BENANDANTI: ANTI-WITCHES & THE INQUISITION

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SYNOPSIS

The witch trials throughout medieval europe have become renowned for their relentless, brutal torture and widespread execution. Whether floated as a form of class warfare, patriarchal dominance or religious persecution, the stories that remain are pitch black with their depictions of callous violence. Likewise, the legacy of The Medieval Inquisition, is too one of severe brutality and overzealous, corrupt authoritarians crushing those with differing beliefs and lifestyles. Despite this, there is one story from history of a group of individuals in Northern Italy that whilst crossing over with both The Inquisition and witch trials, somehow came out the other side with relatively few casualties. So unbelievable were the stories that came from the individuals involved, that The Inquisitors themselves wrote many off as simple fantasists in the face of their sincere admissions. Known as the Benandanti, this was a group of people whose story was truly one of the strangest in the myths, legends and lore of historical Witchcraft. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.

Ginzburg, Carlo. (1966) The NIght Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The John Hopkins University Press, MD, USA.

Peters, Edward M. (1989) Inquisition. University of California Press, CA, USA

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Benandanti: Anti-Witches & The Inquisition

 

Intro

 

The witch trials throughout medieval europe have become renowned for their relentless, brutal torture and widespread execution. Whether floated as a form of class warfare, patriarchal dominance or religious persecution, the stories that remain are pitch black with their depictions of callous violence. Likewise, the legacy of The Medieval Inquisition, is too one of severe brutality and overzealous, corrupt authoritarians crushing those with differing beliefs and lifestyles. Despite this, there is one story from history of a group of individuals in Northern Italy that whilst crossing over with both The Inquisition and witch trials, somehow came out the other side with relatively few casualties. So unbelievable were the stories that came from the individuals involved, that The Inquisitors themselves wrote many off as simple fantasists in the face of their sincere admissions. Known as the Benandanti, this was a group of people whose story was truly one of the strangest in the myths, legends and lore of historical Witchcraft. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.

 

Italy & The Inquisition

 

The roots of the Inquisition belong in Rome, when heresy was considered a form of treason punishable by death, however the popular Inquisition as we know it did not officially exist until the 13th Century. Throughout the two centuries before it’s official founding in law in 1227, the practice of burning heretics was, of course, a popular pastime, at times sanctioned by officials and plenty of others, carried out by the whims of mob justice, when loosely organised crowds of locals would unceremoniously pull suspected heretics from prison cells and lead them to the stake. By the late 12th Century, the Roman Church had made note of the goings on and decided to take action in an attempt to both popularise and standardise the practice of crushing those that held opposing beliefs. Pope Lucious III issued a decree in 1184 that stated that any heretics, as well as those that sought to defend them, were at the mercy of a secular judge who would dish out a punishment worthy of their crimes. Of course, such an operation would prove to be costly, and as such, anyone found to be suspect of heresy, were to have their property and land relinquished from them by the church in order to ensure the running costs were covered.

 

It was a cosy little stitch up for the Roman Church and much of the ideas laid out in Pope Lucious III decree found its way into canon law when the Inquisition was made official 30 years later as a response to growing movements of splinter religious groups throughout Europe. Groups like the Catharists, a Christian splinter that believed in Gnostic revival and the idea that there existed two opposing gods of Good and Evil, found themselves hunted by a new breed of Inquisitor, bent on stamping out those of a different point of view, all justified by a new found zeal for following archaic laws in the Old Testament that had been ignored for centuries prior. A series of crusades formed in order to rout out Cathars in Southern France as an early precursor to the Inquisition and to give a sharp insight into the minds of the people involved, during the sacking of Beziers on 22nd June 1209, where 20,000 citizens were swiftly murdered by crusaders, the question of what to do with the remaining Catholics was put to papal Legate Arnaud. His reply came simply, “Kill them all, for God knows his own.”

 

This attitude carried directly into the Inquisition’s beginnings as Heretics across France found themselves routinely burned wholesale and torutre became an officially authorised tactic by Pope Innocent IV. Becoming a largely independent authority, the inquisitors had only to answer to the Pope and with such autonomy, they ran roughshod through the countryside, trying whoever they liked, whenever they liked, for whatever they liked. Right up until the end of the 15th Century the Inquisition remained heavily focused on ridding the world of the Cathars, who had found their name being entirely synonymous with the term Heretic itself. Along the way, several other groups had also fallen foul, including the Templar, Jews and the Waldensians and frankly, anyone else they fancied. By the mid-16th Century, however, A new threat was found with the Protestants, who would occupy a large portion of the Inquisitions efforts over the coming centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews, Muslims and Protestants across Spain were executed, suppressed and chased out of Spain in one of the Inquisitions darkest chapters. 

