All the World Needs a Jolt

excerpt from the highly recommended book by Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

Social Movements and Political Crisis in Medieval Europe

All the world must suffer a big jolt. There will be such a game that the ungodly will be thrown off their seats, and the downtrodden will rise. ~ Thomas Müntzer, Open Denial of the False Belief of the Godless World on the Testimony of the Gospel of Luke, Presented to Miserable and Pitiful Christendom in Memory of its Error, 1524

There is no denying that, after centuries of struggle, exploitation does continue to exist. Only its form has changed. The surplus labor extracted here and there by the masters of today’s world is not smaller in proportion to the total amount of labor than the surplus extracted long ago. But the change in the conditions of exploitation is not in my view negligible…. What is important is the history, the striving for liberation…. ~ Pierre Dockes, Medieval Slavery and Liberation, 1982

A history of women and reproduction in the “transition to capitalism” must begin with the struggles that the European medieval proletariat — small peasants, artisans, day laborers — waged against feudal power in all forms. Only if we evoke these struggles, with their rich cargo of demands, social and political aspirations, and antagonistic practices, can we understand the role that women had in the crisis of feudalism, and why their power had to be destroyed for capitalism to develop, as it was by the three-century-long persecution of the witches. From the vantage point of this struggle, we can also see that capitalism was not the product of the old order. Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict that, in the end, shook their power, and truly gave “all the world a big jolt.” Capitalism 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 has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism “evolved” from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.

How the history of women intersects with that of capitalist development cannot be grasped, however, if we concern ourselves only with the classic terrains of class struggle — labor services, wage rates, rents and tithes — we ignore the new visions of social life and transformation of gender relations which these conflicts produced. These were not negligible. It is in the course of the anti-feudal struggle that we find the first evidence in European history of a grassroots women’s movement opposed to the established order and contributing to the construction of alternative models of communal life. The struggle against feudal power also produced the first organized attempts to challenge the dominant sexual norms and establish more egalitarian relations between these conscious forms of social transgression constructed a powerful alternative not only to feudalism but to the capitalist order by which feudalism was replaced, demonstrating that another world was possible, and urging us to question why it was not realized. This chapter searches for some answers to this question, while examining how the relations between women and men and the reproduction of labor-power were redefined in opposition to feudal rule.

The social struggles of the Middle Ages must also be remembered because the wrote a new chapter in the history of liberation. At their best, they called for an egalitarian social order based upon the sharing of wealth and the refusal of hierarchies and authoritarian rule. These were to remain utopias. Instead of the heavenly kingdom, whose advent was prophesied in the preaching of the heretics and millenarian movements, what issued from the demise of feudalism were disease, war, famine, and death — the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, as represented in Albrecht Dürer’s famous print (Fig. 1) — true harbingers of the new capitalist era. Nevertheless, the attempts that the medieval proletariat made to “turn the world upside down” must be reckoned with; for despite their defeat, they put the feudal system into crisis and, in their time, they were “genuinely revolutionary,” as they could not have succeeded without “a radical reshaping of the social order” (Hilton, 1973: 223-4). Reading the “transition” from the viewpoint of the anti-feudal struggle of the Middle Ages also helps us to reconstruct the social dynamics that lay in the background of the English Enclosures and the conquest of the Americas, and above all unearth some of the reasons why in the 16th and 17th centuries the extermination of the “witches,” and the extension of state control over every aspect of reproduction, became the cornerstones of primitive accumulation.

Fig. 1 || Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528) 

Serfdom as a Class Relation
While the anti-feudal struggles of the Middle Ages can cast some light on the development of capitalist relations, their own political significance will remain hidden unless we frame them in the broader context of the history of serfdom, which was the dominant relation in feudal society and, until the 14th century, the focus of anti-feudal struggle.

