Witch Hunts and World History: A Feminist History of Capitalism

Thus far in our exploration of Eurocentrism (and its crtics) in the writing of modern world history, my graduate students and I have not seen radical challenges to keeping Europe at the center. For all their efforts to redress the balance in favor of the non-West, critics of Eurocentrism– not surprisingly– remain constrained by the very Eurocentrism then want to challenge.

Here is the first of two overviews of scholarly interventions which approach modern history “laterally” and strive to avoid reproducing the very fundamentals that under gird a Eurocentric outlook. The first comes from a feminist working in the Marxist tradition.

Manchester, UK-based cartoonist P.J. Polyp's "Gold Diggers" illustrates the concept of primitive accumulation nicely.

Manchester, UK-based cartoonist P.J. Polyp’s “Gold Diggers” illustrates the concept of primitive accumulation nicely.

In Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004), Silvia Federici reaches back farther than we have ventured so far to locate the advent of the capitalist relations of production. As a Marxist, Federici believes that understanding capitalism is the only way to comprehend the nature of exploitation in our world. She rejects, however, the Marxist view that capitalism in Europe represented progress in the direction of freedom and equality over what preceded it. She also holds that “primitive accumulation”, Marxese for naked conquest, pillaging, and robbery, remains at the heart of capitalism. (Forcing peasants off their lands through land enclosures and robbing the Americas of their gold and silver are examples.) This goes counter to the view among many Marxists that primitive accumulation predated capitalism and explains how some people started out with enough wealth to create more wealth, ie. capital itself.

Yes, fine, but what about history and women? Between the 9th and 11th centuries, western European serfs had made significant gains against their overlords such that they were on the verge of creating a more egalitarian political and economic system than what preceded it and what was to follow. They had successfully resisted forced labor commitments (corvée) and military duties and, in many areas, had unfettered access to land. Dissident Christian movements of the late medieval period–notably the Cathars and the Waldensians, in Federici’s words, “liberation theology for the medieval proletariat” (33)– combined with urban protests and peasant uprisings to signal unprecedented gains on the part of the masses of medieval Europe. “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. By the end of the 14th century, land bondage had practically disappeared. Everywhere serfs were replaced by free farmers– copy holders or lease holders– who would accept work only for a substantial reward.” (47)

So, you ask, what went wrong? Federici’s argument about the transition to capitalism hinges on two transformations: 1) the monetization of peasant duties– whereby peasants could pay cash in lieu of labor duties or payments in kind — created a new class antagonism that would ultimately undermine previous gains; and 2) the ability of states and municipalities to co-opt males by decriminalizing rape and promoting prostitution  “turning class antagonisms into antagonisms against proletarian women.” (47) Between 1350 and 1450, publicly managed, tax financed brothels opened in every town and village in Italy and France creating what Federici dubs a “Sexual New Deal”.

Caliban (Todd Scofield) in Folger Theatre's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in 2007. A rebel slave born of a witch, Caliban (anagram for "cannibal"?), personified the fears of Europe's capitalist elite in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Caliban (Todd Scofield) in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 2007. A rebel slave born of a witch, Caliban (anagram for “cannibal”?), personified the fears of Europe’s capitalist elite in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

The degradation of working women coincided with the creation of an alliance between richer peasants, urban elites, the nobility, and the Church which turned the economic crisis of the late medieval period into what became the world capitalist system. The three prongs of this effort were witch hunts in Europe and the enslavement of native Americans and then Africans.

Before turning to the witch hunts, Federici, demonstrates how the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment created the ideology of the body-as-machine and strove to dispel all notions, such as magic, that are predicated on the unity of matter and spirit. Capitalist rationality was needed to eradicate all beliefs that might suggest one could obtain what one wanted without work.  Prophesy and fortune telling needed to be replaced with the calculation of probabilities. In sum, “The human  body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.” (146).

The witch, here depicted by German artist Hans Weiditz (d. 1537) embodied magic, herbal remedies (including birth control), and other qualities that threatened a capitalist order.

The witch, here depicted by German artist Hans Weiditz (d. 1537) embodied magic, herbal remedies (including birth control), and other qualities that threatened a capitalist order.

Woman’s body was the primary site for eradicating resistance to capitalism and to a rationalist ordering of the world. Witch hunts reached their peak between 1580-1630 when hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, and burned. This period corresponds to a time when male political elites were concerned with population decline. In addition to offering correctives to some of her Marxist colleagues, Federici also strives to reclaim feminism from those who would discount “woman” as category of analysis. Since reproduction is central to woman’s place in the capitalist order, social and cultural factors are not sufficient for understanding capitalism’s assault on women’s bodies. Furthermore, witch hunts also uncover the central role of new state structures in engineering the success of capitalist relations of production (and reproduction). Though some of their methods may have derived from the Inquisition, the witch hunts were administered by states and secular courts and not by the Church. “Witch hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal.” (170)

Here are two ways in which Federici offers alternatives to Eurocentric narratives of modern world history. On the one hand she argues for as deep a fissure as one could possible conceive of (that between the sexes) in Europe itself. You can’t have a center if it is completely divided against itself. On the other, her critique of capitalism (and of its Marxist critics) is fundamentally a critique of modernity itself insofar as capitalist exploitation and Enlightenment rationalism triumphed at the expense of medieval communalism and an enchanted view of the world.


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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2 Responses to Witch Hunts and World History: A Feminist History of Capitalism

  1. Carole Frick says:

    molto interessante Stefano! I think you’ll enjoy the class, even though my basic point will not be overtly Marxist.

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