 

In general, the process of the Inquisition was largely routine. The inquisitor would show up in an area with his entourage of bodyguards and foot soldiers, preach the sin of Heresy in a public speech to a town or village and then put in place a grace period, which could span from between one and four weeks. Throughout this period, heretics were encouraged to come forward and confess to their sins, which led to a greatly reduced punishment. It also acted as a perfectly fine way to extract the names of the local heretics who were not so forthcoming. As can be expected, this was quickly abused, and both business and personal rivalries made false accusations a common theme, which many Inquisitors gave little mind to care about. Once the Grace period was over, the accused and suspected would be one by one called to the Inquisitors office, where they were interrogated and encouraged to confess. In a handbook for Inquisitors written by Nicholas Eymeric, entitled Inquisitorium Directorum, guidance was given on how these interrogations should be carried out,

 

“The inquisitor should behave in a friendly manner and act as though he already knows the whole story. He should glance at his papers and say: “It is quite clear you are not telling the truth” or should pick up a document and look surprised, saying: “How can you lie to me like this when what I have written down here contradicts everything you say?” He should then continue: “Just confess, you can see that I know the whole story already.”

 

“When sentence of torture has been given, and while the executioner is preparing to apply it, the inquisitor and the grave persons who assist him should make fresh attempts to persuade the accused to confess the truth; the executioners and their assistants, while stripping him, should affect uneasiness, haste, and sadness, endeavoring thus to instill fear into his mind; and when he is stripped naked the inquisitors should take him aside, exhorting him to confess, and promising him his life upon condition of his doing so, provided that he is not a relapsed (one dilated a second time), because in such a case they cannot promise him that.”

 

After the interrogations, suspects were held for trial. They were never told the names of their accusers, nor were they given much in the way of rights whatsoever. They were not allowed to call witnesses in their own defense, now were they allowed to have counsel. They were asked for a list of people who may bear them some ill will and if their accusers were found to be on the list, they were at times allowed to walk free. If they admitted guilt, likewise, they were often given greatly reduced sentences, something which would be doubly true if they were also to furnish the Inquisitor with a list of names of other, potential heretics. Often, however, when Heretical suspects would not admit their sins or confess to their guilt, they would find themselves jailed, their assets stripped and their bodies burned at the stake. Those who were repentant in their final moments were afforded the luxury of being garotted before burned, but for the more obstinate in their innocence, burning them whilst still alive would be just fine.

 

In Italy, the Inquisition was marginally less brutal than it’s neighbours in Spain and by the mid-15th Century, had found much of it’s time being taken up by suspects of Heresy accused of superstition and magic and whilst the official line was that “No man must lower himself by showing toleration towards Heretics of any kind”, trumpeted by Cardinal Giovanni Caraffa in 1542, the truth was that many of the Italian Inquisitors were a skeptical bunch.

 

A great many of the trials that took place over the hundreds of years throughout the Inquisitorial operation, were meticulously recorded and notated. Nowadays, much of this record sits locked away from the public in private or religious archives, but still many have seeped into public access, either through being sold, stolen or gradually opened up, and within these old manuscripts, a vast tapestry of social and folk history is spun. With over 40% of the latter Italian trials focusing on Superstitions as it did, numerous tales of witches, fortune tellers and strange cults, rooted in ancient folk beliefs have come to the attention of modern readers. One such group was the Benandanti from Northern Italy, a group that had been entirely forgotten for centuries, and one whose actions were nothing short of the fantastic.

 

Enter the Benandanti: The trial of Paolo Gasparutto & Battista Moduco

 

The Friuli region of Italy lies in the North Eastern extreme of the country. Bordering Slovenia to the East, Austria to the North and the Adriatic Sea to the South, it sits 100 miles to the North-East of Venice. In 1575, Although it had several cities, including the politically powerful capital of Udine, that was held under Venetian control, it was also home home to many isolated, rural towns, hamlets and communes, with vast mountainous areas in the North and a landscape that was carved through by rivers and valleys that would at times flood and become impassable, sometimes for months at a time.

