I wonder what the “revisionist” historians of the 1960’s might say if they knew how they contributed to the rise of “Trumpism” (they might not mind having helped birth Sanders). At that time a variety of scholars challenged academic and social norms, some good norms and some bad ones, and quite successfully overturned the established historical narratives. No longer need history tell just of kings and battles, no longer would history depend on a “top-down” narrative. Now the bottom mattered, and often mattered much more than the top, in determining the true meaning and purpose of history.
To focus only on the 1960’s however, means focusing on the bloom of the plant and missing the tilling of the soil. Perhaps one sees this process beginning two generations prior with the rise of a passion for folktales in the late 19th century. Some of the greatest historians of the early-mid 20th century like Toynbee and Christopher Dawson sought to broaden the scope of their inquiries. And–certainly not every historian before them only talked of kings and battles. Polybius found the key to Rome’s greatness in its institutions. St. Augustine’s masterful City of God incorporated a variety of approaches in his analysis of the fall of Rome. But still–one cannot question that a decisive revolution in academia 50-60 years ago succeeded in overthrowing the “normal” meaning and practice of history.
This habit of questioning the establishment has now left the ivory tower and entered into the mainstream. For example, many more now question vaccinations than used to be the case. The flat earth society has a legitimate looking website. Despite general scientific consensus many deny global warming. Most people now get their political news and perspectives from Youtube or podcasts and not mainstream networks such as ABC or CNN. Both Trump and Sanders tell their strongest followers that the system is rigged, and both seek to overthrow a variety of political norms.
If you are like me, there are things about this shift that you like, and things you don’t like. But it is hard to disentangle them at a larger sociological level. It may be a package deal, take it or leave it.
Carlo Ginzburg’s work fits squarely within this school. His Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th & 17th Centuries gives a detailed look at a strange episode in European history. He uses many primary sources and uses them well. But it seems to me that he consistently assumes that everyone on the “bottom” is ill treated by those on the “top,” and this assumption I cannot buy into.
First, I praise Ginzburg for his respect for the peasants in the book. Other authors might treat the subject of supernaturalism and witchcraft with words like “superstition” or worse, dress it up in condescending, overly complex language, i.e., “cultic fetishism.” Ginzburg takes the stories the peasants tell at face value and rarely attempts to deconstruct them.
Second, I praise him for finding such an unusual story to examine, which runs something like this:
- In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the church in northern Italy became aware of an unusual practice involving battles taking place between witches and the bendamenti over the health of the years crops.
- The witches came usually as disembodied spirits, and the bendamatti usually appeared in this guise as well–those they were the good guys in this contest–they fought against the witches to protect the crops.
- They fought four times a year, always during the Ember day fasts in the church calendar, but the clashes did not seem to be overtly violent, and often ended with both groups together drinking wine–though the witches would always end the evening by peeing in the wine casks.
- The people questioned invariably believed themselves to fight on behalf of God and for the people, and against evil and all its works.
Strange as it may sound, testimony from different people from different places,who would not have known each other, confirm this basic outline of events.
I had the feeling, however, that Ginzburg’s approach put the church on the side of an oppressing power. Certainly anything that involved the supernatural and witches would arouse the attention of the Church. Naturally, they would investigate. Ginzburg’s word choices about these conversations revel much–his even-handed and sympathetic approach to the peasants does not extend to the church. To cite just a few examples . . . (all italicized portions are my emphasis) . . .
Gasparutto had barely finished speaking about the apparition of the angel ‘made of gold’ when the inquisitor broke in with an abrupt insinuation . . . ‘
Father Felice could no longer contain himself. ‘How could you make yourself believe that these were God’s works? Men do not have the power either to render themselves invisible . . . nor are God’s works carried out in secret.’ It was an impetuous, frontal attack.
A cowherd of Latisana, Menichino, admitted to being a benandante and asserted that he went out at night in the form of smoke to fight the witches. During his trial . . . the inquisitor asked him, in the usual insinuating manner . . .
In Gasparo’s case as well, we observed the inquisitor twist the interrogation . . .
