The Contemporary Evidence for Early Medieval Witchcraft-Beliefs
By Alaric Hall
RMN Newsletter, No.3 (2011)
Introduction: This article has two main aims. One is to bring to a wider audience a small group of early medieval texts pertinent to the history of witchcraft, most of which were rather haphazardly gathered in my PhD thesis, in the hope that they will receive more attention. The other is to make some methodological points about the historiography of European witchcraft and magic relevant to retrospective methods.
Readers of RMN Newsletter will probably at some point have shared the excitement with which I once read Carlo Ginzburg’s I Benandanti, more familiar in English as The Night Battles: forty-odd years after its publication, this remains a startling, mind-opening insight into non-elite European culture. It also established – presumably more or less unintentionally – a paradigm which much subsequent work on witchcraft has followed. Ginzburg found a fascinating culture in Friuli, in northern Italy, of select individuals (the benandanti [‘good walkers’]) leaving their bodies by night, amongst other things to convene and fight malandanti [‘evil walkers’]. This discovery cried out for historicisation – in a sense, for retrospective methods: as well as wanting to use the benandanti as evidence for earlier beliefs, Ginzburg rightly also felt a need to give the benandanti themselves a past, to avoid the twin inquisitorial pitfalls of writing this subaltern group off as a mere aberration, or of eliding it with some handy but ill-fitting intellectual category, as the inquisitors did by integrating the benandanti’s stories into elite preconceptions of heresy.