Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation

Reviewed by Karl Kersplebedeb

Reviewed in this article

Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation
by Sylvia Federici, Autonomedia, 2005.

Ending women’s oppression is crucial to the struggle for human liberation, but serious investigations of why women suffer distinct forms of oppression, and why rape and other forms of violence play such an integral role in this oppression, have generally been beyond the scope of most left analysis.

Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation is a welcome addition to a growing list of works that address the oppression of women from an anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist perspective. Federici’s historical analysis brings previously “invisible” (at least, to those who don’t experience them) forms of oppression and resistance to light, exposing the subjugation and oppression of women as central not only to capitalist history, but also to our unfinished quest to find a way out of it. Medieval “women’s struggles” were not separate from “class struggles” (any more than they are today); rather, they were class struggles in their own right. Gender, Federici stresses, “should be treated as a specification of class relations”.

Caliban and the Witch is both a history of the making of the European working class and a re-telling of the birth of capitalism that places women at the center of the story. It is not only instructive, but also a joy to read. Rich in anecdote, oftentimes exciting and moving, this is one of those books that makes history come alive. Due to spatial constraints, this review will not be able to touch on all of the ground covered by Federici (her chapter about how capitalism changed people’s understanding and experience of their own bodies in particular would require an entire separate article to do it justice).

Instead, this review will follow Federici’s core argument that “primitive accumulation”1 involved not only the accumulation of wealth and “free” workers, but also the accumulation of hierarchies within the working class itself. With mixed results, she attempts to show how this process continues to this day, especially in the neo-colonies. As she makes clear, the transition to capitalism was neither smooth nor natural, but was built upon the institutionalization of male violence against women.

Federici’s narrative begins in Europe’s High Middle Ages (1000-1300 AD). The ruling class at that time consisted of the Church and the various warlords who formed a continental military caste known as the nobility. Most people were serfs: peasants who were tied to “their” plot of land, and who were forced to labour under the authority of the lord.

Contrary to popular belief, this was a world in revolt, where the poor were gaining ground and the ruling class was on the defensive. Serfdom would eventually be abolished, not as a result of aristocratic benevolence, but in reaction to struggles by the serfs themselves – not only using the covert “weapons of the weak”2 (such as sabotage, foot dragging, theft, etc.), but also through organized armed religious-political movements that swept across the continent. These “heretical sects” attracted hundreds of thousands of people, and openly called for a classless society, often specifically rejecting gender hierarchies as well as hierarchies of wealth. Not surprisingly, many of those who banded together and took up arms, in what Federici describes as “the first proletarian international,” were women.

The heretical sects were the main organized resistance to feudalism, and the seriousness of their challenge kept on intensifying until, in the early fifteenth century, it took the form of actual warfare. At the same time, there was an acute labour shortage, an effect of the plague that had killed off a third of the population one hundred years earlier. This fact in particular gave workers and peasants the upper hand in determining their labour’s worth, and so wages skyrocketed, doubling and even tripling, while prices, rents and the length of the work day all dropped. As the old feudal economy faltered, self-sufficient communities began to form.

Federici argues convincingly that capitalism, rather than evolving out of a mature feudal economy, was a radical counter-measure to the social forces that had arisen to challenge the feudal system, a wild ruling class gambit to maintain class rule: “Capitalism,” she argues, “was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that had marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide.”3 Class warfare repeatedly forced the Church and nobility to retreat, resorting to defensive maneuvers to maintain their power. All too often, however, these maneuvers only laid the basis for more advanced forms of exploitation and left the ruling class in a position to regain the upper hand. One way this happened was by manipulating differences within the working class, by intensifying the exploitation of some sections in order to reduce pressure on, or even buy off, other sections. (These strategies of social bribery and division have played out time and time again within our own recent history, along the fault-lines of race, sex and nation.) Federici traces the ways in which “hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, become constitutive of class rule, and the formation of the modern proletariat.”

With the ruling class pushed to the brink by widespread class revolt and the effects of the plague, opportunism and division amongst the oppressed proved crucial to ruling class efforts to hold on to power. Federici details how male workers’ rebelliousness was channeled into sexual violence, with women’s bodies serving as a diversion and safety valve to relieve social pressure that would otherwise have been directed at the ruling class. Drawing on Jacques Rossiaud’s research about prostitution in fifteenth century France,4 she describes a literal rape movement, whereby sexual assaults on poor women were now tolerated and essentially decriminalized by the authorities. At the same time, state-run brothels were established where the masses of poor landless women could earn the money necessary for their survival.

Rossiaud interprets the mass raping of women as a form of class protest, the rapists often believing that their victims – often maids, servants, or washerwomen – were having sex with their masters, and were therefore deserving of punishment. This is one of the most intriguing assertions of Caliban and the Witch, even though only a page or so was spent discussing it. Neither the internet nor most standard works on medieval women discuss this, so, considering that Federici describes this as both a decriminalization of rape and as a ruling class strategy, she needs to provide more information about the previous legal situation, as well as evidence that this was a thought-out plan. This is an area where it is difficult to distinguish between documented developments and Federici’s particular interpretation of them.