Serfdom developed in Europe, between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., in response to the breakdown of the slave system, on which the economy of imperial Rome had been built. It was the result of two related phenomena. By the 4th century, in the Roman territories and the new Germanic states, the landlords had to grant the slaves the right to have a plot of land and a family of their own, in order to stem their revolts, and prevent their flight to the “bush” where maroon communities were forming at the margins of the empire. At the same time, the landlords began to subjugate the free peasants, who, ruined by the expansion of slave-labor and later the Germanic invasions, turned to the lords for protection, although at the cost of their independence. Thus, while slavery was never completely abolished, a new class relation developed that homogenized the conditions of former slaves and free agricultural workers (Dockes 1982: 151), placing all the peasantry in a subordinate condition, so that for three centuries (from the 9th to the 11th), “peasant” (rusticus, villanus) would be synonymous with “serf” (servus) (Pirenne, 1956: 63).

As a work relation and a juridical status, serfdom was an enormous burden. The serfs were bonded to the landlords; their persons and possessions were their masters’ property and their lives were ruled in every respect by the law of the manor. Nevertheless, serfdom redefined the class relation in terms more favorable to the workers. Serfdom marked the end of gang-labor, of life in the ergastula, and a lessening of the atrocious punishments (the iron collars, the burnings, the crucifixions) on which slavery had relied. On the feudal estates, the serfs were subjected to the law of the lord, but their transgressions were judged on the basis of “customary” agreements and, in time, even of a peer-based jury system.

The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serfs direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lords’ land (the demesne), the serfs received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves, and pass down to their children “like a real inheritance, by simply paying a succession due” (Boissonnade 1927: 134). As Pierre Dockes points out in Medieval Slavery and Liberation (1982), this arrangement increased the serfs’ autonomy and improved their living conditions, as they could now dedicate more time to their reproduction and negotiate the extent of their obligations, instead of being treated like chattel subject to an unconditional rule. Most important, having the effective use and possession of a plot of land meant that the serfs could always support themselves and, even at the peak of their confrontations with the lords, they could not easily be forced to bend because of the fear of starvation. True, the lord could throw recalcitrant serfs off the land, but this was rarely done, given the difficulty of recruiting new laborers in a fairly closed economy and the collective nature of peasant struggles. This is why — as Marx noted — on the feudal manor, the exploitation of labor always depended on the direct use of force.

The experience of self-reliance which the peasants gained from having access to land also had a political and ideological potential. In time, the serfs began to look at the land they occupied as their own, and to view as intolerable the restrictions that the aristocracy imposed on their freedom. “Land to the tillers” — the demand that has echoed through the 20th century, from the Mexican and Russian revolutions to the contemporary struggles against land privatization — is the battle cry which the medieval serfs would have certainly recognized as their own. But the strength of the “villeins” stemmed from the fact that access to land was a reality for them.


With the use of land also came the use of the “commons” — meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures — that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy (wood for fuel, timber for building, fishponds, grazing for animals) and fostered community cohesion and cooperation (Birrell 1987: 23). In Northern Italy, control over these resources even provided the basis for the development of communal self-administrations (Hilton 1973: 76). So important were the “commons” in the political economy and struggles of the medieval rural population that their memory still excites our imagination, projecting the vision of a world where goods can be shared and solidarity, rather than desire for self-aggrandizement, can be the substance of social relations.

The medieval servile community fell short of these goals, and should not be idealized as an example of communalism. In fact, its example reminds us that neither “communalism” nor “localism” can be a guarantee of egalitarian relations unless the community controls its means of subsistence and all its members have equal access to them. This was not the case with the serfs on the feudal manors. Despite the prevalence of the collective forms of work and collective “contracts” with landlords, and despite the local character of the peasant economy, the medieval village was not a community of equals. As established by a vast documentation coming from every country of Western Europe, there were many social differences within the peasantry that separated free peasants and those of servile status, rich and poor peasants, peasants with secure land tenure and landless laborers working for a wage on the lords’ demesne, and women and men.

Land was usually given to men and transmitted through the male lineage, though there were many cases of women who inherited it and managed it in their name. Women were also excluded from the offices to which the better-off male peasants were appointed, and, to all effects, they had a second-class status (Bennett 1988: 18-29; Shahar 1983). This perhaps is why their names are rarely mentioned in the manorial registers, except for those of the courts in which the serfs’ transgressions were recorded. Nevertheless, female serfs were less dependent on their male kin, less differentiated from them physically, socially, and psychologically, and were less subservient to men’s needs than “free” women were to be later in capitalist society.

