Paolo Gasparutto lived in the Alpine village of Iassico, Italy, in the late 16th century. From birth, he'd been singled out by Fate. Paulo was born with a caul, the fetal membrane that sometimes covers a new-born's face. In Italy, they said that such children became Benandanti ("Good-Walkers") -- men and women with magickal powers, who protected the crops and healed the sick. Paulo lived up to his community's expectations. He became a healer, famous enough that people from other villages traveled to Iassico to seek his aid.
In 1575, a miller's son lay dying, and no one could explain what ailed the child. The village priest visited the father and heard a strange story. A "Benandanti Witch" was treating his son, the miller said. A man named Paulo Gasparutto.
Suspecting deviltry, the priest summoned Paolo before him and asked what he was doing for the sick child. Now, Paolo was respected in his town, and the Witch panics stirring in other parts of Europe had missed his isolated mountain village completely. So he never thought that he might have reason to fear the priest, and he answered the man honestly. The boy's illness, he said, was caused by Witches who had stolen his soul. Fortunately, Paolo had managed to retrieve it before the child died. He'd also given the parents a secret charm which should cure the boy. The priest pretended to be impressed by this, and with a little encouragement, Paolo talked for hours about the Benandanti and the work that they did in the community.
Armed with this information, the priest ran straight to the Inquisition. But here, Paolo got a lucky break. By the 16th century, many inquisitors believed that Witchcraft was a Satanic conspiracy. A few conservatives, however, held to the old view of the Middle Ages: Witches were victims of Pagan superstition. They were fools, not dangerous criminals. Well, the busybody priest encountered one of these old die-hards. Inquisitor Giulio d'Assisi listened to his story, then talked to Paolo without using any threats or torture. Again, the Benandanti freely admitted what he'd done and discussed his work in great detail. He was proud of his skills -- why should he hide them?
To Paolo's surprise, his words angered the inquisitor. D'Assisi called his stories lies and dreams, nothing more. Paolo insisted he told the truth -- he even offered to take the inquisitor and priest to the next meeting of the Benandanti, so that they could see for themselves what went on at their rites. D'Assisi scornfully dismissed him, and told him that God commanded him never to speak of this nonsense again.
Five years passed, and a new inquisitor replaced Fra d'Assisi. This new man, Fra Felice, was a more "modern" sort of inquisitor. He discovered Paolo's case while reading Fra d'Assisi's notes, and was disturbed that the old man had let this Witch off so lightly. On June 27, 1580, Fra Felice summoned Paolo Gasparutto back before the Inquisition.
The man who came before him was very different from the Benandante who had faced Fra d'Assisi five years before. Somewhere in that time, Paolo had learned to fear the Church. Mild as it was, his first interview with the Inquisition made him realize the dangers of his position. So when he appeared before the new inquisitor, his old guileless honesty had vanished.
Did he know why he had been summoned, Fra Felice asked Paolo. No, Paolo replied. Did he know any Witches or Benandanti? "Father, no, I really do not know. . ." Paolo said. "I am not a Benandante, that is not my calling." But, Fra Felice pointed out, had he not discussed the Benandanti with the last inquisitor? No. Fra Felice then began to read the transcript of Paolo's first interview, the lengthy descriptions he'd given of the Benandanti's gatherings. Caught in a direct lie, Paolo began to laugh nervously. It was all a dream, he told the inquisitor. He dreamed about fighting Witches. As Fra Felice continued to recite his earlier testimony, the Benandante simply closed his eyes and shook his head, denying that he had ever said such things. If he would be honest, Fra Felice responded, the Church would be lenient. But Paolo clung to his silence, and in the end the inquisitor imprisoned him.
By the next morning, Paolo decided to cooperate. He admitted that he was a Benandante. "Why did you not tell me this yesterday?" Fra Felice asked. "Because I was afraid of the Witches," Paolo responded, "who would have attacked me in bed and killed me." He repeated much of his first testimony, adding that there were six Benandanti in his "company". For the most part, he was quiet and polite. Only once did he show signs of defiance. When Fra Felice asked him if he'd ever offered to take anyone to the games of the Benandanti, Paolo said "Yes, the last father inquisitor; and if he had come along, you would not be questioning me now." Paolo ended by accusing two men of Witchcraft. Fra Felice was satisfied with this, and told the Benandante that he was free to go, so long as he returned in twenty days for a third interview.
Twenty days came and passed, and Paolo Gasparutto never returned. So on September 24, Fra Felice arrested Paolo and imprisoned him. Two days later, the third interview began. Paolo apologized for not appearing before the inquisitor, but swore that he'd been sick the entire month of July. And, Paolo added, "I have come to think that I should tell the truth." He explained to the inquisitor that an angel of God had summoned him to become a Benandante. "Paolo," the angel said to him, "I will send you forth as a Benandante and you will have to fight for the crops."
No doubt Paolo expected that the inquisitor would be impressed -- he was a servant of God, expressly chosen by angels to defend the fertility of the land. But his words had the exact opposite effect. Fra Felice knew that God did not work with Witches. The only angel that would appear before Witches was Satan. What had previously appeared to be a simple case of Pagan superstition now took on diabolic overtones.
At this point, the tone of the interrogation shifted radically. Before, the inquisitor let Paolo speak as he wished. Now, sensing diabolism, he began to hammer at the man, trying to force his testimony to fit the Inquisition's stereotypes about Witches. He tried to trick the Benandante into admitting that his angel was really Satan. "Does not this angel ask to be adored?. . . What did he promise you, women, food, dancing, and what else?" In confusion, Paolo desperately insisted that he'd done nothing wrong -- his angel was not the Devil. The inquisitor continued to set verbal snares and traps for him, hoping for a confession of diabolism. Paolo maintained his innocence, though by the end of the interview he said that Witches worshipped Satan, even if he didn't -- something he'd never suggested before.
After two more days in prison, Paolo came to a new conclusion. "I believe that the apparition of that angel was really the devil tempting me," he told Fra Felice, "since you have told me that he can transform himself into an angel." Paolo repented of his erroneous beliefs and accepted any penance the Inquisition imposed upon him. Fra Felice noted this and sent him home.
Because of some legal squabbles, Paolo didn't receive his penance until November 26, 1581. Then he was forced to renounce his heresy publicly and was assigned six penalties: 1) Six months in prison. 2) On the holy days of the Benandanti, he was to spend his time in prayer and fasting, begging God to forgive him for his sins. 3) He had to receive communion at least three times a year. 4) If any of his children were born with cauls, he was to send the cauls to the Inquisition. 5) He could no longer use viburnum, one of the sacred herbs of the Benandanti. 6) For three years, he had to recite the rosary once per holy day. Paolo begged not to be imprisoned -- his wife and children would have no one to provide for them if he were in jail. Fra Felice agreed that it was unfair to make his family suffer so, and that penance was dropped. Instead, he ordered Paolo not to leave his home town for fifteen days after his sentencing. With that, Paolo returned to Iassico where, as far as we can tell, he lived out his days peacefully.
This book is a brilliant study of the beliefs of Paolo and the other Benandanti. Because their trials contained no torture and little coercion, they offer us some of our most splendid and trustworthy examples of truly Pagan (or Christo-Pagan) Witchcraft.