Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women

Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women

by Silvia Federici


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The world is witnessing a new surge of interpersonal and institutional violence against women, including new witch hunts. This surge of violence has occurred alongside an expansion of capitalist social relation. In this new work, Silvia Federici examines the root causes of these developments and outlines the consequences for the women affected and their communities. She argues, that this new war on women, a mirror of witch hunts in 16th- and 17th-century Europe and the “New World,” is a structural element of the new forms of capitalist accumulation. These processes are founded on the destruction of people’s most basic means of reproduction. Like at the dawn of capitalism, the factors behind today’s violence against women are processes of enclosure, land dispossession, and the remolding of women’s reproductive activities and subjectivity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629635682
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Pages: 120
Sales rank: 350,719
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Silvia Federici is a feminist writer, teacher, and militant. In 1972 she was co-founder of the International Feminist Collective that launched the campaign for Wages for Housework internationally. Her previous books include Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero. She is a professor emerita at Hofstra University, where she was a social science professor. 

Read an Excerpt


Midsommervisen "Vi elsker vort land"
De tre første vers, som normalt synges ved bålfester
The first three verses, which are normally sung at bonfire parties Text: Holger Drachmann, 1885
Music: P.E. Lange-Müller, 1885

Vi elsker vort land,
We love our country
når den signede jul
when the blessed Christmas
tænder stjernen i træet med glans i hvert øje
. lights the star in the tree with a sparkle in each eye.
når om våren hver fugl,
when in spring every bird,
over mark, under strand,
over field, under beach,
lader stemmen til hilsende triller sig bøje:
lets it voice in singing greetings:
vi synger din lov over vej, over gade,
we sing thy law over road, over street,
vi kranser dit navn, når vor høst er i lade,
we wreath thy name, when our harvest is in the shed,
men den skønneste krans
, but the most beautiful wreath,
bli'r dog din, Sankte Hans!
will be yours, St. John!
Den er bunden af sommerens hjerter,
It is tied by the hearts of the summer,
så varme så glade.
so warm and so happy.

Vi elsker vort land,
We love our Country,
men ved midsommer mest
, but at midsummer most,
når hver sky over marken velsignelsen sender,
when every cloud over the field sends the blessing,
når af blomster er flest,
when flowers are most,
og når kvæget i spand
and the cattle in bucket
giver rigeligst gave til flittige hænder;
gives plenty of gifts to industrious hands,
når ikke vi pløjer og harver og tromler,
when we don't plow and harvest,
når koen sin middag i kløveren gumler,
when the cow munches its dinner in the clover field,
da går ungdom til dans
then youth go dancing
på dit bud, Sankte Hans
on your command, St. John
ret som føllet og lammet, der fri
t as the foal and the lamb, which freely
over engen sig tumler.
tumble across the field.
Vi elsker vort land
, We love our country
og med sværdet i hand
and with sword in hand
skal hver udenvælts fjende beredte os kende,
will every outlandish enemy know us,
men mod ufredens ånd
but against the spirit of strife
under mark, over strand,
under field, over beach,
vil vi bålet på fædrenes gravhøje tænde
we will light the fire on the Viking graves of our fathers
hver by har sin heks,
every town has its witch
og hver sogn sine trolde.
and every parish its trolls.
Dem vil vi fra livet med glædesblus holde
We will keep them from life with the fire of joy
vi vil fred her til lands
we want peace in this country
Sankte Hans, Sankte Hans!
St. John, St. John!
Den kan vindes, hvor hjerterne
It can be won where the hearts
aldrig bli'r tvivlende kolde.
never gets doubtfully cold.


Why Speak of the Witch Hunts Again?

Why should we speak of the witch hunts again? 'Again,' given that in recent years feminist scholars have lifted the witch hunt from the historical limbo to which it was confined and assigned it a proper place in the history of women in modern Europe and the Americas.

Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Mary Daly, and Carolyn Merchant, among others, have shown how the witch hunts served to deprive women of their medical practices, forced them to submit to the patriarchal control of the nuclear family, and destroyed a holistic concept of nature that until the Renaissance set limits on the exploitation of the female body.

More than that. Under the influence of the Nouvelle histoire, village archives have been reopened and cartons of dusty records have been reexamined, making a more detailed picture of hundreds of trials available to us.

Why, then, stir old ashes, particularly if we are not ready to bring new facts to bear on the current interpretative frameworks?

A reason for doing so is that there are important structural aspects of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witch hunts that still need to be analyzed and placed in the appropriate sociohistorical context. Most historians of the witch hunt, even the most politically inspired, have confined themselves to sociological analyses: Who were the witches? What were they accused of? Where and how they were punished? Or they have viewed the witch hunt from a limited angle: the birth of the medical profession, the development of the mechanical view of the world, the triumph of a patriarchal state-structure, and so forth.