 

The story of the Benandanti begins in the small village of Brazzano, with a local priest named Don Bartolomeo Sgabrizza. The priest had stumbled upon a local rumour that in the neighbouring village of Iassico, a man named Paolo Gasparutto had been able to cure a fellow villager who was thought to have been bewitched by a woman who was suspected as a witch, due to her “eating meat on a Friday.”. The rumours went even further, when they claimed too that Paolo was gallivanting around at night in the company of witches and goblins. Naturally, this piqued the priest’s interest and so he promptly called Paolo to his church in order for him to meet and question him on the rumours. Sensing the danger of the religious authorities, Paolo was quick to deny the claims, he told the priest that whilst he had been helping a Miller to cure his sick son, he had merely suggested an old folk belief that he could have been possessed by witches and had given the Miller a protective charm to calm his fears. Paolo had so far played his cards close to his chest, but then in an exposition of some flair, he went on to explain that he was certainly not a witch as some had claimed, in fact, he regularly fought battles against the witches, both in order to protect the villagers and their crops. Furnishing the priest with more details, he then explained that the Millers young son had been on the brink of death, when he was saved by a group known as the Banandanti. This group, he went on,

 

“On Thursdays during the ember days of the year they were forced to go with the witches to many places, such as Cormons, in front of the church at Iassico, and even into the countryside about Verona.”

 

“They fought, played, leaped about and rode various animals, and did different things among themselves and the women beat the men who were with them with Sorghum stalks, while the men had only bunches of fennel.”

 

Concerned about what he had heard, Priest Sgararizza journeyed to the city of Cividale to consult with the local inquisitor on the 7th April, 1575. Along the way, he chanced a meeting with Paolo, and took him along to the Inquisitors office. Some may have felt a twinge of concern after being picked up by a priest and asked to visit the Inquisitors office, but Paolo was all cheer, instead, he continued on with his story, seemingly unafraid of the Inquisitor, Giulio D’Assisi,

 

“Sometimes they go out to one country region and sometimes to another, perhaps to Gradisca or even as far away as Verona, and they appear together jousting and playing games; and … the men and women who are the evil-doers carry and use the sorghum stalks which grow in the fields, and the men and women who are benandanti use fennel storks; and they go now one day and now another, but always on Thursdays, and … when they make their great displays they go to the biggest farms, and they have days fixed for this; and when the warlocks and witches set out it is to do evil, and they must be pursued by the benandanti to thwart them.”

 

“When the witches and warlocks and Benandanti return from these games all hot and tired as they pass in front of the houses, when they find clean, clear water in pails, they drink it. If not, they also go into cellars and overturn all the wine.”

 

Along with tipping over the wine, many of the witches and warlocks were also known to urinate into the casks. This he said, is the reason that one must always have a pail of clean water in their house. For their part, it was the job of the so called “Benandanti”, a term which directly translates as “The Good Walkers”, to stop the witches and warlocks from running riot through the town and to make sure they left the people’s wine alone. The Benandanti were there to prevent evil, he promised. 

 

When the miller was called upon for questioning, he reiterated the story that Paolo had attempted to cure his son and had told him that he had been bewitched. He told the inquisitor all that he had heard from paolo regarding the Benandanti, including the new details that some of the benevolent witches rode into battle with the witches and warlocks on the backs of horses, whilst others rode in on the backs of hares, rabbits and cats. 

 

“He told me that when he goes to these games his body stayed in bed and the spirit went forth, and that while he was out if someone approached the bed where he lay and called to it, it would not answer, nor could he get it to move even if he should try for a hundred years.”

 

If the sleeping Benandanti did not return to their bodies after 24 hours, Paolo told the Miller that they would then become Maladante, a peculiar, inverse Benandanti who ate children. Finally, the Miller gave up one other piece of important information, that he had heard a rumour that a man named Battista Moduco, an official living in Cividale was also well known as a Benandanti. 

 

This was an incredible tale. Paolo was telling both th priest and the local inquisitor that as a Benandanti, he would stride into battle with bunches of fennel and fight against witches and warlocks, themselves armed with stalks of sorghum, a corn-like crop, in order to stop them from doing evil deeds. It was with some luck that the inquisitor found it too much to believe, despite Paolo’s adamance that he was telling the truth, even going as far as to invite the priest to join him for the next gathering. When asked who the other members of the Benandanti were, Paolo only told him that they were men from the local region, in the towns of Brazzano, Iassico, Cormons, Gorizia and Cividale, but he refused to name any specific names. Rather than focus on the demonic elements of the story,much of which should have been considered as really quite heretical, he instead dismissed the whole thing and sent Paolo and the priest away.

