The term witch hunt is in the press a lot these days, as our president seeks to counterattack against the ongoing Russia investigation that he fears will implicate him in the 2016 Russian attack against free elections.
But witch hunt hasn't always meant politicians feeling attacked. The term comes from a much larger and much more frightening event that happened in Europe, and that is now referred to by many historians as the Great Witch Hunt. The Great Witch Hunt was a systematic campaign of torture and murder, carried out by local authorities over three hundred years (1450-1750) across almost all the countries in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, were rounded up, tortured, and killed. (1)
I am interested in the Great Witch Hunt because, while it was carried out by secular authorities, the underlying belief system that supported all the torture and killings, and that goaded those authorities into committing their atrocities, came from the Catholic church. (2,3) The Great Witch Hunt was the fruit of that belief system: three centuries of terror to stamp out resistance to a new social order, where women were literally nothing but breeders.
Now that feminism is creating new interest in examining exactly what happened during the Great Witch Hunt and why, one would hope the Catholic church would examine its role, accept responsibility, and root out the poison in its dogma that led to that abomination against women.
But no. The Catholic church remains trapped in that very same belief system. And so, dear reader, the question I am concerned with is this: What is to prevent the Great Witch Hunt from happening again?
What was it like?
Before we look at why the Witch Hunt happened, I think it’s important to depart, for just a moment, from the usual abstract discussion of historical events, which allows us a certain impersonal distance from the horror.
So let’s look at the Witch Hunt more personally. Let’s imagine that I lived in Europe between 1450 and 1750. Chances are very good that when the hysteria of the Witch Hunt reached my village, the local authorities would come for me. On top of my age, there’s my support for abortion rights and universal access to contraception. And also, there’s my tendency to speak my mind. For local governments hunting for witches, I’d be a prime target. I would be arrested, and I would be tortured. After having my bones crushed or my breasts ripped off, I would confess to anything. (4) As would you. I’d confess what other women had confessed, what my torturers demanded that I confess: that I had caused the penises of men in my town to fall off, so I could collect them in a bag and keep them. That I’d stolen babies and cooked and ate them and used what was left to make medical ointments. That I and other women had gathered in the woods at night to have sex with Satan. To stop the torture, I’d also give my torturers the names of other women who supposedly joined me in these gatherings. These women would also be arrested and tortured, until they too confessed and named more women.
Based on my confession and any ‘evidence’ against me, including the accusations of other women under torture, I would be found guilty of being a witch. I’d be tied to a stake on my town’s common, and the town’s population would be required to gather and watch as a fire was built under me and I was roasted alive. My children would be forced to watch.
Here are some questions for you, dear reader: Do you support women’s access to birth control? Do you support a woman’s right to have an abortion? Have you been known to speak your mind? Are you a post-menopausal woman?
Uh oh. If you answered yes to any of these questions, they might come for you too.
The need for women as breeders
There are many theories about why the Witch Hunt happened. Traditional theories suggest that society needed scapegoats during times of famines, rising food prices, rising social unrest, and warfare. And, that Christianity was determined to stamp out belief in magic and the old Goddess religion, which were mostly practiced by women, particularly older women.
New analysis has led to new insight. In her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici argues that the Witch Hunt was also a component of the European transition to capitalism. Those at the top who were accumulating capital needed more workers, and so the state decided to increase population by launching a war against women, to break their control over their bodies and their reproduction. This war “was waged primarily through the witch hunt that literally demonized any form of birth-control and non-procreative sexuality”.
During the witch hunts, older women were specifically singled out. These women were past their reproductive years, they provided the knowledge younger women needed to control their fertility, and of course, older women tend to speak their minds when they see something they don’t like. Killing them, in publicly horrific ways, was a very effective way to terrorize women into accepting their new place in society, as powerless breeders.
Federici notes that her argument is supported by the appearance during the Witch Hunt of new laws in all the European countries that imposed severe penalties against contraception and abortion.
How the Witch Hunt changed women’s position in society
In the Medieval Period before the Witch Hunt, women had strong status in their communities, participating in local decision-making and in many professions alongside men. Societal mores around sexual activity were much looser, and women had control over their own reproduction. After the Witch Hunt, writes Federici, “a new model of femininity emerged: the ideal woman and wife – passive, obedient, thrifty, of few words, always busy at work, and chaste. This change began at the end of the 17th century, after women had been subjected for more than two centuries to state terrorism.”
This new model of femininity, which brainwashed both men and women to believe women belonged in the home, meekly having babies and taking care of their husbands, didn’t even begin to unravel until the birth of the feminist movement in Europe in the late 1700s. (5)
And, of course, even today that unraveling is nowhere near complete – because the belief system that led to the Witch Hunt is still actively supported by the Catholic church, and by fundamentalist Christian churches which have their origins in the Catholic belief system.
Why should women today worry about the Witch Hunt?
If you wanted to exert control over women – not just a few women, but all women - the Witch Hunt shows you how to do it.
First, you’d need to lay the groundwork by teaching a belief system that classifies women as breeders whose ability to manage their own reproduction must be controlled for the good of society. You'd teach your belief system starting when people are small children, so they can absorb it before they have the chance to think critically about what you're teaching them to believe.
The Catholic belief system - which has not changed since the Witch Hunt (6) - teaches that women’s fundamental purpose is breeding, and any woman who attempts to control her own reproduction through contraception is committing a grave sin that hurts all of us.
