Caliban & The Witch: Chapter Four ("The Great Witch Hunt In Europe")
The fifth essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
This is the fifth of a series of essays written for an open book club on Silvia Federici’s profound book, Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.
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The Great Witch Hunt In Europe
“Just as the Enclosures expropriated the peasantry from the communal land, so the witch-hunt expropriated women from their bodies, which were thus "liberated” from any impediment preventing them to function as machines for the production of labor. For the threat of the stake erected more formidable barriers around women’s bodies than were ever erected by the fencing off of the commons.”
“The battle against magic has always accompanied the development of capitalism, to this very day. Magic is premised on the belief that the world is animated, unpredictable, and that there is a force in all things: "water, trees, substances, words...” so that every event is interpreted as the expression of an occult power that must be deciphered and bent to one’s will.”
On my first reading of Caliban & The Witch, I found myself wondering why it wasn’t until this fourth chapter that Silvia Federici gets around to discussing witches, witchcraft, and the witch hunts. And then I finally understood: there’s a bit of witchery in this apparent delay.
In fact, one cannot actually understand what the witch trials were really about before first understanding the social, economic, and cultural relations of the European peasantry during the preceding centuries. Nor can one really make sense of this apparently “aberrant” phenomenon without a sense of how all those relations were changing, and what forces were causing them to change.
Without such an understanding, the only possible theories are quite weak. Federici spends several pages of ink in this chapter discussing those theories and showing what they cannot account for. For instance, the dominant “liberal” historical reading of the witch hunts is that they were a last gasp of religious power, mass hysteria, superstition, and magical-thinking. In such a view, not everyone in Europe had yet fully transitioned to Reason and secularist thinking, and thus the witch hunts represent a dark past we’ve all finally overcome.
One of the first problems with such a framing is that it’s ahistorical. In fact, as Federici notes, the witch hunts were a new phenomenon, not a continuation of an older, “primitive” past:
“Here I want to stress that, contrary to the view propagated by the Enlightenment, the witch-hunt was not the last spark of a dying feudal world. It is well established that the "superstitious” Middle Ages did not persecute any witches; the very concept of "witchcraft” did not take shape until the late Middle Ages, and never, in the "Dark Ages,” were there mass trials and executions, despite the fact that magic permeated daily life and, since the late Roman Empire, it had been feared by the ruling class as a tool of insubordination among the slaves.”
This is one of the most important things to understand, and it’s also why Federici devotes so much in earlier chapters to the historical situation of the “transition to capitalism.” The witch hunts were a break with the past, rather a continuation of it, and this is a point that only makes sense in the light of what else that past entailed.
The second problem with such a framing is that it was very often the “men of science” and secular authorities — rather than the clergy or the masses — who initiated the hunts, presided over these trials, and obsessed over the threat of witchcraft.
This framing again relies on an ahistorical idea about causation. Through film, television, books, and popular narrative, we have come to imagine that it was the poor and uneducated peasants who initiated these panics, while a more balanced and educated elite merely “followed” the masses and gave them what they wanted. On the contrary: it was actually the elites themselves who convinced the poor that witches were hiding in their villages and families.
“Before neighbor accused neighbor, or entire communities were seized by a "panic,” a steady indoctrination took place, with the authorities publicly expressing anxiety about the spreading of witches, and traveling from village to village in order to teach people how to recognize them, in some cases carrying with them lists with the names of suspected witches and threatening to punish those who hid them or came to their assistance.”
