Today’s oenophiles have to consider the possibility that their valuable wine bottles may be corked, oxidized, “maderized” (ruined due to over-heating), re-fermented (gone fizzy in the bottle), or sullied by a contaminant. Things were much easier in 16th-century Italy: You could just blame the witches. It was commonly believed that after their satanic midnight Sabbath parties, witches had the nasty habit of invading a village’s wine cellars and sullying the vats with their urine or excrement. This, needless to say, did nothing for a wine’s bouquet. Thousands of European women were being burned at the stake for their evil powers, but somehow the problem could not be controlled.
The situation was better if you happened to live in northern Italy’s alpine province of Friuli on the border with Austria (still a fine wine-producing region), because there dwelt a team of occult heroes: the benandanti, or Good Walkers, a revered group of men who practiced white magic for the protection of local vintners. These specialists were identified at birth — they emerged from the womb with their faces wrapped in the caul or amniotic membrane — and as they grew up, they were instilled with a sense of sacred duty. By adulthood, a Good Walker would regularly slip into a deep, trance-like sleep, when his spirits could leave his body and sally forth to do battle with the witches. Not only would these spirits protect the wine in the cellars, they saved the annual crops from devastation and stopped witches from sucking the blood from infants or stealing souls from the innocent. Often, these supernatural wine regulators returned from their moonlit journeys victorious; at other times they woke up exhausted and defeated.
Around 1575, the Inquisition grew suspicious of these strange men, but after many extended interviews, investigators decided to class their gifts as “benign magic” rather than satanic, and no executions were ever carried out. Perhaps, like many a gout-ridden cleric of the period, they too were connoisseurs of the grape. • 7 November 2007
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Ginzburg, Carlo, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, (London, 1966).