Archives de Tag: Chasse aux sorcières

Dalla Costa : knowledge of the witches and masculinization of the obstetric field.

This combined strategy of “denying access” and “outlawing” well-educated urban healers in Europe was so effective that by the end of the fourteenth century the campaign by professional doctors against them was practically over. Male doctors obtained a monopoly in medicine for the wealthy classes.

Obstetrics, however, still lay outside their expertise and, despite a wealthy clientele, remained an exclusively female field for another three centuries. Obstetrics later came to face an alliance of the intent of the state, the church and the (male) medical profession, which advocated that this field also be given to the “regular” medical profession, controlled bu the state and the church, at the price of the exterminating of the “witches” – mostly midwives and healers who came from and worked among the poor. But this persecution formed part of a complex of social macro-operations that took place in various periods, some already early in the fourteenth century, and the most famous of which was the expropriation/enclosure of common lands. If the latter was used to create the misery necessary for the beginnings of the capitalist mode of production, by making available massive numbers for the workforce, the witch-hunt was used instead to expropriate from women their own bodies. This was accomplished first of all by depriving women of the knowledge and the power to decide with regards to their reproductive powers, because the reproduction of individuals – from now on, the reproduction of the workforce, as far as it concerned the expropriated and impoverished people – had to be under state control by means of the medical profession. […] Federici (1984) in particular observes how the witch hunt spread in Europe between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century, reaching an apex between 1550 and 1650, when it is estimated 100,000 women were burned alive, often after vicious torture. The victims were, as I have said, mostly country midwives guilty of knowing not only about childbirth, but also about abortion and contraceptives, as well as healers and women of ill repute. But it was much easier for women to be accused when they were alone, unmarried, old, and above all leaders of urban and peasant rebellions caused by rising prices, by the repeated levying of new taxes, and particularly by the expropriation of land. However, virgins and pregnant women were normally not sent to the stake. This (the greatest sexocide that history has ever recorded – and which represents a fundamental turning point in the history of the struggle between the classes and between the sexes, erased, even if never completely, along with the women who were executed, popular medicine, and especially the gynecological and obstetric knowledge that had been in their hands alone. This knowledge was replaced with an official medicine, controlled by the state and the church, that would need centuries before it was able to replace the void left by the extermination of healers and midwives with something authentically therapeutic. It is worth knowing that while there were witches who had acquired profound knowledge of bones and muscles, of herbs and drugs, the physicians of the time still made their prognoses using astrology.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa “Hysterectomy : A Woman’s view of its Medical Facets, Historical Development and Ethical and Legal Questions” in Hysterectomy, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Medical Abuse of Women, p. 35-36


Yet the specter of the witches continued to haunt the imagination of the ruling class. In 1871, the Parisian bourgeoisie instinctively returned to it to demonize the female Communards, accusing them of wanting to set Paris aflame. There can be Iittle doubt, in fact, that the models for the lurid tales and images used by the bourgeois
press to create the myth of the petroleuses were drawn from the repertoire of the witch-hunt. As described by Edith Thomas, the enemies of the Commune claimed that thousands of proletarian women roamed (like witches) the city, day and night, with pots full
of kerosene and stickers with the notation “B.P.B.” (“bon pour bruler,”“good for torching”), presumably following instructions given to them. as part of a great conspiracy to reduce Paris to ashes in front of the troops advancing from Versailles. Thomas writes that “petroleuses were to be found everywhere. In the areas occupied by the Versailles army it was enough that a woman be poor and ill-dressed, and that she be carrying a basket, box,
or milk-bottle” to be suspected”(Thomas 1966: 166-67). Hundreds of women were thus sumarily executed, while the press vilified them in the papers. Like the witch, the petroleuse was depicted as an older woman with a wild, savage look and uncombed hair.
In her hands was the container for the liquid she used to perpetrate her crimes.

Silvia FEDERICI, Caliban and the Witch, p. 206

Of particular significance is the relation the witch-hunt established between the prostitute and the witch, reflecting the process of devaluation which prostitution under­went in the capitalist reorganization of sexual work. As the saying went, “a prostitute
when young, a witch when old,” for both used sex only to deceive and corrupt men, faking a love that was only mercenary (Stiefehneir 1977: 48ff.). And both sold themselves in order to obtain money and an illicit power, the witch (who sold her soul to the Devil) being the magnified image of the prostitute (who sold her body to men). Furthermore, both the (old) witch and the prostitute were symbols of sterility. the very personification of non-procreative sexuality. Thus, while in the Middle Ages the prostitute and the witch were considered positive figures who performed a social service for the community, with the witch-hunt both acquired the most negative connotations and were rejected as pos­sible female identities, physically by death and socially by criminalization. For the prostitute died as a legal subject only after having died a thousand times on the stake as a witch. Or better, the prostitute would be allowed to survive (she would even become useful, although in a clandestine fashion) only as long as the witch would be killed; for
the witch was the more socially dangerous subject, the one who (in the eyes of the inquisitors) was less controllable; it was she who could give pain or pleasure, heal or harm, stir up the elements and chain the will of men; she could even cause damage solely by
her look, a malocchio (“evil eye”) that presumably could kill.

