Witch Burning and Women’s Oppression



Caliban and the Witch

by Silvia Federici

AK Press (2004)

Free PDF download Caliban and the Witch

Book Review

Caliban and the Witch*discusses the critical role witch burning played in the enclosure movement that drove our ancestors from the commons.

Feudalism Characterized by Continuous Rebellion

As Federici ably documents, medieval Europe was characterized by nearly continuous rebellion by serfs against their slave-like conditions. According to Federici, it was only by introducing a reign of terror involving the execution of nearly 200,000 women that the ruling elite succeeding in preventing total insurrection.

In all European countries (both Catholic and Protestant), witch burning was accompanied by legislation expelling women from most occupations and severely restricting their legal and reproductive freedom. The control over women’s reproduction (including a ban on birth control, abortion and all non-procreative sex) was a direct reaction to the population decline caused by famine and plague. Their lower numbers enabled peasants and urban workers to cause an economic crisis by demanding higher pay and improved working conditions.

The True Purpose of the Inquisition

Contrary to what we’re taught in high school and college history classes, the true purpose of the Inquisition was to not to stamp out heresy but to end the continuous peasant revolts. The hundreds of heretical movements (eg the Cathars) the Catholic Church persecuted during the Middle Ages were actually political revolts aimed at creating genuine political and economic democracy. Women figured very prominently in the Cathars and similar heretical religions. In addition to exercising the same rights as men, they also led many food riots and other revolts against enclosure.

Although none of these insurrections succeeded in overthrowing class society, they were extremely effective in winning greater political and economic freedom for both serfs and proletarian workers in the textile industry and other crafts.

The First Worker-Run Democracies

According to Federici’s research, the strength of peasant resistance peaked between 1350 and 1500, due to a severe labor shortage resulting from the Black Death (which wiped out 30-40% of the European population), small pox and high food prices. Highlights of this period include Ghent, which created the first dictatorship of the proletariat in 1378, and Florence, which created the first worker-run democracy in 1379.

The mass refusal of peasants to work under slave-like conditions created a major economic crisis, which the ruling elite addressed through wars of acquisition against other European countries, the colonization of Asia, Africa, America and Oceania and the reimposition of slavery (both in Europe and the Americas).

*Caliban is the subhuman son of the malevolent witch Sycorax in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

A big shout-out to the reader who recommended this book to me. I loved it.

11 thoughts on “Witch Burning and Women’s Oppression

  1. Really interesting…I’ve saved the book to my desktop…not sure when I’ll have time to read it but good to know about this grueling slice of history. I appreciate your reviewing and reporting it to us!


    • Thanks for commenting, Hundredgivers. For many of us (the ones who challenge the system) the 20th and 21st century have also proved pretty grueling – though the powers that be continuously try to distract us from that reality.


  2. Extremely interesting Dr. Bramhall. And I am quite sure that I would have gone up in flames while hearing, “Burn witch, burn!” Oh well, I guess I’m in the ‘right’ time.

    Thanks Dr. Bramhall, you always bring something profoundly interesting to the table. I learn something new every time I come here!


    • What a lovely thing to say, Shelby, and a high compliment. I guess I’m still working through a period of intense anger at being lied to about my own history. Exploited and oppressed people have never compliantly acquiesced to their exploitation and oppression – often violently when that was the only option. It infuriates me when I am bombarded with the expectation that shopping, electronic devices and sex are supposed to distract me from the dreadful way the people in power treat us.

      Ageism is not quite as bad as racism but you sure get sick of being treated as subhuman after awhile.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is the truth! And I hear you! Believe me, I hear you! I talk myself hoarse every single day thanks in part to sexism, racism Blackism, uh…did I mention Blackism cause racism don’t cover all that comes with Blackism? You get the point, I am sure and if I live to get older, I’ll have to add ageism to the list. It is never ending.

        TPTB want us completely distracted with bullshit gadgets and devices so that we don’t know what the hell is going down. And for those of us who do know that the shit is hitting the fan in an ugly ass way, they make it extremely difficult for us to do anything about anything. I cannot tell you how tired of it all I am, but what choice do I have but to attempt to fight back by any means necessary.

        So, again, believe me, I understand and I know what you’re going through!

        Bless your precious heart and take care of yourself!


    • The point Federici makes in her book is that the oppression didn’t originate solely with the Catholic Church – the Protestants burnt their fair share of witches and followed the exact same torture techniques. Moreover it was the state that carried out all the burnings. It was a situation where the state and feudal landlords and rich merchants used religious doctrine to suppress political dissent.


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