Abortion, of course, is even worse. Catholics are taught that there is nothing more important than an embryo or a fetus, and any woman who has an abortion commits the worst crime anyone can commit, a crime that damages all society. Thus it is incumbent on good Catholics to do whatever they can - as a top priority (7) - to stop women from having abortions.
Once the groundwork is laid through the teaching of your belief system, you would wait for a period of severe social stress. We have plenty of social stresses today, but as we know worse is coming. Once the social stresses are high enough, a propaganda campaign would be all you’d need to launch your Witch Hunt.
The anti-woman propaganda from the Catholic church is, of course, ongoing (as it was during the Witch Hunt). Most recently, Pope Francis equated women who have abortions because of fetal birth defects to Nazi efforts to purify the Aryan race. In other words, according to the Catholic church, a woman who makes a personal decision to end a defective pregnancy is no different from Hitler and his minions, who, besides exterminating 12 million people in the camps, also forcibly performed abortions (number unknown) and sterilizations (400,000), and forcibly euthanized 70,000 more people. It's not a stretch, if you believe the pope, to accept that the punishment of women who choose abortions should be very, very severe. That maybe, like the Nazis, they should be imprisoned. Or hung.
We’ve gotten used to Catholic anti-woman propaganda, along with the ongoing efforts of Catholics and fundamentalist Christians to eliminate women’s access to birth control and abortions. But what if that anti-woman propaganda started coming from our government? What if for some reason, like a reduction in fertility, the government decided women needed to focus on reproduction? Is it really impossible to imagine that the authorities – our government - would target outspoken older women as a way to terrorize all women into submission?
Our president might issue hundreds of tweets about older women, maybe like these (which are based on his actual tweets):
· Older women are very low IQ. They can’t help it.
· We MUST stop older women from destroying our country!
· For all those who want to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, boycott all businesses owned by older women. They are killing our country!
· Older women are leeches on our society. LOCK THEM UP!!!
· Now that I started my war on older women, other politicians are finally speaking up. FINALLY!!!
Then they’d round us up and put us in cages – the way they’re currently putting little children who come across the border from Mexico and Central America in cages.
Probably they wouldn’t torture us and burn us. Probably.
Why is something that happened 500 years ago so frightening?
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and the TV series on Hulu based on Atwood’s book, are deeply frightening precisely because it’s not too difficult to imagine those events happening in real life. And as Atwood has said, there is nothing in her book that hasn’t happened before.
Ten years ago, I would have said another Witch Hunt couldn't happen. But today? It's not that hard to imagine.
(1) In her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici estimates that the number of women tortured and executed was hundreds of thousands. Other historians’ estimates are higher or lower. The exact number can never be known because unlike the Nazis, who kept very careful records, European towns and cities at that time were a little spotty in their record-keeping. And, the passage of time has resulted in the loss of some of the records that were kept.
(2) Federici, p. 168:
"The Roman Catholic Church provided the metaphysical and ideological scaffold of the witch-hunt and instigated the persecution of witches as it had previously instigated the persecution of the heretics. Without the Inquisition, the many papal bulls urging the secular authorities to seek out and punish 'witches,' and, above all, without centuries of the Church's misogynous campaigns against women, the witch-hunt would not have been possible."
(3) Church teachings about women were explicit. Here are a few from the men who created the Catholic belief system.
- “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman” (Clement of Alexandria).
- Women were the reason Jesus had to die on the cross; they were the “gate to hell,” and a “temple built over a sewer” (Tertullian).
- Men by themselves are the image of God, while women are not, they are merely men’s helpmates (St Augustine).
- Women have faulty and defective natures; their feelings drive them to evil while reason drives men to good. They are by nature lying, deceptive creatures; one must “be on guard against every woman as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil” (St Albert the Great).
- Women are defective and misbegotten (St Thomas Aquinas).
- “Amongst all the savage beasts, none is found so harmful as woman” (John Chrysostom).
(4) During the Great Witch Hunt, the torture of women included:
- Stripping the victim of all clothes, shaving the entire body and stabbing with needles (including vaginally)
- Applying red-hot tongs to nipples and genitalia
- Hanging by the wrists
- Forcing the naked woman to sit on a red-hot chair or stool to burn her thighs, buttocks and genitalia
- Binding the hands and feet and submerging the woman in deep water
- Crushing the thumbs in a vise
- Crushing the bones of the legs
- Tearing and detaching the breasts with an implement known as ‘the breast ripper’
(5) The feminist movement began in Europe with the publication of Declaration of the Rights of Women (1791) by Olympe de Gouges in France, and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1793) by Mary Wollstonecraft in England.
(6) Catholic rhetoric has softened since the Witch Hunt, in response to the feminist movement and demands by women that the Catholic church recognize women’s rights. But the underlying Catholic dogma regarding women has not changed. The Catholic church still teaches that men and women are fundamentally different, and the purpose of women is to have babies inside a Catholic-sanctioned marriage.
(7) Recall the 2016 election, during which a majority of American Catholics voted for Donald Trump because he promised to restrict abortion rights. They voted for Trump despite his platform to end universal health care (which mainly benefits the poor, whom the Catholic church advocates for) and to restrict immigration and severely punish illegal immigrants (though the Catholic church supports the rights of illegal immigrants, who are desperately poor). They voted for Trump despite his long record of sexual harassment and sexual assault against women. And they voted for Trump despite his denial of climate change.