In 1575, the Roman Inquisition came across some disturbing rumors of villagers who called themselves benandanti, meaning “good walkers.” These men and women of the agrarian district of the Friuli in northeastern Italy were thought to be special because, as the folk narrative goes, they were born with the amniotic membrane (or the “caul”) covering their heads. When the individuals reached adulthood, on certain Thursday nights of the year, an angel summoned them from sleep, and, travelling out of their bodies in the form of mice, cats, and other small animals, they flew into the clouds to fight malevolent witches (malandanti). The benandanti fought with bundles of fennel while the witches wielded sorghum stocks. If the “good walkers” were successful in defending the crops, it would be a good year; if the witches won, the harvest would be abysmal and the witchy “evil walkers” would destroy the wine, often by urinating in the casks. The Catholic Inquisition considered the nocturnal activities of the benandanti to be nothing short of heresy and witchcraft.
Although the earliest accounts of the “good walkers’” journeys had no trace of Satanic witches' gatherings and no renunciation of Christianity, over time the benandanti were themselves convinced that their visionary experiences were a product of demonic illusion. Ginzburg argues that the tradition of nocturnal battles has deep roots in pre-Christian shamanistic fertility cults and that processions of the dead were widespread across central Europe as far back as six thousand years ago. I pick this book because of the author’s sensitivity to complexity; he does not simplify historical processes by casing one group as the “bad guys” clashing with and manipulating their “victims.” It is a brilliant depiction of how, throughout a period of over a hundred years, two cultural factions in one society can understand a reality so differently. In addition to Ginzburg’s analysis, Night Battles contains the Inquisition’s trial records.