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The moral economy of witchcraft: an essay in comparative history – III

Marxian Moral Economy

Although most of the moral economy theorists discussed so far are critics of historical capitalism, few of them are Marxists. Indeed, whether stressing market rationalism or communal norms, they refuse (often explicitly) to discuss peasant society in class terms (see especially Magagna, forthcoming).  Marxist analyses of the peasantry, along with “peasant studies” in general  may indeed be out of fashion (Roseberry 1989);  nonetheless it is Marxists who continue to search for the cultural components of Third World responses to capitalism— including witchcraft beliefs.  The results may be problematic, but they nonetheless point to paths of inquiry not opened by the individualist and functionalist approaches of other moral economy theories.

Much of the Marxist effort to date consists of criticism and self-criticism about claims “to have discovered peasant ideology in academic discourse” (Kahn 1985: 71).  Not surprisingly, a favorite vehicle for approaching those ideologies is Gramsci, who can be read as setting out terms for applying Marxist concepts to popular consciousness of various kinds (Arnold, 1984a).  However, Gramsci’s himself held disparaging views of Italian peasant senso comune and his own cultural theory stressed the hegemony of the exploiters rather than the class consciousness of the exploited.  The difficulties are illustrated by comparing David Arnold’s (1984a) sensitive account of the theoretical and historiographic issues in a Gramscian approach to the peasantry with the same author’s study (Arnold 1984b) of peasant consciousness in nineteenth century India.  Despite some references to religious beliefs and a critique of moral economy theory, Arnold’s  empirical effort very closely resembles Weapons of the Weak.  One seeks in vain for any fuller theory or practice of cultural analysis in the “Subaltern Studies” school to which Arnold adheres.1

The most ambitious Marxist attempt at defining counter-capitalist culture, and the one most relevant to studies of African witchcraft, is Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980).  Taussig provides us with very vivid and detailed accounts of a Colombian and Bolivian peasant “cosmogenesis” of capitalism in which the acquisition of commodities for the purpose of producing extraordinary wealth is intimately linked to the expropriation of the reproductive powers of both land and people.

The Marxist inspiration of Taussig’s work is responsible for his sensitivity to indigenous conceptualizations of relations of production and reproduction, as opposed to the exchange models which inform most of the moral economy literature.  However, the situations which Taussig describes involve more direct capitalist exploitation (estate agriculture and tin mines) than is commonly found in tropical Africa.  Even in this context, Taussig makes interpretive leaps which are highly questionable in both theoretical and empirical terms.  For example he insists on an identity between his ethnographic data and orthodox Marxist theories of “commodity fetishism” and use/exchange value dichotomies,  Taussig further conjures up an implausible precapitalist “peasant/village” society with no markets, individual competition or ecological deterioration. 

The critique of Taussig’s argument as applied to Bolivian miners has inspired the participants in a recent symposium to rethink both Marxist and substantivist notions of moral economy (Parry and Bloch 1989).  Far from seeing capitalism as an intrusion upon the values of the precolonial Andean economy, Sallnow (1989: 227) insists that “The supernatural perils of gold mining are a consequence, not of the ultimate commoditization of the product, but of the cultural logic within which it is imbedded.”  This logic, as further explicated by Harris (1989), identifies mining with the hierarchies of mountain gods and state authority (whether Inka or modern), which, like African “legitimate” witches, protect and maintain local reproduction in return for their periodic destruction of individual human life.

Bloch and Parry (1989: 23-30) have abstracted from these insights a concept of “two transactional orders” involving, respectively, short-term individual acquisitiveness and the long-term reproduction of the social and cosmic order.  The value of their model is that it overcomes the simplistic market/community dichotomies of both moral economy and Taussig’s Marxism, while preserving the understanding that vital issues of reproduction may be at stake in engagements with capitalism. 

The cultural logic evoked by Sallnow and Harris is specific to the historically continuous identity in the Andes of relationships between reproduction, the production of wealth, state authority, and a mountain ecology.  We may still question whether the witchcraft/devil concepts used by Taussig are entirely irrelevant to this mining complex and speculate that they are more so for Colombian cultivators. 

