Feminist interpretations of the Early Modern witch trials

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various feminist interpretations of the witch trials have been made and published.

First and second wave[edit]

One of the earliest individuals to do so was the American Matilda Joslyn Gage, a writer who was deeply involved in the first-wave feminist movement for women's suffrage. In 1893, she published the book Woman, Church and State, which was "written in a tearing hurry and in time snatched from a political activism which left no space for original research."[1] Likely influenced by the works of Jules Michelet about the Witch-Cult, she claimed that the witches persecuted in the Early Modern period were pagan priestesses adhering to an ancient religion venerating a Great Goddess. She also repeated the erroneous statement, taken from the works of several German authors, that nine million people had been killed in the witch hunt.[1]

In 1973, two American second-wave feminists, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, published an extended pamphlet in which they asserted that the women persecuted had been the traditional healers and midwives of the community who were being deliberately eliminated by the male medical establishment.[2] This theory disregarded the fact that the majority of those persecuted were neither healers nor midwives and that in various parts of Europe these individuals were commonly among those encouraging the persecutions.[3] Although they had initially self-published the work, they received such a positive response that the Feminist Press took over publication, and the work then began worldwide distribution, being translated into French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Danish and Japanese.[4] However, Ehrenreich and English had to correct some issues with their sources and evidence in the 2010 reprint of their book. Ehrenreich and English had cited Margaret Murray, who has since then been widely discredited, as one of their sources. Even though most female witches were likely to have been Christian, Murray's influence led Ehrenreich and English to believe that witches were part of a pagan religion.[5]

Other feminist historians have rejected this interpretation of events; historian Diane Purkiss described it as "not politically helpful" because it constantly portrays women as "helpless victims of patriarchy" and thus does not aid them in contemporary feminist struggles.[6] She also condemned it for factual inaccuracy by highlighting that radical feminists adhering to it ignore the historicity of their claims, instead promoting it because it is perceived as authorizing the continued struggle against patriarchal society.[7] She asserted that many radical feminists nonetheless clung to it because of its "mythic significance" and firmly delineated structure between the oppressor and the oppressed.[3] Furthermore, Purkiss criticized the popular radical feminist belief that women have been continuously oppressed throughout history. Purkiss claims that radical feminists take an ahistorical stance that values emotional involvement and engagement over the rules of evidence.[8] Purkiss attributes the myth of the burning times to a shift in the women's movement that steered away from a focus on rights and towards the topic of sexual and domestic violence since the latter are seen as the representative crimes of the patriarchy. As a result, the new site of women's oppression became their sexuality.[9]

"Nine million women"[edit]

A figure of nine million victims (or "nine million women" killed) in the European witch-hunts is an influential popular myth in 20th-century feminism and neopaganism. The nine million figure is ultimately due to Gottfried Christian Voigt. The history of this estimate was researched by Behringer (1998).[10]

Voigt published it in a 1784 article, writing in the context of the Age of Enlightenment, wishing to emphasize the importance of education in rooting out superstition and a relapse into the witch-craze which had subsided less than a lifetime ago in his day. He was criticizing Voltaire's estimate of "several hundred thousand" as too low. Voigt based his estimate on twenty cases recorded over fifty years in the archives Quedlinburg, Germany. Based on records of the 20-year period 1569 to 1589, he estimated about 40 executions in this period, and extrapolated to about 133 executions per century.[11] Voigt then extrapolated this number to the entire population of Europe, arriving at "858,454 per century" and for an assumed 11 centuries of witch-hunts at "9,442,994 people" in total.[12] Voigt's number was rounded off to nine million by Gustav Roskoff in his 1869 Geschichte des Teufels ("History of the Devil"). It was subsequently repeated by various German and English historians, notably the 19th-century women's rights campaigner Matilda Joslyn Gage[13][14] by Margaret Murray (1921), and notoriously in Nazi propaganda, which in the 1930s used witches as a symbol of northern völkisch culture, as opposed to Mediterranean or "Semitic" Christianity. The 1935 Der christliche Hexenwahn ("The Christian Witch Craze") claimed that the witch-hunts were a Christian, and thus ultimately Jewish, attempt to exterminate "Aryan womanhood". The survey of judicial records taken by Himmler's Hexen-Sonderkommando within the SS has proven useful for modern estimates of the number of victims.[15] Mathilde Ludendorff in her 1934 Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen ("Christian cruelty against German women") also repeated the figure of nine million victims.[16]

