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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/6/09

Who Were the Witches? - Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism

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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, before the Enclosures, 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 away 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 reveals 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 of impoverishment by driving a sexist wedge into the working class that "undermined class solidarity," making it more difficult for communities to resist displacement from their land (48). 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 labelled "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 all across Europe, 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.

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Alex Knight is a proponent of the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway. He is (more...)
 
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