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Were Witches the first Ecofeminists?

The witch-hunts that were conducted in medieval Europe from the 15th Century until around 1730 resulted in the murder of an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people, almost all of whom were women. In Silvia Federici’s 2018 book Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women, she talks about the many functions of the witch hunts. These included depriving women of social power within communities, compelling them to submit to patriarchal control, and discrediting a conception of nature that had set limits on the exploitation of the female body. Federici notes the way in which the parallel development of capitalism also created conditions favourable to the exploitation and domination of the natural world. The reasons identified by Federici for the witch trials, particularly in England, coincide with a hegemonic shift in ownership and control that occurred throughout medieval Europe, in terms of land organisation and the national economic system, but which also extended to changing ideas about gender, power in society and control of the natural world.

Social transformations in medieval Europe

In the early medieval period, many European societies existed as feudal systems, where most people lived in poverty as peasants, whilst the clergy and nobles, as the elites of their day, held all of the wealth. Subsistence farming by the peasant class involved the sharing of common land as pasture and for crops. In these communities, the elders were respected and cared for, and the poverty-stricken were looked after. Magna Carta granted various customary rights to widows and other poor, property-less individuals. The Charter of the Forest of 1215 gave widows the rights to food, wood and sustenance[1], and the homeless were guaranteed the right to sleep overnight in churches. So, although people lived impoverished lives, they did so in communities with strong social bonds.

In the late 16th and 17th Centuries, however, a major agricultural shift occurred, from the open field system to private land enclosures and the farming of cash crops. The land enclosure acts allowed nobles and the wealthier commoners to buy the rights to land, destroying the commons and creating private consolidated farms. A large percentage of the population who had their land taken away were pauperised, which drastically changed social relations within farming communities. Those who had their land taken and those who took the land were still living alongside one another, and the dispossessed would walk the same paths as some of the people who had impoverished them. The dynamics within villages would become hostile and polarised, and the socially excluded might have to beg door to door for money and be labelled as nuisances to their more well-off neighbours. Widows were often the victims of such unjust dispossession and social exclusion, and the unpopular figure of the melancholy witch was born.

Female knowledge and power in European early medieval societies

It is useful to think about witchcraft philosophically in comparison to capitalism. Witchcraft is, at its simplest, a refusal of an explanation. As a veneration of nature and spirituality, witchcraft accepts the forces at work within the natural world in all their mystery and complexity. By contrast, the cultural forces driving capitalism sought to extract raw materials from the natural world and transform them into products with labour and machines. Witchcraft is about working with the grain of nature, not against it, both to nourish the world and be nourished by it. The new philosophy that viewed the natural world as a resource to be exploited was part of the changing hegemony in medieval Europe. Societies were thus driven away from traditional and mythical forms of knowledge towards an understanding of the natural world derived from the principles of extraction, control and manipulation. The emergence of these new principles enabled successive scientific, industrial and technological revolutions, which in turn accompanied and supported the development of the capitalist system. Federici sees the practice of magic as ‘the refusal of work in action’[2], putting trust in the processes of the natural world, aligning human goals with those of the natural world, and harnessing natural processes to meet human needs without having to understand the how or why of nature’s way. The goal of the new system, by contrast, was to capture the raw materials of the natural world and transform them into stores of private wealth.

Women held power in medieval communities for three reasons: their special knowledge of magic and healing with plants, that would be passed down through the generations to their daughters; the strong social bonds that existed between women within their communities; and the direct connection of each woman to her own body, her sexuality, her individual reproductive power and ultimately the community’s fertility.

The witch trials, therefore, can be seen as an attack on the autonomous female identity in mind and body, and the power it held in every possible aspect.

Particularly through the wondrous fact of her own reproductive power, a woman in the pre-modern period was recognised as having a special understanding of nature, and often might be a practitioner of magic, healing and midwifery. By contrast, the formal medical knowledge of Hippocrates and Galen was based on a familiarity with the male body. Midwifery was therefore chiefly practised by women, who would learn their craft from other women. It will be no surprise to learn therefore that midwives were commonly tried as witches, attacked for their traditional knowledge and the social power it conferred and blamed for unsuccessful deliveries.[3] As feudal communities declined, and land was enclosed, the purview of male-dominated medicine expanded to enclose healing and midwifery, disempowering women, depriving them of their income, and devaluing their status within their own communities.

A second source of female power in early medieval societies was derived from their deep social connections with other women. Witch trials often sought to undermine bonds of female solidarity and remove any independence that women might have from their husbands. The most blatant embodiment of this idea is the changing of the meaning of gossip. Prior to the early modern period, the word gossip meant a close friendship between women, but by the 16th Century this had changed to how we now understand the word: idle, spiteful talk behind another person’s back. In the late middle ages, women could still stand up to their husbands, spending time drinking with their female friends and complaining about marriage, but by the end of the 16th century they could be severely punished for asserting any such independence, with the moral power to do so handed to men from the church. A woman who did speak out or show any deviation to the new social norms was now labelled a witch and often tortured; contraptions like the scolds’ bridle or gossip bridle were first seen in Scotland in 1567, which would tear the wearer’s tongue if they attempted to speak. The alteration of the meaning of gossip was also to devalue the work of women who have historically been honourers of the oral tradition. It was the older women who remembered the land dispossession, and would keep these memories alive orally, with such knowledge bringing power. Therefore, the smear campaign against gossip was used to erase and degrade this form of knowledge, as well as being a tool to separate and pit women against each other in the war against witches, asking them to choose which side of the stake they wanted to be on.

