Hardscrabble #11--October 1994
If you want a feel for the witch trials, forget the historical novels. Go to a good video rental store or library and rent "Brother's Keeper," a documentary film about the 1991 trial of Delbert Ward for the murder of his brother William, made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
Four brothers, all in their sixties or late fifties, lived together and worked a hardscrabble dairy farm in upstate New York, between Syracuse and Utica. Their chickens were kept in a derelict school bus, they drove an old tractor into town, and everything about the farm seemed worn-out, makeshift, or broken down. The brothers were completely uneducated, virtually illiterate, had never married, and, as one neighbor noted, only changed their clothes every six months or so.
Their house had no central heating, and Delbert and William shared a bed--which, as another neighbor pointed out, they probably had done as little boys and never stopped. One morning, William, who had various health problems, was found dead. The defense's medical expert said he died of congestive heart failure, but the local medical examiner said he had been deliberately smothered. Delbert was charged with his killing.
The phrase "witch hunt" is used once in the film by a local farmer. Even with out that obvious cue, I could not watch "Brother's Keeper" without thinking of the benandanti, the "good-doers" or "those who go well," that the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg described in his book The Night Battles. Based on Inquisition trial records of the late 1500s and early 1600s, it tells how an apparently long-lasting, somewhat shamanic tradition of spirit-battles between (evil) "witches" and (good) benandanti in Friuli, a then-remote corner of northeastern Italy, was interpreted by the Inquisition as yet one more occurrence of the heretical and punishable "witches'sabbath." (The Night Battles and its sequel, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches'Sabbath, reflect the most original thinking on the Burning Times in a long while.).
Questioned, imprisoned, questioned some more, the benandanti themselves eventually confessed to being the Inquisitions version of evil witches. As Ginzburg writes, "the gradual but continuous transformation of ancient popular beliefs . . . under the unconscious pressure from inquisitors, finally crystallized in the pre-existing mould of the diabolical sabbath." Eventually, the benandanti who said that they had gone forth in on spirit journeys to fight the "evil witches" and save the crops could be led to admit that they and the "evil witches" were all the same. They agreed with the inquisitors that they had indeed been summoned by demons, worshiped the devil, and all the rest.
Fortunately, the New York state police, who investigated William Ward's death, and the district attorney who prosecuted it, did not invoke Roman Catholic doctrine to demonstrate that what appeared to be one thing--protection of the crops--was really another thing--worshiping Satan. Nevertheless, Delbert Ward confessed--at one point--to his brother's murder. Like the benandanti, he was faced with an overwhelming bureaucratic apparatus and a conquering world view. What he said was not listened to; nor could he truly understand what was happening to him and how great a danger he was in.
The sixteenth-century Friulian peasants did not even speak the same dialect of Italian as the educated priests, let alone the church Latin in which the Inquisition's notaries recorded their testimony. Watching Delbert, the nearest thing to an American "peasant" in the negative sense of the term, I could see a man who literally could neither speak nor fully understand the "governmentese" of the police, the "legalese" of the prosecutor, nor the "social-service-ese" of the agencies that were there to "help" him
Luckily for Delbert Ward, the local community supported him, and luckily for him, he had a jury trial. Still somewhat bewildered, he was acquitted and allowed to return to the family farm. Victims of the Inquisition did not get jury trials.
And lest we think that reason, education and science are proof against inquisitions, recall that persecutions, as administered by both Catholics and Protestants, increased at a time when educated people less and less believed that witches physically journeyed to a material-plane sabbath. Ginzburg: "This thesis [that the sabbath did not take place physically] . . . began gradually to predominate in the course of the seventeenth century, until little by little it prevailed uncontested, during that very period which saw the persecutions of witches come to a peak almost everywhere in Europe." Just ask someone in the child day-care business about "inquisitions!"
It is a long way from wherever we are now to sixteenth-century Friuli. Quite possibly both those inquisitors and the benandanti shared more of a common outlook than we can possibly share with either side. But watching "Brother's Keeper" is an echo of the terror of those times.
Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edited Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which included The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996) and was the co-author with Evan John Jones of Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. He is now writing a history of American Paganism tentatively titled Her Hidden Children for AltaMira Press.
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