Witch-hunts and the transition to capitalism?

Witch-hunts and the transition to capitalism?

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:

Federici, p.164 wrote:
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:

Federici, p208 wrote:
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'.

Comments

Juan Conatz
Dec 20 2011 06:11

I haven't read this book, but the topic has interested me recently. I remember reading the wikipedia page for it and what's listed is 40,000-60,000 as a more agreed upon esitimate, although these esitmates seem contested and revised often.

This is from a page on witch hunt myths. By a professor at a Catholic college in the States it looks like.

Quote:
#6. Millions of people died because of the Witch Hunts.

FACT: While millions of people might have been affected, the best estimates of recent historians range from 50,000 to 200,000 dead.

COMMENTARY: The earlier estimates, too often the figure of 9 to 10 million dead is cited, were grossly exaggerated; no respectable historian supports them anymore. Modern figures concerning the number of executed witches are based on a much closer examination of the surviving historical records, combined with reasonable guesswork and statistical analysis for those areas and periods lacking clear sources. The hunts were anything but constant, systematic or frequent.

That some villages were wiped out by witch hunters is also an exaggeration. There is little evidence for such devastation. One extreme example is reported from 1589, where only two women were left in one village in the Trier diocese after a hunt (Wolfang Behringer, ed. Hexen und Hexenprozesse in Deutschland, 4th ed. (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000), 205, #124). But that left the men. In any case, such thoroughness and ferocity were extremely rare. Further, any particular area had hunts irregularly, and many regions had no hunts at all.

Even the much lower figure of under 50,000 dead would have meant over a hundred thousand put on trial. Then, considering all the personnel involved in the justice system as court officials and witnesses, friends and family members, and those who even felt the "fear" caused by the hunts, millions of peoples lives changed, usually for the worse, because of the witch hunts.

From a website called Gendercide, which I know nothing about.

Quote:
How many died?

"The most dramatic [recent] changes in our vision of the Great Hunt [have] centered on the death toll," notes Jenny Gibbons. She points out that estimates made prior to the mid-1970s, when detailed research into trial records began, "were almost 100% pure speculation." (Gibbons, Recent Developments.) "On the wilder shores of the feminist and witch-cult movements," writes Robin Briggs, "a potent myth has become established, to the effect that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe; gendercide rather than genocide. [See, e.g., the witch-hunt documentary "The Burning Times".] This is an overestimate by a factor of up to 200, for the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were men." Briggs adds that "these figures are chilling enough, but they have to be set in the context of what was probably the harshest period of capital punishments in European history." (Briggs, Witches & Neighbours, p. 8.)

Brian Levack's book The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe arrives at roughly similar conclusions. Levack "surveyed regional studies and found that there were approximately 110,000 witch trials. Levack focused on recorded trials, not executions, because in many cases we have evidence that a trial occurred but no indication of its outcomes. On average, 48% of trials ended in an execution, [and] therefore he estimated 60,000 witches died. This is slightly higher than 48% to reflect the fact that Germany, the center of the persecution, killed more than 48% of its witches." (Gibbons, Recent Developments.)

Nonetheless, in the view of Gendercide Watch, even such a reduced and diffused death-toll should be considered "gendercidal," in that it inflicted mass gender-selective killing on European women. Such killing does not need to be totalizing, either in its ambitions or its impact, to meet the definitions of gendercide and genocide that we use. Indeed, it is arguable that at no other time in European history have adult women been targeted selectively, on such a scale, for torture and annihilation.

Joseph Kay
Dec 20 2011 15:03

Thanks Juan.

Looking into this a bit more. Federici's principal source is Anne Barstow's Witchcraze, which according to the Amazon synopsis "explores the annihilation of more than seven million women". We shouldn't judge a book on its synopsis, but that does sound alarm bells about it being in the hyperbole camp. I mean tens of thousands of murders is horrific and still demands an explanation (and Federici's appeals to my ideological biases), but 7 million would have been 10% of the population of Europe, and 1 in 5 of the women! I'll try and track down a copy of Barstow's book and have a look at the claims. Edit: That Jenny Gibbons piece says this: "I have never seen a copy of Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been ignored or reviled by most scholarly historians."

