The History of Witchhunts and Their Relevance to the Present Day

Readers: I’m sorry this is a bit later in the morning than I would have wished; I’m still struggling to get my Windows laptop to do what I want when I want it.

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (PDF) is a wonderful and beautifully written study of the witchhunts that occurred in Europe during the transition from the feudal to the capitalist order. Here’s a summary of the thesis of the work:

Federici considers the killing of witches as foundational of a capitalist system that domesticates women, imposing on them the reproduction of the workforce as forced labor without any remuneration. It is in the mode of development of this reproductive work that Federici locates a central terrain of struggle for the women’s movement. …

In Caliban and the Witch Federici asks fundamental questions about this emblematic figure of the female: why does capitalism, since its beginning, need to wage war against these women? Why is the witch-hunt one of the most brutal and least recorded massacres of history? What is supposed to be eliminated when these women are condemned to the stake? Why is it possible to draw a parallel between them and the black slaves of the plantations in America?

I’m not going to summarize or defend the thesis of the book myself, mostly because I don’t feel capable of it, or (yet) comfortable doing so. (I took the book to be a work of 70s feminism, but my bad: It was published in 2004, and Federici’s work is informed by her work in Nigeria on “the commons,” a concept not available to 70s feminists, sadly, because that meant there was no way to think about the enclosures, including access to herbal contraceptives in the commons. See NC on “common pool resources” here.)

So all I can do is ask you to read the book, or at least dip into it below, and to judge the thesis, and Federici’s scholarship, for yourself. And if words like “terrain of struggle,” or [gasp] “Marxist” [gasp] “feminist,” cause you discomfort, all I can do is tell you that bankers quote Lenin with aplomb. (Here is a review that puts Federici’s scholarship in context.) However, I find the story Federici tells compelling, and I feel that many of her ideas have great resonsance in the present day. So I’m going to quote great slabs from the work, first on primitive accumulation, second on the peasant revolts of the 14th century, and lastly on the witchhunts, all as a means of bringing the lens of history to bear on the present day.

Primitive Accumulation

I always like to think of “primitive accumulation” as an example of very dry humor; an armed gentleman appears in a Mad Max-like technical, primitively accumulates your harvest, and thirty years later you’re a peasant and they’re a Lord (see under “Ceremony, Aquatic, Farcical”). Too simple, I know, but primitive, very primitive. Then again, the process I just described is rather like law enforcement for profit in Ferguson, isn’t it? Which suggests that primitive accumulation hasn’t just occurred in the past, as part of some sort of “take off,” but continues to occur to this very day. From the Preface (pages 11-12):

“Primitive accumulation” is the term that Marx uses, in Capital Vol. 1, to characterize the historical process upon which the development of capitalist relations was premised. It is a useful term, for it provides a common denominator through which we can conceptualize the changes that the advent of capitalism produced in economic and social relations. But its importance lies, above all, in the fact that “primitive accumulation” is treated by Marx as a foundational process, revealing the structural conditions for the existence of capitalist society. This enables us to read the past as something which survives into the present …

However, my analysis departs from Marx’s in two ways. Whereas Marx examines primitive accumulation from the viewpoint of the waged male proletariat and the development of commodity production, I examine it from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the social position of women and the production of labor-power. …

(I omitted a lot of technical material here, not because I disagree with it, but for brevity; and I urge you to read the book.)

My analysis also departs from Marx’s in its evaluation of the legacy and function of primitive accumulation. Though Marx was acutely aware of the murderous character of capitalist development – its history, he declared, “is written in the annals of humanity in characters of fire and blood” – there can be no doubt that he viewed it as a necessary step in the process of human liberation. He believed that it disposed of small-scale property, and that it increased (to a degree unmatched by any other economic system) the productive capacity of labor, thus creating the material conditions for the liberation of humanity from scarcity and necessity. He also assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations, when the exploitation and disciplining of labor would be accomplished mostly through the workings of economic laws (Marx 1909 Vol. 1). In this, he was deeply mistaken. A return of the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalise globalization, including the present one.

I think Federici’s insight here is important: We — that is, I suppose, we readers — tend to assume that matters progress; teleology is deeply embedded in how we think of political economy. As Martin Luther King says: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Federici puts that assumption into play; the most primitive forms of primitive accumulation persist today, and might even be thought of as the “default setting,” a low energy state to which the system reverts when more sophisticated configurations fail.

For example, it really is possible to “buy a guy” even today, whether the slaving is done in Southeast Asia or in Florida, in these United States. Of course, that’s not to denigrate the work of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, or, for that matter, the effects of our own Civil War in ending the slave power that sought to perpetuate itself through the Confederacy. It is to say that the arc of history does not “bend”; it is bent, contested, by us — and not always as a humane sensibility would wish. And we might also think of outright looting by elites — as in the massive accounting control frauds before the Crash of 2008 — as a form of primitive accumulation. “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,”as Balzac is said to have remarked. These crimes bend the arc of history too.