“The witch-hunt was also the first persecution in Europe that made use of a multi-media propaganda to generate a mass psychosis among the population. Alerting the public to the dangers posed by the witches, through pamphlets publicizing the most famous trials and the details of their atrocious deeds, was one of the first tasks of the printing press. Artists were recruited to the task, among them the German Hans Baldung, to whom we owe the most damning portraits of witches. But it was the jurists, the magistrates, and the demonologists, often embodied by the same person, who most contributed to the persecution. They were the ones who systematized the arguments, answered the critics and perfected a legal machine that, by the end of the 16th century, gave a standardized, almost bureaucratic format to the trials, accounting for the similarities of the confessions across national boundaries. In their work, the men of the law could count on the cooperation of the most reputed intellectuals of the time, including philosophers and scientists who are still praised as the fathers of modern rationalism. Among them was the English political theorist Thomas “Hobbes, who despite his skepticism concerning the reality of witchcraft, approved the persecution as a means of social control. A fierce enemy of witches — obsessive in his hatred for them and in his calls for bloodshed — was Jean Bodin, the famous French lawyer and political theorist, whom historian Trevor Roper calls the Aristode and Montesquieu of the 16th century. Bodin, who is credited with authoring the first treatise on inflation, participated in many trials, wrote a volume of "proofs”, in which he insisted that witches should be burned alive instead of being "mercifully” strangled before being thrown to the flames, that they should be cauterized so that their flesh should rot before death, and that children too be burned.”
That quote above is quite long, but it’s vital to read it again. And reminder: Jean Bodin was one of the primary architects of the nation-state.
The panic over witches was an intellectual endeavor, the very first orchestrated “multi-media” campaign to change society through targeting a group of people. In essence, they created the figure of the witch, just as modern artists, theorists, politicians, and others created the figure of “the terrorist.” By such a statement, I don’t mean that there were no witches, anymore than I mean that there were no terrorists. However, what was created was the mythic, lurking threat of the witch or terrorist.
To understand this point a little further, consider two current mythic containers over which Americans are particularly obsessed: the “fascist” and the “groomer.” For a subsection of the liberal left and for anarchists, “fascists” are the most significant threat to life as they know it. They’re everywhere, and they’re constantly gaining power, and they’re trying to kill innocent people. On the other hand, for a subsection of the conservative right, there are “groomers” everywhere. Drag queens and non-binary kindergarten teachers and powerful international organizations are all trying to molest children by confusing them about sexual difference and gender.
Now, here’s the thing. There are actually fascists in the world. Also, there are absolutely groomers in the world. I have met people who really believe that strict authoritarian governments and the annihilation of difference is the only way humans should live. I have also personally known people — including a drag queen and a person who worked with young children — who used their positions to sexually abuse underage people. However, neither of these mythic containers (fascist, groomer) are actually the global threat either side thinks it is.
It was the same with witches. There were absolutely women (and some men) who practiced sorcery, including sorcery meant to harm others. There were women (and some men) who created poisons to kill people. There were also women (and men) who called on spirits for favors, or used herbs or charms to end pregnancies, or performed rituals over animals and fields. In fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence that those who did such things were quite common, numerous, and considered culturally important and even essential to everyday life.
So, when Federici says that the witch or witchcraft was a threat created by the state, she doesn’t mean they created witches. Instead, she’s noticing that something which was previously not seen as a thing to worry about suddenly became a matter of obsession first for the state and then for everyone else.
But why? Well, again, because the witch hunts were a crucial step towards eradicating older social relations and creating the capitalist proletariat:
“If we consider the historical context in which the witch-hunt occurred, the gender and class of the accused, and the effects of the persecution, then we must conclude that witch-hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal.”
This point is made increasingly clear when Federici points out the economic status of most accused and executed witches:
“That the spread of rural capitalism, with all its consequences (land expropriation, the deepening of social distances, the breakdown of collective relations) was a decisive factor in the background of the witch-hunt is also proven by the fact that the majority of those accused were poor peasant women — cottars, wage laborers — while those who accused them were wealthy and prestigious members of the community often their employers or landlords, that is, individuals who were part of the local power structures and often had close ties with the central state”
“Their poverty stands out in the confessions. It was in times of need that the Devil appeared to them, to assure them that from now on they "should never want,” although the money he would give them on such occasions would soon turn to ashes, a detail perhaps related to the experience of superinflation common at the time. As for the diabolical crimes of the witches, they appear to us as nothing more than the class struggle played out at the village level: the 'evil eye,' the curse of the beggar to whom an aim has been refused, the default on the payment of rent, the demand for public assistance ”
This attack on the lower classes wasn’t just an economic attack, however. This is a point missed in most leftist analyses of the transition, particularly those which accept enlightenment, secularist narrative about the past. The birth of capitalism required the death of an entire way of seeing the world, and that way was at its heart animist and magical:
“in the eyes of the new capitalist class, this anarchic, molecular conception of the diffusion of power in the world was anathema. Aiming at controlling nature, the capitalist organization of work must refuse the unpredictability implicit in the practice of magic, and the possibility of establishing a privileged relation with the natural elements, as well as the belief in the existence of powers available only to particular individuals, and thus not easily generalized and exploitable. Magic was also an obstacle to the rationalization of the work process, and a threat to the establishment of the principle of individual responsibility. Above all, magic seemed a form of refusal of work, of insubordination, and an instrument of grassroots resistance to power. The world had to be "disenchanted” in order to be dominated.”