Silvia FEDERICI, Caliban and the Witch, p. 197

The witch-hunt, then, was a war against women; it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, demonize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois
ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged.
In this case, too, the witch-hunt amplified contemporary social trends. There is, in fact, an unmistakable continuity between the practices targeted by the witch-hunt and those banned by the new legislation that in the same years was introduced to regulate
family life, gender and property relations. Across western Europe, as the witch-hunt was progressing, laws were passed that punished the adulteress with death (in England and Scotland by the stake, as in the case of High Treason). At the same time prostitution was
outlawed and so was birth out of wedlock, while infanticide was made a capital crime. Simultaneously, female friendships became an object of suspicion, denounced from the pulpit as subversive of the alliance between husband and wife, just as women-to-women
relations were demonized by the prosecutors of the witches who forced them to denounce each other as accomplices in crime. It was also in this period that the word “gossip,” which in the Middle Ages had meant “friend,” changed its meaning, acquiring
a derogatory connotation, a further sign of the degree to which the power of women and communal ties were undermined.
Also at the ideological level, there is a dose correspondence between the degraded image of women forged by the demonologists and the image of femininity constructed by the contemporary debates on the “nature of the sexes,” which canonized a stereo­typical woman, weak in body and mind and biologically prone to evil, that effectively served to justify male control over women and the new patriarchal order.

Silvia FEDERICI, Caliban and the Witch, p. 186

Class revolt, together with sexual transgression, was a central element in the descriptions of the Sabbat. which was portrayed both as a monstrous sexual orgy and as a subversive political gathering, culminating wIth an account of the crimes which the participants had commited, and with the devil instructing the witches to rebel against
their masters. It is also significant that the pact between the witch and the Devil was calleded conjuratio, like the pacts often made by slaves and workers in struggle (Dockes 1982: 222; Tigar and Levy 1977: 136), and that in the eyes of the prosecutors, the Devil represented a promise of love, power, and riches for whose sake a person was willing to sell her (or his) soul, that is, to infrige every natural and social law.
The subversive, utopian dimension of the witches’ Sabbat is also stressed, from a difFerent angle, by Luciano Parinetto who. in Streghe e Potere (1998), has insisted on the need to give a modern interpretation of this gathering, reading its transgressive features
from the viewpoint of the developing capitalist discipline of work. Parinetto points out that the nocturnal dimension of the Sabbat was a violation of the contemporary capi­talist regularization of work-time, and a challenge to private property and sexual ortho­doxy, as the night shadows blurred the distinctions between the sexes and between “mine and thine”. Parinetto also argues that the flight, the travel, an important element in the charges against the witches, should be interpreted as an attack on the mobility of immigrant and itinerant workers, a new phenomenon, reflected in the fear of vagabonds, that much preoccupied the authorities in this period. Parinetto concludes that, viewed in its historical specificity, the nocturnal Sabbat appears as a demonization of the utopia embodied in the rebellion against the masters and the break-down of sexual roles, and it also represents a use of space and time contrary to the new capitalist work-discipline.

Silvia FEDERICI, Caliban and the Witch, p. 177

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 fac­tor in the background of the witch-hunt is also proven by the fact that the majority of those accused were poor peasant women – cottars, 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. In England, the witches were usually old women on public assistance or women who sur­vived by going from house to house begging for bits of food or a pot of wine or milk; if they were married, their husbands were day laborers, but more often they were wid­ows and lived alone. Their poverty stands out in the confessions.

Silvia FEDERICI, Caliban and the Witch, p. 171

Witch hunting was also instrumental to the construction of 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 resources.This means that the witch hunters were less interested in the punishment of any specific transgressions than in the elimination of generalized forms of female behavior which they no longer tolerated and had to be made abominable in the eyes of the population. That the charges in the trials often referred to events that had occurred decades earlier, that witchcraft was made a crimen exceptum, that is, a crime to be investigated by special means, torture included, and it was punishable even in the absence of any proven damage to persons and things -all these factors indicate that the target of the witch-hunt – (as it is often true with political repression in times of intense social change and conflict) -were not socially recognized crimes, but previously accepted practices and groups of individuals that had to be eradicated from the community, through terror and criminalization. In this sense, the charge of witchcraft performed a function similar to that performed by “high trea­son” (which, significantly, was introduced into the English legal code in the same years), and the charge of “terrorism” in our times. The very vagueness of the charge – the fact that it was impossible to prove it, while at the same time it evoked the maximum of hor­ror – meant that it could be used to punish any form of protest and to generate suspi­cion even towards the most ordinary aspects of daily life.

Silvia FEDERICI, Caliban and the Witch, p. 170