Who Were the Witches?
Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism
By Alex Knight / The Rag Blog / November 6, 2009
This Halloween season, there is no book I could recommend more highly than Silvia Federici’s brilliant Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia 2004), which tells the dark saga of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe for more than 200 years.
In uncovering this forgotten history, Federici exposes the origins of capitalism in the heightened oppression of workers (represented by Shakespeare’s character Caliban), and most strikingly, in the brutal subjugation of women. She also brings to light the enormous and colorful European peasant movements that fought against the injustices of their time, connecting their defeat to the imposition of a new patriarchal order that divided male from female workers.
Today, as more and more people question the usefulness of a capitalist system that has thrown the world into crisis, Caliban and the Witch stands out as essential reading for unmasking the shocking violence and inequality that capitalism has relied upon from its very creation.
Who were the witches?
Parents putting a pointed hat on their young son or daughter before Trick-or-Treating might never pause to wonder this question, seeing witches as just another cartoonish Halloween icon like Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. But deep within our ritual lies a hidden history that can tell us important truths about our world, as the legacy of past events continues to affect us 500 years later.
In this book, Silvia Federici takes us back in time to show how the mysterious figure of the witch is key to understanding the creation of capitalism, the profit-motivated economic system that now reigns over the entire planet.
During the 15th - 17th centuries the fear of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America, so much so that if a woman was accused of witchcraft she could face the cruelest of torture until confession was given, or even be executed based on suspicion alone. There was often no evidence whatsoever.
The author recounts, “for more than two centuries, in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having sold body and soul to the devil and, by magical means, murdered scores of children, sucked their blood, made potions with their flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, destroyed cattle and crops, raised storms, and performed many other abominations” (169). In other words, just about anything bad that might or might not have happened was blamed on witches during that time. So where did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives so many poor women, most of whom had almost certainly never flown on broomsticks or stirred eye-of-newt into large black cauldrons?
Caliban underscores that the persecution of witches was not just some error of ignorant peasants, but in fact the deliberate policy of Church and State, the very ruling class of society. To put this in perspective, today witchcraft would be a far-fetched cause for alarm, but the fear of hidden terrorists who could strike at any moment because they “hate our freedom” is widespread. Not surprising, since politicians and the media have been drilling this frightening message into people’s heads for years, even though terrorism is a much less likely cause of death than, say, lack of health care.1
And just as the panic over terrorism has enabled today’s powers-that-be to attempt to remake the Middle East, this book makes the case that the powers-that-were of Medieval Europe exploited or invented the fear of witches to remake European society towards a social paradigm that met their interests.
Interestingly, a major component of both of these crusades was the use of so-called "shock and awe" tactics to astound the population with “spectacular displays of force,” which help to soften up resistance to drastic or unpopular reforms.2 In the case of the Witch Hunt, shock therapy was applied through the witch burnings -- spectacles of such stupefying violence that they apparently paralyzed whole villages and regions into accepting fundamental restructuring of medieval society.3
Federici describes a typical witch burning as, “an important public event, which all the members of the community had to attend, including the children of the witches, especially their daughters who, in some cases, would be whipped in front of the stake on which they could see their mother burning alive” (186).
The book argues that these gruesome executions not only punished “witches” but graphically demonstrated the repercussions for any kind of disobedience to the clergy or nobility. In particular, the witch burnings were meant to terrify women into accepting “a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources” (170).
Federici puts forward that up until the 16th century, though living in a sexist society, European women retained significant economic independence from men that they typically do not under capitalism, where gender roles are more distinguished. She goes on, “If we also take into account that in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the tasks that female serfs performed (washing, spinning, harvesting, and tending to animals on the commons) were done in cooperation with other women, we then realize… [this] was a source of power and protection for women. It was the basis for an intense female sociality and solidarity that enabled women to stand up to men.” But the Witch Hunt initiated a period where women were forced to become what she calls “servants of the male work force” (115) -- excluded from receiving a wage, they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners, and maintaining the home. In Federici’s words, this was the “housewifization of women,” the reduction to a second-class status where women became totally dependent on the income of men (27).