 

About a week passed since the questioning in front of the Inquisitor, after which the priest continued to ask about the town of Paolo, in an attempt to find more details about the Benandanti. As it turned out, Paolo was not shy at all about who he told of his escapades. It was a well known fact that he was a Benandanti to the locals, who all told the priest that “he freely admits to anyone with whom he has the occasion to speak, even taking an oath on it.”

 

For five years, Paolo continued unchecked, battling witches and warlocks in the fields and presumably, telling everyone all about it. By 1580, however, a new Inquisitor had taken charge of the region, Fra Felice de Montefalco and after stumbling upon the unclosed and unfinished case of Paolo Gasparutto, decided to revive the interrogation and resolve the puzzling affair of the Benandanti. He called Paolo to the Holy Office once more and at the same time, contacted the second Benandanti who had been named at the time, Batttista Moduco.

 

Unsurprisingly, Paolo was first to respond to the summons and he made his way to Cividale, where the Inquisitor de Montefalco was stationed, on 27th June, 1580. Upon the opening of his interrogation, he told the Inquisitor that he was not aware why he had been summoned. The inquisitor jumped quickly into the matter, asking him if he knew of any witches, or of any Benandanti. In stark contrast to his earlier interrogation, he flatly denied knowing any witches at all and simply laughed at the question of Benandanti, replying “Father no, I really do not know, I am not a Benandanti, that is not my calling.” He even denied ever hearing of any bewitched child from his village, claiming not to have heard of the Miller’s son. The Inquisitor pressed him on the issue, and after several questions, he eventually admitted that he had told the previous Inquisitor that he had previously had dreams of fighting with witches and continued to laugh off the inquisitors further questions. When asked why he was laughing so much, he gave the cocky response,

 

“Because these are not things to inquire about because they are against the will of God. You are asking about things which I know nothing about.”

 

The inquisitor went on, questioning if Paolo had ever spoken to the priest, the Inquisitor, various villages, about the existence of Benandanti and if he’d invited them along to a gathering if they wished, which Paolo denied flatly. At the end of the questioning, the Inquisitor reminded him that he should be truthful if he wished to be treated with mercy and he was placed in custody.

 

Later that day, Battista Moduco too appeared before Fra Felice de Montefalco, stating that he had no idea why he had been summoned. He assured the room that he knew of no Heretics and when asked whether he knew any witches or Benandanti, he replied, probably more smartly than paolo, “Of witches, I do not know if there are any, and of Benandanti I do not know of any others besides myself.” He then went on to explain to the Inquisitor what he meant by being a Benandanti,


“I am a Benandante because I go with the others to fight four times a year, that is, during the ember days, at night; I go invisibly in spirit and the body remains behind; we go forth in the service of Christ and the witches of the devil; we fight each other, we with bundles of fennel and they with sorghum stalks. And if we are the victors, that year there is abundance, but if we lose there is famine.”

 

The ember days that Moduco mentioned were four periods of week-long fasting that were acknowledged by the Catholic calendar, loosely corresponding with the changing of each season when tanks and prayer were offered to God for the gifts of nature. These practices were originally a series of much older celebrations and holidays that the church absorbed into its own tradition when it sought to gain an original foothold in Europe. Moduco had gone a step further than Paolo in his insights, linking the Benandanti with a divine mission to protect the coming crops. He also went on to explain that a person enters into the fold of the Benandanti at the age of 20 and serves for 20 years, at which time, he is free to leave if he so wishes. For his part, he assured the Inquisitor that he had not taken part in any battles with the group for more than 8 years. The Inquisitor was interested and he pressed on, asking Moduco who was enlisted into this mysterious, military structure. 

 

“All those who have been born with the caul belong to it, and when they reach the age of twenty, they are summoned by means of a drum the same as soldiers and they are obliged to respond.”

 

The caul that Moduco spoke of is the rare condition of being born with the birth membrane wrapping around the head, face and sometimes shoulders. Thought to occur in 1 in every 80,000 births, it is relatively uncommon and throughout folklore has been seen as a sign of fortune and good luck and many parents kept the caul after it had been removed in order to pass onto the child after it had grown up, who would keep it as a lucky charm, whilst others sold it at high prices to sailors and soldiers, who highly valued them as good luck charms. 