What has remained unacknowledged is that, like the slave trade and the extermination of the indigenous populations in the 'New World,' the witch hunt stands at a crossroad of a cluster of social processes that paved the way for the rise of the modern capitalist world. Thus, there is much that can be learned from it concerning the preconditions for the capitalist takeoff.

A study of the witch hunt makes us reassess the entrenched belief that at some historical point capitalist development was a carrier of social progress, which in the past has led many 'revolutionaries' to bemoan the absence of a 'genuine capitalist accumulation' in much of the former colonial world. But if my reading of the witch hunt is correct, then a different historical understanding becomes possible, whereby the African slaves, the expropriated peasants of Africa and Latin America, and the massacred native population of North America become the kin of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European witches, who, like them, saw their common lands taken away, experienced the hunger produced by the move to cash crops, and saw their resistance persecuted as a sign of a diabolical pact.

But, it may be objected, what proof do we have that there exists a connection between the woman who was burned at the stake or raised her pitchfork against the tax collector and the logic of a system that in its initial phase could hardly have achieved a unified consciousness, much less an orchestrated plan? How is it possible to see in the murderous village squabbles that brought many women to torture chambers the signposts of a new world economic order of which none of the protagonists could have had a clue? Should we not, then, confine ourselves to micro-histories that programmatically cut off village events from any links with overarching social structures?

This may appear a prudent course. But restricting the causal field only leads to new questions. For instance, Why do we witness a surge of patriarchal, misogynist practices at the very inception of the modern world at the initiative of the same bourgeoisie that is often credited with being an agent of women's emancipation? And what is the relationship between the birth of the medical profession and the rise of the philosophical and scientific mechanism? Isn't a broader underlying cause called for, connecting and explaining all these different correlations?

Answering these questions is the path that I have taken. In my work, the witch hunt is read as an aspect of the 'Great Transformation' that led to the establishment of capitalism in Europe. True, the evidence is circumstantial, but no significant historical phenomenon can ever be 'explained' except by reference to a contextual field, as well as to its internal dynamics.

One example drawn from the present can clarify this point. In the absence of the abundant supply of records that we are likely to pass on to future generations, historians studying the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. might be baffled by the coexistence of an unprecedented technological development and the return of phenomena that are usually associated with 'underdevelopment' or with a previous age of primitive accumulation: homelessness, the large-scale confinement of black people in the nation's jails, patterned on the 'Great Confinement' of the seventeenth century, widespread illiteracy, the spread of anonymous violence, and a broad pattern of social disintegration. How to prove, then, that the same capitalist expansion that has led to the computer revolution has also been responsible for the return to forms of life that recall the 'Iron Century'?

Much circumstantial evidence would be necessary. Scores of interviews with government officers and the diaries of computer whiz kids, for example, or the work of intellectuals engaged in 'deconstructing' literary texts or hailing the age of 'postmodernist discourse' would not be enough! One would have to study housing policies, connect rent increases with the dismantling of America's industrial belt, deduce from it a leap in accumulation, leading to the development of new technological know-how and the pauperization of large sectors of the working class, infer the tensions that this produced, listen to the speeches of politicians bent on attacking welfare as a perversion of social and divine goals. Even with all this, such efforts might still be met with skepticism, just as they are today. The witch hunt too then must be rescued from the isolation of the village and placed in a broader frame. It needs to be examined on a continuum with other events and processes unfolding at both the village and the national level. This, I hope, is what my work has accomplished.


Witch Hunts, Enclosures, and the Demise of Communal Property Relations

This chapter argues that the English enclosures, and more broadly the rise of agrarian capitalism, starting in late fifteenth-century Europe provide a relevant social background for understanding the production of many contemporary witchcraft accusations and the relation between witch-hunting and capital accumulation. I will clarify later in what sense I use the concept of enclosure. Here I wish to stress that land enclosures cannot explain the totality of the witch hunts, past or present. I agree with the prevailing view that witch-hunting requires a multicausal explanation, though I trace all of its underlying motivations to the development of capitalist relations. I also do not wish to suggest that the connection I establish between land enclosure and witch-hunting is a necessary one. It is only under specific historical conditions that land privatization produces a persecution of 'witches.' There seems to be, however, a peculiar relationship between the dismantling of communitarian regimes and the demonization of members of the affected communities that makes witch-hunting an effective instrument of economic and social privatization. To identify this peculiar relationship is part of the purpose of this chapter.

Enclosures were an English phenomenon whereby landlords and well-to-do peasants fenced off the common lands, putting an end to customary rights and evicting the population of farmers and squatters that depended on them for their survival. This was not the only means by which land privatization took place. The same process of expulsion of the peasantry and commercialization of land occurred in France and other parts of Western Europe, for instance, through increased taxation. I focus, however, on the English enclosures, because they more clearly show how the commercialization of land and the rise of monetary relations affected women and men differently. In this usage, enclosures include the engrossment of land, the introduction of rack rents, and new forms of taxation. But in all its forms this was a violent process, causing a profound polarization in what had previously been communities structured by reciprocal bonds. That it was not only the lords but the well-to-do among the peasants who raised the edges (the common form of boundary marking) intensified the hostilities the enclosures produced, as the enclosers and the enclosed knew each other, walked the same paths, and were connected by multiple relations, and the fear that consumed them was fueled by the proximity of their lives and the possibility of retaliation.

