Relevant to previous post. Taken from my book entitled The Divine Feminine, published 1999.
In the C16th & C17th, it has been estimated that between 100,000 and 9,000,000 women were tortured and slaughtered throughout Europe. Often they simply disappeared during the night, never to return to the family home. They were accused, tortured and killed on the evidence of hearsay-local village gossip. Sometimes their children were used as witnesses against them. Their crime? They were women living in a time when the Church manipulated their previously valued skills of healing in the community into witchcraft. They lived in an age when women were viewed as agents of the devil and the physical proof of this was `the extra nipple’, that which we know today as the clitoris. Since all women have it, all women were in danger and could be proved guilty by its existence. Thus it became the perfect evidence for the killing of women by a patriarchal Church and the perfect agent for Fear.
The genocide of these women is not part of history that is well-known. It has become hidden, like women’s culture and women themselves from view. If the full horrors of it were exposed, could we expect an apology from the mighty arrogant Roman Catholic Church? I suspect not. For the modern-day power base still thrives in the patriarchal church, with a male God, male priests and pope. The desire to control women’s morality, bodies and reproduction still exists. The male hierarchies still view these matters as theirs to `direct’, (control), as if women were not able enough or mature enough to be responsible for their own choices and lives. How women should behave and what is acceptable behaviour is outlined by the male priests, and the role model given to women is Blessed Virgin Mary, willing, submissive, perfect mother, even untainted by the sin of sex.
But this is not just a women’s issue. In order to create culture in which this type of mass genocide is `acceptable’ to the people left behind: the father’s who lost their daughters, the husbands who lost their wives, the sons who lost their mothers, the brothers who lost their sisters, as well as the mothers, daughters and sisters of these women, society had to be manipulated and distorted in ways which have an effect on every person. If we are to gain anything, if we are to learn from our historical past, we must understand how society and individuals within it can be subject to such mind control, how our norms and perceptions can be so radically altered, whereby we can accept wholesale slaughter as acceptable and maybe even right. It is as relevant to us today as it was then. Whilst it is possible to see women’s fear of being accused themselves if they spoke out against it, how did fathers, sons and lovers get to a point where the murder of their women folk could be carried out without revolution?
In `Dreaming the Dark’, Starhawk makes the following relevant point.
`Protestant preachers in the late C16th & C17th undertook a Cultural Revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, in brain washing, on a hitherto unprecedented scale. We only fail to recognise this because we live in a brain washed society. Our own indoctrination takes place so early, and from so many directions at once, that we are unaware of the processes.
At this particular time, Western Culture underwent crucial changes that produced the particular brand of estrangement that characterises the modern world. We see this period of the Renaissance and reformation as the great flowering of art, science and humanism, a time of discovery and enlightenment. But these are also the times of terror and torture, the persecution of women, of forced confessions, of children used as witnesses against their mothers, of the public death at the stake. Jean Bodin, a French witch hunter and intellectual, actually favoured the use of children as witnesses, as `they could be persuaded more easily to give evidence against the accused’.
The process of brain washing took three interwoven forms that effectively destroyed communities. These were: the expropriation of land and natural resources, the expropriation of knowledge and the war against the consciousness of immanence, which was embodied in women, sexuality and magic. So what happened? Historically, the institutions of domination have established themselves by destroying community. At this time, communities were largely agrian based, small village settlements farming land for their own food needs, selling the excess to others. They did not see land as something one could `own’, in the same way we do. In fact the concept of ownership would have been quite alien to them in the way we understand it, even to `landowners’ of that time. Value was seen in terms of subsistence, not in terms of profit. Destruction is inherent in the very concept of ownership.