 

Just as his predecessor once was when questioning Paolo, Inquisitor de Montefalco incredulously reminded Moduco that he must tell the truth. If he hoped for less fantastical tales, his hints were outright ignored, as Moduco went on to describe the being that called them to the company during the ember days along with his company. Whilst some of Paolo’s original descriptions of the battles were almost quaint in their nature, these elucidations from Moduco told of how the battles were not always such simple, small scale LARPing affairs. The witches and warlocks that they fought were quoted to be in the thousands, with a figure ranging from 3000, to “five thousand and more.” Both armies were accompanied by banner carriers as well as buglers and drummers, who stood firm, noisily supporting their side whilst the vegetarian clashes saw shreds of abandoned fennel and sorghum litter the herbaceous battlefield below like a twisted antipasto salad.

 

The banner carrier seen alongside the company of Benandanti was described as a man carrying a large standard made of “White silk stuff” that was “Gilded with a golden lion”. The banner of the witches and warlocks, in comparison, was crafted of red silk, and rather than lions, had an insignia of four black devils. Each side was led into the battle by their captain, the same man who had originally given each member his orders to answer the caul when they had officially begun their journey as a benandanti. His captain, he told the Inquisitor, was a man of 28 years old, very tall, pale complexioned, red-bearded and of noble birth with a wife. In contrast, the captain of the witches and warlocks was black-bearded, big and tall and from the German nation.

 

“In the fighting that we do, one time we fight over the wheat, and all the other grains, another time over the livestock, and at other times over the vineyards. And so on, on four occasions, we fight over all the fruits of the earth and for those things won by the benandanti, that year there is abundance.”

 

The inquisitor had heard enough and closed the questioning askingModuco to name other Benandanti or witches, however, Moduco replied that he was unable to give names as he had taken a life long pact as a Benandanti, not to name the names of either group. The inquisitor was sly, however, and reminded him that if he had left the company as he had said, then he was no longer subject to any pact. Reluctantly, Moduco furnished the Inquisitor with the names of two witches, the first, he said, was a woman who had dried up the milk of some animals. Unlike Paolo, Moduco was then dismissed from the interrogation, though he was asked to not leave the vicinity in the near future, in case there was a need to summon him again.

 

The next day, after 24 hours in the Inquisitorial prison, Paolo was recalled to the Inquisitor to see if he might have had his tongue loosened. When the interrogation opened, Inquisitor de Montefalco asked him, “Have you thought better about speaking the truth than before?” to which Paolo replied, “Yes father, and I will tell it rightly.” Paolo then went on to admit that he himself was a Benandanti, though he had left his company four years prior. When asked for his reasons for lying the day before, he told the Inquisitor, 

 

“I was afraid of the witches, who would have attacked me in bed and killed me.”

 

He went on to explain that when he was called to the company to fight for the Benandanti, a peasant from Vicenza had summoned him in his sleep and he had been able to reply through his spirit. Strangely, Paolos company was only 6 men deep, significantly smaller than Moducos, which he had said had numbered in the thousands, however, the manner of the fighting, with fennel and sorghum and the colour of the banner was apparently just the same, including the detail that there was a lion gilded into it. His captain too was a man from Verona with a red beard, though Paolo believed that he was perhaps a peasant and not a man of any noble birth. He was then asked if he knew the names of any of the members of his fellow company members, which at first he denied, however, after some pressing, he gave up two names to the Inquisitor, though both were vague descriptions of peasants living some distance from the Holy Office. The Inquisitor then dismissed Paolo, asking him to reappear in twenty days time. This order was promptly ignored by Paolo and so, on the 24th September, he was rounded up and imprisoned to await a further audience with the Inquisitor.

 

Two days later, Paolo was once again back in front of Inquisitor de Montefalco to face his questioning. Once again, Paolo had decided to altar his story, giving it a much more Christian bent, probably in the vein of hope that if he did so, the Inquisitor would drop the entire trial and allow him to get back to his life. This time he told the Inquisitor that he had been called to the Benandanti by a golden angel, who had appeared before him at night whilst he had slept. The angel told him that he was called to fight for the crops. The mention of angels, however, appeared to have quite the opposite effect as the inquisitor seemed to believe that the angel was perhaps, a trick of the devil and in fact, a demonic being. He continued to question Paolo, asking him if he appeared on a throne and if he was offered food, women and dancing by the angel as a reward for their work. Paolo was relatively fast to cotton on to the Inquisitors line of questioning and he quickly began to assure him in his answers that it was the witches he fought who were the devils on thrones and who “dance and leap about.” “Our angel is beautiful and white” he assured him, “theirs is balck and is the devil.” Paolos questioning was promptly wrapped up and he was once again returned to his cell. 

