October 14, 2004

Real presences


I started thumbing through Frances Hill's The Salem Witch Trials Reader -- a compendium of texts assembled by one of the more vociferous proponents of the notion that Salem can be explained largely with reference to Puritanism. About Chadwick Hansen, from whose Witchcraft at Salem I quoted here, Hill writes,

Someone, sometime, was bound to come up with the theory that some of the accused witches at Salem really were practicing witchcraft. Chadwick Hansen makes a coherent, if unconvincing, case for this. His book includes an excellent explanation of the onset of the girls' fits as due to clinical hysteria but suggests it was fear of witchcraft that caused the hysteria. The fear was so strong, he claims, because the witchcraft was real.

To take this in reverse order, Hansen never argues that witchcraft was real, but rather, that in a society that believes in the efficacy of witchcraft, one who is generally thought to be a witch can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety or even a hysterical reaction. (This is borne out by anthropological studies of contemporary cultures that have preserved a belief in witchcraft.) Salem's population sincerely believed in witches and witchcraft, and yes, Hansen does a fine job of comparing the original, 17th century descriptions of the girls symptoms to modern cases of clinical hysteria, including some from a few of those contemporary cultures that still believe in witchcraft's potency.

That leaves us with Hansen's central thesis -- were there witches at Salem? Well, there was certainly witchcraft; though Puritan ministers condemned such things, the common folk believed it was appropriate to turn to forms of white magic -- divination and so on -- if it had some practical (in their eyes) benefit. In a work that serves as a useful counterpoint to the hysterical historians of Salem, Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, Richard Godbeer tells us:

Alongside Protestant Christianity there survived and flourished in New England less formal and yet influential folk beliefs that the settlers brought from England, including those that underlay the use of magic. Folk magic was based on the assumption that men and women could wield supernatural power for their own benefit. Many settlers believed that through the use of simple techniques, passed down from one generation to the next, they could harness occult forces so as to achieve greater knowledge and control over their lives. Experts in these techniques -- often called "cunning folk" -- told fortunes, claimed to heal the sick, and offered protection against witchcraft. But cunning folk could also use their skills for malevolent ends: to harm or destroy those who crossed them. Neighbors who possessed occult powers wre thus valuable allies, but also potentially deadly enemies.

Most divining, healing, and defensive techniques were quite straightforward and so it was not unusual for colonists to experiment on their own. But New Englanders did often turn to experts in times of need, hoping that cunning folk could help them to see into the future, heal their ailments, or defend them against supernatural attack and strike back at their enemies. Mary Sibley, aunt of one of the afflicted children in Salem Village, asked the minister's Caribbean slave, Tituba, to bake a urine-cake that would identify the witch responsible for afflicting her niece; Tituba had a reputation for magical cunning and claimed that "her mistress in her own country ... had taught her some means to be used for the discovery of a witch."

Tituba, of course, was one of the first accused in Salem of witchcraft (the urine-cake, by the way, was more familiarly known to New Englanders of the period as a "witchcake"). It's worth noting that no scholar -- Hill among them -- disputes the witchcake incident; by definition, there was witchcraft at Salem.

There seems to be, in the depositions at Salem, a good deal of evidence suggesting that at least some of those accused were "cunning folk." Now, we can certainly discount this, and assume everyone in Salem was a good Puritan (although this seems unlikely). We can choose to believe that those who claimed to have occult powers were always wise and benevolent in the exercise of those powers -- never giving in to the temptation to scare the bejesus out of some irritating Goody or Goodman Brown by threatening some spectral harm (again, unlikely). Or we can sift the evidence presented at Salem, and conclude that at least some of those accused of inflicting harm on the afflicted girls were actually practicing some form of magic. Again, the practicioner may well have thought herself or himself to be harnessing occult powers for benign ends or just purposes -- which, again, might have included getting even with some quarrelsome neighbor or his insufferable brat of a servant girl...

In reviewing the evidence presented at Salem, Hansen concludes that were grounds for believing that some of the accused -- including Bridget Bishop, who had been accused of witchcraft a dozen years earlier, and who kept "poppets" --which could be harmless but were often used as a sort of voodoo doll, and George Burroughs, the minister who claimed to have occult powers -- were indeed "cunning folk" (Hansen doesn't use that term). Whether they should have been put to death on the basis of the evidence presented at Salem is entirely a different matter. The magistrates at Salem ignored the advice they had gotten from ministers (including Cotton Mather) and prior precedent when arriving at guilty verdicts.

Like some modern historians, they should have paid more attention to the evidence.

Posted by Ideofact at October 14, 2004 10:15 PM

I'm still convinced I got a 4 on the European History AP exam in 1980 because I had a paragraph in my documents based essay saying "of course, some of the people probably PRACTICED witchcraft, whether it worked or not." Of coures, I might have missed more of the multiple choice questions than usual, though . . . .

I am quite certain the historiography of witchcraft was dealt a blow it hasn't recovered from when someone chose the metaphor "witchhunt" to describe 1950s purges in America. I have a friend who does a good bit of research on the witch trials in 17th century Germany; he says that the difference between received opinion IN THE FIELD and standard interpretation in the roomful of specialists at a conference is as wide as any of which he is aware -- that is to say that even the average member of the professional has as bad an understanding of the state of the research as Hill.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at October 20, 2004 01:05 PM