“Though the witch-hunt targeted a broad variety of female practices, it was above all in this capacity — as sorcerers, healers, performers of incantations and divinations — that women were persecuted. For their claim to magical power undermined the power of the authorities and the state, giving confidence to the poor in their ability to manipulate the natural and social environment and possibly subvert the constituted order.
To be turned into submissive workers, we needed not just to lose access to land and be disciplined into mechanistic views of time, we needed to stop believing that magic existed. And here is where the ecofeminist perspective on women’s bodies as something more than merely sexually-different — a thread seen particularly in feminists from the Global South like Vandana Shiva — begins to feel obvious and self-evident. The attack on women was “necessary” for the capitalists because women were also the guardians of this older (magical and material) way of being.
Particularly worth noting is her point about the state capture of childbirth, a realm of knowledge that was until then fully a woman’s realm:
“We also know that many witches were midwives or "wise women" traditionally the depository of women’s reproductive knowledge and control. The Malleus dedicated an entire chapter to them, arguing that they were worse than any other woman, since they helped the mother destroy the fruit of her womb, a conspiracy madea conspiracy made easier, they charged, by the exclusion of men from the rooms where women gave birth. Observing that there was not a hut that did not board a midwife, the authors recommended that no woman should be allowed to practice this art, unless she first demonstrated to have been a "good Catholic.” This recommendation did not go unheard. As we have seen, midwives were either recruited to police women — to check, for instance, that they did not hide their pregnancies or deliver children out of wedlock or were marginalized. Both in France and England, starting from the end of the 16th century, few women were allowed to practice obstetrics, an activity that, until that time, had been their inviolable mystery. Then, by the beginning of the 17th century, the first male midwives began to appear and, within a century, obstetrics has come almost entirely under state control.”
This extended beyond just childbirth, however, to the realm of healing itself:
“With the persecution of the folk healer, women were expropriated from a patrimony of empirical knowledge, regarding herbs and healing remedies, that they had accumulated and transmitted from generation to generation, its loss paving the way for a new form of enclosure. This was the rise of professional medicine, which erected in front of the "lower classes” a wall of unchallengeable scientific knowledge, unaffordable and alien, despite its curative pretenses.”
And of course, it was also an attack on women’s sexuality and sexuality that went beyond mere reproduction. The attack on this older order of relations included even female friendship and also homosexuality, which Federici mentions in her point about how “gossip” once just meant “friend,” and also this chilling reminder:
“Yet, we can trace back to this process some of the main taboos of our time. This is the case with homosexuality, which in several parts of Europe was still fully accepted during the Renaissance, but was weeded out in the course of the witch-hunt. So fierce was the persecution of homosexuals that its memory is still sedimented in our language. "Faggot” reminds us that homosexuals were at times the kindling for the stakes upon which witches were burned, while the Italian finocchio (fennel) refers to the practice of scattering these aromatic vegetables on the stakes in order to mask the stench of burning flesh.”
The final essay, on Chapter Five (“Colonization and Christianization”), will be published on 16 April.
Please feel free to comment on this essay, as these are written with an eye towards participation. Your questions, insights, and comments will help enrich the understanding of others reading the book, too!