Few phrases in the English language evoke the unique horror associated with the words “witch hunt” in any context. That specific form of religious persecution has become synonymous with injustice, so much so that notorious criminals will routinely invoke the words when deflecting questions about legitimate charges. The historical phenomena of witch hunts peaked between the 16th and 17th Centuries in Western Europe and the Americas. The social upheaval caused by the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death put women into positions of power that challenged the established patriarchal hierarchies of the old feudalism. Joan of Arc was a young peasant girl who dressed in masculine clothing and assumed the role of a charismatic leader at a critical time in the war against the English. Regardless of whether her visionary testimonies where manifestations of a mental illness, or merely the expression of the intense religiosity of the era in which she lived, they were cruelly turned against her in a trial that sought to strip her of all power and destroy her heroic status through public humiliation. In the aftermath of Joan’s grizzly defamation, her former second-in-command, one of the richest and most powerful men in France began staging lavish spectacles reenacting Joan’s military victories and glorifying her as divinely inspired martyr. Authorities concerned about his extravagant spending on these performances would ultimately charge Giles de Rais with not just witchcraft, but having committed heinous crimes against children during Satanic rituals. The penalty for these charges was not just death, but the forfeiture of all of his lands and titles to the Duke of Brittany, who stood to acquire a tremendous amount of wealth upon his conviction.
Some modern French historians have recently asserted that Giles de Rais was innocent, and that the coerced confessions were fabricated to ensure what amounted to the legalized theft of both his property and his place in history. Whether one accepts the case against him as valid, or believe he was the victim of a conspiracy; the question itself speaks to the material effect of the witch hunts as a phenomenon. As Silvia Federici argues in her book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, the practical outcome of the witch hunts was the systematic subjugation of women into an inferior class of people. From Ireland’s Dame Alice Kyteler to the Hungarian Countess Bathory, rich and powerful women where persecuted into submission on the threat of torture and death. For lower class women whose social power was not backed by political influence, the witch hunts set strict constraints on their options in life. Women became defined by their reproductive fertility, as their primary social function became the perpetuation of the working classes. Women who did not conform to this narrow set of gender roles would be harshly punished, ostracized, and often killed.
In the Catholic world the business of hunting witches was regulated by the Church and focused on suppressing heresies. Non-Christians suffered extreme intolerance from secular authorities, Jewish people were forced into ghettos, the Roma people were excluded from entering towns or even crossing their boarders, and the practice of indigenous folk religions were systematically criminalized. Non-conformist Christian groups like the Cathars, who advocated gender equality and rejected marriage, were persecuted out of existence. The Protestant Reformation and resulting Wars of Religion allowed the feudal nobility to further enrich themselves by rejecting the authority of Rome and starting their own churches. Thus, the first Protestant King of England would use charges of witchcraft to order the killing of his own wife. As Protestantism in the British Isles splintered into competing denominations, the authorities governing just who could hunt witches became deregulated. Local noblemen and church leaders took it as their right to prosecute all manner of crimes including witchcraft, with disastrous results for the women across the British Empire. Matthew Hopkins styled himself a Witchfinder-General, despite having no relevant religious ordination or legal mandate to the title, he traveled the British countryside enriching himself as he terrorized towns and villages. In all reality, the man was not significantly different from a sadistic serial killer except that by call himself a witch hunter he was able to abduct torture and kill his victims in plain sight of their own communities.
The witch hunt as a historical phenomena peaked in Europe at the same time that feudal economies gave way to capitalist industrialization. The conventional narrative of Western History ascribes this to the benefits of the scientific revolution that manifested in the so called Age of Enlightenment. An equally valid understanding of the same events turns focus on how the Enlightenment was a direct product of coerced labor. The decline in European witch hunts followed the enclosure of the commons and transfers of rural peasants into factory towns, a restructuring of the workforce that reduced the social power of women dramatically and imposed greater material restrictions on personal freedoms across the board. In the Americas the virtues of the Enlightenment were unevenly distributed from the start, manifesting strongly in specific regions and not at all in others. Witch hunts were essential to the forced conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity, and in the suppression of African cultural expression among the enslaved. However, the scientific revolution gradually transformed the reasoning applied to witch hunts as the Modern era progressed.
Over the course of the 17th Century the authority of clergymen to diagnose demonic possession and witchcraft was replaced by that of medical doctors who diagnosed mental defects and social diseases. Modern society no longer believed in witchcraft making the fear of witches an increasingly ineffective tool of social control. The ever increasing popular belief in science made an individual’s sanity every bit as valuable as their soul, and to those who dismissed belief in the supernatural all together their sanity was even more precious. The Royal Bethlehem Hospital was formally established as a modern “lunatic asylum” within the same decade Matthew Hopkins embarked on his quasi-legal killing spree, a full fifty years before the Salem Witch Trials. It is a significant fact that the only person who appears to have had any practical knowledge of witchcraft in Salem at the time was an Afro-Caribbean slave.
Perhaps the best proof of the validity of Frederici’s approach to viewing witch hunts as a form of economic control is found the American witch hunts of the 19th Century. The atheistic regime of Napoleon Bonaparte was no less repressive of Haitian Voodoo that his royalist predecessors, because his personal racism was founded on science rather than religion. In the context of the ongoing revolution for Haitian liberation, the practice of Voodoo took on a political potency as an act of resistance. This adherence to shamanic tradition as a rejection of the colonizers’ religion manifested in North America when a Shawnee prophet named Tenskwatatwa inspired his older brother Tecumseh to forge an inter-tribal solidarity movement to resist the Westward expansion of the United States. The young republic, lead by rational men of science, nevertheless prosecuted a series of witch hunts that amounted to the prototype of modern concepts of genocide.
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400 years ago women were “defined by their reproductive fertility,” but it seems like that has not changed very much because we are continually interrogated about our status. And it gets worse with the current state of affairs in this world as we haven’t progressed very far since, “Women who did not conform to this narrow set of gender roles would be harshly punished, ostracized, and often killed.” Not much different in 2022 when we are still made to feel like there is something wrong with us if we do not conform with ideals created by this society; ideals constructed by white middle-aged men in positions of power.
Yes, Caroline, I’m sad to say you are quite right. For all our appearances of modernity, very little has changed. One of the most difficult parts of writing this article was that current events kept exposing how contemporary these issues still are.
It has become even more grim since you wrote your article after the overturning of Roe v Wade by the US Supreme Court. My heart breaks for the US right now.