 

Further questioning began 6 days later on the 1st of November, this time, Paolos wife was summoned to speak to the Inquisitor, though she denied knowledge of anything relating to the possibility that her husband was a Benandanti, only admitting that once when she had tried to wake him one night, he had been impossible to rouse from sleep. After this story, she returned to denying all knowledge of anything further and was eventually dismissed. 

 

Two days later again, now the 3rd November, Paolo was back in interrogation. This time he told the court of his coming to know that he was a Benandanti,

 

“About a year before the angel appeared to me, my mother gave me the caul in which I had been born, saying that she had it baptized with me, and had nine Masses said over it, and had it blessed with certain prayers and scriptural readings; and she told em that I was born a benandanti, and that when I grew up I would gho fourth at night, and that I must wear it on my person, and that I would go with the benandanti to fight the witches.”

 

Though his story was now chaning once more. Now he told the inquisitor that he had come to believe that the visiting angel was perhaps, as suggested by the inquisitor, a diabolic being sent to trick him. 

 

The trials of both Musco and Paolo ahd drawn to a close. The inquisitor called both before him one last time to carry out their sentencing for having been “caught up in numerous perversities and heresies.”

 

“So great was your audacity and so small your fear of God, that you dared to affirm before us that to reveal the names of the witches and Benandanti was to go against divine will; and you also declared that you believed and firmly held that these impious games were permitted by God, and that you fought for God. Similarly, you asserted that you seriously believed that the captain, under whom you went to these games, had been placed there by God.”

 

And on and on.. The List of heresies were long, and the speech given was longer. Eventually, both men were sentenced to 6 months in prison, told to fast over the ember days for two years, told to confess their sins four times a year for five years and lastly, both men were ordered to hand over their cauls to the Holy Office in order that they be destroyed by burning. Whilst seemingly harsh, the sentences were in fact, relatively light for the Inquisition and they were soon made much lighter, when a few days later after being begging for forgiveness, both men were excused of their sentence entirely and instead ordered only to stay within the boundaries of Cividale for two weeks.

 

Later Benandante trials

 

After the trial of  Paolo Gasparutto and Battista Moduco, there were several other trials concerning Benandanti that spanned over the next 100 years. Interestingly, as the time passed, so too did the beliefs and practices of the benandanti themselves. One of the primary changes was that of the point of the Benandante. In earlier trials, they were fighting with the witches and warlocks in order to ensure good harvests and healthy crops, but the later trials leant more and more heavily towards the concept that the Benandante were fighting their vegetable fueled battles in order to protect the local children from demonic harm. During the trial of Florida Basili in 1599, the benandanti claimed that she could see the dead, a belief that was reflected in the trial of Bella le Rossa, another suspect in a trial that had taken place 18 years earlier, where bella claimed she could both see and communicate with the dead. In both cases, the trials led to dead ends, with both women eventually released from questioning and their trials fell away into obscurity. In 1582, the trial of Caterina le Guercia, an elderly woman from Cividale was another benandanti who claimed to use charms to cure sickness in the local children and in 1600, an account was given to the Holy Office of an old woman named Pascutta Agrigolante, who claimed to fight in battles with witches both to secure good crop harvests and cure sick children. Pascutta would leave her body during the night and her spirit would travel to the battles riding a hare, who would collect her at the appropriate time by creating “a great clatter with its paws” on her door until she opened it and went with the spirit animal. In later trials, Benandanti gave evidence that their spirit would leave their body in the form of small animals, with mice being a recurring theme as well as butterflies. Although the stories of the Benandanti shifted over time, the night time spirit battles were always a staple, core part of the suspects belief.