The Peasant Wars and Wages and Working Conditons in the 14th Century

From Chapter 2, “All the World Needs a Jolt,” and the section entitled “The Black Death and the Labor Crisis,” (page 45 et seq.):

“Now is the time” – the sentence that recurs in the letters of John Ball [the intellectual leader of the English peasant revolt of 1381] – well illustrates the spirit of the European proletariat at the close of the 14th century, a time when, in Florence, the wheel of fortune was beginning to appear on the walls of taverns and work-shops, to symbolize the inuninent change of lot.

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. By the 15th century the confrontation between the peasants and the nobility turned into true wars, like that of the remensas in Spain, that lasted from 1462 to 1486. In Germany a cycle of “peasant wars” began in 1476 with the conspiracy led Hans the Piper. This escalated into four bloody rebellions led by Bundschuch (“Peasant Union”) between 1493 and 1517, and culminating in a full-fledged war that lasted from 1522 to 1525, spreading over four countries (Engels 1977; Blickle 1977).

In all these cases, the rebels did not content themselves with demanding some restrictions to feudal rule, nor did they only bargain for better living conditions. Their aim was to put an end to the power of the lords. As the English peasants declared during the Peasant Rising of 1381, “the old law must be abolished.” Indeed, by the beginning of the 15th century, in England at least, serfdom or villeinage had almost completely disappeared, though the revolt had been politicaUy and militarily defeated and its leaders brutaUy executed (Titow 1969: 58).

What followed has been described as the “golden age of the European proletariat” (Marx 1909, Vol.l; Braudel 1967: 128ff.), a far cry from the canonic representation of the 15th cencury, which has been iconographically immortalized as a world under the spell of the dance of death and mememto mori.

Thorold Rogers has painted a utopian image of this period in his famous study of wages and living conditions in medieval England. “At no time,” Rogers wrote, “were wages [in England] so high and food so cheap” (Rogers 1894: 32611). … As we shall see, there are reasons to be skeptica1 about the extent of this cornucopia. However, for a broad section of the western European peasantry, and for urban workers, the 15th century was a period of unprecedented power. … [T]he scandal of the high wages the workers demanded was only matched, in the eyes of the employers, by the new arrogance they displayed the eyes of the employers…. “Servants are now masters and masters are servants, complained John Gower in Mirour de lomme (1378).

What this meant for the European proletariat was not only the achievement of
a standard of living that remained unparalleled until the 19th century, but the demise of serfdom.

Now, my point here is not to look on the bright side of the Black Death (and since disease follows war, we might consider that the peasant wars and the plague potentiated each other). Rather, I want to point to the agency of the peasants and artisans, who clearly didn’t accept that “there is no alternative” to serfdom. Further, the peasants “won,” in the sense that in England, at least, “the old law was abolished,” and that therefore we, today, don’t have to take income distribution, or more generally, the nature and ownership of wealth, as a given. That is, the arc of history was bent. Finally, however, there are many generations of declining and impoverished conditions between the 15th century and the 19th; the arc of history was bent back. The next section, about the witchhunts, describes the beginning of that process.

The Witchhunt as a Tool of Social Control

It has been said that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But they don’t do everything differently; after all, foreign isn’t the same as alien. As you read what follows, I’m sure the parallels between the witchhunts and the “Global War on Terror” will leap to your eye, along with many other features and behaviors of our elites and the current political class.

From the chapter entitled “The Great Witchhunt in Europe” (164 et seq):

What has not been recognized is that the witch-hunt was one of the most important events in the development of capitalist society and the formation of the modern proletariat. For the unleashing of a campaign of terror against women, unmatched by any other persecution, weakened the resistance of the European peasantry to the assault launched against it by the gentry and the state, at a time when the peasant community was already disintegrating under the combined impact of land privatization, increased taxation, and the extension of state control over every aspect of social life. The witchbunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power women, and destroyed a universe of practices, beliefs, and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with the capitalist work discipline, thus redefining the main elements of social reproduction. In this sense, … the witch-hunt was an essential aspect of primitive accumulation and the “ttansition” to capitalism. …

[T]he witch-hunt was not the last spark of a dying feudal world. It is well established that the “superstitious” Middle Ages did not persecute any witches; the very concept of “witchcraft” did not take shape until the late Middle Ages, and never, in the “Dark Ages,” were there mass trials and executions. Despite the fact that magic permeated daily life and, since the late Roman Empire, it had been feared by the ruling class as a tool of insubordination among the slaves. …

The mechanisms of the persecution confirm that the witch-hunt was not a spontaneous process, “a movement from below to which the ruling and administrative classes were obliged to respond” (Larner 1983: 1). As Christina Lamer has shown in the case of Scotland, a witch-hunt required much official organization and administration. Before neighbor accused neighbor, or entire communities were seized by a “panic,” a steady indoctrination took place, with the authorities publicly expressing anxiety about the spreading of witches, and travelling from village to village in order to teach people how to recognize them, in some cases carrying with them lists with the names of suspected witches and threatening to punish those who hid them or came to their assistance (Larner 1983: 2).

The witch-hunt was also the first persecution in Europe that made use of multi-media propaganda to generate a mass psychosis among the population. Alerting the public to the dangers posed by the witches, through pamphlets publicizing the most famous trials and the details of their atrocious deeds, was one of the first tasks of the printing press (Mandrou 1968: 136). … 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 intellectual 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.