Federici goes on to show how female sexuality, which was seen as a source of women’s potential power over men, became an object of suspicion and came under sharp attack by the authorities. The assault manifested in new laws that took away women’s control over the reproductive process, such as the banning of birth control measures, the replacement of midwives with male doctors, and the outlawing of abortion and infanticide.4 Federici calls this an attempt to turn the female body into “a machine for the reproduction of labor,” such that women’s only purpose in life was supposedly to produce children (144).
But we also learn that this was just one component of a broader move by Church and State to ban all forms of sexuality that were considered “non-productive.” For example, “homosexuality, sex between young and old, sex between people of different classes, anal coitus, coitus from behind, nudity, and dances. Also proscribed was the public, collective sexuality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, as in the Spring festivals of pagan origins that, in the 16th-century, were still celebrated all over Europe” (194). To this end, the Witch Hunt targeted not only female sexuality but homosexuality and gender non-conformity as well, helping to craft the patriarchal sexual boundaries that define our society to this day.
Capitalism: Born in flames
What separates Caliban from other works exploring the “witch” phenomenon is that this book puts the persecution of witches into the context of the development of capitalism. For Silvia Federici, it’s no accident that “the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade” (164).
She instructs that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism was in formation, the late 15th through 17th centuries. Contrary to “laissez-faire” orthodoxy which holds that capitalism functions best without state intervention, Federici posits that it was precisely the state violence of these campaigns that laid the foundation for capitalist economics.
Thankfully for the reader, who may not be very familiar with the history of this era, Federici outlines these events in clear and accessible language. She focuses on the Land Enclosures in particular because their significance has been largely lost in time. Many of us will not remember that during Europe’s Middle Ages even the lowliest of serfs had their own plot of land with which they could use for just about any purpose. Federici adds, “With the use of land also came the use of the ‘commons’ -- meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures – that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy (wood for fuel, timber for building, fishponds, grazing grounds for animals) and fostered community cohesion and cooperation” (24).
This access to land acted as a buffer, providing security for peasants who otherwise were mostly subject to the whim of their “Lord.” Not only could they grow their own food, or hunt in the relatively plentiful forests which were still standing in that era, but connection to the commons also gave peasants territory with which to organize resistance movements and alternative economies outside the control of their masters.
The Enclosures were a process by which this land was taken away -- closed off by the State and typically handed over to entrepreneurs to pursue a profit in sheep or cow herding, or large-scale agriculture. Instead of being used for subsistence as it had been, the land’s bounty was sold off to fledgling national and international markets. A new class of profit-motivated landowners emerged, known as “gentry,” but the underside of this development was the trauma experienced by the evicted peasants.
In the author’s words, “As soon as they lost access to land, all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen the working-day” (72). For Federici, then, the chief creation of the Enclosures was a property-less, landless working class, a “proletariat” who were left with little option but to work for a wage in order to survive; wage labor being one of the defining features of capitalism.
Cut off from their traditional soil, many communities scattered across the countryside to find new homesteads. But the State countered with the so-called “Bloody Laws”, which made it legal to capture wandering “vagabonds” and force them to work for a wage, or put them to death. Federici tells the result: “What followed was the absolute impoverishment of the European working class… Evidence is the change that occurred in the workers’ diets. Meat disappeared from their tables, except for a few scraps of lard, and so did beer and wine, salt and olive oil” (77).
Although European workers typically labored for longer hours under their new capitalist employers, living standards were reduced sharply throughout the 16th century, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that earnings returned to the level they had been before the Enclosures.5
According to Federici, the witch hunts played a key role in facilitating this process by driving a sexist wedge into the working class that “undermined class solidarity,” making it more difficult for communities to resist displacement (48). And while women were faced with the threat of horrific torture and death if they did not conform to new submissive gender roles, men were in effect bribed with the promise of obedient wives and new access to women’s bodies.
