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.