Curiously, not only the nine million estimate of Voigt's has proven influential, but his estimate of "133 Quedlinburg executions per century" also has an involved history, appearing as the claim that 133 witches being burnt in the year 1589 alone in Geschichte der Hexenprozesse (1880, revised 1910), and even as a mass execution of 133 witches on a single day in Quedlinburg in Gustav Roskoff, Geschichte des Teufels (1869, p. 304). Reference to this supposed mass-execution as factual was made as late as 2006 in the third edition of Brian P. Levack's The Witch Hunt in Modern Europe (p. 24). Reference to an alleged execution of 133 witches in Osnabrück as factual appears as late as 2007 in John Michael Cooper, Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis night: the heathen muse in European culture, 1700–1850 (p. 15).[17]

Apparently, Voigt's estimate of the "average number of executions per century in Quedlinburg" happened to coincide with the number of victims in a spurious report of a singular mass execution in a single day in Osnabrück distributed in the late 1580s. References to this supposed mass execution as factual is also found in 19th-century literature, sometimes together with the claim that the four prettiest of those condemned were lifted out of the flames and carried away through the air before they were burned.[18] Finally, Roskoff (1869) seems to have mixed up "133 executions on a day in Osnabrück" with "133 executions per century in Quedlinburg" to arrive at "133 executions on a day in Quedlinburg". The Osnabrück report seems to originate with a flyer first distributed in 1588, claiming an execution of 133 witches on a single day in "this year". The flyer was later reprinted, in 1589 and during the 1590s, with the reported event always kept as occurring in "this year". This sensationalist headline perhaps reflects the historical mass execution in Osnabrück of 121 witches during the summer of 1583 (in the course of about five months, not on a single day), the highest number of executions by far recorded for any year in this city (Pohl 1990).[19]

Silvia Federici[edit]

Silvia Federici has recently given another radical feminist insight into the witch hunt process in her book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, published in 2004[20][21]. Her book investigates the transition phase to capitalism, and brings evidence that the process happened in parallel with the Inclosure Acts which deprived women of economic autonomy by retrieving access to commons lands in the transition to a capitalist economy[22][23].

Caliban and The Witch[edit]

In her book Caliban and the Witch (2004), Silvia Federici argues that the witch-hunts were historical events through which occurred the transformation of women's bodies into “work machines” for the reproduction of the workforce, a necessary precondition of a shift from the subsistence to the monetary economy. She remarks that the period the witch-hunts happened in the world history took place at the same time with the conquest of America, beginning of the History of slavery, and expropriation of the peasantry; which all indicate the rise of capitalism. In her view, the witch-hunt was the forgotten piece of the historical puzzle of the emergence of capitalism.

Theoretical background[edit]

As opposed to Marx’s claim, according to Federici, the historical shift from a subsistence economy (production-for-use) to a capitalism (production-for-profit) has not caused a liberation of the working class from scarcity and necessity, but the other way around, the economy has become subject to wage labor exploitation, unpaid work of women, and degradation of environmental nature. Because the burden of the structural change in economic relations and the production with enclosures in the first phase of capitalist development had stood mostly by women, they were the ones who tried to save their lands, social position, and subsistence-oriented agriculture practices. However, governments in Europe, by passing a law that introduced a new crime, i.e. the accusation of witchcraft —a crimen exceptum equal to high treason— they attempted to silence the resistance of women and any other alternative solutions to feudalism other than capitalism. Besides, it allowed primitive accumulation by taking the capacities available for social production as granted, and treated them as free and infinitely available gifts, in the same way how the capitalist system would treat nature.

