Heresy is defined as the belief or opinion contrary to Christian orthodox religious doctrine. As one follows the Benandanti trials of Friuli, Italy, they begin to see the church and the Benandanti have different views of what the Benandanti are. While the Benandanti see themselves as benevolent warriors doing god’s work against evil, the inquisition eventually accuses them of heresy and sees them as witches. The Benandanti were a group of men and women in Friuli, who allegedly left their bodies at night in spirit, and went out to battle evil witches to secure a successful crop season. Additionally, they were healers of babies who had been kidnapped by witches. In the late sixteenth century, inquisitors held a trial for two male Benandanti. These court records are extremely valuable to historians focusing on the witch persecutions of Europe, because of the vast amount of cultural, political, religious, legal and spiritual complexities offered in them. The trials of the Benandanti show several unique factors to the witch persecution movement such as male defendants, non-torturous modern court trial precursors, and witches as healers, while showing an exact place and time where Christianity integrates with local folklore and ultimately eradicates it.
Benandanti means those who walk well; an implication to being counter witches. Witches were called Malefica who performed malificia, which was any magical harmful act and often required a diabolical pact with the devil. In this area, the witches were called Malandanti by members of the Benandanti. Historians can refer to a primary court record of the trials describing the events that lead to the Benandanti ultimately being labeled as witches through putative acts of heresy. This was possible because at the time, inquisitorial procedure was used based on accusations and Canon law was the law of the land, with local clergy being the judges. In 1540-42 the Roman Inquisition was founded to suppress heresy due to the rise in Lutheran’s, Calvinists, Anabaptists and other religious reformations. The inquisitors job was to find these groups and to convert them or decimate them. This trial has many similarities to modern court trials in America. “The Roman inquisition has been referred to as ‘a pioneer in judicial reform’. Unlike many secular courts, it made provision for legal counsel; it furnished the defendant with a copy of the charges and evidence against him; and it assigned very little weight to the testimony of a suspected witch against her alleged confederates. Even the Benandanti, the members of an ancient fertility cult in Friuli whom the inquisition gradually convinced they were witches, were never put to torture.” 
On March 21, 1575, a priest named Bartolomea Sgabarizza appears before Vicar General Monsignor Jacopo Maracco and Fra Giulio d’Assisi as a witness. He allegedly hears from a miller that a man named Rotaro had a son who was dying and spoke of a man who was a healer who flew at night with witches. This man was Paolo Gasparutto, one of our two accused Benandanti. The priest consults the inquisitor who interrogates Gasparutto. Without shame, he admits to these stories and willingly continues the narrative with further details. The vicar general and the inquisitor first put them off as tall tales at best, uncomfortably symbolic of the earlier Striga. He continues to boast of flying and battling as well as healing children and voluntarily adds that Benandanti must be careful to leave clear water in front of houses because if not, witches come and turn over their wine in the house cellars and urinate in the water. As they continue to cast their doubts, he offers to take them along with him during the next battle. When asked of others like him he said he could not reveal names because he would be beaten like he had been before for speaking about these matters. He also details the healing process of sick babies saying that to cure them he would “weigh the baby for three Thursdays, and if that the child gained in weight the second Thursday he would be cured but if he decreased he would die.”  He further states “that these Malandanti eat children”  This child eating superstition is redolent of older Germanic barbarian beliefs. Sgabarizza ultimately concludes this story is true and that benevolent vagabond witches called Benandanti did exist to prevent evil from witches. This is an important instance from a local population where one can see stories of healers using magic. “The careful performance of work in the fields could and did in fact easily co-exist with faith in the benefits of ecclesiastical rituals or even battles fought by the Benandanti.”  This signifies man’s power over nature however, thus offending the church belief in god, resulting in a push to investigate these claims further.
Although Sgabarizza believes in the counter witch story, he must have been conflicted about its seemingly anti-Christian core, reporting it to the authorities. Rotaro, the father of the dying son, accuses Gasparutto of undoubtedly believing he is magic and describing the gatherings by stating things like, “when the warlocks and witches set out to do evil, they must be pursued by the Benandanti to thwart them.”  Unfortunately for Gasparutto’s seemingly benevolent actions, they still evoke images of the heretical sabbat, although at this point there are no references to the devil. In addition, there is no sinister iconoclasm such as “trampling of the crucifixes, or defilement of sacraments. The essence of these gatherings was an obscure rite: witches and warlocks armed with sorghum stalks jousting and battling with Benandanti armed with fennel stalks.”  Instead, there is an astrological and agricultural symbolism being used here that represents more of a pagan belief system. Nor where the witches in this area explicitly anti God. What made them evil to the locals was “not in terms of crimes theologically defined, but rather in terms of the destruction they brought to the harvests and famine, and the sorcery they worked on children.”  Nonetheless the church persisted and had to find a way to make these witches related to the devil and sequentially do the same with the Benandanti.
