I remember when I first Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch I liked its synthesis of autonomist Marxist emphasis on class struggle and Foucauldian 'politics of the body', situating the womens struggles as a site of class conflict. But I also had some nagging doubts about elements of the historical narrative.
Since the book makes the explicit claim that patriarchal histories have written out women, I put this down to a dissonance between received patriarchal 'common sense' and the book, and gave the book the benefit of the doubt. Anyhow, I just got into a conversation about the scale of the witch hunts, and looked up Federici. Here's what she has to say:
Marxist historians, by contrast, even when studying the "transition to capitalism," with very few exceptions, have consigned the witch-hunt to oblivion, as if it were irrelevant to the history of the class struggle. Yet, the dimensions of the massacre should have raised some suspicions, as hundreds of thousands of women were burned, hanged and tortured in less than two centuries.3
This seems to claim a minimum of 200,000 women were killed. I followed the endnote to this claim, expecting a list of academic references... Instead I found this:
3. How many witches were burned? This has remained a controversial question in the scholarship on the witch-hunt and a difficult one to answer, since many trials were not recorded or, if they were, the number of women executed was not specified. In addition, many documents in which we may find references to witchcraft trials have not yet been studied or have been destroyed. In the 1970s, E.W. Monter noted, for instance, that it was impossible to calculate the number of secular witch-trials that had taken place in Switzerland because these were often mentioned only in fiscal records and these records had not yet have not been analyzed (1976: 21). Thirty years later, accounts wildly differ.
While some feminist scholars argue that the number of witches equals that of the Jews killed in Nazi Germany, according to Anne L. Barstow, on the basis of the present state of archival work, we are justified if we assume that approximately 200,000 women were accused of witchcraft over a space of three centuries and a lesser number of them were killed. (...) Taking into account those who were lynched, Barstow concludes that at least 100,000 women were killed.
This strikes me as, at best, incredibly sloppy scholarship. Nothing in the endnote anywhere near substantiates the claim in the text that "hundreds of thousands of women were burned, hanged and tortured in less than two centuries". The comparison to the number of Jews killed in the holocaust - commonly believed to between 5 and 6 million - is not referenced, and frankly seems incredibly high, given as the population of Europe as a whole was only around 70 million in the mid 16th century (having recovered from the Black Death). Killing on this scale would surely be better documented, either in archives or the excavation of mass graves. The highest referenced figure for deaths is 100,000. I haven't checked out the reference yet, let alone compared it with the other literature on the subject. But this means by Federici's own evidence, her headline claim of "hundreds of thousands" of victims is not supported.
Why does this matter? For three reasons I think. First, call me old fashioned but I'm a stickler for scholarship. If you make factual claims, back them up with references so your readers can check. If you're speculating or extrapolating, say so and provide a reasoned argument as to your claims, again with references. Federici only half does this (acknowledging accounts "wildly differ", and the point about the possible incompleteness of the archival evidence), but her claim still goes way beyond the facts she presents. Second, Federici goes as far to say that virtually all other historians 'indifference' to this "genocide (...) has bordered on complicity" (p.163). That's a very strong claim to be making about others, when her own claims go so far beyond the evidence presented. Third, the violence of the witch-hunts is central to the thesis of the book. If this doesn't stand up, what about the other claims such as "the legalization of rape" (p.48), which apparently laid the groundwork for the witch-hunts?1 What about the claim that opposition to birth control was a major motive for the witch-hunts (p.180), a pivot between the autonomist theoretical framework and the historical account? These are important planks of the argument that the disciplining of women as (re)producers of labour power was a key part of the primitive accumulation which accompanied the birth of capitalism. I'm sympathetic to the argument, which is why the sloppy scholarship is bugging me.
So, does anyone have any decent sources on the witch-hunts? Has anyone researched this themselves? Have the claims of the book been challenged already by other historians (preferably not anti-feminist ones)? While it's certainly possible the numbers are under-reported, if Federici's right and there's lots of archival evidence waiting to be analysed and collated, it seems like someone would have already read her book and done a PhD on it. I'm willing to be convinced, but I am feeling a bit sheepish about taking the book at face value now tbh.
- 1. This claim begins as "practically decriminalized rape" (p.47; my emphasis) on the grounds that rapes of poor women often went unpunished. Sadly, this is still overwhelmingly the case, but isn't the same thing as legalising it. By the next page, 'practically legalised' has become a matter of fact 'legalised'.