Federici has expanded the Marxist analysis of the birth of capitalism by including the change in the social position of women and the production of labor-power. The stress is given to the fact that the division of labor is highly gendered. The new sexual division of labor has developed itself with subjugating women's labor, and women's reproductive function to produce labor-force; the undervaluation and subordination of women by excluding them from waged work; and in association with the mechanization of workforce, women's body has also been started to perceived as machines to produce new workers. Federici and many scholars argue that the sexual division of labor with the control of women's body is the precondition to produce the surplus value. The social reproductive theory [24] mainly argues that capitalism exploits women's labor outside the workplace through their invisible, flexible, and unpaid labor.

Besides the structural changes in the spheres of reproduction and in the terrain of the relation between men and women, Federici argues that the shift coming with all the means and tools of capital accumulation was an attract to communal mutual aid. Being midwives, their capabilities of healing practices to cure people with herbs and their knowledge of the properties of plants and roots had given them a position in society. With infra-politics of capitalism, the attack on the healer resulted in that the communal production and survival skills were taken away from the society, which had changed the structure of mutual aid, if not eliminated it completely.

The second scholar which Silvia Federici criticizes is Michel Foucault, and she does this through three points. First, before Michel Foucault, feminist activists and theorists understanding of the body were taken as the substantial factor since the early 1970s to analyze the positions of male and female in society avant la lettre. Second, Michel Foucault argues that in modern society, physical violence has declined, and given its place to Psychological abuse.[25] By beginning her analysis from [witch-hunts] and giving contemporary examples, she has put emphasize on ongoing violence against women with colonial means of domination of men, which is omitted in Michel Foucault's analysis. Third, she criticizes him for writing the “The History of Sexuality” (1978) from a “universal, abstract, asexual subject” [26] which enabled him to completely omit a historical event of gendered violence as big as the witch-hunt.

Historical Background[edit]

After the Black Death (1347-1351) drastically reduced the working population in Europe, it was increasingly difficult for feudal lords to control and discipline the peasants. Because of the scarcity of peasants capable of work, the ones who did work developed strategies against the corrupted lords such as leaving the harvest to rot or simply not finishing the work. This was possible due to the subsistence economy in which the work was being paid for with products and the right to work on the land, not with money like in the monetary economy. They grew their own food and were not dependent on money for buying basic materials. It was also a solidarity economy in which women would share labor, such as care work, in between themselves, parallel to sharing work with men, such as working in the field. This division was a source of emancipation rather than the opposite because it enabled them to have autonomy over their work, as well as over their bodies. Women played a big political role in these societies. When the monetary economy was introduced, only men were entitled to receive payment, after which began the marginalization of women's labor from the economical and political realms of the society.

The majority of witch hunts occurred between 1500 and 1650, with a peak around the 1620, according to Federici. It was the time when the ideology of Mercantilism shaped the perceptions of European elites. Having a big labor force was a necessary precondition to having a successful economy. In the context of the aftermath of the Black Death, the question of population control was obvious to them, so began the “demographic recording, census-taking, and the formalization of demography itself as the first ‘state science’”.[27]. Finding a way of systematically increasing the size of the labor force was an important political goal for the ruling class and the nascent bourgeoisie.

The way to systematically increase the size of the labor force was to gain control over the reproduction of society. Women were through this lens seen only as wombs that produce children who will enter the labor force. To gain this control the states used “multi-media propaganda to generate a mass psychosis among the population.” .[28]. This propaganda machine included names such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin [24], but also many other government officials who traveled the countries and spread the propaganda about witches. The state also used the policing apparatus and methods created by the Inquisition in the previous centuries. They successfully sowed distrust which disintegrated small societies. Their main target was lower class women which nevertheless had knowledges that were of crucial importance for the autonomy and integrity of their societies. Knowledge such as healing, birth control, and midwifery came in direct opposition to the state interests and the new mechanical paradigm. Most of these women were hunted down, put through unfair trials, and brutally murdered.

