Witch Burning and Women’s Oppression

 

caliban

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.

Climate Change Throughout History

forecast

Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley

by Stephan Faris

Henry Holt (2009)

Book Review

Forecast is about historic and present day political, economic and health consequences of extreme climate disruption.

Farr begins by unpacking the Sudan civil war that began in Darfur in 2003. He makes a convincing case that decreased rainfall and desertification led to a bloody land war d between nomadic Arab camel herders and African farmers. He disputes that the conflict arose out of ethnic and religious differences, as the two groups shared the region harmoniously for hundreds of years until the climate changed.

He goes on to discuss studies comparing ice core findings to historical records. They conclude that all major European wars and Chinese dynastic changes followed major climate change.

Arctic Territorial Disputes

At the present time, the melting of Arctic sea ice has led to major border conflicts between countries eager to exploit the region’s vast mineral wealth. Tension is particularly high between Russian and Norway, Canada and Denmark and Canada and the US (over the border between the Yukon and Alaska). The opening of the Northwest Passage* to navigation for the first time in 2007 has led to an ongoing dispute whether these waters are Canadian territory or an international right of way, as claimed by the US.

International Alert predicts that forty-four countries are at risk of conflict (mainly over water rights) due to climate change. At the top of the list are India, Pakistan, China, Iran, Indonesia, Algeria, Nigeria, Somalia, Bolivia, Columbia, Peru and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Emergence of Epidemics

Faris’s section on the health consequences of climate change discusses the major epidemics that have emerged due to warmer, wetter weather patterns. This includes a big increase in malaria in Brazil and Mexico; in hantavirus, West Nile virus and Lyme disease in the US; ebola in Africa and in plague in Kazakhstan and India.

Ice core findings suggest the medieval Black Death (plague) in Europe was also triggered by climate change.

The Effect of Native American Genocide

The most interesting section of the book argues than human beings have been altering the climate, through deforestation, livestock husbandry and population explosions since the agricultural revolution. Climate scientists believe major deforestation in Europe started 7,500-8,000 years ago. Atmospheric carbon concentrations reached a peak during the Roman period and took a big dip (most likely due to depopulation) after Rome collapsed. They began to rise again in 1000 AD. Their sharp decline in 1500 coincided with a Little Ice Age characterized by brutally cold winters.

Faris agrees with William Ruddiman (Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate) who believes this steep drop stemmed from the decimation of Native American agricultural settlements (from genocide, smallpox, typhus, cholera and measles, diseases to which they had no immunity) in North and South America. Over two centuries, their population dropped from 50-60 million (one tenth of the global population) to five million. As they disappeared, forests and jungles, particularly in the Amazon, reclaimed the fields they had cleared for cultivation.


*The Northwest Passage is a sea through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It decreases the transit time from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean (compared to the Panama Canal) by four days.