This book is a collection of essays written by Silvia Federici in relation to her on-going studies of witches, witch-hunting and its relationship to the development of capitalism. The book is in two parts. The first section, which I will talk about here, summarizes and builds on her work in Caliban and the Witch in which she explores the European witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Federici stresses the importance of situating these witch-hunts in their social, political and economic context. In particular this was a time when the enclosures of the Commons were taking place in Britain. The Commons land were traditionally available to landless peasants , enabling them to make use of the land for subsistence farming. In the 16th and 17th centuries these common lands became enclosed – by wealthy landowners and the middle class, thus depriving poorer peasants the use of such land. Land became privatised and became an economic asset for profit, rather than as a source of nurturance for the whole community. This led to an increase in poverty and social unrest amongst the community. This had a significant impact on the peasant women in particular. It often meant a stripping of their means of livelihood and the possibility of economic independence.
Federici describes the social unrest that was occurring at the time. One can imagine the anger, bitterness and distress that women were experiencing as a result of being left destitute. Her analysis describes how those in power were able to turn such social unrest to demonise those opposing the changes, effectively allowing them to increase their power and control over the communities.
She likens the demonization of women as witches to the McCarthy era of the 1950’s in the USA and the current ‘War on Terror’.
“The exaggeration of ‘crimes’ to mythical proportions so as to justify horrendous punishments is an effective means to terrorize a whole society, isolate the victims, discourage resistance, and make masses of people afraid to engage in practices that until then were considered normal.” (p.33)
“The witch was the communist and terrorist of her time” (p.33)
But it was not only about dealing with social unrest. It was about power and control and capital accumulation. Where previously in villages and communities there was a system of sharing resources, such as the Commons, where women used and shared their knowledge and experiences of caring and healing, midwifery and reproduction. The state needed to take control of this knowledge and these skills.
“…the witch-hunts served to deprive women of their medical practices, forced them to submit to the patriarchal control of the nuclear family, and destroyed a holistic concept of nature that until the Renaissance set limits on the exploitation of the female body.” (p. 11)
The state needed to disempower women of their knowledge in order to take control. In particular the state needed to take control of women’s reproductive capacity and knowledge. As capitalism was taking hold, children were seen as products for labor exploitation – economic property which the capitalist state need to control. Thus women’s sexual behaviour and procreation needed to come under the control of the state.
“We must think of an enclosure of knowledge, of our bodies, and of our relationship to other people and nature.” (p.21)
Federici concludes Part One of the book with a chapter ‘On the Meaning of ‘gossip’.
“Tracing the history of the words frequently used to define and degrade women is a necessary step if we are to understand how gender oppression functions and reproduces itself.” (p.35)
I have long been interested in the concept of female solidarity, friendships and collectivity. The fact that throughout history women’s knowledge, their experiences – women’s history has not been recorded or seen as of value.
In this last chapter of Part One, Federici describes important information about the origin of the term ‘gossip’. In early modern England it was a term used for ‘companions of childbirth, not limited to midwives’. “It became a term for women friends.” (p. 35). Federici describes how gossip became a word of degradation and ridicule, thus effectively the silencing of women. This is a subject that I would like to analyse in more depth in a future blog post.
To conclude, in Federici’s words:
“As I wrote in Caliban and the Witch, the witch hunt instituted a regime of terror on all women, from which emerged a new model of femininity to which women had to conform to be socially accepted in the developing capitalist society: sexless, obedient, submissive, resigned to subordination to the male world, accepting as natural the confinement to a sphere of activities that in capitalism has been completely devalued.” (p. 32).
Part Two of this immensely important work, Federici explores modern day witch hunts detailing how this is on the increase. I will be writing about this in my next blog.
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She has much good commentary, but she is wrong in saying that there were no medieval witch hunts.
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