In Africa, the cosmologies built around the slave trade and later colonial and post-colonial experiences imply confrontations with a source of wealth and misfortune which is much more alien than the mining hierarchy of Sallnow and Harris’ world.   As already suggested, it is possible in some African situations to equate even the most destructive effects of capitalism with local “legitimate” authorities, who have often been its collaborators.  But precisely as capitalist culture has moved more directly into the African landscape the gap has widened between hegemonic values of productivity (the equivalent of Bloch and Parry’s terms “long-term reproduction”) and the African experience of individual acquisition.  A capitalism which kills less individuals than do the Andean mines but also fails to imbed itself in recognized systems of order may thus be perceived in more horrific, anti-reproductive, terms.

The common denominator of all the work discussed so far is that it does focus upon capitalism from outside its core and below its commanding heights.  A different kind of insight into the cultural issues surrounding capitalism may be gained by transposing the discussion to a new register of ethnocentricity and considering how Europeans themselves moved from a moral economy of witchcraft to the more orthodox discourses of capitalism.

The Moral Economy of the European Witch Craze

Almost at the same time as students of Third World economies were debating questions of moral economy, a large group of social and cultural historians undertook studies of the extended outbreak of witchcraft persecution in early modern Europe.2 The fact that the moral economy literature has paid virtually no attention to European witchcraft is understandable;  the panic over alleged witches had ended by the beginning of the eighteenth century and was thus absent from the phases of capitalism leading directly to the industrial revolution.  The appearance and disappearance of witchcraft concerns during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries are, however, relevant to understanding the cultural contestations of capitalism in both European and comparative terms.

The comparison of African and European witchcraft studies is complicated by the fact that the former are mainly based on ethnographies of contemporary village culture while the latter focus on the written records of now-vanished urban elites who imposed themselves upon rural society.  Nonetheless the two sets of cases share a base of rural beliefs in inter-personal witchcraft as well as a confrontation with capitalist modernization.  The comparison can thus, at the very least, help to historicize further our understanding of African witchcraft and add cultural context to our understanding of European capitalism. In pursuit of these goals, my discussion of European witch-hunting will focus on three issues:  the relationship between urban/elite and rural/popular culture in defining witchcraft;  the role of reproduction and female sexuality within these definitions;  and the process by which European witchcraft beliefs gave way to both capitalist utilitarianism and various forms of moral economy/socialist anti-capitalism.

The early-modern European persecutions allow us, far more easily than do the African cases, to identify two socially distinct sets of beliefs about witchcraft and the vectors of its operation.  Corresponding to the Africanist notion of interpersonal witchcraft was the European term maleficium,  literally referring to the use of preternatural powers as an expression of malice among village neighbors.  At the center of the formal witch trials which resulted in the tens of thousands of public executions for witchcraft lay the elite concept of the sabbat, an orgiastic sacrificial ritual presided over by Satan.

Although the difference between these definitions of mystical evil is critical to understanding the persecutions in early modern Europe it is also necessary, particularly for purposes of comparison with Africa, to recognize the ideological and practical links between them.  Maleficium accusations, from what we know of them, seem remarkably similar to local witchcraft allegations in Africa.   What we cannot easily see through existing records is the larger systems of popular beliefs within which such ideas functioned.3

The sabbat, on the other hand has no real parallel in African witchcraft belief or even “syncretistic” Christianity, because it was imagined as a specifically counter-Christian cult.  Undoubtedly the content of this putative ritual, if not its structure, derived from European folk culture.  Moreover, the condemnation of individuals as participants in a witches’ sabbath required that they (or at least their immediate accusers) first be charged by neighbors with maleficium.  Confessions of congress with the devil usually depended upon suggestions from the prosecutors, reinforced by torture.  But there are significant cases in which villagers provided such statements spontaneously, indicating that they too had come to believe in the sabbat.  As will be seen below, this belief may have rested upon European understandings of sexuality which turn out to be critical for comparison with Africa.