So anyway, this made me start checking out some of Federici's other claims. On page 175 Federici presents a graph of witch trials between 1505 and 1650, drawn from "the area of Namur and Lorraine in France, but it is representative of the persecution in other European countries." I checked this out as there's a notorious hoax by Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon and readers are therefore advised to "beware of any trial set in Toulouse or Carcasonne". Namur and Lorraine aren't anywhere near those places, so all seemed fine. Except, Namur is not in France, it's in Belgium. To be fair, it looks like the city changed hands numerous times between the Habsbourg Netherlands, Charles V's Spain, France, Burgandy and Austria. So giving the benefit of the doubt it's possible Federici's source was from a time it was ruled by the French crown. Or it could be a simple typo. But that still leaves the claim that data from two small regions (indeed, in violently contested border areas including the 30 years war, "one of the most destructive conflicts in European history") is representative of the whole continent. The source given is Henry Kamen's 1972 Iron Century: Social Change in Europe, 1550-1660. Apparently, scholarly texts written prior to 1975 are unreliable, and in any case Kamen's is a general social history and not specifically focussed on the witch hunts, so he presumably drew on the existing (speculative) literature available at the time.

It feels a bit Gillian McKeith tbh:

Ben Goldacre wrote:
And the scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold: she produces lengthy documents that have an air of “referenciness”, with nice little superscript numbers, which talk about trials, and studies, and research, and papers … but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it’s shocking how often they aren’t what she claimed them to be in the main body of the text.

It's not as bad as McKeith's fictional medicine. Certainly tens of thousands of people were killed. They were overwhelmingly women. This demands an explanation. But like I say, it's annoying because I'm sympathetic to the analysis and dodgy history makes me feel like I've been duped.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 20 2011 16:52

Really, only 50% of witch trials ended in a execution? I guess I'd always been taught that sink/float thing was the trial and, once accused, death was an inevitability. Were there other punishments (banishment maybe?) if one was 'convicted'?

Joseph Kay
Dec 20 2011 15:31

Apparently prior to 1975, only the most sensational cases were known and reported, and these informed the 'common sense' of the witch hunts. "Scholars were basing their theories on only 3% of the available evidence. And that 3% was vastly different from the other 97%." That piece continues:

Jenny Gibbons wrote:
Consider the case in York, England, as described by Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic). At the height of the Great Hunt (1567-1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight "compurgators", people who were willing to swear that he wasn't a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.

The vast majority of witches were condemned by secular courts. Ironically, the worst courts were local courts. Some authors, like Anne Llewellyn Barstow (Witchcraze), blame the death toll on the decline of the "community-based" medieval court, and the rise of the centralized "national" court. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Community-based" courts were often virtual slaughterhouses, killing 90% of all accused witches. National courts condemned only about 30% of the accused.

(although England wasn't necessarily typical, I think Germany was the centre of it).

Noa Rodman
Dec 20 2011 16:00
Federici wrote:
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.

This is just too good to pass up and mention Kautsky again.

Die materiellen Grundlagen der Hexenprozesse, 471 p., 1892 (or 1891 - it's omitted from the online archives of the Die Neue Zeit):

Karl Kautsky wrote:
Die Hexenverfolgungen gehören zu den historischen Erscheinungen, denen gegenüber die herkömmliche idealistische Geschichtsauffassung am kläglichsten Schiffbruch gelitten hat. Sie ist nicht im Stande, Sie zu erklären. Denn es ist ein Erfindung liberalisirender Geschichtschreiber, das die Hexenprozesse (und die Inquisition) dem ,,finsteren Mittelalter" (this is all that googlebooks previews)
LBird
Dec 20 2011 16:12

Seems to have all the scholarly rigor of:

Man, accusing woman of being a witch: "She turned me into a newt!"

[everyone looks at him]

Man: "I got better."

Joseph Kay
Dec 20 2011 19:17

I'm trying to work out how much this effects the argument of the book. If 'only' 60,000 people were killed (the top end of the apparent consensus range), and 80% were women, that's 48,000 dead. Over 300 years, that averages at 160/year across Europe, which for the sake of this rough calculation we'll take as having an average population of 80 million, so 40 million women. That would make the incidence 0.4 per 100,000 population.1 For comparison, 2010 mortality statistics for England and Wales would make it nowhere near a leading cause of death, and broadly comparable to female deaths from domestic violence in the UK (0.35 per 100,000).2

Now there are problems with this rough working. For starters, the witch hunts apparently weren't a steady trickle of killings, but periodic bouts of intensified killing followed by decades of nothing. Averaging it all out makes it look less violent than it was, when it was at its worst. However on the other hand, it shows that the female deaths over Federici's three centuries are roughly comparable to the deaths caused by domestic violence in the UK today. That's certainly endemic. It's appalling. It demands an analysis of why such gendered violence is so pervasive, and how it relates to the state, social (re)production etc. But it isn't a genocide.

It may well be that the witch hunts were related to disciplining women into a role as passive baby-makers in the emerging wage-labour relations. But the scale suggests it wasn't as central to the transition to capitalism as Federici suggests. Of course, periodic spectacular trials and executions could have had a massive deterrent effect on 'deviant' women and herbalism etc, so I think something like Federici's argument could be salvaged, despite the seemingly exaggerated numbers. But it's incredibly frustrating. If anything, attempts to overturn orthodoxies (such as the supposed Marxist silence on the suffering of women the transition to capitalism) should make sure to use impeccable scholarship way beyond the orthodox accounts. Otherwise it's vulnerable to easy refutation, and the important theoretical contributions can get thrown out with the bathwater of bad history. I don't want to do that, but on the other hand, I don't want to cite Caliban and the Witch to back up anything I say as it looks like it could be easily refuted.

  • 1. 160 / 40,000,000 x 100,000
  • 2. '2 deaths per week' x 52 weeks divided by 30m female population of UK multiplied by 100,000.
Red Marriott
Dec 21 2011 20:22
JK wrote:
If anything, attempts to overturn orthodoxies (such as the supposed Marxist silence on the suffering of women the transition to capitalism) should make sure to use impeccable scholarship way beyond the orthodox accounts. Otherwise it's vulnerable to easy refutation, and the important theoretical contributions can get thrown out with the bathwater of bad history.

Much the same applies to at least some of the Black Flame book on anarchist history - which has been uncritically praised by some anarchists and its glaring inaccuracies excused. http://libcom.org/forums/history-culture/new-historical-syndicalist-book-03032009
With Federici she may be only guilty of uncritically accepting certain unreliable sources and failing to cross-reference - it's perhaps worse in the case of Black Flame authors as, eg on Gramsci, the sources they cite as evidence don't support their claims at all; http://libcom.org/forums/history-culture/books-italian-anarcho-syndicalism-05102010#comment-400771
It seems there may be little reason to assume that (ultra)leftist historians are any more reliable than others.

Nate
Dec 23 2011 06:27

Great post JK, thanks for this. I really, really like that book and will now have to look it over again after I get back home. I think your over all point is dead on - the bigger the claim and the more important it is, the higher the standards needed for supporting it. Wanted to add...

Jenny Gibbons wrote:
Ironically, the worst courts were local courts. (...) "Community-based" courts were often virtual slaughterhouses, killing 90% of all accused witches. National courts condemned only about 30% of the accused.

This doesn't surprise me at all for whatever it's worth. In local disputes local courts were likely to be less just and more rushed and in a way more politicized.

On this -

Joseph Kay wrote:
If 'only' 60,000 people were killed (the top end of the apparent consensus range), and 80% were women, that's 48,000 dead. Over 300 years, that averages at 160/year across Europe, which for the sake of this rough calculation we'll take as having an average population of 80 million, so 40 million women. That would make the incidence 0.4 per 100,000 population. (...) the witch hunts apparently weren't a steady trickle of killings, but periodic bouts of intensified killing followed by decades of nothing. (...)it isn't a genocide. It may well be that the witch hunts were related to disciplining women into a role as passive baby-makers in the emerging wage-labour relations. But the scale suggests it wasn't as central to the transition to capitalism as Federici suggests. Of course, periodic spectacular trials and executions could have had a massive deterrent effect on 'deviant' women and herbalism etc, so I think something like Federici's argument could be salvaged, despite the seemingly exaggerated numbers.

That makes sense to me. The impact wasn't quantitative so much as the power of those spectacularly brutal examples. That sounds plausible and sensible... I'm thinking out loud here, it seems to me that showing the importance of any phenomenon in the transition to capitalism, in the sense of showing that it set up particulars of capitalism, would have to show those particulars of capitalism then drop a line backward that shows where those particulars came from. Otherwise all it would really show I think is that there were these additional horrors during the transition. Slavery and race in the western hemisphere's a good comparison, I think. It's pretty easy to show that all that stuff in the early days of capitalism had important effects later, but doing so involves paying more attention to later things like segregation etc. Know what I mean?

