Rebel Witches and the Creation
book review of Caliban And The
Witch: Women, The Body And Primitive Accumulation, by Silvia Federici,
by Alex Knight
Silvia Federici's brilliant Caliban and
the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, tells
the dark saga of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe for more
than 200 years. In uncovering this forgotten history, Federici
exposes the origins of capitalism in the heightened oppression
of workers, represented by Shakespeare's character Caliban, and
in the brutal subjugation of women. She also brings to light the
enormous and colorful European peasant movements that fought against
the injustices of their time, connecting their defeat to the imposition
of a new patriarchal order that divided male from female workers.
Today, as more and more people question the usefulness of a capitalist
system that has thrown the world into crisis, Caliban and the
Witch stands out as essential reading for unmasking the shocking
violence and inequality that capitalism has relied upon from its
Who Were the Witches?
Parents who have put a pointed hat on
their young son or daughter before Trick-or-Treating might never
pause to contemplate this question, seeing witches as just another
cartoonish Halloween icon like Frankenstein's monster or Dracula.
But deep within our Halloween rituals lie a hidden history that
can tell us important truths about our world. In this book, Silvia
Federici takes us back in time to show how the mysterious figure
of the witch is key to understanding the creation of capitalism,
the profit-motivated economic system that now reigns over the
During the 15th - 17th centuries the fear
of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America, so
much so that if a woman was accused of witchcraft she could face
the cruelest of torture until confession was given, or even be
executed based on suspicion alone. There was often no evidence
whatsoever. The author recounts, "for more than two centuries,
in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women
were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having
sold body and soul to the devil and, by magical means, murdered
scores of children, sucked their blood, made potions with their
flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, destroyed cattle and
crops, raised storms, and performed many other abominations."
In other words, just about anything bad that might or might not
have happened was blamed on witches during that time. So where
did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives
so many poor women, most of whom had almost certainly never flown
on broomsticks or stirred eye-of-newt into large black cauldrons?
Caliban and the Witch underscores that
the persecution of witches was not just some error of ignorant
peasants, but in fact the deliberate policy of Church and State,
the very ruling class of society. To put this in perspective,
today witchcraft would be a far-fetched cause for alarm, but the
fear of hidden terrorists who could strike at any moment because
they "hate our freedom" is widespread. Not surprising,
since politicians and the media have been drilling this frightening
message into people's heads for years, even though terrorism is
a much less likely cause of death than, say, lack of health care.
And just as the panic over terrorism has enabled today's powers-that-be
to attempt to remake the Middle East, this book makes the case
that the powers-that-were of Medieval Europe exploited or invented
the fear of witches to remake European society towards a social
paradigm that met their interests.
Interestingly, a major component of both
of these crusades was the use of so-called "shock and awe"
tactics to astound the population with "spectacular displays
of force," which help to soften up resistance to drastic
or unpopular reforms. In the case of the Witch Hunt, shock
therapy was applied through the witch burnings - spectacles of
such stupefying violence that they apparently paralyzed whole
villages and regions into accepting fundamental restructuring
of medieval society. Federici describes a typical witch burning
as, "an important public event, which all the members of
the community had to attend, including the children of the witches,
especially their daughters who, in some cases, would be whipped
in front of the stake on which they could see their mother burning
The book argues that these gruesome executions
not only punished "witches" but graphically demonstrated
the repercussions for any kind of disobedience to the clergy or
nobility. In particular, the witch burnings were meant to terrify
women into accepting "a new patriarchal order where women's
bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were
placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic
Federici puts forward that up until the
16th century, though living in a sexist society, European women
retained significant economic independence from men that they
typically do not under capitalism, where gender roles are more
distinguished. She goes on, "If we also take into account
that in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial
ones, and most of the tasks that female serfs performed (washing,
spinning, harvesting, and tending to animals on the commons) were
done in cooperation with other women, we then realize [this] was
a source of power and protection for women. It was the basis for
an intense female sociality and solidarity that enabled women
to stand up to men." But the Witch Hunt initiated a period
where women were forced to become what she calls "servants
of the male work force" - excluded from receiving a wage,
they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring
for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners,
and maintaining the home. In Federici's words, this was the "housewifization
of women," the reduction to a second-class status where women
became totally dependent on the income of men.
Federici goes on to show how female sexuality,
which was seen as a source of women's potential power over men,
became an object of suspicion and came under sharp attack by the
authorities. The assault manifested in new laws that took away
women's control over the reproductive process, such as the banning
of birth control measures, the replacement of midwives with male
doctors, and the outlawing of abortion and infanticide. Federici
calls this an attempt to turn the female body into "a machine
for the reproduction of labor," such that women's only purpose
in life was supposedly to produce children. But we also learn
that this was just one component of a broader move by Church and
State to ban all forms of sexuality that were considered "non-productive."
For example, "homosexuality, sex between young and old, sex
between people of different classes, anal coitus, coitus from
behind, nudity, and dances. Also proscribed was the public, collective
sexuality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, as in the Spring
festivals of pagan origins that, in the 16th-century, were still
celebrated all over Europe." To this end, the Witch Hunt
targeted not only female sexuality but homosexuality and gender
non-conformity as well, helping to craft the patriarchal sexual
boundaries that define our society to this day.
Capitalism - Born in Flames
What separates Caliban and the Witch from
other works exploring the "witch" phenomenon is that
this book puts the persecution of witches into the context of
the development of capitalism. For Silvia Federici, it's no accident
that "the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization
and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English
enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade." She instructs
that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated
by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism
was in formation, the late 15th through 17th centuries. Contrary
to "laissez-faire" orthodoxy which holds that capitalism
functions best without state intervention, Federici posits that
it was precisely the state violence of these campaigns that laid
the foundation for capitalist economics.
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 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." 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 off 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." 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
tells 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." 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.
According to Federici, the witch hunts
played a key role in facilitating this process by driving a sexist
wedge into the working class that "undermined class solidarity,"
making it more difficult for communities to resist displacement.
And 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." 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."
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, 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
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."
Caliban and the Witch'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 labeled "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." 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
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." 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."
In the 1420s and 1430s, the Taborites fought to liberate all of
Bohemia, beating back several Crusades of over 100,000 men organized
by the Vatican. The uprisings became contagious, 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 Federici,
"the feudal economy was doomed."
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. Soon, simple meetings of peasant women were stigmatized
as possible "Sabbats," where women were supposedly seduced
by the devil to become witches, but as Federici clarifies, it
was the rebellious politics and non-conforming gender relations
of such gatherings which were demonized. Strong, defiant women
were murdered by the tens of thousands, and along with them the
Witch Hunt also destroyed "a whole world of female practices,
collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the
foundation of women's power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the
condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism."
For elite European nobles and clergy,
the Witch Hunt succeeded in stifling a working class revolution
that had increasingly threatened their rule. Even more, Federici
puts forward that the Witch Hunt facilitated the rise of a new,
capitalist social paradigm - based on large-scale economic production
for profit and the displacement of peasants from their lands into
the burgeoning urban workforce. In time, this capitalist system
would dominate all of Europe and be dispersed through conquistadors'
"guns, germs and steel" to every corner of the globe,
destroying countless ancient civilizations and cultures in the
process. Federici's analysis is that, "Capitalism was
the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had
emerged from the anti-feudal struggle - possibilities which, if
realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives
and the environment that has marked the advance of capitalist
relations worldwide." How might things be different if the
forgotten revolution had won?
