The witch-hunts, roughly between the years 1450 and 1750, resulted in the murders of hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and the Americas. It is rather surprising, as Silvia Federici writes in Caliban and the Witch, that this mass violence is rarely given any importance in world history. The witch-hunts, for Federici, are a foundational series of events for modernity, as they violently forced women into a new, more subservient role in the family and society at large. Friendships among women and especially lower-class women were stigmatised and outright criminalised in some instances. Large gatherings of women were portrayed as witches covens, where children were eaten and men were magically castrated. Women who were unable or unwilling to have children were targeted and accused of the most heinous crimes. All this was happening at a time when the leading intellectuals, (read: wealthy men) started to theorise that the wealth of society came from labour, and labour came from humans. Therefore, more humans would mean more wealth. Taking this logic to the extreme meant that women who, for whatever reason, did not have children, were enemies of this new society where wealth did not come from God, spirit or emperor, but labour (in both senses of the term). Those who refused this labour were brutally persecuted either as vagabonds or as witches.
In popular culture, the witch-hunt is often portrayed as the last gasp of the medieval brutality of the Church. This is incorrect: the witch-hunt is a modern phenomenon, enacted by modern men. Indeed, most of the trials were organised by secular authorities, not the Church. Paragons of Western rational thought and science were among the high-profile witch-hunters. Francis “the Father of the Scientific Method” Bacon, the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and famous French jurist Jean Bodin are some of the most recognisable in this group. It did not matter for Thomas Hobbes whether witchcraft itself was real, he thought the persecution of lower-class women was useful either way as a form of social control. These women, Hobbes thought, had to be taught a lesson. A lesson on authority and obedience. A lesson of fire and blood encouraged and often enacted by the same people we today laud as the progenitors of the Enlightenment. Many among these so-called empiricists and proto-scientists practised magic themselves. Not the kind of magic the rural healers would use, as this was seen either as devilish witchcraft or as idyllic idiocy. Rather, these men believed in- and practised alchemy, the aurific art. Francis Bacon, and so many of his peers, really did think that base-metal could be made into gold and that little humans, homunculi, could be grown in little glass jars.
How these people reconciled their murderous hatred of witches with their own magical practices I do not know. But there is a clear difference between the alchemical practices of these rich men and the natural magic of the lower-class women who were massacred as witches. Some witches did exist. Of course, many (if not most) of the accused had nothing to do with witchcraft; they might have just pissed off the wrong man in the village. The “real” witches were healers and herbalists and they were held in high regard in village communities, as they could help in childbirth, provide contraceptive potions, and perform abortions. Herbal medicine could, of course, be of help for treating illnesses too, especially at a time when European “medicine” for wealthier people consisted of things like arsenic baths and reusable balls of mercury. The magic of alchemy was fundamentally different: instead of a consensual relationship with nature, alchemy sought to dominate it. Instead of helping humans give birth, alchemists wanted to grow their own.
As human mastery (or domination) over the natural world was increasing in intensity, it was only natural that myths relating to this mastery proliferated as well. However, the intellectual roots of the concept of synthetic birth dig deeper into human history. Arguably the most influential in this is Aristotle. Insightful as ever, Aristotle thought that natural births were a result of a process where active, perfect, sperm interacts with passive and imperfect menstrual blood. The sperm, obviously, does all the heavy lifting, giving form to menstrual matter. Aristotle did not think that humans could reproduce asexually, but such an idea is not too far removed from the great philosopher’s line of thinking. If sperm is the real source of life, and menstrual blood a mere vessel, could the vessel not be replaced with something else?
And so it was. The literature of recipes for growing humans in different vessels is vast and disgusting. For some reason, the dead body of a cow was a popular option. Another version uses a mandrake. The results vary: some recipes produce “normal” humans, preferably male of course, others create magical little humanoids that can be used to perform miracles. In any case, the purpose of this alchemical practice was to go beyond nature, above the base needs of sexuality, and most of all, to avoid women. Women, for these esteemed thinkers, are nature: irrational, passive, aggressive, and overly sexual. How could such an imperfect being be capable of producing perfect offspring?