Joseph Kay
Dec 23 2011 08:24

Slavery's a good example: it's fairly well established that the plantations were pretty fundamental to capitalism. That Lancashire cotton which clothed the world didn't harvest itself. Also, something Graeber says in 'Debt' is that the late medieval/early modern village economy was based on a form of credit inseparable from personal reputation and trust. It was a largely oral culture (illiteracy was the norm), so extrapolating, even if every village did only have one or two witch trials over three centuries, together with the stories from the neighbouring villages that would probably be enough of a spectacular deterrent. Although as a counter, Graeber also points out how the village economy meant everyone was both a debtor and creditor. When debt was made a capital offence, this unleashed huge violence as virtually anyone could call in their debt, go to court and have someone executed. Add this to the slaughters of the heresies and the peasant wars, and it was a very violent period in European history. That doesn't (necessarily) diminish the importance of the witch hunts for setting the place of women, but it places it in a context of more generalised organised violence.

Joseph Kay
Dec 23 2011 09:15
Joseph Kay wrote:
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?

On this, someone linked this thesis, which argues that rape wasn't so much decriminalised as only ever criminalised in name, but never properly enforced.

Stephanie Brown wrote:
This thesis explores the legal history of rape prosecutions in thirteenth and fourteenth century England. Section I explicates the apparent paradox between chapter 34 of the Statute of Westminster II’s classification of rape as the most serious type of crime known to English law and the numerous difficulties that women faced when prosecuting men for rape under its stipulations. Section II shows that Edward was partially responsible for chapter 34 of Westminster II’s failure to facilitate royal court prosecutions because Edward never intended to protect his female citizens through rape legislation. Thus, royal judges were able to disregard Edward’s rape laws and acquit rapists with impunity.
dohball
Apr 9 2012 19:19

i just mailed silvia federici to ask her if she would comment in this discussion - maybe she will have time? that would be cool!

Chilli Sauce
Apr 9 2012 21:14

That would be cool!

Hamandcheese
Jul 11 2012 06:53

admin: comment removed which appeared to be an ill thought out joke

Matt
Dec 8 2013 17:07

Was thinking of reading this book and I'm curious if there's any updates to Jospeh Kay's points?

rositalibre
Oct 4 2016 08:36

How amazing! All these men refuting women's herstory as we have lived it, experienced it, and have known it. Shame on you!

rositalibre
Oct 4 2016 09:12

Barbara G. Walker does not mention numbers but talks about the decimation of the wise women by the Church.

Did all of this happen just about the same time as the Church demoted Mary to 2nd class deity?

Imagine being a female survivor of the Inquisition and her population has been reduced from 51% to 15-20%? Would that not be intimidating? Women build societies by working together. Grieving her women folk would render her handicapped in her work on two counts. Men began to fill the jobs she held prior of leadership and healer (the court doctors, the forceps for maternal delivery). Even today, we say the doctor delivers the baby. Hello???? Who delivers? Who receives?

Capitalism thrives on the subjugation of masses of people to cut down the competition; we can see that even today in the treatment of Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Chicanas, white women. That is how the 1% has been achieved. Everyone else is at the bottom.

Capitalism and Democracy do not go together.

http://churchandstate.org.uk/2016/09/how-local-wise-women-who-carried-on-ancient-traditions-were-exterminated-by-christianity/

Juan Conatz
Oct 10 2016 17:16

I don't think women get a pass on facts and sources just because they are women writing about women's history. If people find questionable sources it should be pointed out. To not do so is treating adults like children and is what I consider a form of "good intention" discrimination. If I were to write something about the history of Puerto Ricans in Chicago, I would not want my status as a Puerto Rican in Chicago to keep people from pointing out where I may have made mistakes.

Does anyone know if Silvia Federici ever responded to this?

Looking back on this post, and the comments, I think some of us were right to check up on the sources and whether figures were correct. Although, maybe not as much anymore, I feel like this book was accepted as common sense among some people on the far left. But I do think some of the point was missed.

Even if the figures were off, and more in tune with what Joseph Kay says, which is 160 a year in a population of 80 million, the central thesis of the book could easily still stand, in my opinion. For a rough comparison, consider racialized lynchings in the United States. Over a 77 year period, black Americans were lynched on an average of about 54 a year, in a population than ranged from 50 million to 151 million. This is about a third of the rate of organized violence J.K. suspects might be the real figure in reference to Federici's claims. Yet, there's no denying that the organized violence against blacks in the form of lynching was vital to the racial hierarchy and the unique development of capitalism and class in the United States.