Rotaro also states he heard that a second suspect Battista Moduco had declared himself a Benandante. Two nobles also are called in and confirm the story. One states that Moduco “congregates in certain places to perform marriages, to dance and eat and drink, and the evil doers drink in the cellars and urinate in the casks and if the Benandante don’t go along the wine would be spilt.”  Battista admits to the accusations with explicit details by saying “I am a Benandante because I go with the others to fight four times a year, that during the Ember Days, at night; I go invisibly in spirit and the body remains behind while I go forth in service of Christ, and the witches of the devil; we fight each other, we wield bundles of fennel and they with sorghum stalks. And if we are the victors, that year there is abundance, but if we lose there is famine.”  This correlates with Gasparutto’s story. Amazingly, the investigations stop and nobody is arrested.
Five years later, a new General inquisitor, Fra Felice d Montelfalco comes across the case and revives it. Montelfalco orders Gasparutto to appear and when he does he acts clueless as to why he has been summoned. In a strange twist of events he denies ever having admitted anything to Rotaro. Unfortunately, it I not possible to ascertain if he had ever actually spoken to Rotaro or not but he did after some persistence, admit to dreaming about fighting witches. Asked why he denied the accusations he laughs saying “because these are not the things to inquire about, because they are against the will of god,”  signaling that he is a virtuous Christian while shooting himself in the foot so to speak. Montelfalco seems a lot less lenient than the former inquisitors because directly after that, Gasparutto is imprisoned. That same day Battista Moduco gets interrogated. He admits that he is a Benandanti but does not admit to knowing any others. He states that one starts at the age of twenty and leaves service at age forty. He tells them that all who are born with the caul must go. Interestingly, both men admit to wearing a caul which is an amniotic sac that some are born with around their head. They say all Benandanti are born with cauls and that is their main indicator that their purpose in life is to fight witches. The locals wear the dried-up organ as jewelry around their neck their whole life. This is another significant indicator symbolic of pre-Christian beliefs, traditions, and folklore symbolizing predestination. As a man who is a noble himself, Moduco describes the leader with noble symbolism. His detailed description of him being tall, red bearded, pale, and noble of birth, rather than a vagabond is interesting to note. This along with his own noble ranking indicates another very significant factor in this trial. It shows that these beliefs are local to the population and not exclusively peasant. In a military like description, he speaks of a man that summons them with a drum. He claims there are up to five thousand Benandanti with a “banner of white silk stuff gilded, with a lion, ‘while the banner of the witches is of red silk with four black devils, gilded’; and their captain has a black beard…”  Gasparutto gets interrogated a second time after one day’s imprisonment. Apparently, that’s all the time he needed to change his mind. He admitted becoming an official Benandanti at age twenty-eight. He did it for ten years and quit four years prior. He claims he denied it for fear of being beaten by witches. He too describes banners that both his team and the witches carry. The inquisitor is finally satisfied because Gasparutto offers up accusations of two witches so he stops the questioning and schedules his next hearing. Gasparutto is then incarcerated for failing to show up to that hearing claiming he was sick. Back in court again, he now changes his story again and says the captain caller was actually a golden angel sent by God. The inquisitor interprets this angel as the devil in disguise thereby securing his heretical crime accusation. The reason for this is because Gasparutto sinned by believing such a thing would be permitted by God. But the subtext here is that Gasparutto is being coerced into changing the symbolism of the noble leader into an angel and consequently a Catholic archetype. The church views Gasparutto’s dealings with this false angel as him making a diabolical pact along with the Benandanti’s night meetings uncomfortably resembling a sabbat or an evil perversion of the Catholic mass. The inquisitor denies Gasparutto’s proclamations of doing god’s work. As an inquisitor, he must have at that point realized he was facing a difficult time converting local beliefs into heresy caused by the devil. “When examined in this light, witch trials can be seen as a form of cultural and social conflict, in which literate ruling elites tried to bring an illiterate peasantry into conformity with its world-view and in the process suppressed or at least fundamentally transformed an entire set of popular beliefs.”  This was a result of the earlier birth of Scholasticism. A few days later Gasparutto declares “I believe that the apparition of that angel was really the devil tempting me, since you have told me that he can transform himself into an angel.” 
