Ecstasies. Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath; & Sex, Dissidence and Damnation

Bob Scribner | Published in History Today
  • Ecstasies. Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath
    Carlo Ginzburg Hutchinson Radius, 1991 339 pp. £18.99.
  • Sex, Dissidence and Damnation. Minority Groups in the Middle Ages.
    Jeffrey Richards Routledge, 1991 xii+ 179 pp. £18.99

Jeffrey Richards' book is a popularising synthesis of recent work on minority groups in the middle ages, encompassing heretics, witches, Jews, prostitutes, homosexuals and lepers. A chapter is devoted to each group, outlining briefly the history of medieval attitudes towards, and treatment of, each minority. An initial chapter provides an outline of the medieval background, while the second chapter discusses medieval attitudes towards sex, the unifying theme that Richards uses as common to all these stigmatised or excluded groups. All were labelled as involving forms of sexual aberration, whether because of fear and prejudice in the case of Jews or because of socially deviant practice, in that of prostitutes and homosexuals.

However, this is a weak central theme, since Richards does not always distinguish between aberration as an intrinsic element, as with prostitutes, or as a marginal association, as with lepers. The argument that the attempt of a 'totalitarian' church to regulate all aspects of human life explains the scapegoating both of sexual deviance and of minority groups is overstated. This is a readable and undemanding survey that should serve as an introduction to some of the more specialist literature from which it draws.

For a more challenging treatment of many of the same themes one might be better advised to go straight to Carlo Ginzburg's book. A quarter of a century ago Ginzburg uncovered the curious benandanti, a shamanistic cult whose followers went out in dream-sleep to do battle with witches in defence of agrarian fertility. He sets out in this book to demonstrate that the cult is far from a historical oddity, but is a key to interpreting the hidden origins of the witches' sabbath in the oldest and most profound levels of folk culture.

In a wide-ranging discussion which extends over thousands of years and several cultures, European and non-European, Ginzburg claims to have located the origins of the sabbath in a complex web of mythology about shamanistic cults mediating between the world of the living and the dead, involving fertility goddesses capable of animal metamorphosis. These deep layers of folk belief interacted with official paranoia about diabolical conspiracy to create the witch stereotype. This does not merely echo Margaret Murray's discredited theory of the origins of witchcraft in fertility cults; Ginzburg openly purports to provide a more well-founded variant of the theory. To do so, he marshals an astonishing amount of scholarship in history, literature, linguistics, folklore, comparative religion and mythology, and applies to it methods that will be as controversial as his conclusions.

For historians the most convincing section will be the first, where he outlines the gradual emergence during the second half of the fourteenth century of the stereotype of the sabbath, with night-flying diabolical witches engaged in a collective conspiracy. In a variation of, but also in substantial disagreement with, the argument first adduced by Norman Cohn, Ginzburg traces the development, under conditions of social, economic and ideological crisis, of a conspiracy theory directed against lepers and Jews as marginalised, and therefore threatening, outsider groups, in which cumulative elements of the alleged conspiracy were gradually transferred from one scapegoat group to the next, until finally they all crystallised in the stereotype of the sabbath, a stereotype which reached its fullest development by the middle of the fifteenth century. Although much of the evidence Ginzburg cites is very indirect and involves several bold conjectures, it does carry a certain historical plausibility.

The remaining two-thirds of the book, which purport to uncover the hidden mythological roots of these developments, are more methodologically difficult. Here the procedure is to seize upon apparently negligible details and to compare them transhistorically with others of a similar kind in a wide variety of myths and rituals chosen because of their morphological similarity, which when 'touched by the magic wand of comparison, suddenly reveal their secret physiognomy' (p. 237). Where Ginzburg can discover some specific common feature, he speaks of 'convergence', where not he looks for similarity in form or structure to identify 'isomorphisms'.

Intellectual models are provided by Propp and Levi-Strauss, although Ginzburg also finds himself in creative dialogue with a wide range of others from Grimm and Frazer to Dumezil, Eliade, Vernant, Detienne and Benveniste. His procedure is more akin to that of structuralist mythology or comparative religion than history, and settles uncomfortably somewhere between structuralist and diffusionist assumptions. In a self-consciously apologetic introduction Ginzburg expresses his own unease with the procedure, although the 'theoretical justification' he claims to have discovered in a number of very dense reflections by Wittgenstein in the margins of Frazer's Golden Bough, does not carry much intrinsic cogency, namely, the claim that as an alternative to historical explanation 'it is equally possible to see the data in their mutual relationships and to sum them up in a general image that does not have the form of a chronological development' (p. 15).

What this means in practice is to seek out 'fragments' of myth 'encrusted' in hidden layers of cultural 'sediment' laid down over thousands of years of human development and to establish formal connections between them, if need be by means of complex and tortuous arguments, to elicit the hidden similarities. The dizzying leaps Ginzburg makes from one theme to another, from one period and culture to another, render it impossible for any reader, not a specialist in the numerous fields into which he ventures, to judge the plausibility, much less the scholarly validity of his argument. To have mastered all the material paraded in this book is in itself an extraordinary intellectual achievement, but it is difficult to give assent to the final claim, that 'the documentation we have accumulated... proves beyond all reasonable doubt the existence of an underlying Eurasian mythological unity, the fruit of cultural relations sedimented over millennia' (p. 267).

What the book does undoubtedly attest is the author's obsession with his initial discovery of the cult of the benandanti and his conviction that he has stumbled upon the key to a vast amount of hidden knowledge. Ultimately, it reveals the extraordinary lengths to which a scholar can be driven by such an obsession. In this, Ginzburg has much in common with the late-medieval and early modern demonologists who so determinedly analysed and chronicled the witch cults and the sabbath itself.

BOB SCRIBNER is the author of Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (Hambledon, 1987).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week