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The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Paperback – 1 Mar 1992

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Product details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; New Ed edition (1 Mar. 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801843863
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801843860
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.4 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 723,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


A tour-de-force of reconstruction, building out of scattered and fragmentary sources a whole world for the reader to inhabit.

(Anthony Pagden London Review of Books)

A work of genuine intellectual distinction. It is an unusually original contribution to the study of witchcraft in early modern Europe, but its importance is far from being exhausted by that description.

(Peter Burke New York Review of Books)

Book Description

Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles is a remarkable tale of witchcraft, folk culture, and persuasion in early modern Europe.

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First Sentence
On 21 March 1575, in the monastery of San Francesco di Cividale in the Friuli, there appeared before the vicar general, Monsignor Jacopo Maracco, and Fra Giulio d'Assisi of the Order of the Minor Conventuals, inquisitor in the dioceses of Aquileia and Concordia, a witness, Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, who was a priest in the neighbouring village of Brazzano. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 19 Feb. 1998
Format: Paperback
Ginzburg's research on the benandanti was path-breaking when it first appeared in the 1960's. It has become a classic, a required read for any student of history who is interested in the topic of the early modern European witch hunts. Ginzburg reconstructs a narrative in which the notion of what it was to be a "witch" was fundamentally changed by the Friulian peasants' encounters with the Inquisition.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 1 Nov. 1998
Format: Paperback
this work is extremely mind provoking...bringing to question not only who the benandanti were, but also what their purpose was in a society which bore a quite rigid definition of witches. ginzburg does a marvelous job of uniting various archive sources and creating, if you will, an artistic reality to witches in the early europe of the 16th and 17th centuries.
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By Debora on 22 Jan. 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Really good
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 18 reviews
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Ground-breaking work 2 Jan. 2004
By kaioatey - Published on
Format: Paperback
As anthropologists fanned around the world they brought back detailed accounts of shamanic practices of indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia, Siberia & Native America - but not from Europe. European shamanism (including druidism) is thought to have been largely stamped out due to the combined efforts of Enlightenement and the Holy Inquisition. The book opens up the question of the many similarities between Germanic, Latin, Slavic agricultural cults and their relationship to the Dionysian rituals as well as the issue of universality of core beliefs that underly indigenous practices around the world.
The book also pioneers a new understanding of Europeans and their history - one that focuses on the peasant and his relationship with the land (and the Church). The aristocratic elite that controlled the politics and religion of mediaeval Italian city states was just a tiny fraction of the population; Ginzburg therefore opens up a new (and should i say delicious) can of worms.
This book represents a huge step forward in our understanding of European shamanism. Ginzburg burrows deep into the 16th century Inquisition archives from the Friuli region of Northern Italy (where Latin, Slavic and Germanic traditions come together). He returns with a fascinating discovery of an ancient fertility cult, whose participants (the benandanti) represented themselves as defenders of harvest and fertility of the fields. A benandante was someone who four times a year during the Ember days left the body and went "invisibly in spirit" to fight the witches and the devil - "we fight over all the fruits of the earth and for those things won by the benandanti that year there is abundance", said a peasant while questioned by the Inquisition. The benandanti were united by a common element of having been born with the caul (i.e., wrapped in the placenta, which was thought to be an object endowed with magical powers). The departure of the spirit from the body, which was left lifeless, was understood as an actual separation, an event fraught with perils, almost like death. The soul was considered very real and tangible. "We crossed over water like smoke and following combat, everyone returned home as smoke...". The soul was always associated with a spirit animal (usually hare, but also pig, rooster, mouse etc.). This was a world of spells, incantations, evil eye, herbal potions, spirits and communication with the dead.
Ginzburg shows that these beliefs in 16th century peasants were all-pervasive and deeply connected with Earth and its cycles. The Ember Days (i.e., Christmas) festivities had survived from ancient agricultural cults and symbolized the changes of seasons, the passage from the old to the new time of year and a promise of planting, harvest, reaping and autumn vintage. Ginzburg paints a interesting picture of Italian Inquisition - that of a huge centralized organization which was inefficient, swamped with bureaucratic legalisms and in most cases not that interested in prosecuting "ignorant peasants" . The book also champions a rather controversial thesis according to which the Church managed to steer the perception of the benandanti cult from representing fertility rites to that of witchcraft and the devil, almost as if the Church created the very devil that it abhorred. Interesting parallels with modern times, I should say.
40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Ian Myles Slater: on Popular Belief and Official Doctrine 5 April 2004
By Ian M. Slater - Published on
Format: Paperback
Whether or not Carlo Ginzburg actually discovered evidence of shamanism in sixteenth-century Italy, in this or later books, is in part a matter of how one defines shamanism. What he undeniably found, in the seemingly unpromising records of the Inquisition, was evidence of beliefs so remote from those of official European culture as to be flatly unintelligible to the churchmen who first encountered them. Eventually, the Church courts managed to impose something resembling officially acceptable doctrines on the local population, but the process took generations, as Ginzburg is able to show from trial records.

Briefly, Ginzburg found that, in the Friuli district, there was a widespread belief that certain men and women were marked at birth as defenders against witches and demons, these being regarded mainly as the enemies of the people, their livestock, and their crops. The chosen defenders, the "Benandanti," or "good walkers," ventured forth in their dreams to do battle with the forces of evil. Those born with the mark of the Benandanti regarded themselves as good Christians, the allies of the Church. To those outside the local culture, this position was clearly nonsense; unauthorized and unsanctified supernatural power could only be Satanic in origin, and those who claimed to exercise it were, at best, dangerously deluded. In the end, if the court records are to be trusted, they persuaded even the Benandanti themselves that this was the case. At least, the "absurd" and "outrageous" testimony of self-described Benandanti fades from the records, to be replaced with conventional witch-beliefs endorsed by the Holy Office.

