She is a being not of this world,” my great-aunt says quietly. “She tried to live like an ordinary woman, but some women cannot live an ordinary life. She tried to walk in the common ways, but some women cannot put their feet to that path. This is a man’s world, Jacquetta, and some women cannot march to the beat of a man’s drum.
The definition of women as demonic beings, and the atrocious and humiliating practices to which so many of them were subjected left indelible marks in the collective female psyche and in women’s sense of possibilities. From every viewpoint — socially, economically, culturally, politically — the witch-hunt was a turning point in women’s lives; it was the equivalent of the historic defeat to which Engles alludes, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), as the cause of the downfall of the matriarchal world. For the witch-hunt destroyed 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 against feudalism.
For the threat of the stake erected more formidable barriers around women’s bodies than were ever erected by the fencing off of the commons.
We can, in fact, imagine what effect it had on women to see their neighbors, friends, and relatives burned at the stake, and realize that any contraceptive initiative on their side might be construed as the product of a demonic perversion. Seeking to understand what the women hunted as witches and the other women in their communities must have thought, felt, and concluded from this horrendous attack waged upon them — looking, in other words, at the persecution “from within,” as Anne L Barstow has done in her Witchcraze (1994) — also enables us to avoid speculating on the intentions of the persecutors, and concentrate instead on the effects of the witch-hunt on the social position of women.
Indeed, there’s little doubt that Witches were burned primarily to terrorize and control the women who weren’t burned. Burn one Witch in front of all the women in the village and you remind all of them not to step out of their place.
“I am ill; I cannot come,” I whisper, but for once she is stern. I cannot be excused; I must be there. I must be seen, beside my aunt, beside Anne the Duchess of Bedford. We have to play our part in this scene as witnesses, as women who walk inside the rule of men. My aunt and the duchess do not think that they know better than men. My aunt, and the duchess, and I represent women as men would like them to be. Joan is a woman that men cannot tolerate.
~The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory
You know why they keep asking her these questions? Sure, part of it is to put her in her place. Part of it is to enjoy her pain, just as sadistic people enjoyed the pain that the Witches felt while burning. But a large part of it is to remind the rest of us what it will cost if we step out of line.
Picture found here.