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Review: Witches, Fantasies and Fairies March 8, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

ecstasies ginzburg

In 1966 Carlo Ginzburg, a WANW Italian historian, published I Benandanti. In this book, Ginzburg argued that a group of sixteenth-century Friulian peasants, who believed themselves to have  super powers – they could fly and fight witches – were the last traces of a pre-Christian fertility cult in the region. Ginzburg went on to argue that such traces could be found through much of Europe. Most scholars were impressed, rather despite themselves, by Ginzburg’s brilliant analysis of the Benandanti (literally ‘the good goers’), while smirking at this theory of a Europe-wide fertility cult alive and well in early modern times. There were even accusations that Ginzburg was a secret Murrayite, a follower of Margaret Murray who had, in her time, argued that practically all early modern witchcraft was really a pagan fertility cult: in the sophisticated circles in which historians of the Renaissance move calling someone a ‘Murrayite’ is the equivalent of banding around holocaust denial in a WW2 publication. Ginzburg brooded and then in 1989 struck back, bringing out his answer to the critics, Storia Notturna, translated into English as Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.

Ginzburg’s plan in Ecstasies was to demonstrate that he had, of course, been right all along (whatever those dolts had been saying) and that the Benandanti were demonstrably part of a much larger reality; he even partially and bravely defended poor old Margaret Murray. Ginzburg went on to suggest that traces of this pre-Christian complex of beliefs were there in judicial records from various corners of Europe describing the witch’s Sabbat. Ginzburg has a very sharp mind and, unlike Murray, recognized that judicial records were not straightforward. Most had been tortured out of this or that victim and so could not and cannot be trusted as guides to popular belief. But Ginzburg pointed out – something that has also been admitted by such skeptics as Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas – that if you find a detail that is absolutely atypical then there is a very good chance that this comes directly from the accused’s conscious or sub-conscious rather than from the agenda of the inquistor.

It is probably best to explain with one of Ginzburg’s examples. In 1492 a couple of friars were charged with heresy in the Alpine region. They admitted in court that they had been to diabolical gatherings, which is par for the course in such a trial and which meant that they were toast: this had almost certainly been pulled out of them with their fingernails. However, after this, one claimed that in the Sabbat there were also ‘the fairies’. The fairies were atypical in this context (though not unknown) and Ginzburg comments: ‘As for the fairies, their appearance in a heresy trial is totally absurd, and thus certainly true.’ This is a nice sentence and it nicely sums up Ginzburg’s method. It also though introduces some of the problems, not least, what on earth does ‘true’ mean here. That the friar believed in fairies, that he believed he had been to a nocturnal meeting where fairies were attending, that he believed that ‘the fairies’ was something the torturer wanted to hear, or just that the image of fairies rushed out of him as his thumbnail was being extracted?

Ginzburg’s book is essentially split into three parts. In the first part he examines various medieval conspiracy theories, where without any question, interrogators and judges were capable of creating uniform fantasies using the thumbnail method outlined above. Ginzburg employs as his principle example the nauseating victimization of France’s, Italy’s and Spain’s Jewish communities in the fourteenth century. In the second part of the book, he pushes the idea that not everything in witchcraft trials can be explained by the official agenda: e.g. the attendance of the fairies at a Sabbat in 1492, giving plentiful and fascinating instances. Then, in the third and longest part of the book, he goes searching for an explanation for the survival of various pre-Christian traditions.

