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The Flight of the Witch

By Brian Hoggard

This article concerns what is known about the flight of the witch to historians. The job of the historian is to make informed speculations about the past from the available evidence – similar to archaeologists. Luckily for us, Carlo Ginzburg has studied the records of inquisitors in Friulia in northern Italy, which detail the beliefs of people known as the benandanti who lived among them who appear to have “flown” on a regular basis. He believes that their beliefs were once widespread throughout Europe. In this article these beliefs will be explored and juxtaposed with evidence from France and elsewhere to try to get to the root of this belief in witch-flight.

At the beginning of his article in Ankarlo and Henningsen’s Early Modern European Witchcraft – Centres and Peripheries, Carlo Ginzburg cites his principal disagreements with Norman Cohn’s work Europe’s Inner Demons.. Cohn asserts that “The picture of the sabbat which took shape in the first decades of the fifteenth century was a modern elaboration, by lay and ecclesiastical judges and demonologists, of an aggressive stereotype that had been applied in former times to Jews, the early Christians, and medieval heretical sects ….”, and that there was no reality to this image. Ginzburg’s astute response to this is that it postulates the continuity of a stereotype that underwent radical change from the mediaeval period to the Reformation owing to both scholarship and folklore sources – essentially, the myth of the sabbat (as Cohn describes it) could not have been solely created by the elite because folklore played a part too. These comments concern the sabbat as it appears in early modern documents (broadly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) and the flight of the witch is a very definite part of this alleged myth of the sabbat – and is the main concern of this article.

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