| home | office | library | playroom | live work | about | contact |

On Carolyn Merchant's linking of the late medieval persecution of witches with a scientific interrogation of nature

It is an odd thing that although most of the literature available on the persecution of witches belongs to the feminist genre, the very term "witches" remains more often used than "wise-women". Indeed, in the context, the term has a pejorative connotation attached to it and, it is this very connotation that the feminist writers set as main target. Because the topic is surrounded by such passion and controversy, using either one term or the other can always been seen as judgmental. As Carolyn Merchant argues, if feminism and ecology - central approaches in the analysis of the medieval witch-hunts - are considered subversive, it is because "to write history from [this] perspective is to turn it upside down" (1980: xx). If both are subversive, it is because they criticise the modern, male-dominated, industrial and scientific version, which preaches capitalism and exploitation rather than natural balance and gender equality.

In her work "The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution" (1980), she links the shift from medieval society to modern society with the end of the peasant pagan culture and the arrival of the scientific revolution. Her claim is that the "interrogation of witches" stands as symbol for the scientific "interrogation of nature" (1980:172). From a strict feminist perspective it is generally agreed that the witch-hunt constitutes the exclusion of women from an arena in which they had a say and, therefore, a status. The knowledge and expertise they held as herbalists and healers was to be withdrawn from their hands and given to the newly established male medical profession (Ehrenreich and English, 1970: 6).

However, if this straightforward approach seems satisfactory, the whole phenomenon is more intricate than that. Indeed, in order to understand the shift from the agricultural medieval society to the industrial modern society, one has to consider the implications of Carolyn Merchant"s primary argument that the natural world around ceased to simply provide but became exploited. The basic conditions of the late medieval society - 14th, and 15th century - were on the one hand, a mix of pagan and Christian cultural beliefs and references, and, on the other hand, an organic conception of the natural world as provider. This situation contrasts with the trend already established two centuries later. Even at its earliest stage, the industrial modern society preached a systematic scientific knowledge and regarded the world as an exploitable estate. The transition from renewable to non-renewable energy, from wood to coal, emphasises the shift from nature as source to nature as resource.

Another argument put forward is the idea and doctrine hidden behind the gendered imagery of the early scientific revolution. Descartes and Bacon, widely regarded as the fathers of modern science and formulator of the rational and empirical methods of scientific investigation, both considered nature as the field of investigations. If Bacon compared "nature to a woman, requiring certain skills on the part of the obviously male scientist" (Bernstein in Raskin et all, 1987: 117), Descartes found that humans "set apart through the possession of minds and souls" were therefore enabled "to dominate [it]" (Ponting, 1991: 147). Nietzsche resumed their thought in defining science as "the transformation of nature into concepts for the purpose of mastering nature" (in Leiss, 1994: 101). It is this transformation that justified the wild world being tamed for the benefit of humanity.

It is then, not only a clever, but sophisticated point that Carolyn Merchant makes in linking the persecution of witches to the scientific interrogation of nature. Along with the switch from an organic to a mechanic conception of the natural world, for the human kind it became the switch from subject of nature to master of nature. By comparing the earth to a woman: opulent and attractive but, in equal measures, temperamental and violent, the male scientific community justified its will for domination over them. The transition from the medieval to the modern society became a switch from a popular, peasant based, non-hierarchical pagan society to an elitist, patriarchal class society in which knowledge and land became the exclusive property of the scientific, intellectual, educated community: the wealthy few.

The medieval witch-hunts appear today to be the extermination of the popular wise women and their knowledge. The process spread over four centuries, from the 14th to the 17th century, and went across Western Europe from Germany to England. Killed in the millions, the best part of those accused and charged for witchcraft were females. These campaigns of witch-hunting, for which state and Church were equally responsible, were carried out around three main charges. A witch would be accused of "sexual crime against men (...), being organised (...), [and] having magical powers affecting health - of harming but also of healing -" (Ehrenreich and English, 1970: 10).

This last point is especially significant of the position of the Church on the matters regarding health. To heal, in that respect, would be to stand against the will of God who, alone, had decided what one was to suffer. Ehrenreich and English justly remark that the official doctors, trained with the benediction of the Church, did not seem to be considered committing that sort of blasphemy (ibid: 13). It is because peasant healing was regarded as the object of the devil that it was considered magic. The Church saw as a threat any magical power that would be strong enough to challenge God"s order. By doing so, they would reduce the Church"s influence were it was most needed: among the poor and already exploited peasant population.