There can be no doubt, then, that the witch-hunt was a major political initiative. … It is signicant that, in England, most of the witch tnals occurred in Essex, where in the 16th century the bulk of the land had been enclosed, while in those regions of the British Isles where land privatization had neither occurred nor was on the agenda have no record of witch-hunting. … That the spread of rural capitalism, with all its consequences (land expropriation, the deepening of social distances, the breakdown of collective relations) was a decisive fact in the background of the witch-hunt is also proven by the fact that the majority of those accused were poor peasant women – cortars, wage laborers – while those who accused them were wealthy and prestigious members of the community, often their employers or landlords, that is, individuals who were part of the local power structures and often had close ties with the central State. Only as the persecution progressed, and the fear of witches (as well as the fear of being accused of witchcraft, or of “subversive association”) was sowed among the population, did accusations also come from neighbors. ….

More important, in instigating the witch-hunt, was the need of the European elites to eradicate an entire mode of existence which, by the late Middle Age, was threatening their political and economic power. When this task was accomplished – when social discipline was restored and the ruling class saw its hegemony consolidated – witchhunts came to an end. The belief in witchcraft could even become an object of ridicule, decried as a superstition, and soon put out of memory.

I’m sure you could fill in the contemporary parallels quite well yourself; I don’t need to do that for you. Unfortunately, PDF searches in scanned documents being what they are, I cannot find the passage where Federici points out that there was no organized resistance by proletarian men to the witchhunts whatever, which really made my heart sink, and pierced my side, like a gaff.


Readers, I hope you find the material quoted useful; for myself, Federici throws off so many sparkling ideas and incidents that I find it almost impossible to cope! Certainly more interesting and useful than curves and letters sketched on a whiteboard. You will also have noticed that I didn’t generalize much about either capitalism (the [gasp] Marxist part) or patriarchy (the [gasp] feminist part). That’s because I am not entirely persuaded that Federici has synthesized the two (although I note her focus on the body — it was, after all, bodies that were burned, as well as bodies forced off the land into the mills — ties in rather neatly with, say, mass incarceration).

However, if one takes the view that “Now is the time” — however defined — in the present day, it also behooves one to do the math; it has always seemed to me that a bare majority, 50% plus one, as sought by the legacy parties, is insufficient to do much but perpetuate, among other things, the legacy parties. It also seems to me that sintering together demographics based on identity politics — Christian, Black, White, Hispanic, Young, Old, Male, Female, Rural, Urban — can only produce these bare majorities. It also seems to me that a focus on “economic class” can’t give an account of the sort of events that Federici describes here. Hence, to bend history’s arc, some sort of grand unified field theory that goes beyond 50%, to 80%, is needed (along with the proposed provision of concrete material benefits). Work like Federici’s is a step toward such a theory, and so I applaud it.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Laughingsong

    Intriguing, I will certainly read this book. The concepts dovetail some with the article I read yesterday under the Grexit heading in Links –

    Also brings into focus our own society’s fire breathers about women’s issues, and the leveraging of religion to suppress them. It does seem to be a requirement of oppressive political organizations.

    As for your Windows laptop, well, I struggle with understanding many of the issues and ideas presented here, especially the finance, but one thing I know very well is Windows. I can help!

  2. Tim Mason

    It may well be a very good book. But you might approach it with some caution: so far as I know, the numbers affected by the witch-hunts have been somewhat inflated (Brian P. Levack suggests that there were a little less than 110,000 trials in all, by no means all of which resulted in executions. Some areas – Germany – were quite heavily affected, while others – southern Europe – very little. Altogether, he suggests about 60,000 witches were killed.
    Not all of these were women. Again, it varies by area. IIRC, in Scandinavia, most of the victims were males, and if there was an overall preponderance of women, a fair proportion were men.
    And while it’s difficult to be sure, it does seem that women were active as accusers. Robin Briggs believes that most accusations originated with women, but would only be formalized and brought to court if their menfolk took charge.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      IIRC, her estimate is around 100K. That doesn’t vitiate the social control thesis; the death count for lynching is two orders of magnitude less. (And these are both absolute numnbers, not percentages of the population.

      I’m sure there were some men accused, and some women doing the accusing. So? And what exactly is the post not cautious about?

      1. Vatch

        Regarding lynching: I suspect there were Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation equivalents of 19th and 20th Century American lynching. I can’t prove it, but I think that the anti-witch lynchings were more common than the racist American lynchings. I suspect peasants in old Europe had to rely more on themselves for justice that did people in the United States, and we can guess where superstition plus mob violence would lead.

        During the chaos of the 30 Years War, there were probably a lot of extra-judicial killings that would have been handled by witch trials in a more stable environment.

          1. Vatch

            In the 21st century, superstitious mobs murder people for the “crime” of witchcraft, and I am certain that it also happened several centuries ago in Europe.


            By the way, Johannes Kepler’s mother was accused of witchcraft, and he spent four years clearing her name. Kepler wasn’t proletarian, though.

            The lords and knights were abusing the peasants long before the Malleus Maleficarum was written (around 1480). The abuse of the peasants is one of the topics discussed in The Crisis of the Twelfth Century, by Thomas Bisson.

