Caliban and the Witch

I’ve mentioned a number of times on my Instagram account that I’ve been diving deeply into “Caliban and the Witch,” a fantastic but incredibly dense book by Silvia Federici.

This book covers the history and evolution of capitalism, and how that is connected to the:

  • Witch hunts
  • Persecution of women
  • Disconnection we continue to experience today from our bodies

I found this book so incredibly profound I wanted to share it with you all in a more digestible way, since I recognize it is unrealistic for everyone to read it themselves given how dense it is to get through. So I thought I’d write 3-4 chapter summary recaps outlining the key information from the book and the main takeaways I’ve had.

The following is still a bit dense because there is so much content to cover from the book, but I’ve tried to simplify it and make it as understandable as possible, distilling out the most important points. 

Since this is a bit of a tangent, I’m going to offer this first portion here as a blog.

If you want me to email you the rest of the chapter summaries as I get around to writing them, you can sign up to receive those as emails sent directly to you so you can continue to learn along with me. Just click here. 

Content Warning:

Before we dive in, I also want to offer a content warning.

The following discusses violence against women and sexual assault. It’s also generally pretty heavy, so if that won’t be supportive for you, this might be one to skip. 


Chapter One: All the World Needs a Jolt 

Most of us are likely familiar with the feudal system we learned about in grade school, in which serfs worked the land of their lords’. This system of serfdom was the dominant class relation in European society between the 5th and 14th century. While the story we are typically taught about this feudal system is one of oppression of the serfs, there is more to the story that seems critical to acknowledge in our understanding of how our current systems evolved. While the serfs were bound to work the land of their lords, they also received a plot of land of their own which they could use to support themselves. In addition, they had access to the “commons”, areas of shared land, which provided crucial economic resources and offered a space for community cohesion and cooperation. So, while serfdom was certainly oppressive, there were some components of this system that allowed for communal sustenance-based living. 

Throughout this time, it is also important to note that women were, according to Federici, less subservient to men than later on in capitalist society. In the feudal village, all work contributed to the family’s sustenance. Women worked the fields, raised children, cared for the home, and kept a garden – all of which were seen as equally important work to sustain the family. Housework was therefore not devalued in the same way it was later on in the capitalist money-economy, when domestic tasks would stop being seen as “real work” because they did not contribute financially. 

Of course, as is demonstrated by the ongoing revolts led by the serfs against the lords, this was an oppressive system. The primary focus of revolts at the time was a resistance to the forced labour serfs had to perform on the land of their lords, and a protest against the taxes paid to both lords and the Church. My understanding is that, eventually in response to these struggles, the lord-serf arrangement was changed so that instead of offering labour services in exchange for land, serfs had to pay rent for their land. For the well-to-do peasants this worked well as they had sufficient funds to pay the rent, but the majority of peasants who were poor could not afford to make the rent payments. This led to far greater class divisions between peasants, the loss of land for many who could not afford rent, and the production of a mass of poor people. 

Many of the landless poor moved to urban areas, creating a mass of poor folks looking for ways to survive. However, life in the city was just a new type of serfdom, this time under the rule of the guilds, artisans and merchants.

TLDR:

Okay, so let’s sum up what we’ve learned so far:

  • Serfdom sucked in many ways – it was super oppressive and the lords had all this power over the serfs.
  • But the serfs did have access to land, the “commons”, shared communal living, and women were really valued for their contribution to sustaining the family.
  • But the serfs didn’t want to perform forced labour and pay ridiculously high taxes and tithes anymore, so they revolted, and instead were met with rent payments they couldn’t afford, meaning many of them lost what little land they had, became more impoverished than ever, and many had to move into equally awful working conditions in the cities. 

The Heretic Movement

It’s also important to understand that as all this is going on, throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the heretic movement was beginning to form. This was arguably the most important opposition movement of the Middle Ages which, later on, was violently persecuted by the Church. Heresy, popular amongst farming peasants and artisan peasants alike, denounced social hierarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth. Heresy also opposed the mounting power of the Church, and in particular the wealth held by the Church. Heretics also assigned high status to women and allowed women and men to share the same dwellings, even if they were not married.

Typically at this time, due to limited availability of land and resources, it was not desirable to have too many children. Often peasants would attempt to limit the number of children they had in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Don’t forget this part, it’s critical to what happens next. 

The Black Death

All this is going on, people are poorer than ever, and then the Black Death comes along in the middle of the 14th century (after serious periods of famine before this) killing on average between 30-40% of the European population and completely upending existing social hierarchies. The decimation of the work force made labour extremely scarce, critically increasing its cost and giving peasants the upper hand. Wages doubled and tripled in much of Europe, for women as well as men. In addition, land became more abundant due to the reduced population. This had the combined effect of diminishing the power of the lords, and granting peasants far more power. Serfs were replaced with free farmers who would accept work only for a substantial reward. 

Due to this drastic decrease in the population, the Church and state are focused on reproduction more than ever. The heretic movements are still building and families, not yet recovered from all that has happened, are still wanting to limit the number of children they have so they can afford to care for them all. But now, the Church starts to become increasingly upset about this. Throughout the 14th century, heresy became associated with reproductive crimes, especially non-procreative sex and abortion. In other words, any form of contraception came to be associated with heresy. 

So when we get to the 15th century we have two major things happening: 

  • With this association between heresy and contraception, by the beginning of the 15th century, the symbol of the heretic became increasingly associated with that of a woman, and soon that of a witch. 
  • By the 15th century the confrontation between the peasants and the nobility turned into true wars, with the peasants aiming to put an end to the power of the lords. 

So, we have the heretic movement building and the denigration of women really starting to take full force (we’ll come back to this later). And, at the same time, we have these massive rebellions of the work force trying to overturn the power of the lords while they have the chance. 

In response, efforts were made by political authorities to co-opt the youngest and most rebellious male workers by essentially decriminalizing rape against lower class women. It became socially acceptable to sexually assault poor women, primarily those working as servants for the master-class. It is suggested that men saw this as an opportunity to “get back at” their masters, but more so it was a state-sanctioned act of sexual violence against women, in an attempt to literally “distract” the male working class from the rebellions at hand. Women who experienced assault were left with a destroyed reputation, often forcing them to leave town or turn to sex work. This may have represented one of the first mass desensitizations of the population to violence against women, preparing the ground for the witch hunt. 

Here are my key takeaways from all of this: 

  • In feudal society, while lots was less than ideal, women were valued and seen as important contributors. It wasn’t until the idea of the waged worker was introduced that women started to lose power and social standing (we’ll learn more about that later). 
  • Violence against women was literally a state-sanctioned act created in order to keep the poor poor and the rich rich.
  • The witch hunts (which we will also talk about more later) were borne, at least in part, out of women wanting to have control of their own bodies.

Whew! I know it’s a lot to take in. But I think this history is incredibly important to understand.

The main point here being that the evolution of capitalism (which I’ll be sharing more about in the next chapter email – sign up for that here) is founded on the devaluation of women and state control over female bodies. 

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These summaries will dive deeper into exploring how capitalism evolved, how waged work required us to learn to treat our bodies like machines, and the history of the witch hunts.

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I can’t promise when I’ll get around to sending those out but will as soon as I have time!