Rediscovering the Magic of Truth-Telling
Caliban and the Witch is a book that challenges
many important myths about the world we live in. First and foremost
among these is the widely-held belief that capitalism, though
perhaps flawed in its current form, started out as a "progressive"
development that liberated workers and improved the conditions
of women, people of color and other oppressed groups. Federici
has done impressive work to take us back to the very foundations
of the capitalist system in late-medieval Europe to uncover a
secret history of land dispossession and impoverishment, gender
and sexual terror, and brutal colonization of non-Europeans. This
terrible legacy leads her to the profound conclusion that the
system is "necessarily committed to racism and sexism,"
and most strongly, "It is impossible to associate capitalism
with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the
system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has
been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of
inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat,
and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process
is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500
It's been said that we can measure a society
by how it treats women. This book provides compelling documentation
to suggest that capitalism is and has always been a male dominated
system, which reduces opportunities and security for women as
well as marginalizing those who don't fit within narrow gender
boundaries. In particular, it uses the story of the Witch Hunt
to illuminate the inner workings of capitalism to show the restraining,
silencing, and demonizing of female sexual power built into it.
Responding to our question that started
this essay, Federici writes, "The witch was not only the
midwife, the woman who avoided maternity, or the beggar who eked
out a living by stealing some wood or butter from her neighbors.
She was also the loose, promiscuous woman - the prostitute or
adulteress, and generally, the woman who exercised her sexuality
outside the bonds of marriage and procreation The witch was also
the rebel woman who talked back, argued, swore, and did not cry
under torture." In other words, the witches were those women
who in one way or another resisted the establishment of an unjust
social order - the mechanical exploitation of capitalism. The
witches represented a whole world that Europe's new masters were
anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world
rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with
magical possibilities, a world in revolt.
Alex Knight is an organizer and writer
in Philadelphia. He is currently organizing with Philly Students
for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the People's Caravan, which
recently completed a story-listening and action trip to the G20
summit in Pittsburgh. He also maintains the website endofcapitalism.com
and is in the process of writing a book called The End of Capitalism.
He can be reached at email@example.com
1 - Harvard University researchers released
a study on Sept. 17, 2009 showing that approximately 45,000 Americans
die unnecessarily from lack of medical coverage every year, unfortunately
many times more than the number killed on September 11, 2001.
See this article for more on the Harvard study: http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSTRE58G6W520090917
2 - "Shock and Awe", Wikipedia.
Online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shock_and_awe. Accessed
Nov. 2, 2009.
3 - This "shock therapy" strategy
is examined in detailed case studies by Naomi Klein in the excellent
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan
Books 2007. For example she offers that the US-led devastation
of Iraq's social infrastructure, including destruction of hospitals,
food and water systems traumatized the Iraqi people such that
they could not prevent the highly unpopular privatization of the
country's oil wealth.
4 - for more on the Witch Hunt's effect
on the male domination of reproduction and medicine, see Barbara
Ehrenreich's Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women
Healers, The Feminist Press at CUNY 1972, pamphlet.
5 - "The high point of wages was
immediately preceding the 'long' sixteenth century [roughly 1450],
and the low point was at its end [roughly 1650]. The drop during
the sixteenth century was immense." Wallerstein, Immanuel.
The Modern World-System. Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins
of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York:
Academic Press, 1974. pg. 80.
6 - see Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates
of Human Societies, W.W. Norton Press 2005. Jared Diamond's study
of the rise of Europe focuses more on ecology than patriarchy,
but is nonetheless useful for exposing the carnage of the colonization
7 - for a brilliant collection of insights
into the many ways female sexuality is still under attack, see
Friedman, Jaclyn & Jessica Valenti. Yes Means Yes! Visions
of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. Seal Press 2008.
My review of this book can also be found here: http://endofcapitalism.com/2009/05/17/review-of-yes-means-yes-visions-of-female-sexual-power-and-a-world-without-rape/
8 - Democracy Now! October 28, 2009 broadcast.
"A Woman Among Warlords: Afghan Democracy Activist Malalai
Joya Defies Threats to Challenge US Occupation, Local Warlords."
Online at http://www.democracynow.org/2009/10/28/a_woman_among_warlords_afghan_democracy