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Sex, Witchcraft and the War on Women

March 18, 2012

By Jim Rea

The right wing war on women is certainly no new development.  Like many, if not most of the primitivist planks in the right wing cultural platform, their fear and loathing of anything sexual (outside of the act of procreation) is tied to their bond with the church.  The right wing war on women has been gaining steam and media attention in recent months largely as a result of zealot majorities in many statehouses around the country who have been using their political muscle to put through an historic number of new laws that are repressive to women’s sexual freedom rights.  But that is simply the current incarnation of a long and glorious history of the church’s (read that, men’s) repression of women’s (but not men’s) sexual rights and practices.Note:  There is a poll at the bottom of the page.  Please add your vote!

It may come as a surprise to some of you, as it did to me, that the war against women actually dates back to the late fourth century.  I came across a fascinating and immaculately researched essay by Max Dashu, written in 2004 entitled “Herbs, Knots and Contraception”.  Here he [correction she] documents the centuries long campaign by the church to outlaw and punish any efforts by women to take control of their own reproductive destiny.  Such practices were labeled as “Witchcraft” and were subject to the highest level of punishment and damnation.

Priests frequently leveled accusations of sexual magic at European women. The penitential books refer often to love potions. [Rouche, 523] But sexual witchcraft went beyond love spells or even the dreaded (and popular) impotence magic. Early medieval writers show that women were using herbal medicine and witchcraft to control their own fertility and childbearing. Bishops in France, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany enacted canons forbidding women to undertake means of controlling their own conception and performing abortions.

Augustine of Hippo, or St. Augustine, believed that all people tend toward evil and should be subject to physical punishment when they allowed evil to direct their actions.  He believed that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve wounded their nature by concupiscence or libido which affected human intelligence and will, as well as affections and desires, including sexual desire.[1] It was Augustine’s concept of Original Sin that ignited the church’s war on sex and in turn it’s war on women.Of course, in those times, the ability to manage childbirth, perhaps the epitome of evidence of godliness on earth, or to even engage in sexual activity without the consequences of procreation was equated with one of the worst stigma that the church could apply: Witchcraft.

At the pope’s request, bishop Caesarius of Arles renewed the campaign in the late 400s. His sermons indicate that Provençal women were using not only herbal potions but also amulets, “diabolical marks” and other magical means. [McLaren, 85]Denouncing both contraception and abortion as homicide, Caesarius issued orders that “no woman may drink a potion that makes her incapable of conceiving…” His motto was, “So much contraception, so many murders.”[Ranke-Heinemann, 73, 146-7] The bishop preached that such women would be damned unless they did long penance. He accused them of using “diabolical drinks” to avoid childbearing and so get rich. The degree of priestly hostility toward even marital sex can be gaged by Caesarius’ prediction that a woman who had sex the night before going to church, or while menstruating, would bear a child who was a leper, epileptic or demoniac. Similar stories were repeated through the middle ages. [Noonan, 146, 139ff; McLaren, 90-1]

Note the reference to “avoid childbearing and so get rich” in the forgoing quote.  Could it be that the enablement of women stood as the foundation of the church’s objections?  Perhaps so.  The church’s war on sex was hardly waged with a double-edged sword. It was one thing for the women of the time to try and take control of their reproductive functions.  It was altogether another matter for them to refuse their husband’s sexual advances.

The bishop’s solution for women who didn’t want more children was simple, and ridiculous: get husbands to agree to a life of chastity. [Schulenberg, 243] Of course, married women had no legal right to refuse sex to their husbands, and masters regularly forced enslaved women into their beds. Unmoved by their plight, Caesarius insisted: “Chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman.” He wrote that he would have excommunicated men who had concubines, but there were “too many.” But numbers did not faze the bishop when it came to women’s attempts at birth control. Caesarius denounced women who used contraceptive herbs, as well as women who tried to conceive “by herbs or diabolical marks or sacrilegious amulets.” [Noonan, 145-7]

A couple of centuries later, the church’s war on women and sex continued unabated, but not so much for men.  And at this time, it is apparent that the church’s anti-sexual views included the condemnation of homosexuality, but not necessarily for those who enjoyed the fruits of the oldest profession.

In the 700’s the Irish Collection of Canons devoted an entire section to pronouncements on “Womanly Questions.” The monks complained that women “take diabolical drinks so that they can no longer conceive.” Following the bishop of Arles [the Bible is silent on the subject of female contraception and abortion] they equate preventing conception by means of herbal potions—”drinking sterility”—with murder. [Noonan, 155]Especially hateful in the monks’ eyes were unmarried women with sex lives. A section called “Simulated Virgins and Their Morals” castigates young women for using birth control to conceal their love affairs. [Noonan, 159] (In the priestly author’s mind, there could be no other reason for using it.) Already implicit is the notion of pregnancy as a divine punishment of unchaste women, while men go untouched. The penitentials treat men’s sexual exploits, and exploitation in the form of concubinage, with lenience, even indulgence. The sole exception is their severity toward homosexuality, which they rank among the worst of sins. [Brundage, 174] Prostitution went unmentioned. [McLaren, 118]

Given their propensity for twisted and barbaric thinking, it is no surprise that the church’s monks of the day considered rape to be of no special concern.

The monks show more eagerness to punish women’s sexuality than concern to prevent sexual assaults against them. The penitentials of Cummean and Finnian are lax with masters who have sex with female slaves, never considering the situational probability of coercion and rape. Both simply advise the men to sell the women off and do a year’s penance. In other texts, the only punishment is an order to free the slave. [McNeill / Gamer, c 40; Bitel, 151-2] No precautions are taken to protect the rights of bondswomen or their children. It’s not that the monks were unaware of the conditions such women endured. Boniface obliquely acknowledged the reality when, in telling Germans that a priest could only marry a virgin, he classified freedwomen (along with widows and abandoned women) as non-virgins. [Hefele III.2, 843] Only the obscure Poenitentiale Valicellanum shows compassion for women impregnated by rapists: “a woman who exposes her unwanted child because she has been raped by an enemy or is unable to sustain is not to be blamed, but she should nevertheless do penance for three weeks.” [Schulenberg, 250] But this text stands alone.

If there is anything that would serve as an analogy to political parties of the day, it would certainly be the church vs. the pagans.  And similar to modern day political leanings, where the church was unequivocally opposed to sexuality, the pagans celebrated it as ritual.  And the church want nothing more than to convert all of the pagans to Christianity, or kill those who refused.

A diametrically opposed worldview is visible in the pagan delight in sexuality. Many modern academics have questioned this idea as neo-pagan romanticizing, but they are forgetting that it originates with the early clergy themselves, who repeatedly denounced the elevation of sensual pleasures as pagan thinking. The old festivals honoring the earth and the sun’s course, the bonfire dances of pagan festivals, the baking of festival loaves did in fact integrate the sacred with the sexual and the material world. Sculptural evidence shows that special reverence was felt for women’s sexual power. The old Irish carved exuberant, vital goddesses displaying power emanating from their vulvas. These shiela-na-gigs descend from a very ancient veneration of the erotic, whose power is interpreted as blessing and protective. Rough-hewn and forceful, the stone women are not at all demure or submissive enough to be construed as sexual objects or decorations. Many of them are old women long past childbearing age.

So we can see that there is a rich, deep history of this war on women that sanctions contraception, abortion and even places a higher moral value on rape over women’s rights.  Hopefully as the light of modern media is focused on these shameful positions and we learn more about their historical roots we can finally gather the political will to defeat this war, once and for all.

Jim Rea is a member of the Board of Directors of the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance.  His article originally appeared on the Daily Kos blog.

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