The author cites that “Another aspect of the divisive sexual politics to diffuse workers’ protest was the institutionalization of prostitution, implemented through the opening of municipal brothels soon proliferating throughout Europe” (49). And in addition to prostitution, a legalization of sexual violence provided further sanction for the exploitation of women’s bodies. She explains, “In France, the municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class” (47). This initiated what Federici calls a “virtual rape movement,” making it unsafe for women to even leave their homes.
The witch trials were the final assault, which all but obliterated the integrity of peasant communities by fostering mutual suspicion and fear. Amidst deteriorating conditions, neighbors were encouraged to turn against one another, so that any insult or annoyance became grounds for an accusation of witchcraft. As the terror spread, a new era was forged in the flames of the witch burnings. Surveying the damage, Silvia Federici concludes that “the persecution of the witches, in Europe as in the New World, was as important as colonization and the expropriation of the European peasantry from its land were for the development of capitalism” (12).
A forgotten revolution
Federici maintains that it didn’t have to turn out this way. “Capitalism was not the only possible response to the crisis of feudal power. Throughout Europe, vast communalistic social movements and rebellions against feudalism had offered the promise of a new egalitarian society built on social equality and cooperation” (61).
Caliban’s most inspiring chapters make visible an enormous continent-wide series of poor people’s movements that nearly toppled Church and State at the end of the Middle Ages. These peasant movements of the 13th - 16th centuries were often labeled “heretical” for challenging the religious power of the Vatican, but as the book details they aimed for a much broader transformation of feudal society.
The so-called “heretics” often “denounced social hierarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth, and disseminated among the people a new, revolutionary conception of society that, for the first time in the Middle Ages, redefined every aspect of daily life (work, property, sexual reproduction, and the position of women), posing the question of emancipation in truly universal terms” (33).
Silvia Federici shows us how the heretical movements took many forms, from the vegetarian and anti-war Cathars of southern France to the communistic and anti-nobility Taborites of Bohemia, but were united in the call for the elimination of social inequality. Many put forth the argument that it was anti-Christian for the clergy and nobility to live in opulence while so many suffered from lack of adequate food, housing or medical attention.
Another common thread weaving the European peasant movements together was the leadership of women. Federici describes that, “[Heretical women] had the same rights as men, and could enjoy a social life and mobility that nowhere else was available to them in the Middle Ages… Not surprisingly, women are present in the history of heresy as in no other aspect of medieval life.” (38). Some heretical sects, like the Cathars, discouraged marriage and emphasized birth control – advocating a sexual liberation which directly challenged the Church’s moral authority.
The gender politics of peasant movements proved to be a strength, and they attracted a wide following that undercut the power of a feudal system which was already in crisis. Federici explains how the movements became increasingly revolutionary as they grew in size.
In the course of this process, the political horizon and the organizational dimensions of the peasant and artisan struggle broadened. Entire regions revolted, forming assemblies and recruiting armies. At times, the peasants organized in bands, attacking the castles of the lords, and destroying the archives where the written marks of their servitude were kept” (45).
What started as a religious movement became increasingly revolutionary. For example, in the 1420s and 30s, the Taborites fought to liberate all of Bohemia, beating back several Crusades of 100,000+ men organized by the Vatican (54-55). The uprisings became contagious, so much so that in the crucial period of 1350-1500, unprecedented concessions were made including the doubling of wages, reduction in prices and rents, and a shorter working day. In the words of Silvia Federici, “the feudal economy was doomed” (62).
The author documents that the initial reaction by elites was to institute the “Holy Inquisition,” a brutal campaign of state repression that included torturing and even burning heretics to death. But as time went on, ruling class strategy shifted from targeting heretics in general to specifically targeting female community leaders. The Inquisition morphed into the Witch Hunt.
