At the back of my mind I have always wondered what could have been behind the witch burnings, which suddenly started happening towards the end of the Middle Ages, and then, seemingly just as suddenly, stopped happening.
The decades of the greatest number of executions, all over
It all starts to make sense if the event is seen as being a state instigated war on women, aided and abetted by the Catholic Church as well as the Reformation, using physical terror with the aim of causing psychological terror and a resulting obedience to the new world order. This is what Silvia Federici claims in her book, “Caliban and the Witch”.
The backdrop to these terrible acts is a “world turned upside down”, a paradigm shift, with the decline of feudalism, the privatisation of land (enclosures), the rise of the capitalist class, labour shortages for the capitalist class as a result of the black death and the peasants class’s tendency under feudalism to limit their numbers to the availability of land.
Women needed to be cowed, to ensure they were procured to the production of much needed labour power. No more would they be allowed to limit their families, to consult wise old women who would know about contraception, herbs and potions to induce early abortions. Women at the time were the guardians of centuries of knowledge about folk medicine and always acted as midwives; men were excluded from assisting at births at the time. This was to change. Women also needed to get to know their new role in life; this was to be the unwaged dependents on a waged husband. In the Middle Ages they had been able to engage in trade and could depend on the Commons for subsistence.
This was a war on the old world order, waged through unimaginable cruelty inflicted on women. Witch burnings were public affairs, men women and children were obliged to attend, including the children of the witch and especially any daughters. The daughters were often flogged in front of the bonfires as they watched their mothers burn to death.
Individual men, husbands, sons and brothers of the condemned women would occasionally try to save their relatives, but only one concerted effort by a group of men to come to the assistance of their condemned womenfolk has been recorded. This was a group of Basque fishermen who had been at sea fishing for cod when they heard that numbers of their female kin had been burned as witches. When they got back on shore, they armed themselves with clubs and went to liberate a group of women still awaiting execution.
The onslaught on women that took place at this time, in literature and law as well as on and around the bonfires, was another example of the application of “divide and rule” by a ruling class; this time a schism was driven between men and women and the concerted anti-female propaganda of the time reverberates to this day.
Federici pours scorn on many of the “great men of reason” of these “enlightened” times for either sitting on the fence as regards this terror (Descartes), or for actively supporting it (Thomas Hobbes).
This is an excellent book which fills in missing pages in the history of the European working class and of women within it.