Feudal society was a system of very complex interlocking rights and responsibilities that functioned in many ways like an organism. The introduction of the Carolingian plough for example had made it necessary for the peasants to work together to acquire both the plough and the team of horses or oxen required to pull it. All decisions about what to plant and when, what land to leave fallow etc. were made communally and even where land was owned independently, a complex network of `rights of common’ covered large areas. Even in villages where land was farmed independently, the rights of others bound it, e.g. one family may have the rights to graze cattle on another families fields following harvest. Thus, regarding the land and its production, people saw themselves as linked, as community. Feudal society saw the value of land as its means of providing subsistence. It supported armies and was also thus the base of political power, but it was not seen as a resource to be exploited for maximum gain, (or profit). Declining fertility of the land and the rise of a market economy introduced changes in production, distribution and the way in which the land was viewed. Gradually the word `profit’ became the buzzword. With rising inflation, landowners looked at ways of increasing their profits and enclosure of the land in order to raise sheep became far more desirable. The laws and customs that had protected the people’s rights to their land were changed and vast amounts of land were expropriated elsewhere. `The new view of land as private property was linked to the New World view that saw nature as non-alive and as valuable only when it could be exploited’. Instead of serving multiple needs, the land now only served one. It no longer provided wood for fuel and building, acorns for pigs, healing herbs and a means of subsistence; the land had been taken away from the people at large. Enclosure destroyed the peasant unit as an economic unity. Thus power over local decisions was also removed.
The persecution of witches undermined the unity of the peasant community still further. They made convenient scapegoats, diverting the anger and rage of the poorer classes to these other members of their same class. They encouraged women to blame other women for their misfortunes rather than look for the conditions that caused this poverty. They acted as a focus for men’s hostility against women. By thus diverting their attention, they did not have to focus on their own powerlessness. Perhaps one of the first effective cases of `divide and conquer’. Festivals, feasts and rituals were the expression of the organic unity of the human community and the link between the peasant, his lands and its harvests. These were destroyed, as the communal link was broken. The celebrations that had celebrated this link were branded evil and satanic. At this time, people emigrated and took their newfound beliefs of private property and the absolute right of ownership with them. They imposed it on Africa, India and the Far East, extending this to ownership of people. Slaves were viewed as not human; subhuman savages and devil worshippers.
As the old communities fell apart in these ways, the organic community was destroyed; individuals became as atoms, separated, no longer bound by mutual obligation. Knowledge became the next big divider. With the Church taking the stance that it and it alone held the truth, the next step became: If Christ = All Good, then Everything Else = Satan and All Evil. `Witches’ were seen as “giving knowledge away without the Churches approval”. In their role as healers they had been giving ergot to ease women’s pain in labour. The Church held that pain in childbirth was the Lord’s just and right punishment for Eve’s Original Sin. The Reformation destroyed the Catholic Church’s monopoly on the approval of knowledge. Knowledge began to be seen as a market commodity, something one could buy if one could afford it. No longer was the type of knowledge learnt through experience or from elders seen as worth anything. Women’s learning then, was automatically discounted as worthless, as it was learned through oral tradition, handed down from woman to woman, mother to daughter.
The term `education’ was not used before the Reformation. With the standardisation of language, deeper divisions occurred. Then as now, those who spoke with an unapproved accent or non-standard grammar could be branded inferior and excluded from wealth, status and power. By the early C17th a new consensus began to arise; the idea that man was born incompetent for society and remained so unless he was provided with `education’. The growing importance of institutionalised education meant that women became excluded from areas they had previously worked in, since they were also banned from these institutions and thus from achieving `it’. Among rising professionals, the first to want to consolidate their power were the doctors. Healing had traditionally been a female occupation. Among the poorest in society, the Wise woman, the witch had preserved the knowledge of herbs and natural healing, and she was often the only source of medical care. These wise women were also the midwives. Men started to encroach even here.
The witch persecutions were used to destroy unlicensed healers i.e. women and midwives. Doctors were often instrumental in bringing charges of witchcraft against women. The Church said,” If a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die.” To destroy a cultures trust in its healers is to destroy that cultures trust in itself, to shatter its cohesive bonds and expose it to control from outside. As Starhawk identifies,” when lower class healers are branded ignorant and superstitious and are excluded from approved knowledge, other members of that class begin to see themselves as ignorant and to doubt their ability to assert control over their own lives. Their ability to resist the external forces that exploit them is lessened”. Colonial powers knowingly and deliberately use Western medicine to undermine the faith of third World people in their own healers and traditions, in order to reduce resistance to industrial development and power which benefits only the West.