William N. Newman, in his book Promethean Ambitions, makes the case that alchemy, from antiquity to the dawn of the modern age, served as an arena for discussing the relationship between technology and nature. The witch-hunt can be seen from this light. For the early modern period was a time of great struggle. Labour shortages, no doubt mainly caused by the Great Plague, allowed peasants to sell their labour for higher wages. The landlords simply could not accept this for too long. Some attempts at re-establishing slavery here, banning toilers from wearing fancy clothes there, and significantly, expelling and expropriating peasants everywhere. A new, less labour intensive mode of production emerged in the countryside as a result. A landlord in, say, 15th century Mercia, instead of having to pay dozens of peasants to cultivate food on his lands, expels most and converts his lands to pasture. A fraction of the workforce is needed for the production of wool. The rest flood the cities and go work in textile factories. This caused significant resentment and ultimately, resistance among the (ex)peasantry: someone used to seasonal work, irregular hours and many, many days off was scarcely a good fit for industrial labour.
This is where the persecution of witches and vagabonds comes in. The witch-hunt, for Federici, was essentially a pedagogical event. Women were disciplined to conform to the new society, first as factory workers, then as mothers and wives to factory workers. For the factory owners it was a great deal: the new family structure allowed them to overwork the men (12h shifts et cetera) and as a hidden bonus, they benefited from the unpaid domestic and reproductive labour of women, who made sure their exhausted husbands were in shape to return to work the next day. Those who did not fit the mould were publicly humiliated and tortured, then executed by hanging or by burning on the stake. Women had to become totally subservient to a society and a mode of thinking that reduced their value to a reproductive machine. Their value as healers and as guardians of an inter-generational knowledge of nature had to be eradicated, or at the very least suppressed. The alchemical paradigm, held up by the most respected intellectuals of the time, was imposed on society. True, reproduction without women remained impossible, but by violently severing women from their social ties, the forces of domination terrorised women to accept their roles as mere vessels, to be used to grow new humans. With the repression of women and the development of industry, seemingly total domination over nature was achieved.
The transformation, through violence, of women into labour-power and of land into real-estate was necessarily coupled with the disappearance of a magical world-view. If the value of humans is only found in their labour (again, in both senses of the term), and the value of land is only in its potential as a space for labour (or for its reproduction, through domestic labour, sleep etc.), the magical value of love, affection, and solidarity towards humans and non-humans alike is obscured. The value still exists, as anyone who has been in love, helped a stranger, or taken a walk in the forest can testify, but the dominant forces of society have difficulty in taking this value into account. The difficulty comes from the fact that these things resist bookmakers, statisticians and, broadly speaking, rationality as domination.
The question of the relationship between humans and nature is a fundamental dimension of Western philosophical and political thought. Usually, “civilisation” is contrasted with “savagery” and “human” with “nature”. Thinkers from Aristotle to Marx have thought that human prosperity is attained through the domination of nature. A slightly more recent thinker, William Leiss, has written extensively on the subject, concluding that total domination over nature is, in fact, impossible. Worse than that, efforts to dominate nature, just as efforts to dominate humans (who are, of course, an inseparable part of nature), leads to revolt. For Leiss, non-human nature is just as capable of resistance as humankind is. Such a position has interesting consequences: above all, it means that non-human nature should be understood as an agent, and not as mere object. While this might be a revolutionary turn in Western philosophy, it is not a new idea. In indigenous cultures a concept of non-human agency has existed for a long time, and I would claim that the witch-hunt aimed at suppressing such a world-view in Europe and among the indigenous population of the Americas.
To understand nature, as some medieval Europeans did, as being inhabited by spirits, gods and other magical beings, is to understand that nature has agency. In many occasions, attempts at opening mines in early modern Europe were met with fierce resistance. The locals were outraged and scared, as they thought digging the earth in certain places was a great disrespect to the spirits. Today we might read these stories and chuckle: “What silly people! Do they not realise they are sitting on a massive source of wealth?” Perhaps the locals, in their ignorance, were right. Perhaps the spirits are taking their revenge on us right now in the form of climate change, top-soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and generalised political and existential crisis. It is certainly possible, maybe even necessary for us to understand nature as an agent. Facing the climate crisis, it might be a useful position to take. However, we must be careful: assigning agency to nature is dangerously close to anthropomorphising it, and seeing such a philosophy as merely “useful” reeks of the kind instrumentalisation we should try to avoid. Nevertheless, there is much to learn: for too long Western academia (myself included) has ignored indigenous thinkers and philosophies; it is high time for us to adopt a position of humility regarding nature, knowledge, and our role as a species on this magical planet.