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On Peasants and Pagans

•See bottom of page for suggested readings•

Chapter 1: The Destruction of Medieval Society in Europe

In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, in the times preceding the extensive persecutions of pagans and Jews during the inquisitions conducted by the Churches, there was a religious dichotomy which corresponded to the class divisions of the population into aristocrats and peasants. Aristocrats, though their wealth was in medieval times entirely derived from local resources and labor, were connected to a centralized religious and political power structure which was Christian, and rigidly so. Peasants, on the other hand, interacted with any social structure beyond their immediate vicinity only through the local aristocrats and local clergy. Their relationships were with the local environment, which included not only the agricultural milieu in which they labored but a still extensive wilderness as well. The peasants retained much of the pagan practices of their ancestors, including not only herbalism and spellcasting, but also the development of great expertise, influence and even power by certain individuals who were not only healers but repositories of ancient knowledge and active on behalf of the local people in their relationships with the natural environment as well as with the social structure which often threatened their security and livelihood.

Then as now, the holders of centralized power saw the local environment as potential resources to be utilized in a context which was wide-ranging and based on the drive for wealth on the part of those in power, not on the subsistence needs of local people. Their decisions regarding how to utilize those resources, which include the local people themselves, who were and are the source of most of the labor required, were based on the potential gain to be derived, not on such factors as the maintenance of the health of the local environment, the social and cultural health of the local people, or the will of those same people.

In the popular mind there exists much prejudice against the medieval period. Images of powerless serfs in sweaty rags laboring for capriciously vicious and greedy overlords abound. Yet, it is interesting to notice that the conditions in the cities of the mercantile and industrial periods were arguably worse than in the rural medieval world, and that the persecution of the local, which is to say, pagan, religion was at its height not in the medieval period but after it had ended.

As the Europeans explored, "discovered" and conquered much of the rest of the world, the locally oriented and integrated society of feudalism gave to way to an even more centralized system of power and economics. Royal chartered companies garnered profits from far-flung enterprises, goods and wealth flowed in immensely greater quantites than previously, and many rural folk found themselves displaced from their agrarian life and forced into the growing cities.

In order to change from a rural economy based on the maintenance of a local feudal power structure to one more intricately integrated with the national and global economy, it was necessary to dislodge much of the rural population as well as break the power and influence wielded by the peasants in the local context. Much of this power and influence was wielded by healers and other pagan practitioners. These people not only had knowledge and power which assisted in the ability of the people to achieve their subsistence goals living closely with the land, but also had influence within rural society. One of the means of wresting further control from the local rural people over their land was to destroy locally integrated systems of belief and influence which would offer resistance and competition to the increasingly centralized system of capitalism, based on the nation-state, a mercantile class and global imperialism, which was replacing it by force.

The alliance of the Church with the wielders of power was already old. Since Constantine the Christian cross had adorned the soldiers of the Empire and its successor kingdoms, kings and emperors enjoyed Papal sanction for their offices, and the patronage of the rising capitalist class assured that the influence of the Church was exercised on their behalf as it had been already on behalf of the aristocracy.

Thus it is no accident that the rise of witch burnings coincides with such transformations as those entailed by the "Enclosure Movement" in England, which removed rural common land from local control and placed it on the open market, resulting of course in its usurpation by market-oriented landlords and "factors" (capitalists). Displaced peasants were forced into the cities to seek work in factories, and into the armies of Empire to fight for the right of their dispossessors to commit the same ethnocide in the overseas colonies.

Increasingly patriarchal and dogmatic over time, the religions of Empire had by this time evolved into the Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, of the Reformation. Property, ownership, the divine sanction of wealth accumulation, the religious rationalization of the evolving imperialist and capitalist social structure, and the breakdown of rural society all required the destruction of local bases of power. The Inquisition, or, if you will, the Burning, accomplished this.