The attribution of European witchcraft persecution to the rise of capitalism emerged from the study of trials in England, where both torture and sabbat beliefs were largely absent (Macfarlane 1970:  195-97,  Thomas 1971:  553-67, 581-2).  The argument here is that the direction of maleficium accusations from wealthier towards more impoverished members of the community reflected a shift from a redistributive to an accumulative (i.e. capitalist) mode of property control.  This thesis has recently been called into question:  it seems not to explain the scale and timing of accusations found throughout Europe in the early-modern period.4  

However comparison with recent African material (Geschiere, 1988;  Bastian, infra) suggests that such fears by newly emergent elites— and even the use of witchcraft threats by their rural neighbors or ex-neighbors— are indeed a common phenomenon in times of economic transition.   But in any case, if our aim is to understand the cultural content rather than the behavioral patterns of witchcraft accusations in these circumstances, we must give more attention to the sabbat than to maleficium.

In the sabbat, as in African ideas of “official” witchcraft, the deployment of preternatural malignancy against individuals is equated with concentrations of power in the public arena.  However the European sabbat was formulated mainly by elites among the clergy and judiciary who accused poor and marginal individuals of allying themselves with Satan, the unambiguous antithesis of all legitimate temporal and spiritual authority. Before spelling out the contrasts with Africa it is useful to consider the interpretations by historians of what, for them, is a puzzling similarity between early-modern Europe and primitive society:  how could some of he most educated of our post-Renaissance ancestors, on the verge of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, have subscribed to and, worse still, acted violently upon, such “primitive superstitions”?

For Trevor-Roper (1968: 90-192), who poses the question in just these terms, the answer lay in some irreducible substratum of irrational human hatred which, during the period in question, was inspired by the religious rivalries of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  Reformed religion is certainly critical to understanding the witch persecutions but its role must be understood through a more serious social and cultural analysis than Trevor-Roper even begins to envisage.  Muchembled (1987) and Ginzburg (1983) attempt such analyses by presenting the sabbat as a device by which the newly emerging centers of urban power stigmatized the autonomous culture of the countryside, thus promoting the establishment of a single hierarchy within each European state.  This last argument, with its populist and Foucaultian overtones, has more contemporary appeal than the intellectualist approach of Trevor-Roper.   But it suffers from an indifference to the content of elite witchcraft beliefs and their contradictory relationship to the rationalizing project they were apparently serving.   An Africanist might further ask why in Africa, by contrast, neither indigenous intelligentsias (viz Iroko), mission-based churches, nor the colonial or post-colonial state have ever been very comfortable with recognizing the entire concept of witchcraft.5  If witchcraft persecution was merely an unfortunate detour or an opportunistic strategy on the route to modernization, perhaps such discomfort is justified.  But if it has some more intimate relationship with the genesis of capitalism in Europe, further questions need to be asked.  One line of inquiry emerges from the obvious and discomforting links between witchcraft, gender and sexuality.

In both Europe and Africa accusations of maleficium or its equivalent fall most heavily upon women.  However in Africa the more elaborate beliefs about the use of witchcraft to attain material power tend to focus upon males or women active in the public sphere of the market place (Apter, supra).  In Europe, on the other hand, women— usually with little power— still constituted the vast majority of those implicated in the most complex allegations of sabbat practice.

There has been no shortage of explanations for this misogynistic aspect of the European witch craze.  Most commentators have stressed the vulnerability of women, particularly the older ones without husbands who were frequently charged;  yet, this is a universal condition which tells us little about the distinct situation of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Muchembled (1987: 67-69) provides a more historical argument which connects the rising modernism of this period with a “devalorization” of women who functioned as the main bearers of embattled rural/popular culture through their roles as healers, midwives, and purveyors of established norms and oral learning.  There is much to be said for this last claim, as it suggests why specific aspects of rural culture should be so much under attack; it also helps us understand their later relegation to the realm of folklore with its gendered aura of “old wives’ tales” and the nostalgic infantilization of the rural “motherland.”  However, even here Muchembled (to say nothing of less nuanced feminist versions of this interpretation) reduces the specific sabbat charges under which women were convicted of witchcraft to mere devices of the learned urban elite for subjugating a competing source of power.  The intensity with which sabbat ideas were apparently believed, and their high load of sexual content suggests that they have to be taken more seriously if we want to explain the relationships between gender, witchcraft accusations, and the emergence of a modern capitalist order in Europe.6

