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Witch Hunts and Enclosures: Bodies, Land and Women

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Witch Hunts and Enclosures: Bodies, Land and Women

How are witch hunts and Capitalist economies linked? Silvia Federici, wrote the groundbreaking book, Caliban and the Witch.  In that book she argues that the witch hunts of the fifteenth century were a necessary pre-condition for Capitalism to flourish. Just as the enclosures of the middle ages created a population of landless peasants, women were experiencing a simultaneous enclosure, the enclosure of their bodies.

Women’s speech, movement and social relationship were tightly controlled with the help of witch hunts and accusations of witchcraft made of poor, peasant women, partly in an effort to dispossess them of the land they lived on.

Today, witch hunts are still happening, in places like East Timor, India and Cambodia. Federici, who never really left the subject of witch hunts, returns to the topic with her book, Women Witches and Witch Hunts. She looks back to the witch hunts of the middle ages and sees them replaying today, in countries that are newly adopting capitalism as an economic model.

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  • Silvia Federici – academic, activist, educator and author of the most recent book, Women, Witches and Witch Hunting.


  • Special thanks to KPFA radio, Zach Miley and Against the Grain for allowing us to edit and air this program.

Making Contact Staff:

  • Host and Producer: Kathryn Styer
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Staff Producers: Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, Salima Hamirani
  • Audience Engagement Manager: Kathryn Styer
  • Associate Producer: Aysha Choudhary




Kathryn Styer: This is Making Contact. I’m your guest host this week, Kathryn Styer.


Silvia Federici: The violence is not perpetrated only with guns and knives. It’s perpetrated by legislation, economic measures and so forth.


Kathryn Styer: That’s Silvia Federici. She’s an Italian-American radical feminist, activist, scholar and educator. Her notable work includes co-founding the International Feminist Collective in 1973.  And, she’s published seven books, all about feminism. Her most recent book, Women, Witches and Witch-Hunting, is a continuation of the work she put forth in the popular 2004 text, Caliban and the Witch. She explores violence against women as a necessary precondition for capitalism, and asks whether it’s capitalism that turned women into witches.


Silvia Federici: More broadly, more broadly, the transformation, restructuring of the world economy that has taken place over the last four decades at least has been making it more and more difficult for women to survive, and has created such conditions that has put women really at the center of a lot of violence.


Kathryn Styer: Federici’s book, Women, Witches and Witch-Hunting, looks at modern-day witch-hunts. Federici sees these hunts as a product of globalization, to oppress women, and drive them from their land. Federici draws a through line from witch-hunts and medieval enclosures, to modern day neo-liberal capitalism, and natural resource extraction. In both cases, poor women and women of color suffer most.


Accoridng to Federici this constitutes violence against women, and when viewed together, can be seen as a sustained “war on women.” Here are excerpts from a December, 2019 lecture Federici gave in Berkeley, California at an event sponsored by KPFA radio.


Silvia Federici: You know enclosures, for those of you who maybe are not familiar with the major evil English history, it’s the process that — it was a very, a very specific term. It’s the term, it’s the process by which the landlords, roughly speaking at the end of the sixteenth century, began to expel, you know, the peasantry. The peasants they were, you know, they were living off their land, on their land. And they were using some of the lands they had given them in exchange for labor services. Right? So they would enclose the land, fence them off, that they were given to the peasants, to chase them off, to chase them away. You know, and to turn the land that they had used for their subsistence into land that would be marketed. It’s really the beginning of Capitalism, right? The two conditions that a Capitalism society needs, you know, a population that is property-less and therefore has to depend on whatever work is given to them, and of course depend on very miserable wages. It’s the beginning of a wage system. And on the other, land that is not being used and can be put on the market, can be commercialized, can be sold, can become actually an instrument of exploitation of people. This at least in Europe. So the enclosure is actually the fencing off and the chasing of people. And I’m looking in one of these and say what is the connection? Because there is clearly a connection between this major attack and the turning of masses of people into a landless population and the witch-hunts. You know it’s one of the connections between this persecution and the rise of a Capitalist society.