Women’s dependence on men within the servile community was limited by the fact that over the authority of their husbands and fathers prevailed that of the lords, who claimed possession of the serfs’ persons and property, and tried to control every aspect of their lives, from work to marriage and sexual behavior.

It was the lord who commanded women’s work and social relations, deciding, for instance, whether a widow should remarry and who should be her spouse, in some areas even claiming the ius primae noctis — the right to sleep with a serf’s wife on her wedding night. The authority of male serfs over their female relatives was further limited by the fact that the land was generally given to the family unit, and women not only worked on it but could dispose of the products of their labor, and did not have to depend on their husbands for support. The partnership of the wife in land possession was so well understood in England that “[w]hen a villein couple married it was common for the man to come and turn the land back to the lord, taking it again in both his name and that of his wife” (Hanawalt 1986b: 155). Furthermore, since work on the servile farm was organized on a subsistence basis, the sexual division of labor in it was less pronounced and less discriminating than in a capitalist farm. In the feudal village no social separation existed between the production of goods and the reproduction of the work-force; all work contributed to the family’s sustenance. Women worked in the fields, in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money-economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work.

If we also take into account that in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the tasks that female serfs performed (washing, spinning, harvesting, and tending to animals on the commons) were done in cooperation with other women, we then realize that the sexual division of labor, far from being a source of isolation, was a source of power and protection for women. It was the basis for an intense female sociality and solidarity that enabled women to stand up to men, despite the fact that the Church preached women’s submission to men, and Canonic Law sanctified the husband’s right to beat his wife.

The position of women on the feudal manor cannot be treated, however, as if it were a static reality. For the power of women and their relations with men were, at all times, determined by the struggles which their communities fought against the landlords, and the changes that these struggles produced in the master-servant relation.

The Struggle on the Commons
By the end of the 14th century, the revolt of the peasantry against the landlords had become endemic, massified, and frequently armed. However, the organizational strength that the peasants demonstrated in this period was the outcome of a long conflict that, more or less openly, ran through the Middle Ages.

Contrary to the schoolbook portrait of feudal society as a static world, in which each estate accepted its designated place in the social order, the picture that emerges from a study of the feudal manor is rather that of relentless class struggle.

As the records of the English manorial courts indicate, the medieval village was the theater of daily warfare (Hilton 1966: 154; Hilton, 1985: 158-59). At times, this reached moments of great tension, when the villagers killed the baliff or attacked their lord’s castle. Most frequently, however, it consisted of an endless litigation, by which the serfs tried to limit the abuses of the lords, fix their “burdens,” and reduce the many tributes which they owed them in exchange for the use of the land (Bennett, 1967; Coulton, 1955: 35-91; Hanawalt 1986a: 32-35).

The main objective of the serfs was to keep hold of their surplus-labor and products and broaden the sphere of their economic and juridicial rights. These two aspects of servile struggle were closely connected, as many obligations issued from the serfs’ legal status. Thus, in 13th-century England, both on the lay and ecclesiastical estates, male peasants were frequently fined for claiming that they were not serfs but free men, a challenge that could result in a bitter litigation, pursued even by appeal to the royal court (Hanawalt 1986a: 31). Peasants were also fined for refusing to bake their bread at the oven of the lords, or grind their grain, or olives at their mills, which allowed them to avoid the onerous taxes that the lords imposed for the use of these facilities (Bennett 1967: 13-31; Dockes 1982: 176-79). However, the most important terrain of servile struggle was the work that, on certain days of the week, serfs had to carry out on the land of the lords. These “labor services” were the burdens that most immediately affected the serfs’ lives and, through the 13th century, they were the central issue in the servile struggle for freedom.