What appears today as the most potent and horrible example of that doctrine is the case of healers being tried for helping and easing the pain of labour. It was believed, because argued by the Church, that this very pain was the price paid by the female kind for Eve"s original sin (Ehrenreich and English, 1970: 14). This had long been used as an argument to place women below men in God"s creatures" hierarchy. It was now being used as an argument against those who would challenge this state of things.

In these very first campaigns of terror other biological arguments were used against the female witch. Among them, the well-known female sexual drive, often described as a voracious appetite, came across as an only too obvious manifestation of the devil. Engaged in counter-nature intercourse, witches would sign "individual pacts with the devil". The knowledge gained from these encounters, it was believed, would be reported to the rest of the community, for if the world of healers and herbalists was anti-hierarchical, it was nonetheless organised (Merchant, 1980: 140). In these reunions and while supposedly worshipping Satan, witches would exchange hints and tips, very much in the way our contemporary doctors and pharmacists gather for seminars.

William Leiss argues that far from having special powers, magicians would "only anticipate and assist the outcome of natural operation" (1994: 38). Similarly, it is a fact generally agreed upon that healers and herbalists believed in the empirical method of "trial and error" searching for "causes and effects". In the early years of witch-hunting, it is this tendency for empiricism, associated with their sexual encounters with the devil that made witches undesirable. Indeed, "both represent a surrender to the senses" (Ehrenreich and English, 1970: 15).

It is interesting and paradoxical to note that this keenness for observation and classification would prove to be the way modern science developed. However, it did so with the total acceptance of God as creator because his existence could not be proven and therefore could not be contested through neither rational nor empirical investigation.

Partly responsible for this transformation is Rene Descartes who in Discours de la Methode1 established and defined the rational mode of thinking and developed what was to become the first method of modern science (1966). The foundation of rational thinking is that reason is the most trustworthy tool to develop knowledge of the world. The purpose of rational thinking is to deconstruct the knowledge of the world as we have obtained it throughout our senses and to reconstruct it throughout a mental process: to deconstruct the matter and reconstruct a rational and logical idea of it through the mind. This turns out to be of major significance when compared to the Platonic symbolism commonly used at the time in which "ideas [are] likened to a father [and] the matter to a mother" (Merchant, 1980: 10).

However, it would be unfair to blame the gendered imagery of modern science that associates nature to a woman on Descartes alone. Indeed, Francis Bacon holds a great deal of responsibility. It is him, and his ideas that Carolyn Merchant blames for the tortures imposed on supposedly witches.

The switch from an organic to a mechanic conception of the natural world occurred along a scientific and cultural transition. It also went along a transformation in the conception and in the relation between genders. On the one hand and from a cultural point of view, the newly created Protestant Church believed that "God had authorised human dominion over the Earth" (Merchant, 1980: 131). On the other hand and from a scientific point of view, the "masculine Sun", through Copernicus observations, had replaced the "female Earth" as the centre of the cosmos (Fontenelle, quoted in Merchant, 1980: 128).

Nature and the Earth associated to a female and just as a woman began to be considered two-sided. Nature, who as a mother could nurture and protect, could also bring storms, famines and plagues. The woman, similarly, was regarded with the duality of the virgin and the whore. The sorceress, with her magical powers, could, just as nature "destroy crops and bring plagues" (Merchant, 1980: 140). It is because of their power (i.e. their relative capacity for destruction) that both had to be subdued and controlled.

For Bacon, power over something could only come with an intimate knowledge of it. What makes his method the opposite of rationalism is that it is the senses, and not reason, that are considered as the best means to gain knowledge about the world. Knowledge, for someone who preaches the empirical method of investigation comes with repeated observation. Both Bacon and Hume agreed that only repeated observation and organised classification of these observations could lead to real knowledge of the world. Although accurate observation is a difficult task, Hume stressed "that causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason, but by experience" (Hume, 1993: 17). The repeated study of nature would bring about its subordination, and from it, a new form of exploitation would emerge. Indeed, for Bacon, "nature being known, it may be mastered, managed and used in the service of human life" (quoted in Ponting, 1991:148).

