This is a sort of thinking out loud brainstorming (ugh, corp-speak) thing where I blurg out a lot of inchoate thoughts and incomplete research that might one day end up being part of a play. Indulge me. Thoughts always welcome.
Inspired by someone asking me how I’d stage a “feminist Macbeth” since I run a female Shakespeare company. I sort of don’t want to answer because I don’t think you can set out to stage a “feminist” play, you just stage a play and being a feminist influences that. But it did lead me down a trail of thought that led to some bizarre venn diagram of anti-abortion, Islamaphobia, and medieval witch hunts. Viz:
I’ve been doing a lot of research for a project on anti-abortion and anti-reproductive rights recently, and this is something that’s often categorised as being an attack on women and female freedom. That is entirely true, but it’s a simplification.
I’ve been reading some interesting theories linking anti-abortion sentiments with xenophobia and the fear of attack/invasion from outside. One thing that struck me, if you listen to what far right wing types say, one thing that comes up time and time again is complaints about whatever Other they’ve decided to demonize having high birth rates. Listen to racists ranting and what constantly comes up is “Oh Mexicans popping out babies right and left” or “Muslims breeding like rabbits.” It’s like they envisage America being drowned in a tsunami of little brown babies and they want to grab a big stack of white babies to make sandbanks. I’ll let you enjoy that mental image. There’s a direct link between the fear of Insert Non-White People Here’s birthrate, and what’s perceived as a need to have more white babies (see: Natalism, best typified by the Quiverfull movement, whose main tenet is to have as many children as possible to be foot soldiers in Christ’s army against the Anti-Christ and his infidels). Thus anyone acting to reduce the white birth rate is the enemy. Abortion clinics that primarily serve non-white demographics get targeted less, and there’s evidence showing racial bias over reproductive choices from healthcare professionals (study here). I’ve read, and I don’t know if it’s true but it feels true, that there’s a correlation between perceived attacks on America, and anti-abortion sentiment. Attacks on abortion clinics and on reproductive rights in general soared after 9/11.
With that in mind, go back to middle ages and the early modern period. A lot has been written about witch hunts being an attempt to wipe out and suppress the heritage of female lay healers. There is a long history of female healers whose knowledge was passed down verbally from generation to generation, a legacy that stood entirely separate from the exclusively male physicians. Reproductive health (especially knowledge of contraception and abortion) was the preserve of these female lay healers. I won’t go into detail about that (but recommend you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, ‘Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers’ which you can read about here and here) but it got me interested in seeing if the same link between fear of national security and anti-reproductive rights sentiment that we see today, existed in the past.
The ‘era of witch hunts’ that spread across Europe began in the 14th century, immediately on the heels of the Black Death. In the wake of the Black Death (in which countries lost anywhere between 20% – 50% of their population), repopulating Europe became not just essential but a matter of urgency. Is it any wonder, then, that women who were providing contraceptive advice and abortions were so (literally) demonized? (There’s a great paper exploring the links between the Black Death and the witch hunts here.) This is where my poor history education starts to let me down, but I’d be interested to explore more about possible correlations between witch hunts, and threats to the nation (whether by plagues or the threat of invasion).
Back to Macbeth. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to stage a production where the witches are not supernatural, but ordinary women; lay healers who provided female care, who had been forced out and had to go live in the woods due to the witch hunts? There is a theme of child-death running through the play (we know Lady Macbeth had a child who died, and the slaying of the Macduff children is a critical moment). Witches as abortionists? The recent Young Vic Macbeth played Duncan as a tyrant and a torturer; a Good king but not a good man. It got me thinking, what if the witches’ motivation (and I think any decent director has to ask questions about their motivations) was less to do with fucking with Macbeth, and had the agenda of removing Duncan from power? Witches as female healers, the oppressed turned rebels trying to destroy a morally decadent and torpid patriarchy? Hmmm.
Really interesting. The other thing I remember about control of reproduction from mediaeval times (or rather from my postgrad work, my skincare regime isn’t that good!) is that in times of population crisis monks and nuns were urged to leave the monasteries to procreate (as opposed to a lot of millennial groups who advocated an end to procreation to hasten the parousia).
I love your ideas for the witches – would be fascinated to see how it percolates into your other characters