First of all, the women who were accused were usually older women and poor women. And the whole context of the charges — it’s a context, it’s a place, it’s a space, where people have nothing, particularly this population of older women who are going around, many of them, begging, begging their neighbor, for the little bit of milk, for the little bit of wine, butter, right? And for the bit of sociality. Many were accused, they would show up at marriages, uninvited. And so there is a whole picture there that clearly connects the context of witch hunts, right, to a context of a society that has gone through major processes of dispossession. And also the explanation that is given for why these women, you know, are causing all these damages. The damages imputed to them — raising storms and destroying the crops, destroying the crops of their better off neighbor, so they’re accused of actually having created the storms.


Or maiming the animal. The animals die and, of course, there is the bad woman who has been indicted. Or causing people to die, right. And it’s the jealousy. These women are eaten up by this jealousy. So all this, right, speaks of a space, of a social space that is ridden obviously by tremendous division. And by the fear of those who are better off — that the poor who are engaged in wanting to revenge against them.


Silvia Federici: The witch hunts were also the product of the enclosure, another kind of enclosure, that has really has been completely ignored by the Marxian and Marxist histories, which is the enclosure of the body.


One of my argument is that fences have been put not only around the common lands, not only around the commons and the land, the people having used,fences have been put also around  the bodies in so many ways. In so many ways. You know, the bodies in this sense, particularly women’s body, in the sense that you know, with the witch hunts in their eyes of capitalism. You have a drive by this state to possess, to control the body of women and to put them at the service of the reproduction of their workforce, the reproduction of people, capacity to work, and so to control procreation so that demographic, demographic and movements become extremely important. In fact, demography really is born as a science with the capitalist society. How many people are dying? How many people are born? How many people are marrying? My theory, the theory I have presented is that, you know, has to do with the fact that capitalism is the first system in history, who makes of human labor the substance of wealth. You know, previous system connected wealth to possession of land, possession of control over large territories. Capitalism places wealth in terms of women — of people’s labor. And it’s not how much land they possess, it’s how many workers you can exploit. And this, I think, has affected also, you know, the capitalist class relationship to women, to procreation, the women’s body, marriage, the question of democracy, demography and you know, because immediately the procreation becomes a moment, you know, an export of the process of reproduction of the work force and becomes extremely important as an activity to be controlled. And the witch hunt, clearly, it’s you know, instrumental to that process.


Similarly, the control over women’s sexuality, sexuality is deeply involved in the question of procreation, and also in the discipline of labor. You have to discipline sexuality to have a disciplined workforce. Sexuality involves the whole — what do you call — waste of energy or use of energy? There has to be control very minutely because that energy has to be used productively. So has to be channeled in a proper way. So that’s why I speak of enclosure of the body. There is an enclosure of land, but it is also an enclosure. And a body is an enclosure of social relations. Capitalism from the very beginning is a major, major attack on sociality, every form of collective activity, every form of collective work first of all, collective work, the destruction of the common, you know, individualises work relation, and then you have the attack on collective games, festivals, even pilgrimages. Even that becomes the target.


Kathryn Styer: Silvia Federici says as female bodies are “enclosed” by capitalism, their social lives also undergo a kind of structural readjustment.


Silvia Federici: In the very time period in which the witch-hunts unfolded, which was more than two centuries, we have a transformation in the meaning of gossip, which used to mean a good friend. You say, “I’m going now with my gossip,” and the gossip was often also the woman who will be like the comadre, but within two centuries it has — the meaning has changed completely, and gossip means this kind of “molyneaux” a terrible type of talk, idle talk at best or malign talk. You know, gossiping always implies that you’re saying bad things about people and in any case, nothing positive, nothing of value, you know. And so to me, that change in the name, in the meaning of gossip, is reflective of a whole transformation that is taking place because the witch-hunts were not an isolated persecution. They came accompanied by a whole set of laws, legislations that basically penalize, for instance, any form of contraception and that increase the penalty for every interference, you know, with the process of procreation, making it a capital punishment and with all kinds of legislation and reforms of every day life.  In England, for instance, more and more it was looked down upon for women to sit in front of the house as they used to do in — all throughout Europe. When you finish your work or when you work, you go and sit in front of the house, and you talk with other women across the street. So any moment of female friendship and female cooperation, it’s now come under attack.


