Peasant Culture in Early Modern Italy

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Peasant Culture in Early Modern Italy

Early modern Italy is characterized with a diversity of cultural beliefs and practices. With the occurrence of certain events that displease the people, they have thought to seek spiritual solutions to their problems. To them, every occurrence has a spiritual significant, good events are related to the godly spirit while the bad ones were of the devil. Nothing that happened naturally to them and they therefore had to fight with the spiritual forces to bring about change. Staunch Catholics who believed in holiness and righteousness, there was the benandanti who also related to the spiritual warfare, dominated early Italy. Even though both groups had a similar view of the positive spirits fighting the negative evil ones, their religious practices were contrasting.

The existence of cults among the friulian peasants was considered fundamental as they associated it with their agricultural produce. Considering the low level of education that they had achieved, their mind was set on fate. They were anxious about any practice that would guarantee them prosperity in their farming activities. The frulian society was full of superstitious beliefs where the benandanti that was associated with good had to fight with the evil witch. The friulian people were mainly Catholics who associated the good happenings to God and the bad ones to the witches that were sent by the devil. The benandanti were therefore viewed as God’s messengers sent to fight the evils of the society (Ginzburg, 1992).

The frulian peasants and the inquisitors searched for solutions through identifying the possible causes of a certain happening. The major difference between the two is the level of education that they had. The inquisitors were mainly Catholics who had a high level of education; the church was the main sponsors of their knowledge through monasteries. They were mainly referred to by titles such as monk and brother. The peasants on the other hand were more informed about the myths and superstitions that surrounded their geographical locations. The inquisitors had been brought up in the catholic doctrine that was completely against the peasants’ myths and superstitions.

Even though the beliefs of the benandanti were widespread, they were not a threat to the catholic doctrine between 1575 and 1619. There were only two trials between Paolo Gasparutto and Battista Moduco. The benandanti were generally determined by the nature of their birth. A child who was to be a benandanti was born with a caul, which is the amniotic sac. This was a special sign that the child has been personally ordained to fight the evils of the society. The caul was blessed and worn on the neck of the individual as a sign of special calling upon their lives. The benandanti were majorly spiritual beings that would fight on Thursday night. Their bodies would remain in bed while their spirits went out to fight wicked spirits such as witches. The benandanti usually fight using fennel while the witches fight using stalks of sorghum. If the benandanti worn the war during that year, there would be abundance in the land.

The witches were associated with all kinds of evils and immorality in the land. They would dance, gorge themselves with food and drink and publicly engage in immorality. They were also believed to eat young children by sucking life out of them, responsible for bad harvest and cast spells on individuals they did not like. The existence of cults among the agrarian community is evidenced by the benandanti involved in the night battles. There are different stories recorded by a number of people, their similarity of which is an evidence of such cults.

Even though benandanti beliefs are cultic, its followers had earlier on believed that God ordained their work. This was through their testimonies, which they told the inquisitors. In September 1580, Paolo gasparutto gave a testimony of how God’s angel visited him and called him to be a benandanti. Their practices were not supported by the catholic believes yet they were still convinced that they were the messengers of God to fight evil in the society. The original good quality of the benandantis was changed by the theological opinion of the elite inquisitors. They were transformed from being God’s messengers into a character that is similar to that of witches.

The pressure that was exerted on the benandanti in fruli made them to display their true character. Within a span of a hundred years, the fighters of evil became the embracers of evil. They practiced infanticide, kissed the ass of the devil and got involved in the sabbat. It is believed that the interrogation of the inquisitors on this superstitious cult was meant to root them out. The benandanti was viewed as a deception upon the innocent who were desperate for solutions. The inquisitors wanted to find out exactly who they are and to reveal to the masses that had become their diligent followers (Ginzburg, 1992).

The first of such kind of trial was of Paolo Gasparutto who claimed to have been visited by an angel of God and requested him to join the benandanti. Intensified interrogations of Paolo made him to admit that it was the devil tempting him. Inquisitor Fra Gerolanmo turned the testimony of Gasparo and made him to admit that it was actually a practice of witchcraft. The benandantis remain to be a mystery as different stories attended by to the holy office contradict in nature. In 1582, Anna la Rosa, a widow came before the inquisitors and admitted that she is a benandanti and that she sees dead people. It was therefore concluded that the benandanti are of various categories namely those who go out mainly to fight the witches and those that go out to communicate with dead spirits. Anna testified that if she talks about her experiences, then she will be bitten by the stalks of sorghum but when she is out in the spirit her physical, body does not matter. Similar testimonies have been recorded from caterina la guercia and acquilina.

In 1599, a trial of Donna Florida becomes the first case in which the benandanti are accused of witchcraft. Donna testified before the holy office that she has been part of the procession of the dead and that she has fought witches. Servants in the neighborhood confessed that Donna dries the milk of mothers who are nursing babies and eats young children. The benandanti are characterized by two main features in the mind of the peasants. They had the ability to heal victims who were affected by witchcraft and their ability to identify witches. It means that if the benandanti had the ability to cast out witchcraft, then they had a significant connection with them. This in return qualifies them to be categorized as witches.

A relationship between the benandanti and the devil was established in 1618 during the trial of Maria Panzona. Penzona testified before the holy office that she attends the sabbat where presides over games played by witches. She also confessed that the devil himself gave her a gift that she uses to heal people of witchcraft. Giovanni sion also admitted to similar claims and testified of how he had to kill three children after the devil commanded him to. Soppe also confessed to have been involved in infanticide, a claim that surprised Rome. The inquisitors were therefore instructed to establish the validity of such claims. The interrogations of the benandanti took a slower move after the inquisitors were instructed to be cautious on the criteria they used to try witches.

Superstition and witchcraft in the early Italy seems not to be a mystery but a reality. Even though it was viewed by many as simply a means through which the poor peasant farmers sought to find solutions to their problems, the testimonies by various witnesses confirms its existence. It could be true that the benandanti were the real messengers of the devil that hid them in the name of God. The reason behind this could be the fact that they cherished the recognition of people. Considering their ability to bring solution to a problem, many peasants were deceived of their true nature. The interrogation by the inquisitors opened the eyes of the peasants and made them realize the kind of devils that they ran to for solutions (Ginzburg, 1992).


Ginzburg, C. (1992): The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Australia: JHU press



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