The serfs’ attitude toward the corvée, as labor services were also called, [forced labor exacted in lieu of taxes] transpires through the entries in the books of the manorial courts, where the penalties imposed on the tenants were recorded. By the mid 13th century, the evidence speaks for a “massive withdrawal” of labor (Hilton 1985: 130-31). The tenants would neither go nor send their children to work on the land of the lords when summoned at harvest time, or they would go to the fields too late, so that the crops would spoil, or they worked sloppily, taking long breaks and generally maintaining an insubordinate attitude. Hence the lords’ need for constant and close supervision and vigilance, as evinced by this recommendation:

Let the baliff and the messor, be all the time with the ploughmen, to see that they do their work well and thoroughly, and that at the end of the day see how much they have done….And because customary servants neglect their work it is necessary to guard against their fraud; further it is necessary that they are overseen often; and beside the bailiff must oversee all, that they work well and if they do not do well, let them be reproved (Bennett 1967: 113).

A similar situation is portrayed in Piers Plowman (c. 1362-70). William Langland’s allegorical poem, where in one scene the laborers, who had been busy in the morning, passed the afternoon sitting and singing and, in another one, idle people flocked in at harvest time seeking “no deed to do, but to drink and to sleep” (Coulton 1955: 87).

Also the obligation to provide military services at wartime was strongly resisted. As H. S. Bennett reports, force was always needed to recruit in the English villages, and a medieval commander rarely managed to keep his men at war, for those who enlisted deserted at the first opportunity, after pocketing their pay. Exemplary are the pay-rolls of the Scottish campaign of the year 1300, which indicate that while 16,000 recruits had been ordered to enlist in June, by mid July only 7,600 could be mustered and this “was the crest of the wave…by August little more than 3,000 remained.” As a result, increasingly the king had to rely on pardoned criminals and outlaws to bolster his army (Bennett 1967: 123-25).

Another source of conflict was the use of non-cultivated lands, including woods, lakes, hills, which serfs considered a collective property. “[W]e can go to the woods…” — the serfs declared in a mid 12th-century English chronicle — “and take what we want, take fish from the fish pond, and game from the forests; well have our will in the woods, the waters and the meadows” (Hilton, 1973: 71).

Still, the most bitter struggles were those against the taxes and burdens that issued from the jurisdictional power of the nobility. These included the manomorta (a tax which the lord levied when a serf died), the mercheta (a tax on marriage that increased when a serf married someone from another manor), the heriot (an inheritance tax paid by the heir of a deceased serf for the right to gain entry to his holding, usually consisting of the best beast of the deceased), and, worst of all, the tallage, a sum of money arbitrarily decided, that the lords could exact at will. Last but not least was the tithe, a tenth of the peasant income, that was exacted by the clergy, but usually collected by the lords in the clergy’s name.

Together with the labor service, these taxes “against nature and freedom” were the most resented among the feudal dues, for not being compensated by any allotments of land or other benefits, they revealed all the arbitrariness of feudal power. Thus, they were strenuously resisted. Typical was the attitude of the serfs of the monks of Dunstable who, in 1299, declared that “they would rather go down to hell than be beaten in this matter of tallage,” and, “after much controversy,” they bought their freedom from it (Bennett, 1967: 139). Similarly, in 1280, the serfs of Hedon, a village of Yorkshire, let it be understood that, if the tallage was not abolished, they would rather go to live in the nearby towns of Revensered and Hull “which have good harbours growing daily, and not tallage” (ibid.: 141). These were no idle threats. The flight to the city or town was a constant component of servile struggle, so that again and again, on some English manors, “men are reported to be fugitives, and dwelling in the neighboring towns; and although order is given that they be brought back, the town continues to shelter them….” (ibid.: 295-96).

To these forms of open confrontation we must add the manifold, invisible forms of resistance, for which subjugated peasants have been famous in all times and places: “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, feigned ignorance, desertion, pilfering, smuggling, poaching…” (Scott 1989: 5).  These “everyday forms of resistance,” stubbornly carried on over the years, without no adequate account of class relations is possible were rife in the medieval village.
This may explain the meticulousness with which the servile burdens were specified in the manorial records:

For instance, [the manorial records] often do not say simply that a man must plow, sow and harrow one acre of the lord’s land.  They say he must plow it with so many oxen as he has in his plow, harrow it with his own horse and sack….Services (too) were remembered in minute detail….We must remember the cotmen of Elton who admitted that they were bound to stack the lord’s hay in his meadow and again in his barnyard, but maintained that they were not bound in custom to load it into carts to be carried from the first place to the second (Homans 1960: 272).