Traditional healers were and are religious leaders, upholding the value of immanence-of the spirit present in the world, of worth inherent in all nature and all living creatures, values that oppose exploitation of natural and human resources. The next war was against immanence and led by the Church. Both the old order and the new order placed God outside his world. According to the new order, a certain few people were destined for salvation and the rest…well frankly; they did not matter very much. The `rest’ were the vast majority. The few were the elect. Money became their symbol and the belief became the justification for inequality. Women bring life into the world. To turn against women is to turn against life itself, to deny flesh, comfort and pleasure. An asceticism that denies the flesh must of necessity denigrate women.
`When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil…they are more impressionable than men and more ready to receive the influence of the disembodied spirit…since they are weak they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves in witchcraft. Women are intellectually like children…they have weaker memories…she is a liar by nature…woman is a wheedling and secret enemy”. So spoke the Dominicans, those over zealous torturers and murderers of women.
However, hatred of women was not limited to one area or one religious body. With the new Protestant work ethic, women found themselves kept out of the workplace due to this undesirable flaw in their nature. Thus, women who had previously shared communal work and importance were further excluded from another section of society. When women are excluded from productive labour, they are forced into the role of an object. With the importance of the `performance mentality’, i.e. that anything is only worth what it produces in profit, women became seen as useless and worthless. If she works in the home, hers is unpaid labour; she cannot profit from it or use it to bargain for better pay or conditions. It is seen as `less than men’s work’. Lower class women if working outside the home were considered expendable, cheaper to hire than men, and easier to dismiss as they were not considered `proper’ workers. Upper class women became commodities, to be traded in marriage by fathers and brothers, tokens of men’s power, status and success. Women learnt to package themselves towards these ends. Women’s skills in healing, supporting, nurturing, caring and educating had all been systematically reduced and replaced by a male mechanistic and profit related view, which women by exclusion found themselves on the outside of. Now effectively they lived outside of their own society. The witchcraft trials punished women for sexual aggressiveness, enforced passivity, punished women for enjoying sex, and enforced frigidity.
`In the seventeenth century, the mechanistic view of the world as composed of dead, inert, isolated particles was still being challenged by views expressed in systems of magic, such as alchemy, astrology, Cabbalism and ritual magic’. These systems expressed the experiences of the people, and the culture of the people. However, they had no profit, these experiences, and this culture. Mechanism won, not because it best described reality; but because of its political, economic and social implications. If one views a tree with immanence, it has a sacredness; its value in what it provides in terms of shelter for wildlife, honey from bees that may gather there, shade for people to rest under, maybe wood for building and fuel for fire. Each tree is considered carefully and protected as such. If the same tree is viewed mechanistically, it is merely timber to sell for profit.
Thus by attacking the very systems that supported women, and that they supported, combined with the Church’s determination to keep its power base male, women found themselves on the outside of their society, de-valued, worthless in all areas which counted, a perceived threat to the male mechanistic world view, and objects for men’s use and desire. Like the tree, they could easily be disposed of, for they were no longer viewed as an equal human being to man, they had become subhuman, a thing to be controlled and curtailed, viewed as being unable to take responsibility for their own lives, and `flawed’ since the `sin’ of Eve.
It is strange to remember just what Eve’s `sin’ had been. She had the courage to eat from the tree of knowledge and offer this knowledge to the man. Perhaps after all, it would have been best if she had kept this knowledge for herself!
We see how women have been reduced and yet have managed to function albeit in a diminished manner. It is women who have suffered…yes. Nevertheless, it is also men and society as a whole that has suffered. Society has become unbalanced and has in effect now started a civil war between the genders instead of looking at the causes and effects in the nature of reconciliation now termed as a route for allowing the past to be acknowledged and then forgiven and moved on from. This is no imaginary war, despite few recognising it as such. Women are now choosing to raise children independently of men and male fertility is decreasing at an alarming rate. DNA can now be taken from the skin of a woman and used to fertilise the ovum, thus reducing the need for male participation at all. This is not healthy for the race as a whole and the need is for understanding and co-operation between the sexes, not men vv women. The long-term implications of not finding the balance between men and women are disastrous for the survival of the species and the planet.