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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Witch-hunting and pointless swipes at feminism

In a desperate attempt to make a needless swipe at feminism, Salon had an article today about how feminists have misread the history of witch-hunting in Europe, a practice whose victims were 80% female. (Salon quotes the statistic as 20% male, a subtle shift in focus to underscore the weak thesis.) The article makes two extremely weak points about why the witch hunts of Europe defy a feminist understanding--one, that witch hunts were not a conspiracy of the church against women and two, that witch hunts usually erupted from conflicts over "small" things between women.

The sad thing is that without the attempts to discredit feminism that are tacked onto the article, it's a good article about what the author, Laura Miller, explains is the banality of evil. It's sad because her point that feminists are wrong aout the witch hunts relies on the notion that feminist understanding of the evil of sexism is all about conspiracy and major institutions conspiring against women. Her evidence? Mostly The Da Vinci Code, though she touches on a couple of other books.

Both views are wrong, but as far as popular conception goes, the second has triumphed. For a summary of this now-widespread misperception of the "Burning Times," we need look no further than a passage from the best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code":

I won't bore you by quoting the piece she quotes from the book that explains that the church was threatened by the knowledge that woman-healers had and they shut them down. While I have heard this theory before, I wouldn't say it's a standard feminist theory but more a general romanticizing of the pagan cultures that came before Christianity that Miller and I agree were probably not a whole lot better than Christianity. Whatever Miller's reasoning for not thinking that Christianity was better is, my reasoning is that religion is religion is religion, and even if the theologians during the witch-hunting period disliked the way common people treated religion, the fact of the matter is that religion's function for people has been unchanging for millienia, regardless of the name slapped on the current one. It gives people something magical to believe in and a coherent philosophy for their superstitions. Some go deeper or expand past that, but that's the sum of it for most people.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that feminism and the belief in superior pagan cultures are hardly the same belief and it's misleading to conflate the two.

Miller's other argument against a feminist reading of witch-hunting is that the very banality of the conflicts that mushroomed into witch hunts and the fact that most victims and accusers were both female defies a feminist reading of the situation. Apparently, the very femaleness of the entire problem was just a matter of luck.

Most of the complaints concerned pregnant women, infants, young children and lactating mothers who suffered from unexplained and sometimes fatal maladies. Such misfortunes were commonplace at a time when only half of all babies made it past their first birthday. If the mother or her family felt inclined to blame this on supernatural forces, the most likely culprit to single out would be an elderly woman who had some encounter -- even a seemingly benevolent one -- with mother or child.

This is where Salon's desperate attempts to discredit feminism can ring so very, very hollow. Here we have a situation where all women's worth is judged by a single standard--whether they can they marry and make babies--and women are so driven by desperation to achieve that standard and allow themselves the satisfaction of having some measure of worth in their lives turn on each other. How exactly can this situation be understood properly without a feminist reading?

Miller suggests that people are simply petty and jealous and that's all there is to it. But the fact is that pettiness and jealousy attend all people at all times. During the periods of the witch hunts, there is no doubt in my mind that men also suffered from envy and fear of catching the evil eye and sorrow over the loss of infant children. And yet men were not the majority of victims or accusers. If one does not allow the feminist reading of the situation, which is that women were under unique social pressures that were so strong that they spiralled out of control very easily, you are left only with one other explanation--that women are simply unable to get a grip on their mundane problems as easily as men. And this is something that Miller lamely hints at towards the end of her article.

A gift of baked goods that comes with a barbed remark about the recipient's own culinary skills, a quarrel over the price of apples, irritation at someone who doesn't come promptly to dinner when called -- these are the sorts of incidents that precipitated the hideous cruelty of Europe's witch hunts. "It is difficult to comprehend the sheer viciousness of the way villagers and townsfolk attacked those they held to be witches," Roper writes.

I agree that every person has this evil side lurking inside. But it's obvious to me that if it didn't require some sort of trigger to come out, the evil side would be showing itself all the time in every person. To simply attribute the witch hunts to some random blip in female nature at that point in time really does defy understanding. But introduce some of that dreaded feminism, suggest that women who were generally relegated to the outskirts of public life and treated like breeding and fucking machines might relish this single opportunity to make their concerns important to the community at large, and now you can really understand people's mindset. The extraordinary fear that women who had husbands and children had of women who didn't only makes sense if you remember that those who didn't were regarded as barely having the right to exist. Sure, the witch hunts primarily erupted due to extremely personal quarrels. But those quarrels were underscored by a sexist culture that gave them the avenue to be blown completely out of proportion.