Such minute regulations testify to the difficulty of enforcing the medieval “social contract,” and the variety of battlefields available to a combative tenant or village.  Servile duties and rights were regulated by “customs,” but their interpretation too was an object of much dispute.  The “invention of traditions” was a common practice in the confrontation between landlords and peasants, as both would try to redefine them or forget them, until a time came, toward the middle of the 13th century, when the lords put them down in writing.

Liberty and Social Division

Politically, the first outcome of the servile struggles was the concession to many villages (particularly in Northern Italy and France) of “privileges” and “charters” that fixed the burdens and granted “an element of autonomy in the running of the village community” providing at times, for true forms of local self-government.  These charters stipulated the fines that were to be meted out by the manorial courts and established rules for juridical proceedings, thus eliminating or reducing the possibility of arbitrary arrests and other abuses (Hilton 1973: 75).  They also lightened the serf’s duty to enlist as soldiers and abolished or fixed the tallage; often they granted the “liberty” to “hold stallage,” that is to sell goods at the local market and, more rarely, the right to alienate land.  Between 1177 and 1350, in Loraine alone, 280 charters were conceded (ibid.:83).

However, the most important resolution of the master-serf conflict was the commutation of labor services with money payments (money rents, money taxes) that placed the feudal relation on a more contractual basis.  With this momentous development, serfdom practically ended, but, like many workers’ “victories” which only in part satisfy original demands, commutation too co-opted the goals of the struggle, functioning as a means of social division and contributing to the disintegration of the feudal village.

To the well-to-do-peasants who, possessing large tracts of land, could earn enough money to “buy their blood” and employ other laborers, commutation must have appeared a great step on the road to economic and personal independence; for the lords lessened their control over their tenants when they no longer depended directly on their work.  But the majority of poorer peasants — who possessed only a few acres of land barely sufficient for survival — lost even the little they had.  Compelled to pay their dues in money, they went into chronic debt, borrowing against future harvests, a process that eventually caused many to lose their land.  As a result, by the 13th century, when commutations spread throughout Western Europe, social divisions in the rural areas deepened, and part of the peasantry underwent a process of proletarianization.  As Bronislaw Geremek writes:

Thirteenth-century documents contain increasing amounts of information about “landless” peasants who manage to eke out a living on the margins of village life by tending to flocks…. One finds increasing numbers of “gardeners,” landless or almost landless peasants who earned their living by hiring out their services…. In Southern France the “brassiers” lived entirely by “selling” the strength of their arms (bras) and hiring themselves out to richer peasants or landed gentry.  From the beginning of the fourteenth century the tax registers show a marked increase in the number of impoverished peasants, who appear in these documents as “indigents,” “poor men” or even “beggards” (Geremek 1994: 56).

The commutation to money-rent had two other negative consequences.  First, it made it more difficult for the producers to measure their exploitation, because as soon as the labor-services were commuted into money payments, the peasants could no longer differentiate between the work that they did for themselves and that which they did for the landlords.  Commutation also made it possible for the now-free tenants to employ and exploit other workers, so that, “in a further development,” it promoted “the growth of independent peasant property,” turning “the old serf-employing possessors of the land” into a capitalist tenant (Marx 1909: Vol. III, 924 ff).

