thought that the lives of peasants differed so significantly over much of Central and Southern Europe; certainly much current work on peasant beliefs and social behaviour would seem to rest on an assumption that they do not. Ginzburg, however, knows far more about the social history of peasants than I do. But if their social and spiritual needs were so very different how are we – how is he – to explain that they were catered for in such very similar ways? Ginzburg would, of course, reply by assuming the existence of precisely the kind of self-identifying sect which he believes the benandanti to have been, and I do not. I must confess that I fail to identify the ‘deterministic thesis’ in whose interests I suppressed the difference between these peasant communities. Nor do I understand what he means by saying that our differences are ones of ‘historical method’. We differ surely only over what counts as evidence. I have no quarrel with his ‘method’ – how could I since it relies on the syllogism, a device as ancient as logic itself?

I do seem to have misrepresented Ginzburg’s argument with respect to the role of Anna la Rossa, although it is merely petulant to claim that I did so because I had read his book with insufficient care. My objection to the chain of his argument (for which he hardly needs to invoke the authority of Wittgenstein – Aristotle would have done just as well) lies precisely in the weakness of his middle terms. Caterina la Quercia, for instance, said only that her husband used to go in procession with the dead and that he was a benandanti. Not allbenandanti – in fact, on Ginzburgs own evidence, very few – claimed to go in procession with the dead. We are therefore, it seems to me, not entitled to assume that all those who go in procession with the dead are also benandanti. It is by the use of such links as these that a collection of statements whose relationship to each other is indeed ‘tenuous’ are built up into something quite unlike the sum of their individual parts.

3. My rejection of Ginzburg’s claims for the centrality of the beliefs of the benandanti was not based exclusively on their marginality. It is simply not plausible to claim that any society, however simple, could find a satisfactory expression of its ‘hopes and needs’ in so restricted a set of beliefs or in a group of individuals who found themselves so often denounced or rejected as swindlers by their neighbours. And I do not see how their increasing marginalisation (which Ginzburg seems to accept), nor their apparent assumption of the role of healers over that of defenders of the crops (which Ginzburg does not deny), can be attributed to pressure from the Inquisitors, unless we assume that the majority of the community shared their suspicions of the heterodox; and if we do that then, of course, the benandanti cannot be said to be tied in any way to ‘the force of the community’s traditions’.

On his last two points, I did not say that the beliefs of the benandanti with which he was concerned in his book provided the common man with explanations the Church could not. The beliefs to which I referred (and which he barely mentions) were those concerning the relationship between the body and the soul, the living and the dead, and they were, I claimed, surely underpinned by a set of ‘absolute presuppositions’ I assumed to have been shared by the entire community.

These, I am certain, are far from being ‘vague’ and ‘uncertain’. Neither did I wish to suggest that Ginzburg had shown either disrespect or lack of sympathy for the plight of the benandanti. His book is a tour de force in this respect. Neither was my point a populist one. It was, once again, a statement about the nature of beliefs. No matter who holds them, they cannot be assumed to be capable of unthinking transformation. A peasant as much as a philosopher has to have a reason to believe. And it seems to me that the simple answer to Ginzburg’s rhetorical question is no. I do not believe that the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

As for the reference to a collective mentality and the rejection of the possibility of any kind of Jungian ‘collective unconscious’, I can only say that I hope he does not believe that I intended to accuse him, wittingly or unwittingly, of wishing to employ such a ‘method’. I look forward to his work on the origins of the sabbath, which, I am sure, will, as he says, provide answers to many of the questions I have raised.

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