Capitalism, Class Struggle and Misogyny

Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation - Silvia Federici

Anyone who knows me knows I have an interest in both magic and women’s rights, making me the ideal audience for this historical analysis of the effects of and motivations driving the witch-hunts. I was not disappointed. This book is beautifully illustrated and a well researched and referenced account that taught me many things I had not known before and reinforced things I already knew or believed.


It places the rise of misogyny within the class struggle as a direct result of the divide and conquer rule duplicated in the colonies. While the text looks mostly at Europe it does draw comparisons with the New World and modern problems in Asia and Africa.


It’s well written and apart from the too small text, is easy to understand. It strays into academia, but even for the lay person there is plenty to enjoy. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested even slightly in sexual or class politics and/or activism.


The rest of the review will include things I learned from reading the book, so if you prefer no spoilers stop reading now.


In the 14th century, after the Black Death created a massive underpopulation problem, workers were able to demand higher wages and better working conditions than ever before. In response the ruling class in Europe took steps to crush lower class solidarity and deal with the population decline. What they did had a massive negative impact on women’s lives throughout the classes, but particularly that of working class women. It was at this time that non-productive sex, including homosexuality, was proscribed, using methods that led to levels of homophobia, which continue to this day. At the same time rape was decriminalised and state funded brothels were established. The use of contraception was banned, and more women were charged in the 16th and 17th centuries for infanticide than any other crime except witchcraft (a crime that also centred around the killing of children).


The land enclosures (privatisation of previously commonly held ground) of the 15th and 16th centuries were followed by social enclosures. In the 16th century public gatherings of workers and festivals were outlawed in a deliberate move to destroy community solidarity. Those who bemoan the lack of community in the 21st century can trace its roots back to this time.


It was believed that female midwives could not be trusted not to cover up abortions and still births and there was a shift to male doctors attending births. Midwives in France and Germany had to become spies for the state if they wanted to continue their practice. In the case of medical emergency, saving the fetus was prioritised over the life of the mother.


Women in the 16th and 17th centuries lost the right to make contracts or represent themselves in court. They were declared legal “imbeciles”. In Germany women were forbidden to live alone or with other women, even with their own families. In Italy women were expelled from the streets. Unaccompanied women risked ridicule or sexual assault. English women were discouraged from spending time with female friends. The term gossip originally meant female friend.


In the colonies, in Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia, 1675 – 76, African slaves and British indentured servants joined together to conspire against their masters. To crush such rebellions racial hierarchies were deliberately constructed and laws were passed depriving Africans of previously granted civic rights such as citizenship, the right to bear arms, the right to make a deposition or seek redress at tribunal. A move mirroring the stripping of legal status in European women at the same time. Slavery was made a hereditary condition and slaves masters were given the right to beat and kill their slaves. Marriages between blacks and whites were forbidden.


In addition to these politically created and motivated divisions between groups of people based on gender or race the ruling classes and intelligentsia of 16th and 17th centuries also spent time and energy seeking to divide body and reason in individuals, so that man might dominate his natural instincts through will. Women, working class men and people of non-European descent were considered inferior and unable to behave according to reason. These had to be managed by the state rather than trusted to manage their own behaviour as were higher class white men.


With all this in the background – the divisions, the mistrust of nature, the population decline and the violent conquering of the New World, it is easy to see what Federici argues, that witch-hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of early capitalism, AND, a fear of the power women gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction and their ability to heal. These women were persecuted, tortured and killed, not for “socially recognised crimes, but previously accepted practices and groups of individuals that had to be eradicated from the community by terror and criminalization.” “Their claim to magical power undermined the power of the authorities and the state, giving confidence to the poor and their ability to manipulate the natural and social environment and possibly subvert the constituted order.”


Women who used contraception, had sex outside marriage, beggars and rebellious women who argued or swore were put on trial for witchcraft. Women were stripped, all their hair shaved off, pricked all over and internally with long needles, often raped, limbs torn, seated in iron chairs with fires lit beneath, bones crushed, then once the confession was extracted publicly hung or burnt. The entire community was forced to watch the execution, including the witch’s children. Daughters were sometimes stripped and whipped in front of the stake while their mother was burning alive. Homosexual men were sometimes used as kindling for the stakes upon which witches were burned. The term faggot originates from this gruesome history. In 1604, England, James I introduced the death penalty for anyone who used spirits or magic even if they caused no visible harm. Ironically, perhaps, the one exclusion was male practitioners of High Magic, which was considered a science.


The persecution and eradication of female healers through the witch-trials allowed for the rise of professional medicine, unaffordable and inaccessible to the lower classes. Francis Bacon’s concept of the scientific investigation of nature was modelled on the interrogation of witches, portraying nature as a woman to be conquered, unveiled and raped. In this way Capitalist exploitation of the natural world and the exploitation of women can be shown to be closely linked.


The witch-hunts ended in Europe (excluding Scotland) in the early 18th century. The intelligentsia began to rewrite the history of the witch-trials as the product of Medieval superstition. As the witch-hunts died down arrests for damage to property and assault rose. In Paris in 1871 the new witch-hunt was against the petroleuses. If a woman was poorly dressed and carrying a basket, box or milk bottle that was enough for her to be suspected, and in this way hundreds of women were summarily executed while the press vilified them in the papers.


Witch-hunting continued as a tool of colonisation and globalism. Witch-trials happened in Western India in the 1840s and in the 1980s – 1990s in Kenya, Nigeria and Cameroon when the International Monetary Fund imposed a policy of structural adjustment, requiring the privatisation of commonly held land and communal resources, leading to mass impoverishment.


So yeah, the book is not comfortable reading, but for those who want to know more it is well worth getting hold of, and the wood cut prints illustrations are wonderful. 5/5 stars.