From an Africanist perspective, the connection which immediately suggests itself is that of reproduction.  For cases within Africa, it must be recalled, a central trope of witchcraft beliefs is the misappropriation of scarce reproductive resources from households or communities for the selfish use of accumulating individuals.  Similar themes are found in European maleficium accusations, which frequently involve attacks on the fertility of fields, livestock, and other human beings (Briggs, 1989:  91;  Le Roy Ladurie, 1981).  Such actions were sometimes attributed to the demands of Satan and the rites of the sabbat regularly included the consumption of babies and fetuses.   At a more abstract level it also seems possible to identify, in both European and African representations of the sexuality of witches, a common concern with the escape of female reproductive power from the enclosed domestic space in which it serves male-dominated communal norms to the open nocturnal realms of self-contained female power. (Levack: 126ff.). 

A comparison of these representations and their historical contexts suggests, however, some important distinctions precisely around the issues of reproduction, gender politics and accumulation.  In rural Africa reproduction (whether sexual or agricultural) and its potential misappropriation i.e. the zero-sum economy remains a central cultural issue right through contemporary times.   “Modernization” has not solved these problems;  rather it has created a new category of witches in the urbanized “femmes libres”, who literally use market control over their domestic reproductive capacities (sex, food and even baths) for individualized accumulation (White 1990a).  In the early modern European sabbat accounts, on the other hand, female sexuality seems to be severed from the issue of reproduction;  the nightmare women are less independent of male authority than submissive to an alternative vision of masculine power, a vision opposed to the accumulative process with which the persecutors themselves identified.  In short, European anti-witchcraft beliefs represent a moral economy of, and not opposed to, capitalism.

The frequent references to anti-reproductive acts in maleficium accusations suggest that European rural communities had concerns over maintaining the basic forces of life similar to those of Africa.  However, as historians have regularly noted, the witch craze occurred in a period when population and food production capacities had recovered from earlier crises.  Moreover, even in the more spontaneous rural European accounts there is little echo of the classical African equations of witchcraft with eating and insatiable hunger.  Moreover the women accused were usually beyond reproductive age and the striking feature of their sexuality was its continuation at this point in their lives.  The many contemporary woodcut illustrations of the sabbat— itself a kind of licensed pornography for this era— focus on the sexual power of female witches;  here they are often depicted as far younger than in the statistics of accusations, but in almost all cases display firm breasts and buttocks, frequently being fondled in foreplay with the devil.7


The central role of Satan in the sabbat contrasts sharply with the modern African vision of witchcraft as a realm of autonomous female power.  Women in the European accounts subject themselves to an alternative male authority through a conscious inversion of Christian ritual.  The killing of children is a sacrificial act parodying communion (and recalling “blood libels” against Jews and other heretics) in which it is not the female witches who are nourished but rather the male anti-Christ. The sexual acts portrayed or reported sometimes include women cavorting among themselves, but more commonly concentrate on submission to Satan in acts which give no real pleasure;  the devil’s penis is always described as cold and pain-inducing and often it is his buttocks which is embraced.

With reference to broader social processes then, we may interpret the sabbat fantasy as a vision less of female reproductive power escaping male control than of male control in a mode diametrically opposed to the self-image of a reformed Christian elite.  The terms of this opposition seem better understood through the categories of Max Weber than those of Muchembled.  The question is not whether female sexuality, as a surrogate for rural culture, should be autonomous or subdued to an absolutist hierarchy but is, instead, whether the ethos of this subjugation should be one of orgiastic consumption or worldly asceticism.  The issue of accumulation is not addressed directly in the discourse of witchcraft;  however, the construction of female sexuality as a force liberated from reproductive imperatives implies a non-zero-sum universe in which both accumulation and reckless consumption of vital resources are now historical and equally “rational” possibilities.  In the long-run development of European capitalism, the limitation of consumption was a critical choice, but no one could think in such terms at the time.  Hence we have the “non-rational” obsession with salvation in the afterlife— linked by Weber to capitalist accumulation— and the even more irrational premise of a Satanic witch cult connected here with the repression of alternatives to such accumulation.