It is well known that many witches burned were accused and prosecuted not because of any particular pagan "crime" they may have committed but because it was in someone's interest to have the accused out of the way. Often this involved gaining control of land resources. Often it involved retaliation against someone whose influence ran counter to the enforced patriarchy at whose head stood the local clergy. Priests could only be male, and pagan female practitioners, whether casting spells or healing with herbs, were a threat to them.

But the enforcement of patriarchy, as insidious as it is, is a tool of the powerful, not the goal in itself. The goal is to control the resources needed by the powerful at any given stage in the development of the global imperialist economy. To control rural resources, it is necessary to destroy any local power bases which may enable local people to control the environment around them. If the capitalists can accomplish this, they can cause resources to be allocated and used in a way that is organized to further the subsistence goals of the local people. This is anathema to the capitalist, for whom all resources must be allocated and used to the furtherance of his goals, which are never locally integrated, and which entail, in fact, the destruction of local society whose aspirations must run counter. The tendency of Western society since the rise of European imperialism has been to increasingly destroy local society and resources as both are broken up and digested by the centralized "market" economy with little regard for local social and cultural health or the health of the environment.

Chapter 2: The Destruction of Rural Societies Worldwide
under European Colonialism

As the European aristocracy and its increasingly powerful mercantilist partners took control of non-European regions of the world, following their exploration and "discovery" by agents of the various European crowns (Columbus, Magellan, La Salle, Cook, et al), they integrated those regions, by force, into their economic system. In many cases the raw materials needed for the growing industries in the European cities were sought and secured in these newly colonized areas. The British textile industry, for example, was dependent on cotton grown in subjugated India. As European agricultural producers, the peasants of the Medieval period, were dislodged from their rural societies and forced into the cities, they were replaced by agricultural producers in the colonies who could be more easily subjugated due to their distance from the rich cities and from the centers of power, which were uniformly in the European capitals.

But connecting the colonized agrarian societies to the global imperialist economy required not only the destruction of the centralized power structures in the conquered lands and its replacement with colonial governors linked to the European capitals, but also, as had been necessary in Europe, the erosion and reorganization of local rural society to enforce its new role as producer of prime materials for the European aristocrats and capitalists. This reorganization involved, as in Europe, the removal of local holders of power and influence, the restructuring of control of agricultural production and land ownership, and the imposition of an ideology rationalizing the concentration of power in the hands of Europeans.

This latter restructuring involved the introduction of the European religions (all Christian, though of different denominations depending upon which nation owned the particular colony) and the concomitant destruction of local belief systems and influential individuals within those systems. While the methods of reorganizing production, rural social organization and the integration of local power structures with the European centers varied between colonies and between colonizers, the imposition of European ideology on the colonized rural areas was strikingly similar around the globe. Everywhere non-Christian religious practitioners were criminalized and marginalized, and everywhere the influence of those practitioners was eroded as the rural population was forced to adhere, at least nominally, to the Christian faith and to its rationalizations of capitalism and European imperialism.

An early example, that of Mexico, shows this pattern clearly. The Spanish forcibly relocated the rural population into haciendas (plantations) modelled after those of the reconquered areas of Spain, or into pueblos in whose center was inevitably a Catholic church and an alcaldía (city hall). Agricultural production was on plantation land, under the supervision of Spanish overseers. Having lost control of the structure of production, the rural people also lost control of the fruits of their labor, which was under the complete control of the local "encomendado", inevitably an upper-class Spaniard.

On the national level, the Spanish attached themselves as the controlling class of Mexico, not only eliminating the existing ruling Mexica (Aztec ruling class) by killing the Emperor (Moctezuma and his successor Cuauhtemoc) and most of the Mexica warriors, but also decimated the priest class along with the educated medical practitioners. The Spanish aristocrats and soldiers replaced the Mexica, and the Catholic clergy replaced the priests and healers. The medical science of the Aztecs and Toltecs was destroyed at the university and urban levels, and only the rural practitioners remained. These were often seen by the local priests as competition, and were often persecuted when their influence could be construed as a threat to the control of the Church or the local representatives of the Crown.