163 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

the fact of the matter is that religion's function for people has been unchanging for millienia, regardless of the name slapped on the current one. It gives people something magical to believe in and a coherent philosophy for their superstitions. I'd say semi-coherent, but perhaps I'm splitting hairs.

- Charlie

2/01/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The weakest part of Salon's article is the idea that because a single organisation wasn't coordinating these attacks, it couldn't be a feminist issue. That maybe the feminist argument comes in by examining the lives and the religious culture of these women.

evelyn

2/01/2005

 
Blogger Pseudo-Adrienne said...

I just love it when antifeminist folk always bring up the Salem Witch Trials and talk about how feminist "never" mention how it was all caused by a few hysterical girls, because they're supposedly "afraid" to expose the vindictive jealously of some women--that we all know is exclusively female. ::bangs head against desk::

So because it's 'woman accusing woman', feminists can't examine the situation, and analyze how there are indeed patriarchal forces at work behind the scenes? And I love how they assume that feminists always have pro-pagan religions agenda behind their analysis of witch burnings. Yeah right, feminists always scream "oppression of women's role as healers within matriarchal pagan religions" whenever they discuss witch burnings.

We're all too hysterical about women's sufferings in history, to make a rational and intelligent theory as to why it happened.

What sophomoric bullshit. These antifeminist diatribes are really becoming cliche, don't you think?

2/01/2005

 
Blogger mythago said...

Surely I can't be the only one who's ever heard of the Malleus Maleficarum. You know, with the line about "all witchcraft stems from carnal lust which is, in women, insatiable."

Witch hysteria in middle Europe had nothing to do with paganism and everything to do with the pre-Enlightenment view of women as irrational, emotional, sex-driven, voracious creatures. Satan tempted through lust, therefore guess who was most susceptible? (In Spain it was more about burning heretics and Jews--the Spanish Inquisition actually thought the whole booga-booga witchy thing was silly.)

2/02/2005

 
Blogger zuzu said...

Wasn't Miller the one who wrote that snarky piece about The Da Vinci Code a few months back? She seems not to understand that it's FICTION.

2/02/2005

 
Blogger Andygrrl said...

The Malleus Malficarum also says that women are inherently evil (seriously). That whole Eve thing I guess.

Whenever I tell people I'm a feminist, I always have to explain that I don't believe there's some Vast Male Conspiracy or secret cabal out to get women (though, now that I think about it, the Bush Administration fits the bill pretty well). A conspiracy isn't necessary when an entire culture and society sees you only as a uterus first, and person second.

2/02/2005

 
Blogger FoolishOwl said...

"In Eve's fall we sinned all."

I have a love/hate thing for John Milton. Paradise Lost is brilliant in so many ways. But at the core of it is the Great Chain of Being. Eve sinned by dreaming of rising above her station; Adam sinned by not beating Eve into submission.

Getting back to the witch hunts: just because there weren't other issues involved doesn't mean that gender wasn't at the center of the crisis. And oppression doesn't require some formal conspiracy where people have meetings on "How to Oppress The Other." Ideology is usually much more subtle than that.

A tangential thought -- has anyone else noticed a trend in the last few years of angry rejection of any notion of the unconscious? While I can understand the irritation at someone telling you to your face that your stated motives aren't the real motives, it is often the case that a person *isn't* conscious of their real motives. That's a point of commonality between psychoanalytic theory and marxist theory, and I think it comes up in feminism a lot.

2/02/2005

 
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"This is where Salon's desperate attempts to discredit feminism can ring so very, very hollow. Here we have a situation where all women's worth is judged by a single standard--whether they can they marry and make babies--and women are so driven by desperation to achieve that standard and allow themselves the satisfaction of having some measure of worth in their lives turn on each other. How exactly can this situation be understood properly without a feminist reading?"

of all possible ways to explain the nasty sides of the average human, the 'feminist' lens used here seems to be the most distorting. Do you really think it possible for an uneducated woman of that era to act in terms of "I am just a vessel of reproduction"? Guaranteed, she had a lot more to worry about than that, survival being uppermost no doubt.

There are much better explanations including the fact that the accused were always the most vulnerable - for example, the old woman who lived alone (great victim that one, no one would avenge her). People (not confined to any gender) have always played the scapegoat game. Look at it as just an earlier version of victim feminism.

2/02/2005

 
Blogger FoolishOwl said...

So, feminism has nothing to say when the most vulnerable members of a society turn out to be almost all women?