Natalie Zemon DavisNatalie Zemon Davis

Unlike in Africa, therefore, the European witch in her most powerful form was the antithesis of the accumulator.  If we look for a popular moral economy to oppose the reformed religious ethos of the witch hunts, we do not find it in rural witchcraft beliefs, which only fed the repression.  Instead, such a counter-culture expressed itself in the organizations and carnivals of misrule used during the early modern period to maintain traditional domestic order, mock the rich, and play publicly and often quite joyously with issues of sexuality and gender (Davis, 1975: 97-187).  These practices, unlike the movements of Thompson’s eighteenth century, did not directly address capitalism and could even, as Natalie Zemon Davis has noted, be channeled into the violent service of reformed religious intolerance.  But in the rampant quality of even their religiosity they gave vent to energies which were culturally articulated along lines of community, reproduction, and the festive consumption of accumulated resources— thereby providing an antithesis to the spirit of witchcraft persecution.8

Historians of the European witch craze, who have differed so much over the analysis of its meaning and causes, disagree far less in their explanations of its demise in the late 1600’s.  Most scholars concur that the procedural rationality of witch-hunting finally overwhelmed the anti-rational premises upon which it had been based.  For Trevor-Roper it was the combined destructiveness of religious warfare and the alternative worldview of the scientific revolution— previously committed to its own neo-platonist demonology— which brought the shift.  For Muchembled and some of his critics the key was the successful erection of the absolutist state, whose agents provided both a new, external enemy to rural populations and a self-critique of judicial operations based upon torture and rural folk beliefs.  But again it is Weber who provides the most useful insight into the political economy of this shift through his contention that the decline of ascetic capitalism was inevitable once its own success had made the abundance of goods so evident (Weber, 1930: 174 ff.).

To develop this last point we must go well beyond Weber, who never himself either explicitly addressed the issue of witchcraft or explored the culture of the early eighteenth-century “consumer revolution” (McKendrick et al. 1982)  which linked the era of the Protestant ethic to that of industrialization.  However, if we accept the equation made above between the witch craze and the anti-consumption ethos of early capitalism, we can similarly associate the abandonment of witchcraft beliefs with Enlightenment liberalism’s attacks upon European versions of zero-sum economics.  The latter were expressed not through the idiom of witchcraft but rather by mercantilist trade policies, sumptuary-law restrictions on who could purchase what, and assumptions that increased wages would decrease labor incentives.  From an Africanist perspective, it is more than ironic that this emergence of classical market ideology in eighteenth-century Europe depended upon the low-cost import from the Third World of commodities previously seen as luxuries— not least among them sugar produced by black slaves (Austen and Smith 1990).  In Africa, it should be recalled, the export of those same slaves provides the major historical reference for the equation of capital accumulation, zero-sum economics and witchcraft.

The decline of European witchcraft beliefs in the eighteenth century becomes more complicated if we contemplate the connections between the construction of women in witch-hunting doctrine and the cult of domesticity which accompanied nineteenth-century capitalism.  The latter transformed woman from the devil’s mate of the sabbat, a sexual force threatening both religious orthodoxy and productive enterprise, to the angel of the house, a desexualized guardian and reproducer of values endangered by the amorality of the surrounding marketplace (Cott, 1977).  Recent studies of rural women spinners in the proto-industrial textile industry (Medick 1984,  Schneider 1989,  Stone-Ferrier 1989) suggest an interesting transitional phase of revalorized female production and reproduction. Capitalists of this era explicitly calculated the benefits of women’s labor both to their own factor costs and to the marriage opportunities of their employees.  For their part the women, gathered together in semi-public spaces, spun not only flax but also rich and ambivalent narratives which used the idiom of witches and other preternatural forces to define the moral economy of their new situation.