            I suspect the formal witch trials were associated far more closely with the Inquisition and fears about heresy than with the nascence of capitalism. People like Jan Hus and Martin Luther were very troublesome for the Catholic Church and political authorities. Of course, the Protestants also conducted witch trials — from their point of view, the Catholics were the heretics.

            1. DionysiusII

              Interesting ideas, wasn’t aware of Kepler and his mother.

              In response to you speculation:
              “I suspect the formal witch trials were associated far more closely with the Inquisition and fears about heresy than with the nascence of capitalism.”

              Federici’s entire book is concerned exactly with fleshing out such a statement.

              The timeframe of witch-hunting occurred precisely as a multigenerational denoument to the century-ish of peasant rebellion that swept Europe 1350-1450. Feudalism as an economic system was running out of steam and the Plague broke its back. Peasants gained the upper hand (of rents/wages/nutrition) for a century before the ruling strata in the urban and countryside teamed up to go all out on recreating a world based on their total dominance, and the early stages of trans-atlantic capitalist economy aligned up, concomitant with the peasantry being crushed back into submission.

              The witch-hunting, under this interpretation, was aimed specifically as a mass-terrorist campaign by the authorities to break up the united collectivity of the communes. Nothing’s changed eh?

              In regards to your thinking it was more to do with heresy:
              There was no demarcation between the material economy and the religious ideology in people’s heads back then. For the peasant, both these things were of equivalence in daily life. The great heresies, e.g Cathars, of the late feudal period were exceedingly dangerous to the authorities. They galvanised and inspired the peasantry and urban workers across the whole of Europe, because these heresies proclaimed Equality for all if we are truly all the children of God, and implied a great economic levelling, i.e. the Revolution will not be Illuminized (on parchment). The heresies were literally the marxist socialism for peasants of the day. The authorities went to hardcore guerilla war to smash them.

              Implying that the witchtrials were about the legacy of heresies, is exactly true but for different reasons than what I think you meant. It’s true because the authorities saw a threat to their material/ideological rule and executed a long gameplan of centuries in crushing it.

    2. Yves Smith

      Huh? England had a population of under 4 million in the 16th century. How can you dismiss 110,000 trials? And you ignore the evidence of preoccupation among the elites and the intense use of the media of the day. Pray tell, how many terrorism trials have there been in the US? I bet that the per capita rate is less than the rate you try to handwave as meaningless for witchcraft trials. And England was the first country to industrialize; other countries in Europe did so later, when the hold of medieval beliefs had weakened.

      1. Laughingsong

        When encountering writings from elite authors of the enlightenment period, I would sometimes find them, in the midst of effulgence about science and new modern theories, speaking of witchcraft as a thing even so. I always just assumed the dissonance was because of the era, you know – having a foot in both worlds, the enlightenment ideas being new. Even if this new perspective isn’t exactly the whole truth, I expect it will be a stimulating read in this light! I will likely back reread some of these authors with a new perspective that would never had occurred to me.

        1. Elizabeth

          I think what’s missing here is witchcraft itself, that is, mysticism and especially that kind of mysticism informed by the feminine. Was nobody engaged in that? Really?

          It’s kind of interesting that all this witch-hunting fit so neatly into capitalist social agendas, but it couldn’t possibly be the whole story.

          So this reply about “elite authors of the enlightenment period” getting really upset about “witchcraft” might be a real objection to currents of thought they truly objected to. They wanted to obliterated the old way of thinking, and not just the kind of heretic-burning supported by the Catholic Church. (In fact, when you think about it, isn’t it a bit odd that rationalists would support the burning of witches, when it was the burning of heretics that set them back themselves in their effort to call the world round and end the debate over how many angels danced on a pin?)

          Instead, I propose an alternative view, one consistent with the need to get women and the idea of the commons out of the way to advance capitalism: Women’s mysticism, that is, knowledge of plants, direct psychedelic experiences, mystery of motherhood, and yes, need for a communal way of life support various aspects of motherhood were all threats to a new order based on enlightenment principles. We have this idea, born of centuries of pro-Enlightenment propaganda, that everything mystical is wrong. No kidding indeed that we’re still stamping it out today. Look at the labeling of mothers who object to amounts of heavy metals many times the accepted limit being pumped into their children as “vaccines” — labeling as New Age hippie-spiritual nuts. Healing is, most rationally, a way of cooperating with our bodies, not pumping them with pharmaceuticals. That happens to agree with the mystical traditions of the past, so maybe there is something there for us.

          It seems to me that we need not give up rational thought; indeed, we don’t really have any these days, just label it as such, and hence the need for Naked Capitalism and Yves Smith’s “Econned” to tell us that what we are told is a rational world order and a rational theory of economics is all just propaganda. Let’s think, for goodness’ sake. Let’s look at what’s before our very noses: lies.

          But is crushing any sense of the mystery of life a scientific approach? Do we really know everything?

          We’re burning witches to this day. Absolutely. And not just the “feminist” ones, as feminism has been defined so far off that mystical womanhood as to make it just another propaganda machine.

      2. Tim Mason

        The numbers are for Europe, not England. England was less affected than other European countries.

        Yes, of course a lot of people died. But other perceived deviations were put down with even more ferocity: some thousands of Stedingers were killed in a single week. Anabaptists were put down en masse, and the Cathars dies in their thousands. The witch hunts can and should be placed in this context.European elites governed and built their polities through terror; the witch-hunts certainly targeted women more than men, but other campaigns were not gender specific.