The official tendency, Catholic and Protestant, to lump local witch-doctors together with the witches they claimed to counter had long been recognized by historians. Ginzburg, however, discovered, and offered to surprised historians (in the original Italian edition of 1966), a stratum of belief that, when first recorded, seems to have been entirely outside the mainstream of medieval European culture. There is scattered evidence for similar concepts in other parts of Europe, and abundant evidence from other continents, but the connections and age of the beliefs in and about the Benandanti remain subjects for controversy. The demonstration that diverse local beliefs had been rendered uniform by the judicial process, and by intensive indoctrination of the "lower classes," however, remains a landmark.

As described in the "Preface to the English Edition," the Italian version rather quickly received favorable -- and some unfavorable or uncomprehending -- notice from historians of European witchcraft. It was interpreted, or perhaps misunderstoond, by Mircea Eliade, the influential figure in "History of Religions" at the University of Chicago, one of the great authorities on shamanism (and much else). Although sections had been published in English earlier, the whole book became available in English in 1983, in the present translation, from Routledge & Kegan Paul in Britain, and Johns Hopkins University Press in the U.S. I first read it a few years later, and eventually acquired a copy of a Penguin Books re-issue of 1986. (All the English-language editions seem to differ only in cover art, besides the name of the publisher.) I have re-read it from time to time over the years. Although historical views of European witch-beliefs and popular culture have both been in flux, this book remains among the most fascinating in its crowded field.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
An important book in the historiography of witchcraft 19 Feb. 1998
By - Published on
Format: Paperback
Ginzburg's research on the benandanti was path-breaking when it first appeared in the 1960's. It has become a classic, a required read for any student of history who is interested in the topic of the early modern European witch hunts. Ginzburg reconstructs a narrative in which the notion of what it was to be a "witch" was fundamentally changed by the Friulian peasants' encounters with the Inquisition.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Northern Italian Shamanism 15 Oct. 2002
By Zekeriyah - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is not Ginzburgs only book on Shamanism. He also covers the subject in his book "Ecstasies". Nonetheless, this is a superb book. In it, he deals with a group of men in northern Italy who believed that their souls left their bodies while they slept to do battle with malignant forces. However, he does not view this as either a hard-line skeptic or a muddle headed New Ager. He approaches it as a historian and treats it no different from any other subject, thus creating an unbiased account of what happened. And what he constucts is an account of shamanism and witch trials in a northern Italian village. This is a fascinating account, and certainly well worth the read. If you appreciate this book, then I strongly recommend you check out "Ecstasies", his other book on European Shamanism and the witch-hunts.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
The "Good Walkers" 4 Nov. 2005
By KAG - Published on
Format: Paperback
In his book, The Night Battles, Carlo Ginzburg addresses the historical problem of why, during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, did the Friulian fertility rituals of the benandanti, or "good-walkers", gradually assimilate into witchcraft. The benandanti, marked at birth by the sign of the caul, served Christ and their community by leaving their bodies at night to fight evil witches that had attempted to destroy or steal their harvest. Because of the ignorance of the Friuli language and benandanti rituals, the Church conducted incessant inquisitions and trials against the self-proclaimed benandanti, which in effect, pushed the benandanti toward witchcraft and participation in the sabbat.

In support of this argument, Ginzburg employs inquisitorial records that reveal an unmistakable gap between the beliefs and mentalities of the benandanti with those of the inquisitors. Brian P. Levak's review, published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, notes the significance of Ginzburg's exploration of the mentalities and culture of the Friuli. Levak writes, "The Night Battles is a milestone in the history of popular culture, for it was one of the first studies to use judicial records to gain direct access to popular beliefs." In addition, by skillfully using his primary source material, Ginzburg is able to discern between the "genuinely expressed popular ideas and those that reflect the more learned notions of [the] interrogators, especially when the accused was faced with either the threat or the reality of torture." To Ginzburg's credit, he allows the strength of the inquisitorial records to stand alone in support of his thesis and in exposing the popular culture of the Friuli. Furthermore, Ginzburg's use of comparative methodology demonstrates, not only the evolution of the benandanti fertility rituals under inquisitorial pressure, but also the vast cultural and spiritual gap between the Church and the peasantry.

While Ginzburg's work is an example of ground-breaking historical writing, there are several critiques that can be made of The Night Battles. First, Ginzburg's book makes way for more questions regarding the experiences and participation of the benandanti in the fertility rituals. For example, Ginzburg admittedly does not address why the benandanti, spread out over a vast region, testify to similar experiences and physical participation in their night gatherings. How is it that these people all testified to a common experience during the inquisitions? Ginzburg would be well-served to investigate the parallels in testimonies, if only to further personify the popular culture and mentalities of the Fruili. Secondly, as Alby Stone noted in her Folklore review, "the book would be improved by making the index more comprehensive and, alas, there is no bibliography." The Table of Contents page is too simplistic, almost juvenile, and does not reflect Ginzburg's reputation as a consummate and seasoned historian. Ginzburg does offer a comprehensive appendix and notes section. However, he fails to include a bibliography - a necessity with historical writing. While the Contents and the Bibliography do not impact the overall significance of his work, these are areas that should be improved.
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