History of the Witch Hunts

I’ve mentioned Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch in this space before. Well, I was reading it, put it down several weeks ago, and got distracted. I just recently picked it up again, and got to some very meaty analysis on the origins and effects of the Great Witch-Hunt in Europe. From the text:

In this “century of geniuses” — Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes — a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European cultural elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.

This is an important historical fact. The ubiquity of “the witch problem,” even among the intelligentsia, indicates deep cultural, social, and political undercurrents. For Federici, this fact indicates that “there can be no doubt … that the witch-hunt was a major political initiative” as opposed to a religious or theological initiative. She does not minimize the role of the church in the witch-hunts, but points out that “at its peak, the secular courts conducted most of the trials, while in the areas where the Inquisition operated (Italy and Spain) the number of executions remained comparatively low.”

In addition, it seems to me that the very division between political power and religious power is a blurry one. I’m not sure this distinction is so easy to make, though Federici’s point about the political nature of the witch hunts is well-taken.

To further illustrate her point that the witch-hunts were more political than religious, Federici writes that

both Catholic and Protestant nations, at war against each other in every other respect, joined arms and shared arguments to persecute witches. Thus, it is no exaggeration to claim that the witch-hunt was the first unifying terrain in the politics of the new European nation-states, the first example, after the schism brought about by the Reformation, of a European unification. For, crossing all boundaries, the witch-hunt spread from France and Italy to Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and Sweden.

It is no accident that this same period in history saw the dawn of capitalism and the brutalities of primitive accumulation and enclosure. The populace had to be controlled, subdued by fear or terror, and shown what it is necessary for them to do in order to survive. Federici concludes that

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.

Many people will read this and dismiss it as more propaganda. But the facts are there; untold thousands of people were tortured and murdered, vast tracts of land changed hands in terms of property, and “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.”

Popular control through fear will not be unfamiliar to those of us who pay attention to the rhetoric of the BuShites. Fear and Uncertainty are sowed into the popular consciousness, fear of Things With Scary Names: Witches. Today’s Witches are of course Terrorists. In both cases, precise definitions of what qualifies one as a witch/terrorist are murky and ambiguous. The laws shifted then, as they have today, to make it easier for the authorities to prosecute witches:

That the charges in the trials often referred to events that had occured decades earlier, that witchcraft was made a crimen exceptum, that is, a crime to be investigated by special means, torture included, and it was punishable even in the absence of any proven damage to persons and things — all these factors indicate that the target of the witch-hunt — (as it is often true with political repression in times of intense social change and conflict) — were not socially recognized crimes, but previously accepted practices and groups of individuals that had to be eradicated from the community, through terror and criminalization. In this sense, the charge of witchcraft performed a function similar to that performed by … the charge of “terrorism” in our times. The very vagueness of the charge — the fact that it was impossible to prove it, while at the same time it evoked the maximum of horror — meant that it could be used to punish any form of protest and to generate suspicion even towards the most ordinary aspects of daily life.

So apart from the resonance of that time with our own time, these insights give me a deeper understanding of the political machinations at work in general. It is oversimplistic to say “it’s capitalism’s fault” or “it’s the Church’s fault” or anything else; but there can be no doubt that power relations are at work, and those with power will always move toward attempts to increase power, and attempts of one group to increase power usually means reducing the power of the other group.

One must remember that the Witch Hunts were concurrent with the enclosure movements, where thousands of peasants were displaced from common lands and forced to enter the money economy as wageslaves in the birth of our glorified capitalist economy. It was a violent time; repression was systematic. And in every repressive state, there is an archetype of fear brought into the foreground to blame it all on. People were taught to fear the witches, and even more tragically, people were taught to fear being a witch.

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