 

By 1670, the Inquisitors, who saw little difference between the Benandante and the evil witches and warlocks they spoke about, had slowly pressured many to turn their back on their beliefs, assuming them to be diabolic in origin and so, over time, the benandanti found themselves being assimilated into the realm of the Witches they once claimed to struggle against. The knock on effect of this was a complete loss of purpose amongst the group and slowly, as the years ticked by, the number who claimed to be of the caul steadily declined. Those of the Benandanti who were left began drawing harsher and harsher lines between themselves and the witches. In the beginning, the witches and warlocks were almost seen as honourable enemies, but by the later period of the trials, many began attacking them violently during their interrogations and in public life too. The local Benandante embarked upon something of a PR exercise, where they would emphasise themselves as benevolent, casting healing spells on sick children and protecting the crops. At the same time, they began playing up the evil stereotypes of witches that had come to saturate the European witch trials abroad. This, however, appeared to backfire, when eventually, as the Inquisition continued to mostly ignore the tall claims of the Benandanti and the villagers grew weary of the discord that the Benandante sewed amongst those individuals they accused as the evil witches, the group found itself falling further and further out of favour.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, given the Inquisition’s history and strong reputation for widespread, violence and abuse, the inquisitors of Friuli were remarkably lenient in regards not only to the Benandanti, but witchcraft and superstition and magic in general. Despite the fact that by the turn of the 17th Century, over 40% of all trials overseen by the inquisitors were based in matters of magic and supernatural, the trial of Paolo Gasparutto and Battista Moduco was the only trial of suspected Benandanti that would reach a conclusion. Of the dozens of other trials, most became long, drawn out affairs that meandered into obscurity, with the suspects only being told to stay in the area and to attend the court at a later date if called upon. This lax attitude towards the Benandanti was reflected throughout the vast majority of superstitious or supernatural cases, with many ending with punishments of penances or short term incarcerations. Even the case of Paolo and Moduco, relatively early on in the Benandanti timeline, had seen their sentences eventually withdrawn.

 

So what exactly was going on here? Why was it that a religious body formed for the sole purpose of hunting out, exposing and punishing heretics were being so lenient with cases which, across various faiths in all other areas of Europe and even in other areas of Italy, fell directly under the banner of gross Heresy? The answer is likely several layers deep, but first and foremost is the fact that the inquisitors of the Friuli simply had bigger fish to fry. Whilst the stories of Benandanti, witches and warlocks were certainly off kilter with an orthodox point of view, they were not deemed as a threat to catholicism in the same strength that protestantism or catharism were. A further explanation falls on the attitudes of the inquisitors of Friuli both in regards to the practices carried out and of magic on a wider scale. Truthfully, much of the practices carried out by the Benandanti could be seen reflected within Christian practices, which had over the past centuries incorporated many of the traditional, pagan beliefs into its own method and calendar. Praying over crops, or sprinkling holy water in order to protect the harvest and holding spiritual ceremonies and mass on special days in order to ensure health of the crop for the year, whilst poor crop yields were often blamed on the past sins of the locals. Whilst differing in execution, both the Catholics and the Benandanti were seeking to enlist spiritual practices for the same ends. Perhaps more importantly however, was the contradictory beliefs of the inquisitors themselves. Coming from a higher class of society, the inquisitors were men of education and learning and much of the feeling when coming into contact with traditional folk tales of magic and witches from rural communities was a certain degree of piteous contempt and a heavy dose of skepticism. Many of the questions asked in the trials of the Benandanti would have been posed with a raised eyebrow and many suspects were simply dismissed after the inquisitors had deemed them as either mentally unstable, harmless profiteers or simple fantasists. Cases of local healers and diviners were frequently seen as older, poor women aiming to make a small side-profit and dismissed, whilst stories of Benandanti springing through fields at midnight on the back of spirit animals were incredulously notated. An example of the attitude of the time amongst the educated classes towards rural folk healers can be seen in a letter written by a Friulian priest in 1582, who, in a daming account of the inquisitors overstretching, wrote, 

 

“[the inquisitors] are seeking to prosecute certain poor women who, under the pretext of healing and being paid a little money for it, were using some superstitious practices that had nothing to do with heresy.” 

