Brett continues:
Re: The Witchcraze

Between 1560 and 1760, a hundred thousand people were put to death on charges of witchcraft . . .

It is tempting to think of the witch craze as being divided into a before, a during and an after.  But this ignores the fact that this period covered two hundred years of very busy history.

As mentioned earlier, the sixteenth century saw a radical shift in power's points of application and techniques.

Prior to the rise of nation-states, it could be said that there were two Europes. There was an urban, merchantile, Christianized culture, and then there was the countryside.

For most of the middle ages, these two cultures had little to do with one another. The aristocracy's interest in the peasantry was pretty much limited to collecting rents and making sure the crops got planted and harvested. And, of course, slaughtering bunches of them in their interminable familial/territorial squabbles.

But early modernity brings with it a host of innovations, among them the political individual and the national polity. Power is reorganized with these new entities at its poles, and power starts pushing beyond the walls of cities. Modern authority analyzes its domain, and applies itself to the particular at the highest possible level of detail.

What does this mean in the witch trials?

Well, the separation of civil and ecclesiastical power is still a ways off, and as newly-formed central authorities attempt to pervade their entire domains, one of the first things that has to go is non-orthodox Christianity. It should be no surprise, then, that folk religion was brutally suppressed. And since the bulk of its practitioners were women, the boom was lowered most heavily on them.

So far, it's just bad luck.

But here's my thesis: the witch trials started as a mere *object* of power, but as they progressed, they became a *technique* of power.

At the start, a witch trial had as its goal the enforcement of uniform spirituality, and the erradication of the forces of Satan (I think it's safe to say that one of the prime movers of the craze was the projection of fantasies of diabolism onto folk religion by urban clerics).

But what happens during a witch trial? Urban officials arrive in a rural village and subject its citizens to a judicial process well beyond their comprehension. Once a community has been thrown into panic, turned against itself, and deprived of local authority figures, its autonomy is permanently compromised. The witch trial transforms itself into an instrument for power to disrupt and penetrate levels of society previously beyond its scope.

By the time the witch persecutions started to slack off in the mid-1600s, the royal state was absolute, and no person or practice was outside its domain.

If the trials are at one level a technique for the extension of the dominion of the state over the populace, they are at another level a technique for the extension of the dominion of men over women.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, a number of changes took place that forced women out of work and deprived them of their marginal legal status. In the course of the trials, this process was given the necessary "shove" to put the status of women on a downward slide that wouldn't be reversed for another 400 years.

This new dominion took two forms. The first is easy to locate, as it is formal and documented. The rise of the European nations was also the rise of centrally-organized legal apparati that gradually edged out the loose and traditional customs of various local entities (county, village, etc.) In the less-precise legal forms of the fifteenth century, women frequently inherited land and even their husbands' workshops. In the sixteenth century, however, matters like the transfer of property became the interest of the state, and the state authorized who could take part in such transactions. The modern era invented the legal individual, and women were not a part of this new group. It was only in the course of the witch trials that women were admitted to the ranks of citizens, because it was not clear whether or not they could stand trial otherwise.

The witch craze conferred legal adulthood on women, but the only role they were allowed to play in this status was that of the accused. It would be some time before the legal rights of women extended beyond their right to be tried, stripped of their property, tortured, and executed.

The second way in which gender-aligned power was articulated on women is more difficult to trace, and has to do with the interaction of women with their communities and with one another. This sphere is probably more significant than the legal one, but the private lives of the lower classes in general and women in particular have been poorly documented throughout most of history.

But allow me a few cautious speculations. We know that the wise woman was usually a kind of outcast, but even so she was an important resource to her village. She was a feminine authority figure -- a rare breed at best, but one extinct by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The elimination of all female authority with its resultant loss of role models and precedents had to have had far-reaching consequences for what women could expect and hope for in life. But perhaps more damaging is the disruption the trials caused between women.

As Barstow points out again and again, external authority figures were able to stir up rural communities to the point where nearly everyone was willing to accuse everyone else of just about anything. Could a woman who had seen such a betrayal put much faith in other women again?

The message at a public witch-execution was clear: this could be you, so keep your head down and your mouth shut.

This de-socialization of women no doubt contributed greatly to the ease with which women were kept disenfranchised for most of modern history. It is pure speculation, but I wonder if women might have organized much earlier had they not been isolated by mistrust and fear.

When the witch trials began, the persecution of women was a mere phenomenon. But as time progressed, they became a way for some men to express and explore their power over all women. The trials were not symbolic or indicative of the position of women in early modern Europe; they were a concrete technology of control.

b r e t t


Except as otherwise noted, all contents in this collection are copyright 1996-2009 the liz library. All rights reserved.
This site is hosted and maintained by Send queries to: