From Church and State
Once, there were witches. No. There were never witches. Not in the way men said, anyway.
Once, there were many Indigenous polytheist and animist faith traditions in what is now Western Europe. Their customs supported varying levels of respect and authority for women. They had holy women, woman healers, and woman leaders.
Once, there was a church that was a kingdom, built on the body of the Roman Empire, which itself was built on the abduction and rape of the Sabine women. This church was a principality in truth, ruled by princes who had a lust for land and gold that was almost as insatiable as their burning hatred for women.
They converted heads of state and demanded tithes of members, while leaving most local governance alone. They created a very early, very ephemeral transnational empire that required little in the way of personnel or men under arms, and was mainly concerned with governing what’s often classed as the private sphere.
Eventually, the church’s client states had a problem keeping their peasants in line, because the church and the aristocracy wanted to steal all the land and privatize it for themselves through enclosure of the commons.
As Sylvia Federici explains in her book, Caliban and the Witch, secular authorities eventually hit on the popular strategy of giving everything that women had to men, including the women themselves. Civil servants didn’t forget to account for the economic value of women’s work; rather, it was explicitly written out of economic accounting — declared to have no value during the enclosure era. Male tradesmen coordinated boycotts of female competitors and of men who worked with them. Women who persisted in trying to engage in public trades were harassed, called “whores” or “witches,” or were even assaulted without repercussion.
Eventually, to be a woman in public alone was very nearly synonymous with being presumed a witch or prostituted woman. Violence against women was both normalized and sexualized. Women were increasingly driven into prostitution if no man supported them or if they were pushed outside of polite society through accusations of misbehavior, unsanctioned relationships, or sexual abuse. In the sex trade, upstanding men in their communities could torture these women at will, their victims the only party subject to legal sanction.
In order to do their part in solving the problem of the revolting peasantry and acquire their own share of the former commons, the church stepped up to bless this destruction of women’s rights and independence with the seal of divine approval. Their priests invented witches. That is, they invented women who worshipped and had sex with the Devil, who then gave them ludicrous powers — what feminist historian Max Dashu calls “diabolism.” The church further asserted that everything that wasn’t approved as Christian was diabolism.
Again, there weren’t any witches as the church defined them. The pornographic, diabolist image described in the Malleus Maleficarum didn’t refer to any existing persons. For the most part, it didn’t even refer to things that are possible, in spite of the fact that some Indigenous spiritual and women’s health practices were included as evidence of witchcraft.
“Witches” were just women. That’s what men meant, in their own words.