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The first historian to study the benandanti tradition was the Italian Carlo Ginzburg, who began an examination of the surviving trial records from the period in the early 1960s, culminating in the publication of his book The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966, English translation 1983).

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Whilst they combated the malevolent witches and helped heal those who were believed to have been harmed through witchcraft, they also joined the witches on their nocturnal journeys, and the miller Pietro Rotaro was recorded as referring to them as "benandanti witches"; for this reason the priest Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, who recorded Rotaro's testimony, believed that while the benandanti were witches, they were 'good' witches who tried to protect their communities from the bad witches who would harm children.

Ginzburg remarked that it was this contradiction in the relationship between the benandanti and the malevolent witches that ultimately heavily influenced their persecution at the hands of the Inquisition.

The benandanti men fought with fennel stalks, while the witches were armed with sorghum stalks (sorghum was used for witches' brooms, and the "brooms' sorghum" was one of the most current type of sorghum).

If the men prevailed, the harvest would be plentiful.

In 1575, the benandanti first came to the attention of the Friulian Church authorities when a village priest, Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, began investigating the claims made by the benandante Paolo Gasparotto.

Although Sgabarizza soon abandoned his investigations, in 1580 the case was reopened by the inquisitor Fra Felice de Montefalco, who interrogated not only Gasparotto but also a variety of other local benandanti and spirit mediums, ultimately condemning some of them for the crime of heresy.

The earliest accounts of the benandanti's journeys, dating from 1575, did not contain any of the elements then associated with the diabolic witches' sabbath; there was no worshipping of the Devil (a figure who was not even present), no renunciation of Christianity, no trampling of crucifixes and no defilement of sacraments.

Ginzburg noted that whether the benandanti were themselves witches or not was an area of confusion in the earliest records.

On Thursdays between the Ember days, periods of fasting for the Catholic Church, the benandanti claimed their spirits would leave their bodies at night in the form of small animals.

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