        As for the elites attitudes to witches – they were divided, and not closed to argument. James the VI of Scotland believed in witches, but James the I of England arguably did not (and, yes, I do know they are the same person). That is one of the reasons why the witch hunt varied in intensity : witchcraft accusations arose everywhere: in some areas the elites took them seriously, in others they did not. On some occasions they intervened to put a stop to them. The Catholic Church, energetic in its attempts to eradicate other heresies, was not caught up in the craze for burning witches.

            1. RalphR

              “Historical accuracy?” All the figures regarding trials are estimates. Federici’s analysis also places very little importance on the trials proper as the mechanism for social control; it’s the indoctrination, the spying on neighbors, the use of witchcraft as an argument for restricted mobility. Look in our own red-baiting era. There weren’t many trials of Communists. But people’s careers were ruined by the mere suspicion of Communist ties.

        1. bh2

          The witch-burning craze would be best suited as yet another unwritten chapter in Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”.

          If both men and women were charged and tried for this imaginary crime driven by baseless superstition, a narrative proposing it was really an ancient war on women is logically absurd — and therefore also a baseless superstition.

          1. craazyman

            It wasn’t unwritten. He wrote it!

            “The Witch Mania” between “The Crusades” and “The Slow Poisoners”.

        2. Laughingsong

          We could lump it all together and I do agree that the context is important, but it is much easier to see why members of new religions were targeted than peasants being accused of being witches. I find the theory fascinating because it does provide a possible explanation for something that does not really fit the usual “threat to power/otherness” explanations. I don’t know if the theory is correct but I find it intriguing, especially after reading the Sonia Mitralias article yesterday.

  3. Laughingsong

    Have just started reading the text, so I don’t yet know if it mentions the number of men also accused. From the bits I have read previously about these times, I was aware that men were also accused, sometimes in association with women, sometimes not. I have never seen a gender breakdown by region.
    But I’m not sure that men being included would negate the thesis, if the author is showing that the witch hunt as a method of imposing controls is the point and not necessarily just subjugating women for producing enough labor era and warriors to keep them cheap and plentiful. I also consider the fact that women were also accusers as a nonsequitor; every era must have their Mary Whitehouse and Phyllis Shlafly.

    1. LizinOregon

      I admit to not reading the book yet, but I wonder how one can use this as control when the target is overwhelmingly the group with little to no power – women.

  4. sd

    Not having read the book, is there any mention of rye blight (ergot) in relation to witch hunts? I first heard of this thesis in my college botany class. The theory seems controversial even though there’s archaeological evidence of rye cultivation as far north as Scandinavia by 500 AD.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I searched the PDF, and no to it all. However, it seems likely to me that the knowledge of ergot, as a pharamceutical, disappeared with the commons, as part of the commons.

        1. skippy

          If memory serves, the Salem witch saga was defined by topographical elevation e.g. poor down the hill, the soggy bottom, elites up the hill, w/ poor consuming the lesser status rye whilst the elites consumed wheat.

          Its not hard to imagine the elites with their religious “self awarded” superiority complex, that any, straying from the narrative would just reinforce the aforementioned mental attitude. As such any remediation would be authoritatively administered by the elites as they owned the code [arbiters of religious interpretation].

          Skippy…. the old NC post on that provincial French town would make a great book end to this post, by Lambert imo….

  5. BEast

    Two other noteworthy aspects of he witch hunts: one, they were an attempt by the Catholic Church to destroy non-Church authorities; and two, they were an attempt by physicians (nobles) to destroy alternate sources of medical care.

    Thus, the targets were frequently midwives and herbalists.

    (It’s also worth noting that the court physicians had no scientific basis for their treatments — that was shoehorned in later. So the traditional healers were, and remained for centuries, to the extent they and their methods survived, the better choice for health care, particularly for childbirth.)

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Lawrence Sterne’s “Dr. Slop, the man-midwife” is an echo of this — 300 years later. Another aspect teleological view people seem to have is that knowledge always increases. No, it doesn’t. Much is lost, and much is destroyed.

      1. Gaianne

        “Another aspect teleological view people seem to have is that knowledge always increases. No, it doesn’t. Much is lost, and much is destroyed.”



    2. LifelongLib

      It was certainly true that for most of human existence, you would have had a better chance with a wise woman and her knowledge of herbs than with a physician and his (psychologically interesting but physiologically useless) theory of humors.

      It was not until the later 19th century that physicians really tried to take over the business of healing. Until then the vast majority of people would have had no access to them. Even in the U.S. before that time there were numerous healers (as well as popular books of healing charms e.g. “The Long Lost Friend”) which for many were the only sort of “medical” help available.

      1. Bryan

        “Take over the business of healing” is well said. Recommend Celeste Condit’s work on the fledgling American Medical Association’s demonization of traditional healers in the US, particularly w/r/t how it shaped the abortion debate/policy in US.

  6. Jim

    False Foundations of Capitalism?