Bacon might today be the object of much criticism regarding his motives, it is hard to doubt that his ambition, and so was Descartes", was for the scientific enterprise to lead humankind to "happiness and progress" (Shiva, 1989: 73). The real essence of the criticism is not only that the scientific revolution went hand in hand with witch-hunting, removing both women and peasant from the realm of knowledge and medical expertise, it is also that science followed the same path as early technological development. It followed the path of mercantilism and led the way to capitalism. With the discovery of the Americas, the destruction of the New World"s knowledge accompanied the destruction of the women"s knowledge in Europe. This criticism is central in today"s anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements. Indeed, on the same line as ecologist movements, they criticise the way contemporary western culture preaches and promotes its own development, encouraging third world countries to strictly follow it (Ponting, 1991: 160; Shiva, 1989: 22).

William Leiss resumes perfectly the political and cultural context of the scientific revolution. When stating that "the drive for power in the Middle Ages concentrated on the exercise of domination over men, whereas the new drive sought power over things", science became the perfect tool to transform "things into valuable goods" (Leiss, 1994: 113). The Middle Ages saw the development throughout Europe of the feudal society in which a king is decided by divine right. It is a hierarchical system in which each layer has duties towards the one above and rights over the one underneath. In that organisation, the peasantry is at the very bottom of the ladder, authorised to cultivate the land but obliged to pay heavy taxes to the lords. By transforming the conception of the earth from a provider to an exploitable commodity, the scientific revolution began a process that was to culminate with the industrial revolution, totally alienating the people from the land.

To consider nature as a providing mother did present a restriction for its exploitation. As one does not rape its own mother, one does not dig into the entrails of the earth. However, once the scientific revolution, helped by various religious reformations, had legitimised the concepts of mastering and domination over nature, it became not only acceptable but also advisable to go about investigating the earth"s inner secrets (Shiva, 1989: 17).

Long considered as divinely ordered, the world, in the eyes of the scientific community, began to be seen as disorganised and chaotic. This wild state of things had to be tamed and the early improvements in the field of technology provided the perfect tools. There began the long process of scientific discovery: observing smaller and smaller things, looking further and further away, digging deeper and deeper into the earth. This process is still what leads our contemporary societies as one can follow daily the progress of genetics, the latest pictures of the Hobbles telescope and the raising concerns for Iraq"s yet-to-be-exploited oil fields. Nature to be raped, nature to be discovered, nature to be organised, nature to be controlled and nature to be exploited: these were the great ambitions of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, the fathers of modern science. The witch prosecutors at the time found in these ideas the perfect theoretical background to carry on their massacre.

The transformations accompanying the scientific revolution can be regarded as two sided. On the one hand, rationalism and logic marked the decline of the superstitions attached to the pagan culture. On the other hand, all that was good about local popular culture saw itself blended down by the central authority of the church. In parallel, a culture that relied on oral transmission to survive through the generations had been wiped out because it was cut at the source. Although no one would blame Guthemberg for assembling the printing press, the conception of knowledge began to change as dramatically as the book production: it became systematic.

The renaissance marked the end of a long period of relative stagnation. The Middle Ages proved to be a quest for religious and political uniformity across Europe. This achieved; it began a long process of discovery and expansion, assisted by technology and guided by science. This geographical exploration came with a philosophical and theological reformation regarding the place and the role man had in its physical surrounding. The earth and its nature, created by God, became the property of man, its subject. And so did women. They found themselves subjected to men"s official authority, as those who would stand against it or believe otherwise would be exterminated for heresy or conspiracy.

If Empiricist can have no certainties, rational scientist can only believe in one truth: the current one. Quantum physic and its multiple realities were obviously a long way ahead. Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel sorry for the loss of lives and for the knowledge that disappeared with the wise-women. Grand mother"s remedies and alternative medicine are all that survived but it feels too little, all the more so since both are still widely regarded as deviant cures with only little chance of success.

1.Although first published in Latin, the full French title is: "Discours de la methode. Pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la verite dans les sciences", which can be translated by: "Discourse of the Method. To direct one's reason properly and to search the truth in sciences' (Descartes, 1966).

London, December 2002.

These texts are free to read and to use. They remain, however, my intellectual property and if you wish to use them in any ways whatsoever, please provide proper reference (author, URL, year, etc). If you wish to reproduce them, please contact me first.