And the only legitimate relation that women can have is either to a master or to a husband, which is often the same thing, to a husband, and even relations with relatives begin to be looked down upon.


I saw the question of gossip, I think, is very important and has opened up a sort — another chapter of cruelty another chapter by barbarity, because women who were seen as too talkative too rebellious, and women also always involved in struggle like against enclosure, would be punished by being muzzled. A whole frame, a metal frame, the same kind of metal frame that was used for slaves — I don’t’ know if you have seen it — it is metal or leather will be put into — on their head and it would have a tongue, and the tongue would go into their mouth and the tongue would have a spike. And if the woman tried to talk, the spike would lacerate the tongue. And so, and in this way, muzzled this way, they will often paraded, you know, like a dog on a leash. They’ll be paraded through the village or through the community to be an example to other women.

Kathryn Styer: This is a fact. The name of the contraption Federici is describing here is the Scold’s Bridle. Also known as a Witch’s Bridle. The first recorded use took place in Scotland, in 1567.


Silvia Federici:  There’s something in all of the devaluation, expressive of the devaluation of women as a social subject, and devaluation of solidarity among women, friendship, and knowledges. You know, the knowledges that women passed down in the community about procreation, herbs, you know, healing practices, contraception. All these now begins to be demonized, criminalized, devalued, and made, you know, an object of suspicion.


There’s something so extraordinary about that persecution. I don’t know who else in history has been accused of being a servant of the devil, of being the enemy of humanity, not of having killed and not of having done, but literally of being thoroughly evil. So completely evil as to actually be a servant of the devil.



Kathryn Styer : You’ve been listening to Silvia Federici talk about her most recent book, Women, Witches and Witch-Hunting on Making Contact. Our show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US.


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Our handle is @making_contact.

Now back to Silvia Federici discussing a new surge of interpersonal and institutional violence against women, including new witch hunts. Federici says this surge of violence is occurring alongside a global expansion of capitalism.

Silvia Federici: So this has been a very important aspect for me for the formation of modern capitalist society.


Kathryn Styer: and Silvia Federici ties that increase directly to capitalism and globalization.


Silvia Federici: the reappearance of witch hunting in recent time as being fully me, a source of tremendous concern and expressive of so much that is happening, you know, to women, obviously not two women uniformly. It’s very important in the same way as the old witch hunt, they didn’t attack women uniformly. It was mostly on poor women, who’d been dispossessed. You know, the cases of better off women were much more there. And then all women in the end, these indigenous women, slave women. So it’s very important not to put a blanket. And this is true today that the violence against women is very targeted, particularly of Black women, women of color in general, and women who have no resources, and immigrant women. But what I think is an undeniable fact is over the last three, four decades, almost in every part of the world, the violence against women, in its diverse targets and effect, has increased across the world.


We also see the violence is not perpetrated only with guns and knife. It’s perpetrated by legislation, economic measures and so forth. When, for instance, you have laws of bills that are passed that are dispossessing like today, 700,000 people from access to food, that’s violence. That has to be called, shown to be violence.


Austerity programs that are depriving thousands and thousands of people of access to health — so that you can go to a doctor only when your cancer is metastatic. That is violence. So I think it’s really important to also define what we mean by violence and to see that it is a broader spectrum of activities than is usually recognized.


The violence against women in its diverse targets and effect has increased across the world. Both with formal witch hunts and many, many informal ones, many, many informal witch-hunts, because they say the whole level of violence today — particularly institutional, institutional violence is really the origin of all violence because in a way, it sets the criteria of what is legitimate and what is not legitimate.