One of the ways to gain control over the reproductive force of the population was to put the practices of midwifery under a strict state control. Many of the witches were also midwifes or “wise women”, and traditionally the practices of midwifery and obstetrics were exclusive to women until the 16th and 17th century. In the 16th century there was a new precondition to being a midwife — the woman had to demonstrate beforehand that she was a “good Catholic” [29]. In the 17th century there began to appear the first male midwives and “within a century, obstetrics has come almost entirely under state control.” [30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hutton 1999. p. 141.
  2. ^ Purkiss, Diane. ‘’A Holocaust of One’s Own: The Myth of the Burning Times.’’ Chap. In The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations. New York: Routledge, 1966. 19-20.; Hutton 1999, p. 342.
  3. ^ a b Purkiss, Diane. ‘’A Holocaust of One’s Own: The Myth of the Burning Times.’’ Chap. In The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations. New York: Routledge, 1966. 8.
  4. ^ Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers. New York City: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2010. pp. 12–13.
  5. ^ Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers. New York City: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2010. pp. 16.
  6. ^ Purkiss, Diane. ‘’A Holocaust of One’s Own: The Myth of the Burning Times.’’ Chap. In The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations. New York: Routledge, 1966. 17.
  7. ^ Purkiss, Diane. ‘’A Holocaust of One’s Own: The Myth of the Burning Times.’’ Chap. In The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations. New York: Routledge, 1966. 11, 16.
  8. ^ Purkiss, Diane. ‘’A Holocaust of One’s Own: The Myth of the Burning Times.’’ Chap. In The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations. New York: Routledge, 1966. 11.
  9. ^ Purkiss, Diane. ‘’A Holocaust of One’s Own: The Myth of the Burning Times.’’ Chap. In The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations. New York: Routledge, 1966. 15.
  10. ^ Hutton, Ronald. Triumph of the Moon. p. 141.; (in German) Behringer, Wolfgang: Neun Millionen Hexen. Enstehung, Tradition und Kritik eines populären Mythos, in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 49. 1987, pp. 664–685, extensive summary on [1]
  11. ^ Nach diesem Verhältnis würden in jedem Jahrhundert in Quedlinburg 133 Personen als Hexen verbrannt worden seyn. [2][3]
  12. ^ [4]Behringer (1998)
  13. ^ Gage, Matilda Joslyn (1893). Woman, Church and State.
  14. ^ Poole, Robert (ed.) (2003) The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-6204-7. p. 192.
  15. ^ The records of the survey were re-discovered in Poland by German historian Gerhard Schormann in 1981.
  16. ^ Michael David Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe pp. 236–238
  17. ^ Cooper cites Annemarie Dross, Die erste Walpurgisnacht: Hexenverfolgung in Deutschland (1978), p. 171 and Soldan, Heppe and Bauer, Die Geschichte der Hexenprozesse (1900, revised edition of Soldan's 1843 work), vol. 1, p. 514.
  18. ^ Wilhelm Havemann, Geschichte der Lande Braunschweig und Lüneburg für Schule und Haus, 1838, 86f.
  19. ^ An inscription in the Osnabrück Marienkirche dated 1591 records 121 witches burned in 1583, compared to a total of 44 over the period of 1584 to 1590. Sabine Wehking, Die Inschriften der Stadt Osnabrück, Wiesbaden 1988, 135–141 (Nr. 162).
  20. ^ "Les trois livres de la semaine : la sélection du « Monde des livres »". Le Monde.fr (in French). Retrieved 2018-01-28.
  21. ^ Federici, Silvia (2017-06-30). Caliban And The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York, NY: Autonomedia. ISBN 9781570270598.
  22. ^ "Silvia Federici, On capitalism, colonialism, women and food politics". Politics and Culture. 2009-11-03. Retrieved 2018-01-28.
  23. ^ "January 2018 (Volume 69, Number 8) | The Editors | Monthly Review". Monthly Review. 2018-01-01. Retrieved 2018-01-28.
  24. ^ a b [ https://marxismocritico.com/2017/10/17/what-is-social-reproduction-theory/]
  25. ^ https://non.copyriot.com/maria-mies-silvia-federici-and-biopower/
  26. ^ Federici, 2004: 16
  27. ^ Federici, 2004: 182
  28. ^ Federici, 2004: 168
  29. ^ Federici, 2004:183
  30. ^ Federici, 2004: 183-184