Simultaneous to this rape movement, a similar dynamic was playing out in regards to women’s labour. In this, too, craftsmen played a key role – campaigning to exclude women from their workshops, claiming that they were working for lower wages. This complaint, still heard in anti-immigrant campaigns today, as well as in the right-wing of the anti-globalization movement, should be understood as one set of ambitious workers trying to increase the price of their skills (their wages) by limiting the labour supply through the exclusion (and, incidentally, the impoverishment) of another set of workers. When people depended more and more on money to acquire the necessities of life, women’s ability to earn this money was increasingly curtailed to the benefit of the men of their class.

Federici explains how “it was from this alliance between the crafts and the urban authorities, along with the continuing privatization of land, that a new sexual division of labour […] was forged, defining women in terms – mothers, wives, daughters, widows – that hid their status as workers, while giving men free access to women’s bodies, their labour, and the bodies and labour of their children.”

As German feminist Maria Mies remarks in her 1986 book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, “[t]he process of proletarianization of the men was… accompanied by a process of housewifization of women.”

One part of Federici’s argument that bears reflection upon is her insistence that in oppressing proletarian women male workers were in fact acting against their own interests. Federici argues that the “state-backed raping of poor women undermined the class solidarity that had been achieved in the anti-feudal struggle,” and that “the devaluation and feminization of reproductive labour was a disaster also for male workers, for the devaluation of reproductive labour inevitably devalued its product: labour-power.”

Because there is no explicit discussion of the nature of class in the book – beyond her promising observation that gender can be a specification of class relations – it is difficult to know Federici’s rationale for claiming that these opportunistic acts were against men’s interests. Perhaps she believes that, since men’s alienation and exploitation can only be solved by revolution, any behaviour that works against this goal is not in their interest; in this sense it might be said that although this opportunism was in their personal interests it remained against their class interests. This formulation, however, becomes unwieldy when we insist on taking gender as a “specification of class,” and unconvincing when we are given no evidence of male resistance to women’s subjugation. Men, it seems, often collabourated in the new mechanisms of exploitation and oppression, so that, like race today, gender in these instances appears to have been the most important specification of class.

Perhaps one way to untie this knot is to acknowledge that men must also have been warped by this process – becoming more sexist, less respectful of the women in their community, more prone to dismiss, to degrade, to beat and to rape. So while the abstract, genderless, ideal “worker” may have suffered as a result of these attacks on women, the new male worker was served by the increasing subordination of women – which in no way lessens the scale of this historic human tragedy.

Looking back, these attacks on working class women in the fifteenth century appear as signs of things to come. The ruling class continued to be driven to more and more desperate measures, and it was in these increasingly violent and “radical” developments that we can see the appearance of what we would now call “primitive accumulation.” This process built on and exacerbated the oppression of women, so that “an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class … become constitutive of class rule, and the formation of the modern proletariat.”

Just a couple of hundred years after the plague, the labour shortage that continued into the sixteenth century was exacerbated by a new decrease in the population (probably due to the increased poverty as the gains of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were undone). This was the era of the capitalist counter-revolution, and yet the fledgling capitalist class, though it could produce cloth and steel, could not produce the labour it needed.

Federici agrees with Maria Mies that two of the greatest crimes of that age were committed in order to find a way around this crisis: the witch hunt in Europe and the mass kidnapping and enslavement of Africans.

While Federici does not deal with the effects of the slave trade on gender relations within Africa, and only touches upon the way in which ideas of male and female power developed amongst African slaves in the “New World,” she does note that “capitalism may not even have taken off without Europe’s ‘annexation of America,’ and the ‘blood and sweat’ that for two centuries flowed to Europe from the plantation.”

What Federici concentrates on, rather, is the war against women in Europe, the hammer of housewifization which “degraded maternity to the status of forced labour”.

European men had been burning witches since the fifteenth century, but this had originally just been one part of the campaigns against the heretics. In the sixteenth century, the persecution of witches went from the margins to the center of this campaign, and the accusations changed from being primarily about religious beliefs to a new focus on sexual perversion, infanticide and reproduction. By the seventeenth century, as many as 100,000 women had been killed, and just as many more had their lives ruined by the accusation.5 Federici characterizes this as a politically motivated war against women: what had to be destroyed was “the female personality that had developed, especially among the peasantry, in the course of the struggle against feudal power, when women had been in the forefront of the heretical movements, often organizing in female associations, posing a growing challenge to male authority and the Church.”