The monetization of economic life, then, did not benefit all the people, contrary to what is claimed by supporters of the market economy, who welcome it as the creation of a new “common” replacing land-bondage and introducing in social life the criteria of objectivity, rationality, and even personal freedom (Simmel 1900).  With the spread of monetary relations, values certainly changed, even among the clergy, who began to reconsider the Aristotelian doctrine of the “sterility of money” (Kay 1998) and, not coincidentally, to revise its views concerning the redeeming quality of charity to the poor.  But their effects were destructive and divisive.  Money and the market began to split the peasantry by transforming income differences into class differences, and by producing a mass of poor people who could survive only on the basis of periodic donations (Geremek 1994: 56-62).  To the growing influence of money we must also attribute the systematic attack to which Jews were subjected, starting in the 12th century, and the steady deterioration of their legal and social status in the same period.  There is, in fact, a revealing correlation between the displacement of the Jews by Christian competitors, as moneylenders to Kings, popes and the higher clergy, and the new discriminatory rules (e.g., the wearing of distinctive clothing) that were adopted by the clergy against them, as well as their expulsion from England and France.  Degraded by the Church, further separated by the Christian population, and forced to confine their moneylending (one of the few occupations available to them) to the village level, the Jews became and easy target for indebted peasants, who often vented on them their anger against the rich (Barber 1992: 76).

Women, too, in all classes, were most negatively affected by the increasing number commercialization of life, for their access to property and income was further reduced by it.  In the Italian commercial towns, women lost their right to inherit a third of their husbands’ property (the tertia).  In rural areas, they were further excluded from land possession, especially when single or widowed.  As a result, by the 13th century, they were leading the movement away from the country, being the most numerous among the rural immigrants to the towns (Hilton 1985: 212), and by the 15th century, women formed a large percentage of the population of the cities.  Here, most of them lived in poor conditions, holding low-paid jobs as maids, hucksters, retail traders (often fined for lack of a license), spinsters, members of the lower guilds, and prostitutes.  However, living in the urban centers, among the most combative part of the medieval population, gave them a new social autonomy.  City laws did not free women; few could afford to buy the “city freedom,” as the privileges connected with city life were called.  But in the city, women’s subordination to male tutelage was reduced, as they could now live alone, or with their children as heads of families, or could form new communities, often sharing their dwellings with other women.  While usually the poorest members of urban society, in time women gained access to many occupations that later would be considered male jobs.  In the medieval towns, women worked as smiths, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, hat-makers, ale-brewers, wool-carders, and retailers (Shahar 1983: 189-200; King 1991: 64-67).  “In Frankfurt, there were approximately 200 occupations in which women participated between 1300 and 1500” (Williams and Echols 200: 52).  In England, seventy-two out of eighty-five guilds included women among their members.  Some guilds, including silk-making, were dominated by them; in others, female employment was as high as that of men.  By the 14th century, women were also becoming schoolteachers as well as doctors and surgeons, and were beginning to compete with university-trained men, gaining at times a high reputation.  Sixteen female doctors — among them several Jewish women specialized in surgery or eye therapy — were hired in the 14th century by the municipality of Frankfurt which, like other city administrations, offered its population a system of public health-care.  Female doctors, as well as midwives or sage femmes, were dominant in obstetrics, either in the pay of city governments or supporting themselves with the compensation they received from their patients.  After the Caesarian cut was introduced in the 13th century, female obstetrics were the only ones who practiced it (Opitz 1996: 370-71).

Women building the city walls, from Christine de Pizan
The City Of Women, 1405

As women gained more autonomy, their presence in social life began to be recorded more frequently: in the sermons of the priests who scolded their indiscipline (Casagrande 1978); in the records of the tribunals where they went to denounce those who abused them (S. Cohn 1981); in the city ordinances regulating prostitution (Henriques 1966); among the thousands of non-combatants who followed the armies (Hacker 1981); and above all, in the new popular movements, especially that of the heretics.

We will see later the role that women played in the heretic movements.  Here suffice it to say that, in response to the new female independence, we see the beginning of a misogynous backlash most evident in the satires of the fabliaux, where we find the first traces of what historians have defined as “the struggle for the breeches.”

from the highly recommended book by Silvia Federici,
Caliban And The Witch is a history of the body in the transition to capitalism.  Moving from peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages to the witch-hunts and the rise of mechanical philosophy, Federici investigates the capitalist rationalization of social reproduction.  She shows the battle against the rebel body and the conflict between body and mind are essential conditions for the development of labor power and self-ownership, two central principles of modern social organization.

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