So this is the context in which you now begin to see these new accusation that are taking place in a community that has been in the process of being destabilized by a tremendous, tremendous attack on all the forms of subsistence, all the forms of reproduction. In which the effect began to be felt, you know, of an economy that was globalized. What does it mean that “globalized?” What does it mean?


It means that yesterday you were able to sell your coffee at a certain price, and you understood that if you produce a certain amount of coffee and so on, you’ll be able to gain a certain amount of money. And all of a sudden, the same coffee that yesterday allow you to survive today sells on a price that it’s worthless, makes it worthless. Same is true for cotton, same is true for all kinds of agricultural commodities, because all of a sudden you are in an economy where the decision about your living or dying are taken in Washington rather than being taken, you know, by the national government or by the regional governments.


And so all of a sudden, you have population that are leaving. They are being completely destabilised by the attack — the economic attack, but destabilized, in a way, mentally because understanding what the major component, what are the forces that are impacting your life. What are the forces that impact your life? Why you can sell your coffee for one year and then now you cannot sell it any longer? It becomes very mysterious. I always say in the Middle Ages, you could tell who exploited you. You saw the castle, you saw their own. Now you don’t know, because if you are in a village in Africa, if you are in a village in India, you are in fact affected by forces that are very, very far removed from your ability to understand what is actually taking place.


I’m seeing a profound connection with the question of dispossession of land and the austerity programs that have been implemented since at least the early 1980s by the World Bank, the IMF, that have thrown millions of people in a very, very abject conditions of poverty, because those problems really are a form of recolonisation. They have brought back millions of people in Africa and Latin America, parts of Asia, to the very conditions that, you know, inspire the anti-colonial struggle.


They have forced governments to disinvest in the production of the local population. They have given green light to companies, extractive companies, oil mining, to basically go into the country and take out subsoil wealth, expel people when they resisted. And all of this, as you know, in the name of that crisis that was very artificially engineered in the late 70s, by a change by the Federal Reserve in Washington of the interest rate on the dollar. So that former Colonized countries, formerly decolonized countries, that had just come out of the anti-colonial struggle, and taken loans, they had taken loans to catch up to develop, over the night almost found themselves defaulting — not being able to pay back those loans. And as you know, at the moment comes the World Bank comes, you know, the cavalry, they come and they say, “Oh, no, no problem, no defaulting. We give you a loan, but you’ll have to adjust.


And the adjustment meant a set of reforms that have really recolonised those countries and they’ve really set off massive migratory movement because millions have found themselves in the position of not being able to support themselves any longer. Neither with access to land, nor with access to jobs, they were being basically shut down, companies shut down. And neither, by access to education. Those who were destined, or could have gone to schooling, different forms of schooling, were in fact forced to go take the load of migration.


The transformation, restructuring of the world economy that has taken place over the last four decades, at least, is making it more and more difficult for women to survive, and has created such conditions that has put women really at the center of a lot of violence. And again, not all women, we know the Black women, trans women and so on are especially targeted. And that’s why you’ll find that they are really the target. So many women leaders of movements against destructivism, from Berta Cáceres, but many others in Colombia have been killed. No. But let’s not forget that this source of violence is not just men with abusing their power, that the fact that they can do it is because they have institutions behind them that allows them, if not incentivize them directly.   For example, a change in the economic condition of a lot of women will go a long, long way to deal with the violence against women.


But let’s see. Let’s also understand the violence in a broad way. Let’s understand that the violence is a violence that permeates all this social structure, the economic political structure of this society.





You’ve been listening to excerpts from a lecture given by feminist author, internationalist and activist Silvia Federici, on Making Contact. Special thanks goes to  KPFA Radio for allowing us to broadcast this recording.  For links to Federici’s books go to Our music today was provided by Blue Dot Sessions and the film Bella Ciao by Giusti Torelli Freccero, which documents the protests of the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.


The Making Contact team is executive director, Lisa Rudman, producers, Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson and Salima Hamirani.  And I’m your host this week, Kathryn Styer.

Thanks for listening to Making Contact!

Author: Radio Project

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