 

Strangely, whilst stories like this were treated with leniency and the stories of the Benandanti were seen as far fetched and more often than not, simply hand waved away, the inquisitors were still deeply interested in the names of the witches and warlocks that the Benandanti were fighting. Somewhere down the line, the magic of the demonic witches was seen as more believable than the magic of the benevolent Benandanti, though technically, if the laws were being followed, both belonged firmly in the category of serious and unquestionable heresy. So was it just a case that the benandanti were simply not seen as an active enough threat to the church to bother with?. As the trials passed on and on and the suspected Benandanti began to change their views both of witches and of themselves, the efforts of the Inquisitors to frame them as witches became easier and easier and worked to place them within an understandable, and punishable, framework. The Benandante slowly found themselves wilfully walking into extinction as their own beliefs eroded and they began accepting the Inquisitorial line, even going as far as admitting to cavorting with the Devil and spitting on the cross. It was, in a sense, a subtle effort, that, despite being driven by indifference, slowly worked to rid the rural villagers of their unorthodox beliefs and bring them back into the Roman Catholic fold.

 

Theories

 

The theories about precisely what the Benandanti were, are, as one might expect, numerous and wide ranging, from deluded folk stories to shamanistic rites. One of the more interesting theories subscribes to the possibility that the Benandanti were an ancient folk group who would smear themselves with ointment before bed which would lead them to having hallucinogenic dreams, a practice seen amongst the claimed witches of Spain, who would use “certain ointments and creams” in order to allow their spirit to leave their physical body. The largest problem with this theory was that amongst all the trials only two ever mentioned any sort of oil being used and one of those, in 1591, was simple lamp oil. A second trial mentioned only “oils and creams” but no further detail was provided. With none of the other Benandanti ever mentioning it, it seems unlikely that it was a ritualistic practice amongst the group.

 

Carlo Giznburg, the first historian to uncover the trial transcripts mentioning the Benandnanti, theorised in his book “The Night Battles”, published in 1966, that the group were the unbroken remnants of an ancient agrarian fertility cult that had its origins throughout Europe and who all worshipped a similar female Goddess, though under various names, such as Diana the Roman Patroness of Hunters, the Roman Goddess Venus, Perchta, a German and Austrian Pagan Goddess, and Holda, a character from a German Folk Legend. Though his interpretation has caused controversy in the years since publication, with many failing to see enough evidence of a central belief system, many scholars have since suggested variations on the same theme, theorising that the Benandanti instead were looser remnants of pre-christian beliefs, originating from the Balkans, Hungary and Romania as well as links further afield, throughout Europe to other folk myths and legends. These various characters also fought against evil witches and warlocks to protect crops, but many under different guises and for differing reasons. One example was Thiess of Kaltenbrun, a werewolf from Swedish Livonia who, in 1692, was tried for Heresy. Throughout his trial he insisted that he was a “hound of God” who went to do battle in Hell against devils, witches and warlocks three times a year in order to rescue grain and livestock for the local village.

 

So what of the theory that the Benandantis night battles were, in fact real? At first it may seem ridiculous to any rational person out there, but consider for a second that many of the benandanti were able to describe their captain, often in very similar terms, such as the colour of the man’s beard or hair, or the description of the banners held by both the companies of benandanti and witches? One could make a compelling argument that such details were passed down through oral tradition, but more difficult to square is the fact that many Benandanti trials ended with the suspect naming other witches or Benandanti in far away areas who they had claimed to meet during the battles. Were they just names pulled from thin air, or were they perhaps names of people they had met in years past? Either way, in a region that was notoriously difficult to travel through, it seems unlikely they had met them in any real world, non-spiritual travels.

 

Trying to figure out the truth of the Benandanti is fairly difficult not only because of the uniquely bizarre stories they told, but also because of the lack of evidence we have to say what the trialed suspects thought themselves about being a Benandanti. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some were simply profiteering from old traditional folk beliefs, it has to be given serious consideration that a good many firmly believed they truly went on these journeys and entered into battle with demonic forces.

 

Conclusion

 

From all the various accounts that tilt on a similar theme, it seems quite likely that Benandante held their roots in older, more widespread beliefs, passed down through generations, mutating as they travelled across Eastern and Central Europe. Faced with so many various stories, from the Benevolent witch-battlers of Paolo and Moduco to the Livonian werewolf, however, we are somehow left in a similar position to the bemused inquisitors, scratching around in our attempts to twist the peculiar beliefs of the Benandanti to conform to our own paradigms. Did they truly fight battles with bunches of fennel, striding into battle on the back of a spirit rabbit to protect the local crops? It seems unlikely, but where then, did the stories come from? What did the benandanti believe on a day to day basis and how did they view themselves? And why did their stories persist for so many centuries, until a finely tuned operation like the Inquisition was able to finally stamp them out of existence?

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