The Good Walkers

Friuli benandante
Friuli’s location in modern day Italy. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In another example of the Inquisition’s fastidious record keeping and relative leniency, the Benandanti (Good Walkers) of Friuli offer the best picture of a magical practice active at the time of the Witch Craze. Starting in 1575, the local priest learned of a healer and wanderer named Paolo Gasparotto. Like the donas, Gasparotto was a talker, and had apparently mentioned that he spent his nights “with witches and goblins” while healing a sick child. When the priest interviewed him, Gasparotto confirmed the child had been possessed by witches, and that he had given the family a charm to ward them off. Moreover, Gasparotto claimed that he and his kin fought the witches in a night battle around the Ember Days in a fight for the year’s harvest. If all went well, the harvest would be good, otherwise the witches would make mischief.[1] Either the conversation shocked the priest or amused him, as he sent for the local inquisitor and invited Gasparotto to repeat himself.

The resulting interview clearly threads the needle between disbelief and fascination on the inquisitor’s part, as Gasparotto spun out a tale of flying by night in spirit on the backs of horses, hares, and other animals to Verona or other fields to meet the other Benandanti. From there they fought the witches and warlocks, each side with their own captains and banners.

The Inquisitor was baffled by the story, and seems to have corroborated Gasparotto’s story by interrogating others in the area. Crucially, these other interviews were not denunciations. No one was mad with Paolo, or particularly worried about him. He was a known Good Walker, and clearly someone they were comfortable calling on for medical advice. The inquisitor let the matter drop, probably chalking up Gasparotto’s stories to some local tall tales.

Five years later another inquisitor, visiting Friuli, decided to resume the investigation. Gasparotto was much more reluctant this time, likely sensing his big mouth had gotten him into trouble. But after a night in a prison cell he confirmed his story again, claiming his earlier silence was due to threats from witches. Gasparotto added that he had been born with a caul, the sign that he would turn into either a Benandanti or a witch. He claimed that he had lost his four years ago, thus ending his involvement as a Good Walker. That confirmed the Inquisitors shooed him out of the office and threatened to exile him if he resumed his practices.

This time a second Benandanti had been called in for questioning. The story Battista Moduco told was much the same, though there is no indication the two men had ever met,

“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.”[2]

poderesunidos-i-benandanti_01
Artistic rendering of the agricultural slap battle all Benandanti participated in. Photo Credit: Poderos Unidos

For the next fifty years, the Benandanti would pop up off and on in the Friuli Inquisition’s records, never in the neat box the Inquisition clearly wanted them to fit in. A scan of over forty trial records indicates that a few of the later Benandanti slipped towards confirming they were the witches the Inquisitor’s thought they might be, but for the most part the Good Walkers stuck to their line. The last record in 1629 noted that a Benandanti accused of theft was being transferred to Venice for trial, the detail about his profession and vocation a mere sidebar to the charge at hand. They were healers, protectors, cunning folk, more than anything else. Their beliefs were also clearly intertwined with Christianity in a way that feels complementary. Nor really were the Benandanti worshipping in a way that felt physical. Like the donas they fought their wars in dreams, and then handled more substantial work during the days. None were ever burned for their practice, which seemingly died out over the following generations.

The legacy of the Benandanti is a complicated one. Carlo Ginzburg and others have pointed to the Benandanti as evidence of a surviving pre-Christian fertility cult, but this is a little difficult to uphold on review. To buy into this survival theory, one has to ignore the strong Christian elements to the Benandanti themselves. Then there is the fact that no clear analogue to the Benandanti exists in the accounts preceding Christianity, only a few overlapping tropes. The Good Walkers themselves also did not meet in person, calling into question whether communal dreaming actually qualifies as a group religious practice in the way that physically walking to church for Sunday sermons might. Finally the role of the Benandanti as a community healer first and psychic witch fighter second cannot be ignored. Much of the Good Walker’s role in and around Friuli may have required the mystique their dreams built for them, but in the waking hours the Benandanti were much more conventionally just doctors or hedge mages. But leaving that aside, the Benandanti are still fascinating, and their handling by the Inquisition stands in marked contrast to the trials burning their way through Britain at the time.

[1] Which could include peeing in the wine barrels, apparently. Witches could be petty like that.

[2] Ginzburg, C. 1966. The Night Battles. Full credit goes to Carlo Ginzburg for discovering the cache of trial records in his early twenties. Most historians go their entire life without a find like that.

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