Highlights of my work and anecdotes#

The Laudatio for obtaining the Erasmus Medal 2009 was given by Professor Pieter Emmer (Leiden) Chair of the History and Archaeology Section.

“Carlo Ginzburg published his first book, I benandanti, in 1966. It introduces a subject that was to set its seal on much of his career as an historian: the link between the witch trials and popular beliefs. Again the story takes place in Friuli, and this time, too, it was the astonishment shown by the Inquisitors that was the starting point for Ginzburg¹s research. When, in 1575, two men were under interrogation on suspicion of practising witchcraft, the judges were treated to stories of magic, wild nocturnal rides, and secret rites that seemed to fit perfectly with their belief in a horrible Witches' Sabbath. But there was one thing that didn't quite gel: the accused vehemently denied that they were witches. On the contrary, they said, they were benandanti- - "those who do good" – good Christians who at night fought for Christ against the dreaded witches who were out to destroy the villagers' crops. In his book, Ginzburg reviews a series of trials of benandanti held in Friuli in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His theory is that the strange testimonies offered by the "good" witches afford us a glimpse of a popular fertility cult that must have been in existence before, but also in parallel with, the Christian era – a cult that eventually resurfaced in a perverted form in the Church's belief in a Witches' Sabbath. Not only did this theory run counter to accepted conceptions of witchcraft, it was also at odds with the common view of popular religion in medieval and early modern Europe.

The theory was to remain in the forefront of Carlo Ginzburg's interest for the next thirty years almost, and in 1989 his preoccupation with it resulted in the publication of his great work, Storia notturna: Una decifrazione del Sabba. Ginzburg himself views this book as his magnum opus. It was published in English under the title Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath.

The book describes how in the spring of 1321, in Easter Week, rumour is rife in the south of France that a conspiracy is on foot to kill all Christians and that wells have been poisoned all over the country. The rumour soon spreads throughout the whole of France and, in time, across its borders to what are now Switzerland and Spain. In some of the chronicles that have come down to us, the plot is said to be the work of lepers.

Elsewhere, the poisoning of wells was ascribed to Jews working together with the lepers. In some places blame was laid at the door of Muslim rulers in Granada or Tunis, or of the Sultan of Babylon, who were said to have paid Jews and lepers to kill Christians. The rumours resulted in persecutions and massacres all over France, and before long they were being substantiated by confessions and other evidence. Long and detailed explanations appeared to show how the poison had been introduced into the wells. The conspirators' accomplices were denounced, and contemporary letters and documents tell of the Jews' association with the Saracens and of plans for setting up a government composed of Jews, lepers, and Muslims to take over Europe in the aftermath of the calamity.

As a consequence of these happenings in the spring of 1321, all over France lepers were interned. The object was to sever the connection between the infected and society at large, and to prevent them from having children. This is the first recorded instance in European history of such large-scale isolation measures, and it was to provide the pattern for similar measures for centuries to come. For the Jews, the events of 1321 resulted in pogroms and death at the stake, confiscation of property, exclusion from trade and other commercial activities, and, in 1323, the issuance of a royal edict providing for their expulsion from the realm of France. As early as the summer of 1321, the King had officially confirmed that the accusations levelled at Jews and lepers were well-founded and should be taken seriously.

In this book Ginzburg retraces the course of events in 1321 in minute detail, describing how rumour spread from village to village and town to town, and how the charges became increasingly substantiated. In the author's opinion, the conspiracy theories that took root in these months constitute one of the principal prerequisites of a phenomenon which, in the centuries that followed, was destined to leave a lasting mark on European history: the belief in a Witches' Sabbath.

Ginzburg's account of these happenings gives us some idea of what has made him one of today's foremost historians: his talents as a storyteller, his interest in popular beliefs and their relationship to power and authority, and his gift for winkling out the small details capable of challenging our established views of history. All this coupled with an ability to detect the large in the small, to combine an understanding of the abstract driving forces in history with the analysis of seemingly chance and insignificant incidents.”

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