Soon, simple meetings of peasant women were stigmatized as possible “Sabbats,” where women were supposedly seduced by the devil to become witches, but as Federici clarifies, it was the rebellious politics and non-conforming gender relations of such gatherings which were demonized (177). Strong, defiant women were murdered by the tens of thousands, and along with them the Witch Hunt also destroyed “a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism” (103).
For elite European nobles and clergy, the Witch Hunt succeeded in stifling a working class revolution that had increasingly threatened their rule. Even more, Silvia Federici puts forward that the Witch Hunt facilitated the rise of a new, capitalist social paradigm -- based on large-scale economic production for profit and the displacement of peasants from their lands into the burgeoning urban workforce. In time, this capitalist system would dominate all of Europe and be dispersed through conquistadors’ “guns, germs and steel” to every corner of the globe, destroying countless ancient civilizations and cultures in the process.6
Federici’s analysis is that, “Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle -- possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide” (22). How might things be different if the forgotten revolution had won?
Conclusion: Rediscovering the magic of truth-telling
“Day by day, it’s worse for my people, especially for the women. And that’s why, because of all of these main reasons, we say this is the mockery of democracy and mockery of War on Terror.” – Malalai Joya, Afghan democracy activist, 2009Caliban and the Witch is a book that challenges many important myths about the world we live in. First and foremost among these is the widely-held belief that capitalism, though perhaps flawed in its current form, started out as a “progressive” development that liberated workers and improved the conditions of women, people of color and other oppressed groups.
Silvia Federici has done impressive work to take us back to the very foundations of the capitalist system in late-medieval Europe to uncover a secret history of land dispossession and impoverishment, gender and sexual terror, and brutal colonization of non-Europeans. This terrible legacy leads her to the profound conclusion that the system is “necessarily committed to racism and sexism,” and most strongly, “It is impossible to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years” (17).
It’s been said that we can measure a society by how it treats its women. This book provides compelling documentation to suggest that capitalism is and has always been a male dominated system, which reduces opportunities and security for women as well as marginalizing those who don’t fit within narrow gender boundaries. In particular, it uses the story of the Witch Hunt to illuminate the inner workings of capitalism to show the restraining, silencing, and demonizing of female sexual power built into it.7
Responding to our question that started this essay, Silvia Federici writes, “The witch was not only the midwife, the woman who avoided maternity, or the beggar who eked out a living by stealing some wood or butter from her neighbors. She was also the loose, promiscuous woman -- the prostitute or adulteress, and generally, the woman who exercised her sexuality outside the bonds of marriage and procreation… The witch was also the rebel woman who talked back, argued, swore, and did not cry under torture” (184).
In other words, the witches were those women who in one way or another resisted the establishment of an unjust social order -- the mechanical exploitation of capitalism. The witches represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities, a world in revolt.
We need not despair for the world that has been lost. Indeed, it is still with us today in the struggles of people everywhere organizing for justice. Today from Afghanistan we can hear the clarion voice of Malalai Joya, a courageous woman who was expelled from the Afghan parliament in 2007 for speaking out against the U.S.-installed warlords who now rule her country. She appeared recently on Democracy Now! saying, “Now my people are sandwiched between two powerful enemies: from the sky, occupation forces bombing and killing innocent civilians… [and] on the ground, Taliban and these warlords together continue to deliver fascism against our people.”8
Joya risks her life to make these comments, but her words carry the sparkling truth that is so necessary to end the insanity of war and occupation in the Middle East. Those who are summoned to action by her call do so in the immortal spirit of the “heretics” and “witches” who resisted capitalism and feudalism before it, carrying forward a movement that is wide as the Earth and old as time.
[Alex Knight is an organizer and writer in Philadelphia. He is currently organizing with Philly Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the People's Caravan, which recently completed a story-listening and action trip to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. He also maintains the website endofcapitalism.com and is in the process of writing a book called The End of Capitalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The Rag Blog
06 November 2009
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