Beach loved the first part of the book. He found the second part  inspiring: your blogger has secret Murrayite tendencies. The third part of the book though is simple delirium. Ginzburg re-enacts the works of the venerable Frazer in jumping from source to source and country to country in an attempt to explain widely dispersed traditions. (Note that Ginzburg anticipates this criticism with the cryptic sentence ‘my Frazer had read Wittgenstein’!) These traditions, which range from the Good-goers in north-eastern Italy to werewolves in the Lithuania, do have overlapping features. But any attempt to explain said features is likely to fail, not least because they can be found in societies around the world: forget such lego-brick terms as ‘Celtic’, ‘Indo-European’ or even ‘Euro-Asian’. Instead, Ginzburg rushes from ancient Greek sources to Chinese fairy tales and from Balkan cults to Turkish sky battles (translated and sent to him by Peter Brown no less). The great Italian historian probably imagines himself nimbly leaping from stone to stone across a river with a sabre in his hand. In fact, Ginzburg is tossing and turning in a fitful sleep like one of his beloved Benandanti. Don’t believe Beach? Consider the following passage, taken almost at random, arguing that European ‘witches’ may have used hallucinogenics:

In a number of French regions gilled mushrooms (for example, amanita muscaria) have names like bò (Haute Saone) or botet (Loire) which immediately call to mind bot (cripple) and bot (toad). Here we see emerge the intersection of three elements: mushroom, toad and the ambulatory anomaly. It has been maintained that the convergence between the adjective bot, ‘crippled’ (pied bot) and the noun bot ‘toad’, is illusory, because the two words derive from different roots… But the name that identify the toad with ‘shoe’, ‘slipper’, and so on, in the dialects of northern Italy would seem to indicate the presence of a semantic affinity, which certainly cannot be reduced to an external resemblance. Equally unquestionable, although obscure, is the affinity between mushroom and toad. In China…

Ecstasies would have been a stronger book with about two hundred pages fewer: it is just under 350 pages long. What is needed is, instead, a long hard look not at the speculative Euro-Asian origins of speculative pre-Christian fertility cults, but a grounding of the medieval and early modern sources that reveal these supposed cults. Ginzburg – remember, one of the great post war European historians – was the pioneer of the microhistory. The heavens would rain manna on him for ten or twelve chapters, each one a micro-history, looking at different Euro-Asian examples with no need of anything by way of a conclusion save a couple of polite pages. In that conclusion it would be fascinating to ask whether there really was a traditional Sabbat independent of the Sabbat invented by the witch-hunters. It would be useful to know whether Ginzburg thought the witch-hunters’ Sabbat came to influence the traditional Sabbat. And, finally, was the traditional Sabbat really even pre-Christian or was it not a confused, popular response to Christianity?

We can but hope!

Beach is always on the look out for remarkable books like Ecstasies: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


10 March 2013: AB writes: Beach I agree with you about Ecstasies being all over the place and unnnecessarily highly involved but I find most if not all Ginzburg’s books have huge passages in them where you find yourself wond’ring is ‘e being paid by the word. The clue to why Ecstasies’s probably the worst for it though’s the title.  It’s the nearest he could come to admitting his REAL thesis the witches really did attend those eldritch get togethers but out their bodies.  I don’t know how it reads in Itay but loads a times in English you feel he’s almost about to say “Godamnit I believe in psychic powers and to hell with the lot o’y'u!” [I'd be highly surprised if when he pops his clogs he doesn't leave behind some sort of account to the effect he's actually invountarily attended modern equivalents of these often orgiastic extravaganzas but whether his family'd actually release such a hypothetical tome's quite another matter]. If you ever read the books again [and you probably won't because they get ever more spaghettily dense and incomprehensible with every new attempt] the characters to pay attention to [though I'd be surprised if you haven't spotted them already]‘re the mysterious militaristic recruiting sergeants/commanders like the drum beating Captain [a Genghis Khanian shamanoid you may well've personally had a run-in with 'the likes of' if you've ever had any dreams about being trained to operate as a 'spaceman' aboard a huge invisible Earth orbiting 'spaceship'] and those even more mysterious religious figureheads who while professing it’s all superstitious nonsense still somehow manage to get wind of what’s going on and arrive just in time to pull certain parties out the fire viz the Bishop of Cloera’s instructions to release the sky swimmer so he could return to his sky ship.’ Thanks AB!!