    “Primitive accumulation is the term that Marx uses in Capital vol.1, to characterize the historical process upon which the development of capitalist relations was premised. It is a useful term, for it provides a common denominator through which we can conceptualize the changes that the advent of capitalism produced in economic and social relations. But its importance lies, above all in the fact that primitive accumulation is treated by Marx as a foundational process, revealing the structural conditions for the existence of capitalist society.”

    Marx seemed to seek the determinants of capitalism’s genetic process in the logic of the preceding mode of production–in the economic structure of feudal society. But is such a description an explanation for the transition from feudal to capitalistic society?

    Doesn’t Marx’s explanation of the origins of capitalism seems to presuppose capitalism itself?

    Doesn’t Marx’s use of only economic variables lead into a blind alley in terms of understanding the origins of capitalism?

    Shouldn’t the collapsing Left finally take a serious look at cultural and political explanations for the origins of capitalism?

    What about a cultural explanation in which the creation and role of nationalism in 16th century England provided a key competitive individual motivating factor among its citizens– as a possible cause of capitalism? What about the emergence of the autonomous city as a primary political cause of capitalism? Was capitalism born in Catholic, urban Italy at the end of the Middle Ages?

    Why has the search for explanations of the origins of capitalism, only in the economic sphere, come to occupy such a central place in our thinking?

    1. Laughingsong

      I suspect because many feel it’s gone awry, and it is affecting the entire planet in many adverse ways. The feeling used to be that the benefits outweighed the costs, but that calculation seems to be tipping. In order to understand why it’s gone awry I guess it’s good to understand where it came from. But ideas have to go through that whole process from being to becoming and in that process get changed, add to, manipulated, and perverted. I cannot think of a human -ism that hasn’t. Then again, that may be what I get for thinking! (“OK brain, you don’t like me, and I don’t like you . . .”)

    2. bdy

      Good luck disentangling primitive accumulation from nationalism in 16th century England, the emergence of the autonomous city, and Catholic urban Italy at the end of the Middle Ages.

  7. craazyman

    I think this analysis is off the mark and probably a convolution of an array of underlying variable and functions.

    It’s as if the author says z = g(x); when in fact x = f(z,t,u and v).

    To conclude that z relies on x is a distortion of the underlying phenomenological structure and also distorts the agency by which z, t, u and v correspond to z.

    one item that is quite significant to note, and perhaps is one of the underlying variables, is the urgency by which authorities demanded “confessions’ by witches, which in and of itself was sometimes enough to ameliorate punishment.

    The other underlying variable is the reality of paranormal phenomenon. We think witchcraft is a doddering myth invented by overly imaginative minds, but the reality is quite other than that.

    Relating “capitalism” to persecution of witches on the basis of their femaleness lacks all precision. The Roman empire was capitalist but accepted paganism. Our current culture would view persecution on the basis of witchcraft as daftminded lunacy. yet pagan cultures in Africa do so even today.

    The book author throws up an interesting cloud of ideas but doesn’t seem capable of credible navigation, based simply on the summary offered here. I suspect it has to do less with capitalism and femaleness in particular and more, in general, in terms of threats posed by alternative consciousness structures to the dominant structure of social organization (inclusive of economics, theology, eshatology, etc.) These would be the z, t, u and v of the underlying f-function. It’s seen the world over in varying guises, but the underlying variables manifest in different costumes, in varying degrees of malision.

  8. DJG

    The problem of witches depends on the history of individual countries and also on religious orthodoxies, Catholic as well as Calvinist and Lutheran.

    As is often the case, Italy is contradictory and somewhat of an exception. Yet the exceptions are regional. The peasants on the Peninsula ruled by Naples were treated differently from northern Italians. Venice was an exception.

    The process of liberation seems to have begun earlier in Italy than the Black Death. While doing research about Bologna, I ran across this:

    “Liber Paradisus
    The Liber Paradisus (Heaven Book) is a law text promulgated in 1256 by the Comune of Bologna which proclaimed the abolition of slavery and the release of serfs (servi della gleba).”

    So you have emancipation and the development of an idea of human rights a hundred years before the Black Death. But the source was a social war and a desire for higher wages.

    Throughout Italy, too, the Inquisition and its treatment of witches was highly uneven. I happen to have studied the benandanti, who didn’t consider themselves witches, but had visions and myterious rituals. Some were healers. The Franciscans who investigated them were considered lousy Inquisitors (not tough enough) and the results are highly ambiguous. See Carlo Ginzburg’s works, and see the work of Italian scholars who found even more ambiguities. Many of the benandanti in trouble were men–and the women and men reported the same mystical experiences, many of which are astounding and rather beautiful. Reports of benandanti extend into the early 1800s.

    Piero Camporesi also wrote about the economic status of Italian peasants, the rituals of their year (which didn’t always coincide with Catholic orthodoxy), and the strength of ancient pagan customs.

    I realize that your point is witchcraft as a kind of collision with the growth of the state and “modern” markets. Yet I’d encourage you to consider Italy as a counterexample. On the other hand, fragmented Italy was the most highly developed economy in Europe during most of the middle ages and up to roughly 1550, so the markets may have developed (capitalistically as well as by state intervention, especially in Venice) more slowly, more peculiarly, and less disruptively. There are peasant revolts in Italian history, but not regions in flames and years and years of scorched-earth actions against rebellious peasants.