This attitude of Ginzburg, expressed in these and many more such examples, should give us pause. Surely the peasants’ no doubt sincere belief that they were indeed doing God’s work in should warrant at least a degree of skepticism and suspicion? And surely the priests cannot be blamed if they seek to fit these stories into what they already understand? Everyone does this most all the time, not just those with “power.”*
Beyond that, anyone remotely familiar with monastic literature and spiritual discipline knows that Satan often appears as an angel of light. Many well-known stories existed to confirm this, and no doubt the priests knew of them. Other details in some of the stories, such as smoke, and the lack of invoking the name of Christ, warrant much suspicion on behalf of the priests. And, unless we want to believe the worst about the inquisitor priests, we should assume that their concerns ultimately rested not with maintaining their “narrative” but with the souls of those they questioned.**
Ginzburg’s many strengths make his work interesting, but he seems to self-consciously over-compensate for centuries of history written from the standpoint of those in power, the “winners” (or at least–Ginzburg’s perception that this has been the case). His whole approach raises the larger question about whether it makes a difference if we tell of history from the bottom up, or the top down. Why did the latter approach dominate for so long, and why then have we just recently abandoned it?
Our beliefs about history should not boil down to who has power. We often assume that only the winners write history. But Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the best account of the war that Athens lost. Polybius and Josephus wrote intelligently about Rome even though both represented those conquered by Rome. And sometimes the ‘winners’ can write with more understanding than the losers. For example, I find Livy’s take on Hannibal a bit more sympathetic and persuasive than Polybius’. The record shows that history can be about much more than the power and manipulation of the privileged elite.
So too, we need a different explanation other than power and manipulation to explain why history often gets written from the “top down” and not the “bottom up.”
Let’s take the very phrase, “Bottoms Up!” as a starter. Legend has it that it originates with the tricks played on Englishmen to get them to join the navy, involving a coin at the bottom of the glass. But most every story of the phrase involves more than moderate drinking. Whatever story we pick, the basic symbolic meaning seems clear. Heavy drinking makes things “topsy-turvy.” It can put your bottom on top in a metaphoric and literal sense. This is why it is right and proper for us to look askance at someone who starts to drink early in the day. When we awake, things are new again, we return to our center, recharged from rest. We might drink in the evening as our body begins to wear down and fray at the edges. That is, as our physical state morphs into something more “fringe-like,” we can mirror with our alcohol consumption.
Whether or not this makes absolute physical sense, it makes complete metaphorical sense. Civilizations have followed this pattern for millennia. When you drink alcohol early in the morning, you act against this pattern, this way of mirroring reality. “To everything there is a season,”–a time exists for right order and for messing with that order, but nary the two should mix.
So too in creation we see that the “seeds” of things, the encapsulating ideas, come from “above.” Seeds fall literally from above and contain the whole of the oak. They germinate what lies below. If someone has an idea it comes from the intellect, which lies on the top of your body. It flows downward into the rest of the body and gets incarnated, taking up residence in the heart, the mediator of heaven (intellect) and earth (the belly, etc.).
Sacred history shows forth this same pattern. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles show that Israel’s fortunes rested on its kings and priests–as they went, so did Israel. The sins of the fathers get passed down generations, as attested by Deuteronomy, and almost any sociological study.
To write history from the “top-down,” then, need not be a form of hero-worship, placating those in power, an exercise in sycophancy, or a form of oppression. Many of these “top down” accounts were in fact critical of those they chronicled. In its simplest form this method merely seeks to mirror reality itself. The recent trend among historians to view the world differently may indicate a general flattening of our worldview, a sub-conscious rebellion against hierarchy and Natural Law.
But while this might be true in certain cricumstances, it may go too far as a general statement.
A famous ancient Persian proverb states, that one should debate important matters twice: once while sober, once while drunk. If we take this symbolically as well as literally we see that approaching questions from unusual places and angles certainly has its place. King David himself played the fool (1 Sm. 21), there is Amos the prophet (not from the priestly tribe), John the Baptist, and so on. And we have the words of Christ that, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
So, even if one might argue that ‘top-down” historical approaches should take priority, certainly we should have histories like those of Ginzburg that take a different approach, for they too reflect something true about the nature of reality. My objection to Night Battles lies not, then, in the subject matter, but in his unspoken assumption that Earth must be at war with Heaven. We should rather look forward to their union.
*I wonder what “power” Ginzburg believes the church had. It could not really stop these events from occurring, for example.
**We should also note that, while the church certainly was a powerful organization at this time, it was also in one sense the most democratic institution. A commoner could theoretically distinguish themselves in piety, learning, etc. and rise to positions of “power” within the church. Many of the priests who questioned the bendetti may have grown up peasants themselves.
Also of note is that for many (though to be fair, not all) of the people questioned, the church imposed very moderate forms of penance, indicating that they had some hesitancy as to what they were dealing with, and sympathy for those they interviewed. The priests were hunting witches, but it does not seem like they engaged in a witch-hunt.