2/02/2005

 
Blogger mythago said...

There are much better explanations including the fact that the accused were always the most vulnerableNope. Untrue. Sorry.

Who "the accused" were varied enormously depending on what country we're talking about, and when. A lot of old women died in the witchcraft hysteria in England. In Germany, early on, it was a way to snatch up somebody's lands--more of being on the losing end of a social struggle than being 'the most vulnerable.' In Spain, of course, it was the Jews.

Women were primarily targeted because they were seen as primitive, emotional, stupid, and sex-driven (in apposition to men's civilized, rational, intelligent, and moral nature), and therefore easy prey for Satan.

It takes an astonishing level of self-serving ignorance to pretend gender had nothing at all to do with anything.

2/03/2005

 
Blogger Amanda said...

Alyric, because someone can't express oppression with 21st century academic language doesn't mean the oppression doesn't exist. Articulating the oppression isn't what makes it oppression; in fact, articulating it is the first step towards ovrethrowing it.

I mean, take your idea and put it into other situations--before the word "gay" was invented, were gays and lesbians free to marry and live openly, or were they hiding in the closet? Did the Montgomery bus boycott actually create the situation where blacks had to sit at the back or was that the beginning of the end of a systematic method of oppression? Before the "pride" movements like black pride, gay pride, etc. where people were exhorted to throw off shame, was there no shame to be thrown off because it had never been named?

Naming doesn't make something real. It's there and then we name it.

2/03/2005

 
Blogger Alyric said...

Amanda wrote:

>because someone can't express oppression with 21st century academic language doesn't mean the oppression doesn't exist. Articulating the oppression isn't what makes it oppression; in fact, articulating it is the first step towards ovrethrowing it. <

I don't think you get it. it is overlaying 20th Century adapted Marxist thought(substitute gender for class and carry on as usual) onto an era , which socially could not support such a paradigm. 'Ahistorical' is, I believe, the term for this. Or more prosaically trying to get a mediaeval square peg into a 20th Century round hole - not a good fit. But then, applying victim feminism to eras where practically everybody was struggling doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

2/03/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even when different groups of people were struggling in demonstrably different ways? Come now. You wouldn't argue that discussing European slavery or class stratifications (which were construed as biologically determined, at that time; early modern Europeans were intensely conscious of social class, just as they were perfectly aware of sex and sex roles) or the specific experience of Jews in the Venetian ghettos was "ahistorical," would you, just because "everyone was struggling"?

All witch hunts/witch trials were certainly not alike, and a lot of accusers were much more influenced by folk belief than by scholarly texts like Malleus Maleficarum (which is much more misogynistic than popular belief was at the time, as far as I can tell). I don't think gender was the primary factor in every hunt or in every location. But to say it's not useful to discuss it as a factor at all is just nuts.

2/03/2005

 
Blogger Omar said...

For the love of Eris, Aylric, we have proof that authorities at the time saw women's desires as sinful. They said so openly. The Church explicitly told women to view their sexuality as intended for bearing children, yes? Leading theologians decried non-reproductive sex, and as I recall some of them literally demonized attempts at birth control. Do you think women liked this? All of them? Do you think it had no effect on their 'psychological' health?

2/04/2005

 
Blogger FoolishOwl said...

Everyone is struggling *now*.

Alyric, you clearly don't know a damned thing about history, marxism, or feminism.

2/04/2005

 
Blogger mythago said...

Still waiting for Alyric to find a way to brush off the Malleus, which was hardly revolutionary for its time in its attitude towards women.

2/04/2005

 
Blogger Alyric said...

Just found this....

Mythago wrote:

>Still waiting for Alyric to find a way to brush off the Malleus, which was hardly revolutionary<

Every age has its Dworkins and McKinnons. No one takes them seriously. Even the Catholic Church paid no attention to the crazed authors of the Malleus - or didn't you know that?

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Amanda - thank you so much for posting. I just happened to read the Salon article while looking into some related info, and it made me furious. Not because of the thesis (hey, I think her opinion's stupid, but she's entitled to it, I suppose), but because of the extremely poor reasoning. Thank you so much for deconstructing the illogic.

The other thing that was offensive was that reading between the lines, I think she's probably misrepresenting the research she's reviewing. None of the authors she cites seems to be actually making a 'feminists are wrong!' point in their books.

Seems far more likely that she took the 'oh those silly, hysterical feminists!' angle because it was more likely to attract attention than simply an 'oh look, new interesting reseach on the witchhunts' angle.

Sloppy logic and sloppy writing.

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