    1. Chalice Wilkerson

      Excited to see this post – but beyond the arguments over extent and gender of witchcraft victims or ergot poisoning – She was involved with Maria Della Costa and Selma James in bringing attention to the unpaid labor of women in the reproduction of labor power – and the Italian wages for housework campaign – which I think was outlined in a pamphlet ‘Power of Women and Subversion of Community’?

    2. craazyman

      that’s probably why Italy needed it’s own scale for happiness rating.

      If you’re inherently lazy, like beauty, like women (naked women especially) and like hanging out drinking wine, there’s not a lot of motivation for pogroms. You’d rather be doing something else. You can’t completely detach yourself from whatever insanity is around you, but you can sort of “fake it” and pretend to persecute witches. Then, hopefully after a short day persecuting in a lazy way, comparing notes with local witches about metaphysical paranormal experiences and giving out bureaucratic warnings for witchcraft with a wink and a nod, you’re back at the bistro having a wine and contemplating beauty in its various manifestations.

      This could be it! They didn’t much like persecuting Jews either. There’s a lot to contemplate here. It might be something Herr Weidmann at the Bundesbank can think about. You wonder why somepeople don’t quite get it. It really is weird.

  9. Chauncey Gardiner

    Enlightening observations regarding the premeditated, planned and organized use of witch-hunts by the elite of that period as a vehicle of social control. I was surprised at the level of elite information and coordination in what I had previously viewed as a very primitive era of considerable physical isolation. The events discussed here suggest there was a fairly high level of communication and organization among and by the elite.

    However, I would question to what extent the extreme 14th century depopulation of Europe and Britain caused by the great plague pandemics, the Great Famine, wars and weather would have led to similar elite initiatives, regardless of the transition to capitalism.

    Appears to share some common threads with events and behaviors which have occurred in our own time – from those mentioned in the article to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, the Powell memorandum of 1971 and related subsequent behavior, including the forms of “primitive accumulation” cited that led to the 2008 financial collapse.

    Thank you for the review of Silvia Federici’s book, Lambert, and your related observations. Seems worthwhile reading.

  10. ginnie nyc

    Thank you , Lambert, for bringing this book to my attention. It touches on two topics of great interest to me: the status of women in history (sorry, can’t help it) and Marxian investigations of proto-capitalist Europe.

    I’m definitely gonna read this book!

  11. mitzimuffin

    Let’s call it the Modern Day Witch Hunt instead the War on Women.

    As a Modern Day Witch Hunt, it addresses the religious Taliban’s need to separate us from each other, i.e., “good” women (no sex before marriage, deference to men) vs. “bad” women (demand independence, have sex, use birth control, want access to abortion, ). If you read contraception as herbal remedies, voila…parallel relief from pregnancy = Freedom 4 women.

    It also pierces my heart, Lambert, that there was no organized resistance from our men, our lovers, those who should have been our protectors. I think that is why we women so often reject the protector roll from men; they disappoint.

    I plan to read Caliban and the Witch. Given your characterization, it could be very useful in reframing this most important devil woman vs. angel women dichotomy.

    and allows everyone the fun of judging other peeps personal decisions. Instead of embodying the devil in the woman, we condemn “bad” women who embody/dead fetuses. I think it suits the chase in that the right argues they love (“good”) women, but hate the sin (“bad”) women. It allows them to have it both ways

    1. LifelongLib

      There was at least one man in the Salem witch trials who did save his wife. At the preliminary hearing he cursed the judges for allowing her to be imprisoned, saying God would surely punish them. When she was bound over for trial anyway, he broke her out of jail and fled with her to New York.

      Would that all of us men had that kind of courage and resourcefulness. Sadly most of us don’t.

    2. Ponderous

      First in regards to an earlier claim of a non sequitor comment by Laughing Song “I also consider the fact that women were also accusers as a nonsequitor” I must disagree. First to barely consider such complexities can lead some to claim the position inaccurately as one later poster made that the men and lovers needed to save their women is to almost subtly create a paradigm of gender splitting ie women against men where men become the villains doing nothing or worse accusing and perhaps sadly burning them.

      For history to be understood properly and humanity’s improvement to go forward with the least mistakes, then situations such as this must be understood in their complexity. If Historically women were included in the accusation of other women and men then the situation becomes less of women being persecuted by men but more i believe like Rene Girard’s Scapegoat Mechanism, the proposition of the weak and the outsiders being targeted by the strong would better explain this, if the accusers are of both genders. This is not to say that women in those days were treated well anything but. however this sounds like it could be multiple complex situations overlayed on top of each other (primitive patriarchal customs subjugating women and possibly as i have observed quite frequently in my experience the bullied can eventually become the bullies needing to vent their pent up negative emotion. that would explain how both men and women could do the accusing). To not allow or to overly simplify or marginalise events can misconstrue our understanding of history and lead to stereotypical romanticisation. ie all women as one being almost. This is a wonderful notion if one ignores that there are just like in men also in women a spectrum of different behavioural types. The dishonest man – the dishonest woman, The aggressive man – the aggressive woman etc. To underline this I can even remember growing up around the time of high school remembering where a fight was organised by a young lady (psychological aggression and manipulation) to have her new boyfriend attack her ex on the premise he was terrible for cheating even though she had beaten him to it many times previously. So I wish to say there are many kinds of women so by no means is this example a claim of all are similar as stereotyping would but that woman are certainly not all similar in their psychology just like to stereo typically say all men are the same and thus all unite for the same goal would be inherently incorrect that is for certain.