What evidence do we have that land enclosure is a major factor in the production of witch hunts?

The answer is that most of the evidence is circumstantial. In none of the trials of which we possess the records were the women accused described as victims of expropriation. It is acknowledged, nevertheless, that, as in the rest of Europe, in England witch hunts were predominantly a rural phenomenon and, as a tendency, they affected regions in which land had been or was being enclosed. Although he later retracted his claim, in his Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England Alan Macfarlane had shown that the map of the witch trials and that of the enclosures coincided, the main area for the persecution being the county of Essex, where the land had been enclosed at least a century before the witch hunt. Enclosures had also occurred in Lancashire, especially near Pendle Forest, the site, in 1612, of one of the most murderous witchcraft prosecutions. The memory of this enclosure was reflected in the name of the village where some of the witches executed were first examined, which was properly called 'Fence.'

Chronological considerations are also important. They show that witch trials did not begin in England until the sixteenth century, peaking in the seventeenth, and that they occurred in societies where economic and social relations were being reshaped by the growing importance of the market, and where impoverishment and rising inequalities were rampant, all becoming harrowing in the 1580–1620 period, when, under the impact of the silver coming from South America, the prices of grain and other agricultural goods began to rise.

Older women were most affected by these developments, for the combination of rising prices and the loss of customary rights left them with nothing to live on, especially if they were widows or had no children capable of or willing to help them. In the rural economy of the English manorial society, widows and poor people in general had been provided for.

As Keith Thomas has written in Religion and the Decline of Magic:

The old manorial system had done much to cater for widows and elderly people by a built-in system of poor relief. The widow enjoyed the right of free-bench, that is, of succession to a portion of her late husband's holding, ranging from a quarter to the whole, according to local manorial custom. Should she be incapable of cultivating it herself, she could surrender it to a younger member of the family in return for a guarantee of maintenance. ... [There] were also various local customary privileges of the poor, varying from the right of three days of gleaning before the stubble was given over to pasture ... to permission to sleep in the church if they had no other accommodation.

Peter Linebaugh has also shown that since the Magna Carta, and in particular the Charter of the Forest of 1215, the widow's right to 'estovers,' that is, the right to food, wood, and sustenance, was guaranteed. But with the loss of customary rights this too was forfeited, at the very time when the Reformation and the new commercial spirit forbade the giving and receiving of charity, begging being allowed in England only upon concession of a license by the justices of the peace.

Not surprisingly, many so-called witches were poor women, who survived on begging from door to door or lived off the 'poor rates,' as the first system of welfare introduced in England was called. Even the crimes imputed to them demonstrate that that they were part of a peasant population that no longer had access to land or customary rights and could be expected to resent their neighbors' possessions, beginning with their animals, which may have been grazing on land that had once been a common. Significantly, at least one-third of the charges recorded by C. L'Estrange Ewen relative to the Home Circuit for the period between 1563 and 1603 were for bewitchment of pigs, cows, horses, geldings, and mares, several to death. As I wrote in Caliban and the Witch, the poverty of the 'witches' was noted in the accusations, as it was said that the Devil came to them in times of need and promised them that from that point onward "they should never want," presumably offering "meat, clothes, and money" and payment of their debts.

Poverty, however, was not the immediate cause of witchcraft charges

Two other factors contributed to the making of a witch. First, witches were not only victims. They were women who resisted their impoverishment and social exclusion. They threatened, cast reproachful looks, and cursed those who refused them help; some made nuisances of themselves by sudden, uninvited appearances on their better-off neighbors' doorsteps or made uncalled for attempts to have themselves accepted by giving small gifts to children. Those who prosecuted them charged them with being quarrelsome, with having an evil tongue, with stirring up trouble among their neighbors, charges that historians have often accepted. But we may wonder if behind the threats and the evil words we should not read a resentment born of anger at the injustice suffered and a rejection of marginalization.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments v

Introduction 1

Part 1 Revisiting Capital Accumulation and the European Witch Hunt

1 Midsommervisen "Vi elsker vort land" 8

2 Why Speak of the Witch Hunts Again? 11

3 Witch Hunts, Enclosures, and the Demise of Communal Property Relations 15

4 Witch-Hunting and the Fear of the Power of Women 24

5 On the Meaning of 'Gossip' 35

Part 2 New Forms of Capital Accumulation and Witch-Hunting in Our Time

6 Globalization, Capital Accumulation, and Violence against Women: An International and Historical Perspective 46

7 Witch-Hunting, Globalization, and Feminist Solidarity in Africa Today 60

Conclusion 87

Bibliography 89

Index 98

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