The two men were not alone on the stand. Gasparutto’s wife is interrogated too, claiming she did now know her husband was a Benandanti but verifies being unable to wake him from his sleep. “The Benandanti – as they themselves repeatedly stated – underwent these experiences in a state of catalepsy: throughout the relevant period they lay motionless in bed, in a stupor. It is as, they said, their spirits that went out to do battle; indeed, if a spirit failed to return promptly, the body died.” This is another groundbreaking nod to shamanistic pre-Christian local beliefs that may have largely been historically erased over time during the inquisitions. Records of these beliefs may have falsely produced modern day witch myths and reconstructionist religions. “Like the centuries before belief in Diana, it was about trance travel beliefs being a part of local society and “nothing to do with the ‘old religion’ of fertility postulated by Margaret Murray and her followers.”  Murray isn’t totally wrong in her assertions though as “… at the core of the nocturnal gatherings of the Benandanti we see a fertility rite emerging that is precisely patterned on the principal events of the agricultural year.”  The case in Italy is curiously reminiscent of similar practices in other parts of Europe. The Benandanti are comparable to the Taltosok “Many native Hungarian beliefs dealt with the Taltosok, shaman-like magicians and healers whose souls left their bodies in a trance and went out to fight with other Taltosok.” 
The trials show the inquisitors agitations with the local population. Things like this compound with the insubordination of the Benandanti initially not revealing the names of the witches or other Benandanti. It is clear in reading the transcripts, that the priests are pushing for a guilty verdict. Moduco and Gasparutto start off with a different story before masochistically submitting to the church and admitting to their guilt. The priests do ultimately decide on guilt as the verdict, stating that crimes were committed against divine will. They were also presumed guilty of thinking that night battles were permitted by god. They also state “moreover, you dared to believe and affirm that the spirit and the soul could leave the body at will and return to go to these battles.”  Additionally, they were found guilty of taking Eucharist without confessing these actions and that their cauls were baptized. Lastly, they were found guilty of adoration of a false angel. Remarkably, they only received a light slap on the wrist after the trials were completed. “Both were absolved from the more serious form of excommunication to which they were liable as heretics, and condemned to six months imprisonment. Moreover, prayers and penances were imposed which they were to fulfil during appointed days of the year.”  This trial is unusual because nobody was tortured or killed. Italy’s inquisition at the time could be described as milder than in other parts of Europe. Centralized control from Rome led to regulation of torture and trial procedures were supervised. Another factor was that witches were not allowed to accuse others of witchcraft so panic didn’t spread. Another way this trial was unusual was that it was a departure from female defendants which outnumbered males greatly in most of Europe.
The trial of the Benandanti appears to represent more of a social purpose. It brings forth possible origins of demonization for remedial magic. This directly leads to the forced integration of Catholicism with local folklore to overlap it and rename it. The trials show a quintessential case of what the inquisition in Europe was designed for by finding heretics who did not represent the ecclesiastical worldview of the Roman Catholic church. When people use the term, history is written by the winners, one can certainly use this trial as a reference point.
By: Adam "Absinthe" Prout
 Brian P Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Routledge; 4th edition, 2015), 219.
 Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, trans. John & Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 28.
 Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, trans. John & Anne Tedeschi. Transcript. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Counter-Witches from Friuli, Italy’s Transcript of Trial against Paolo Gasparutto & Battista Moduco,1575- 1581. 150.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 23.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 3.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 2.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 27.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 3.
 Ginzburg, transcript, 153.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 3.
Ginzburg, Night Battles, 5.
 Levack, Witch Hunt, 56.
 Ginzburg, transcript, 162.
 Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (University of Chicago Press, 2001), 179.
 Cohn, Inner Demons, 179.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 4.
 Levack, Witch Hunt, 214.
 Ginzburg, transcript, 164-165.
 Ginzburg, Night Battles, 8.
Let them come who wish to come, And let them go who wish to go, And do not harm to me or mine. -Ancient Icelandic Invitation Formula for the Elven Folk
Prince of Brats