      Gloria Jean Watkins best known for “feminism is for everybody” said In and interview i read a few years ago that feminism was a great thing but that some took it beyond what was right and into the sphere of aggression and domination the very things it was meant to change. She recalled being slightly accosted by some women after a lecture that she should not be as nice as she is toward men that is to say she was yelled at for being too soft on men. In her book Gloria Jean Watkins states that it is impossible to make women equal to men because men are not equal them selves, which reinforces my hypothesis that the with trials may have been a “scapegoat mechanism” the weaker of both genders being mistreated more than the dominant ones project their conseuential feelings onto the even weaker. Further an over romanticising of history seems to exaggerate our understanding of history in support quite frequently of whatever particular party is having themselves turned into some wonderful fictional shining character angel, (please note how metaphors and simile’s are so used as opposed to facts) or group. It seems almost to stroke egos for those whom benefit when races do this (ie Germany last century) it creates the idea of ones due that far exceeds what is rational in reality. it is used by all from kings in history to advertising today and I wonder if some part of it is seen to be required when applied to couples to stroke the ego of ones partner ie the dominant one in both straight and single sex relationships. To understand our minds is the start to improving humanity
      Thank you for your time.

  12. mitzimuffin

    So sorry. That last paragraph was from my first draft, and I don’t even know how it got posted. Sigh.

  13. Moby

    I really think there might be something to this, based only on my recent experience. After not doing any work for several months, I’ve gotten a new job inside the machine. The adjustment has been very rough. Knuckling under to the hierarchy, saying yessah masser, spending long long days and weekends.

    But my wife doesn’t like it at all. I’m not a family man. I don’t engage with the kids or cook or even clean up the yard anymore. All because I’m owned by someone else. I’d rather be dedicated to my wife/family.

    And this shock is with me being out of work for only a few weeks. If it was a cultural “sea change”, then I wonder if some strong women might have resisted more?

    Sounds stupid now that I’ve written it down, but whatever.

  14. three eyed goddess

    Understanding the socialization of terror and violence is author William T. Vollmann’s obsession. He writes of the soldiers of Jamestown: “How ought I to describe their quality? Well, in their home Counties in England they’d all seen vagabonds flogg’d bloody, & hungry children hang’d for stealing bread. Some few had watched old Goodwives from their own Parish Churches get burn’d alive for witchcraft. They were men without much pity.” (from ARGALL)
    Vollman actually gets this. Pretty good, for a MAN.

  15. Oregoncharles

    Thought about this much of yesterday, so I might as well share:

    Might be a good idea to ask contemporary witches what they think about this. The most memorable theory I remember was that it was a way of wiping out the herbalists and midwives who had provided most of medical care, to make way for male doctors who at the time were considerably worse than useless. Indeed, that author (long time ago, sorry no link) thought a great deal of medical knowledge – eg, herbal contraceptives like Queen Anne’s Lace seeds – was lost. This actually fits nicely with the ideas in the article.

    Another source: the anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote an article on the witch hunts, focussed primarily on the way they were done. He made a strong case that they were designed to always find victims. That, too fits well with Federici’s argument: it was part of a power play.

    What doesn’t fit so well is the religious element. The Witch Hunts were just one aspect of a millennium-long genocidal policy by the Church, mostly under the rubric of “heresy” or the Inquisition. The Albigensian Crusade is just one aspect. In short, the Church had a settled policy of murdering people for disagreeing with it. (I think it still would if it had the power – they have neither confessed nor atoned for their genocidal crimes, meaning that they reserve the “right” to do it again.) The Witch Hunts were certainly framed as an effort to wipe out remnants of paganism in Europe, and may well have succeeded at that.

    How does Federici deal with the timeline? There appears to be a gap of well over a century between the main witch hunts and the rise of anything like modern capitalism. Arguably, it was much more a campaign to restore the power of the FEUDAL elites. As the underlying economy changed, that empowered the capitalists in turn. Industrial capitalism is a way of extending feudal power relationships into the new economy, albeit mostly with different people in the roles. But that’s more like anthropology than economics.

  16. pdehaan

    I checked my country of birth, the Netherlands, often quoted as being the birthplace of merchant capitalism, related to the funding of high-risk, high-reward shipping expeditions to the new world.
    The northern Netherlands, later known as the Dutch republic, was relatively mild regarding witch hunts. Out of over a million inhabitants, fewer than 150 witches were executed. That’s still 150 too many, but apparently they hadn’t read the memo. The Dutch were fairly late to the witch-hunt game, had a decentralized judiciary system and provided the possibility of bringing countersuits of slander against the accusers.

  17. Spyros Marchetos

    i have been teaching this book for six years now, at the graduate and postgraduate levels at the political sciences school in thessaloniki, and i can assure you it is not only a great synthesis, it is eminently readable too. It covers many holes left in previous arguments on the birth of capitalism, it has a precious multiprismatic approach, and I’m sure it will be more and more discussed in the coming years.

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