Federici does us the service of locating this mass murder within the context of a growing misogyny that accompanied the rise of capitalism. Prostitution was now criminalized so as to punish the woman but hardly touch the male customer, the word “gossip” (which had meant “female friend” previously) now took on disparaging meaning, and new levels of male hostility forced women indoors, for to be seen walking the streets without a male escort was to risk insult or attack. And at the same time as “witches” were being publicly tortured and killed, governments across Europe were passing laws against contraception, abortion, adultery, and especially infanticide – all of which were punishable by death.

All of these changes worked in tandem, snuffing out centuries of rebellion and resistance to class rule, and ending “a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism”.

In the final chapter of Caliban and the Witch, Federici makes her most ambitious claim, that the witch hunt was not just a European phenomenon, but also stretched across the Americas as conquistadors and pilgrims sought to break indigenous women’s power here. Relying on Irene Silverblatt’s Moon, Sun, and Witches and Luciano Parinetto’s Streghe e Potere, Federici argues that the colonization of the “New” World in many ways mirrored the proletarianization and housewifization that confronted men and women in Europe.

It is here that Federici’s argument falters. Silverblatt and Parinetto both seem to limit their studies to the colonization of modern-day Peru and Mexico by Spain – not a wide enough sample to draw any kind of solid conclusions about the experience of indigenous victims of colonialism around the world. In her book The Military Strategy of Women and Children, Amazon theorist Butch Lee has shown that colonialism involves a war against women, and that breaking indigenous women’s power is key to capitalist expansion, but Federici’s suggestion that the witch-hunt was the model for this process seems unnecessarily narrow, and potentially misleading.

Even more problematically, Federici’s analysis of colonialism comes across as inconsistent and underdeveloped (at 25 pages, the chapter is the shortest in the book). The end result is that even the most obvious specificities of colonialism (apart from super-exploitation) are glossed over, giving the impression that indigenous peoples are different from the European proletariat only insofar as they may have been more or less successful in resisting capitalist rule. Genocide itself is subsumed into the relationship between capital and labour, as when the annihilation of indigenous nations – which is described as a Holocaust – is explained as “work, disease and disciplinary punishments” killing two thirds of the indigenous population. It is painful to try to fit the extermination of entire peoples into such a small conceptual box.

Noting this, one wonders about the virtual absence of Jews and Moslems from Federici’s account. It has been established that relations between Christendom and these groups were also thoroughly gendered. Pogroms, the crusades, legal codes which proscribed the death penalty for any Christian woman found guilty of miscegenation, the oversexualized Christian stereotypes about Jews, the use of rape in warfare… all of this is mentioned only in passing, if at all. Agreeing with Federici’s observation that primitive accumulation necessitates the accumulation of hierarchies within the proletariat, one is left wondering how the imposition of hierarchies of “race” played out in the European subcontinent.

Caliban and the Witch is, I must emphasize, an extremely useful resource which can be applied not only to the history of European women, but also sheds needed light on the question of patriarchy and capitalism in the neo-colonies today. But to do so, readers need to use both their imagination and their critical sense, and the book should definitely not stand alone. To get the most out of Federici’s work, I would strongly suggest people also check out Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, Butch Lee’s The Military Strategy of Women and Children, and the growing body of literature examining how capitalism either uses or introduces patriarchy to those societies it colonizes. J. Sakai’s Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat (which does not deal with gender) and Butch Lee and Red Rover’s Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain (which does deal with gender) are also worth reading for the light they shine on the question of how classes are made and unmade, and the role of parasitism and opportunism (which capitalism teaches us to call “ambition”) in this process.

Despite its weaknesses, Caliban and the Witch promises to become a classic. By showing how men’s subjugation of women has played a crucial role in the imposition of more advanced forms of exploitation, Federici provides us with the evidence necessary to draw our own conclusions about class, and about class collabouration.

It is only by facing the hard truths of our present and our past that we can perhaps finally reconstitute a resistance movement that tolerates no hierarchy and accepts no exploitation, demanding – at a minimum – liberation for all.

The full version of this review is available on Karl’s website at and on his blog at


1. In essence, primitive accumulation is that set of phenomena which serve as preconditions to the initial development of capitalism – the “classic” Marxist version of primitive accumulation centers on the accumulation of important resources through theft and violence and the dispossession of the peasantry. Federici refines and elabourates this definition in significant ways.

2. I borrow this term from the book of the same name by James Scott, Weapons of the Weak : Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance(Yale University 1985).

3. The term “counter-revolution” should be explained. Rather than being reactionary offensives to restore or maintain the status quo, most counter-revolutions actually re-organize society in a new and more brutal way. As with the Nazis or the Taliban, what we are really talking about is a revolution from the right.

4. Rossiaud, Jacques Medieval Prostitution (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1988)

5. Previous estimates of the numbers of witches killed had run into the millions – German feminist Ingrid Strobl put it at “between 9 and 30 million” (in “Fear of the Shivers of Freedom”) – but more recent research which seems to be accepted by feminists puts the figure much lower. See “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch-Hunt” by Jenny Gibbons at