The third way women held social power outside of the control of the capitalist class and/or men was through their relationship with their own body, or their sexual identity. Eros has always been seen as an uncontrollable force and therefore a threat to those in power. As England entered the Early Modern period, there began a campaign led by the Church to paint female sexuality as an instrument of the devil. The repression of female desire was placed in favour of utilitarian goals like male satisfaction and the creation of a work force, most famously so in the witch-condemning text ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, where the writer chose to demonize femininity to protect the patriarchal structure of the Church from being corrupted by male weakness in the face of female sexual power. Throughout this period, the Church in Medieval England changed from catholic to protestant, to puritan and back again, but all continued this tradition. The Church aided capitalism’s development, transforming sex into a process whose primary purpose and function was the production of a god-fearing labour force.

Ecofeminism, Capitalism and the Church.

The growth of capitalist enterprise and the growth of the protestant Church in the 16th century had a mutually reinforcing relationship, through the alignment of the theological principles of hard work, abstinence and deferred gratification with the needs of capitalism. [4] This combination facilitated exponential growth of capitalism in its early stages, and the connection between the Church and the capitalist class is just as important for understanding the persecution of witches. The continued development of capitalism, the growth of the cash economy, the creation of the nuclear family and the formation of the patriarchy all benefited from a moral code and change in values that were set by the Church.

Witchcraft is therefore not only a representation of anti-capitalist sentiment through its reverence of providential nature in all of its complexity, beauty and mystery, but also as an embodiment of female power, autonomy and rebellion. It is in this context that many women in the West have sought to identify medieval witchcraft as an Eco-feminist movement and reclaim its naturalistic philosophy for modernity. One of the most significant of the Ecofeminist movements that made these connections started in San Francisco in 1979, led by Starhawk and Diane Baker, who reclaimed spiritual paganism and Goddess worship as alternatives to the patriarchal biblical religions from which they had become estranged.[5] The idea of replacing the patriarchal God of the Bible with the nature-oriented Goddess Gaia has found resonance with many ecofeminist thinkers, such as Rosemary Radford Reuther.

But as Federici points out, even today, there are witch hunts against women in many countries around the world, and the global rise of violence against women seems to be rooted in similar structural problems of land dispossessions and capitalist development that happened in medieval Europe. This is because globalisation, as the attempt to gain capital control over the world’s wealth and labour, cannot be achieved without attacking women who are the direct means of reproduction of that labour. It makes sense, then, that the places where this violence has increased the most are places with rich natural resources for commercial exploitation. Mining and oil companies clear large territories, removing people from their ancestral lands, whilst brutalising women to send a message of domination to those communities

In Africa, assaults on ‘witches’ have increased significantly in the last thirty years, with one account claiming that between 1991 and 2001, at least 23,000 ‘witches’ were killed.[6] According to a report published in 2010, around 3,000 women were exiled in ‘witch camps’ in the north of Ghana, having been issued with death threats that forced them to leave their communities.[7] ‘Cleansing’ campaigns have also been launched, wherein ‘witch finders’ go from village to village conducting what are often humiliating public interrogations and exorcisms. In one of the central provinces of Zambia, 176 ‘witch finders’ were active in the summer of 1997, and many of the women they accused were exiled from their villages, then tortured and killed.[8]

It seems clear that traditional forms of knowledge, based on a more holistic view and an understanding of the natural world and our place within it, encourage us to respect the earth as a ‘common treasury for all’, not to treat it as a resource to be drained of its riches. There is a deeper connection and meaning to be found in what nature has to offer beyond its capacity to provide material resources. This is not to downplay the importance of modern technologies and our scientific understanding of nature, but when this knowledge is used to fuel extractive capitalism it not only causes economic inequality, but also damages the natural world - something we can readily see today in the climate meltdown. The erasure of traditional forms of knowledge is therefore not only an erasure of female voices, knowledge and power, but it is also a submission to the inhuman and unnatural forces of capital accumulation, giving up the precious, life-sustaining ‘common treasury’ that belongs equally to all of us. The magic and wonder of nature must not be burned like the first ecofeminists.

[1] Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 29, 39-40. [2] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch [3] Myriam Greilsammer, The Midwife, the priest, and the physician: The Subjugation of Midwifes in the Low Countries at the End of the Middle Ages (The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1991) 21: 285-329 [4] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Great Britain, Unwin Paperbacks, 1985) [5] Jone Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism: The reclaiming witches of San Franscisco. [6] Richard Petraitis, “The Witch Killers of Africa” [7] Karen Palmer, Spellbound: Inside west Africa’s Witch camps (New York: Free Press, 2010) [8] Hugo F. Hinfelaar, “Witch-Hunting in Zambia and International illegal trade”, In Haar, Imagining Evil, 233.

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