In areas where the Aztecs had exercised less control, there was less centralized power structure in place, and the Spanish tended to kill off the local chiefs as well as the indigenous medical practitioners.

In all of this process of the hispanicization of Mexico, we see that politically the nation was being made to resemble Europe with its aristocratic power structure and concentration of land in the hands of a relatively small number of plantation owners rather than in the hands of the producers themselves, and ideologically the power of non- Christian (in this case, non-Catholic) practitioners was attacked and the rural population, now producing nearly exclusively for the benefit of the ruling aristocracy, was tightly bound to the Church as local social integration of their lives and of their production was removed from the influence of local spiritual leaders.

Throughout the colonies this same destruction of the power of locally influential individuals proceeded rapidly as the population was chained to the production of goods for the colonizers. The British persecuted "witch doctors" throughout Africa as surely as they broke the power of uncooperative chiefs. While cooperative chiefs might be allowed to serve as the political intermediaries in British colonies, especially under the policy of "home rule" (also instituted in Ireland!), Africans could not serve as religious leaders in their traditional capacities (as so-called "witch doctors") but only by becoming clergy in the British churches (Methodist, Anglican, etc.).

Everywhere the result was the same: local belief systems and practitioners were destroyed as part of the replacement of all local integration of production, power and ideology by centralized, European-controlled systems. Production was on plantations, political power flowed through governors who were agents of the European crowns, and spiritual life, as well as education in most cases, was under the control of European Christian churches. As Europeans fled the brutality and injustice of European societies to settle in the United States, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and the like, most of the rest of the world was being forced to adhere to the European model.

However, as Marxist social scientists have discovered, the colonialists could not destroy everything. They could not take complete control of every aspect of local life. It was in fact not in their interest to do so. They needed for the local population to retain the ability to support itself to some extent. Desperately poor landless laborers are, it turns out, more profitable than outright slaves. A slave must be fed every day, while the laborers may be paid their pittances and left to fend for themselves whenever their labor is finished. Therefore many aspects of traditional cultures around the world have survived, though often in modified form, and this includes not only the ability to obtain sustenance from the local environment but also the spiritual means of integration with that environment.

So it is that in Mexico, to return to that early example of European colonialization, we still find curanderos and curanderas (healers), chimanes (shamans) and much knowledge not only of indigenous healing methods but of what we may call witchcraft and pagan belief. The capitalist economy is still in force, and forcing many people to crawl through a fence and swim a river to become exploited laborers in the United States, but even among those people are the hechiceros (witches) and curanderos who trace their craft back to pre-Spanish times. And back in Europe we find too the survival of pagan practices and practitioners. Modern capitalists, now ruling from the corporate boardrooms, have found it possible to allow the proliferation of non-Christian religions and practices, as long as their secular rationalization of the usurpation of land and labor is in place. But increasingly, in Europe and the United States as well as in the colonized "third world", a resurgence of practices which will potentially threaten their centralized economic structure and return economic and political power to local people is being observed. Following the erosion of the influence of Christianity we may in coming decades see an erosion of the centralized control of the lives of the world's people.

Suggested Readings

•Jean Giono, «Que ma joie demeure»—Novel about Provence, France, and people who live on and appreciate the land. (in French)
•Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, «La barraca»—Novel about Valencia, Spain, and a peasant family fighting to remain on their land in the context of the social conflict between the peasants and the aristocracy. (in Castilian)
•Marshall Sahlins, «Stone Age Economics»—Anthropological discussion dispelling the popular belief that the life of hunter-gatherers was brutal and harsh.
•Eric R. Wolf, «Peasants»—Anthropological study of the social structure, evolution and culture of peasantry worldwide.
•John C. Messenger, «Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland»—Ethnography of an Irish peasant community retaining much of its traditional culture.

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