Un(der)known Writers: Silvia Federici

Women are present in the history of heresy as in no other aspect of medieval life. According to Gottfried Koch, already in the 10th century they formed a large part of the Bogomils. In the 11th century, it was again women who gave life to the heretical movements in France and Italy. At this time female heretics came from the most humble ranks of the serfs, and they constituted a true women’s movement developing within the frame of the different heretic groups. Female heretics are also present in the records of the Inquisition; of some we know that they were burned, of others that they were “walled in” for the rest of their lives.

Can we say that this large female presence in the heretic sects was responsible for the heretics’ “sexual revolution”? Or should we assume that the call for “free love” was a male ploy designed to gain easy access to women’s sexual favors? These questions are not easily answered. We know, however, that women did try to control their reproductive func­tion, as references to abortion and the use of contraceptives by women are numerous in the Penitentials. Significantly – in view of the future criminalization of such practices dur­ing the witch-hunt – contraceptives were referred to as “Sterility potions” or maleficia, and it was assumed that women were the ones who used them.

In the early Middle Ages, the Church still looked upon these practices with a cer­tain indulgence, prompted by the recognition that women may wish to limit their births because of economic reasons. Thus, in the Decretum, written by Burchard, Bishop of Worms (circa 1010), after the ritual question–

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do when they fornicate and wish to kill their offspring, act with their maleficia, and their herbs so that they kill or cut the embryo, or, if they have not yet conceived, contrive that they do not conceive?”

–it was stipulated that the guilty ones should do penance for ten years; but it was also observed that “it makes a big difference whether she is a poor little woman and acted on account of the difficulty of feeding, or whether she acted to conceal a crime of fornication.”

Things changed drastically, however, as soon as women’s control over reproduction seemed to pose a threat to economic and social stability, as it did in the aftermath of the demographic catastrophe produced by the “Black Death,” the apocalyptic plague that, between 1347 and 1352, destroyed more than one third of the European population.

We will see later what role this demographic disaster played in the “labor crisis” of the late Middle Ages. Here we can notice that, after the spread of the plague, the sexual aspects of heresy became more prominent in its persecution, grotesquely distorted in ways that anticipate the later representations of the witches’ Sabbat. By the mid-14th century the Inquisitors’ reports were no longer content with accusing the heretics of sodomy and sexual license. Now heretics were accused of animal worship, including the infamous bacium sub cauda (the kiss under the tail), and of indulging in orgiastic rit­uals, night flights and child sacrifices. The Inquisitors also reported the existence of a sect of devil-worshippers called Luciferans. Corresponding to this process, which marked the transition from the persecution of heresy to witch-hunting, the fig­ure of the heretic increasingly became that of a woman, so that, by the beginning of the 15th century, the main target of the persecution against heretics became the witch.

-Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 2004

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