June 6, 2014

The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.
ii. Entry into states of trance.
iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.
iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.
v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see http://xoanon.co.uk and http://www.threehandspress.com/index.php for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.


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