Ngugi wa ThiongoNgugi wa Thiongo

This is not the place to trace such developments any further or to explore the dialectics of self-conscious domesticity in the transition to female activism in the modern public sphere.  The important point for Africanists is to recognize that the middle class domestic ideal— so heavily promoted by colonial missionaries— has its own history and moral economy; one that is not totally alien to the African idioms of reproduction and  sexuality along with concerns over their relationship to market commerce.

The elite preemption and then exhaustion of the idiom of witchcraft in Europe did not— any more than the very imperfect functioning of the eighteenth century grain markets—  break down all barriers between capitalist political economy and popular moral economy.  However, the latter now developed along the lines laid out by Thompson and Magagna, either negotiating the terms of capitalist expansion on the basis of existing contractual rights and obligations or converting to some version of modern socialist doctrine.  In short, moral economy doctrine in Europe, even at a relatively early stage in the development of capitalism, constituted an opposing (and not always ineffectual) voice within the larger discourse which produced capitalism itself.  

African efforts at socialism, on the other hand, have both aroused and deployed a continuing witchcraft idiom.  To the extent that this socialism draws upon its colonial heritage and Eastern European models rather than local popular discourses, it has inspired an image of “l’état sorcier” in which public authorities exercise arbitrary control over such vital resources as medicine (Hours 1985).  In one of the few tropical African cases where capitalism, both local and international, rather than the state is seen as the dominant force, the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo (1982) has produced a socialist vision which draws heavily upon an equation of individual wealth with the appropriation and exportation of indigenous life forces.  However problematic may be Ngugi’s prescriptions for cultural authenticity and socialism, his view of foreign capitalism thriving on African blood not only resembles the Beninois view of the slave trade but also draws upon long-standing Kenyan popular beliefs concerning vampirous collaboration between European technology and indigenous urban prostitutes (White 1990).



  • 1. compare the work of this school and the various methodological essays by its leader, Ranajit Guha, with the dense deconstructionist gloss of their efforts by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Guha and Spivak 1988: 3-43 et passim).
  • 2. their work is best summarized, for the moment in Cohn 1975, Klaits. 1985 and Levack, 1987; see also the annotated (from a partisan perspective) bibliography in Muchembled, 1987: 249-61.
  • 3. I do not here wish to pursue the debate among either radical feminists (see Muchembled 1987 bibliography) or the more sober (but not entirely convincing) Carlo Ginzburg (1990, 1991) on the reconstruction of such a residual “pagan” culture.
  • 4. Nonetheless, Muchembled (1987: 175 ff.), a critic of the MacFarlane/Thomas thesis relies on similar functionalist arguments (about disintegrating communal bonds) to explain the increase of maleficium accusations among Cambrésis villagers.
  • 5. Fisiy and Geschiere (1990) have examined recent efforts by the Cameroonian state to involve itself in witchcraft accusations but the practice seems restricted to one region of the country and resembles the classic British cases of alleged maleficium by the poor and marginal against relatively wealthy fellow villagers.
  • 6. What follows is perhaps the most speculative argument in this paper and can ultimately be defended only by far more empirical work than I have yet undertaken. The argument is supported, however, by the sharp contrast drawn in the work of, among others, Martin (1989) between the kinds of charges laid against witches by the Italian and Spanish Inquisition and Northern European accusations of maleficium and sabbat participation. This geographical and institutional distinction does not touch upon issues of elite control over popular culture as represented in largely female activities; however it does suggest a connection between the perceived sexuality of witchcraft and the centers of early-modern capitalist development. On the other hand Macfarlane (1987) argues that the precocious success of English capitalism rests precisely upon the absence of extreme witch persecution and its accompanying beliefs.
  • 7. See examples of this iconography in Klaits (1985: 54-65, 75) and Levack (1987: between 132-3).
  • 8. Ginzburg and Muchembled have both (Le Goff and Schmitt, 1981: 131-40, 229-36) attempted to assimilate the history of these youth organizations to their respective arguments on witchcraft; this is not the place to pursue the debate any further.

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