Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Salem Witch Trials

One of my favourite aspects of my AS Level history course has been studying the European Witch Craze, 1560-1640. I was interested in looking at the witch-craze beyond Europe, and one of the books I read about was Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. The book explored pre-existing social and economic divisions within the Salem Village community and how they caused or were part of the cause of the outbreak of accusations of witchcraft in 1692.

By 1692 the village had split into two factions; one interested in gaining more power for Salem Village, the other more concerned with the politics of Salem Town. Boyer and Nissenbaum used local records to prove how the witchcraft accusations fitted neatly into a larger pattern of communal strife. However it is important to note that it was not just social and economic factors that caused the Salem Witch Trials; religion, misogyny and the work of individual witch hunters also played a large role.

The book reveals how there were long standing economic, political and personal issues which divided the village long before 1692. Whilst Salem Town was a growing centre of trade, Salem Village remained primarily an agricultural community. Boyer and Nissenbaum argued that this polarisation of interests between the town and the village created a similar divide within the village itself. The Putnam family led a faction which identified with the traditional agricultural activities of the village and consequently supported the village minister, Samuel Parris, and the drive for greater autonomy from Salem Town. The opposing faction, led by the Porter family, identified itself with the mercantile town, near which most of the Porter faction lived. In opposition to the Putnam faction, the Porters opposed the minister and wanted greater association with the town of Salem. These fault-lines explain the pattern of witchcraft accusations. 

The villagers who followed the Putnams, supported Parris and fought for an independent church for the village were the accusers of witchcraft in 1692 and many of the accused witches belonged to the Porter faction. The witchcraft trials represented the projection of the grievances caused by such factionalism upon more obtainable targets such as Rebecca Nurse and Martha Cory. Witchcraft executions were born from the transformation of a small village into a modern capitalist society, and the divisions and conflicts that naturally arose from this change.

However Boyer and Nissenbaum's intensive focus on the dynamics of Salem Village does miss other factors that contributed to the Salem Witch Trials.  Although the outbreak originated in Salem Village, the majority of the accused actually came from surrounding villages such as Andover, which was removed from the Putnam/Porter disputes and was known for its harmonious community life. The dynamics of village dispute can help to explain the origin of the outbreak, but cannot explain why this outbreak became an epidemic. The reason for the growth of the outbreak into an epidemic rests in the importance of individuals and Puritan religious beliefs. In his review of Salem Possessed, T.H. Breen argues that Boyer and Nissenbaum "assume a direct causal relationship between socio-economic conditions and individual behaviour. Indeed, the authors manage to trace almost all personal motivation back to the pocketbook." The book makes a jump between a divided society and economic change to connect these with pre-existing divisions with the personal motivations of accusers, and this may not be entirely accurate. 

Religion was also of significant importance as Puritan theology taught that witches and demons were among the punishments God could inflict upon his people. Clearly then the epidemic was not born just out of communal strife and economic changes, but was multi-factorial. It is also important to look at why the vast majority of Salem witchcraft accusations were women; it is likely that the accusations also reflected societal ideas about women and the ways men reconciled changes in gender roles.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it really helped me to understand not only the ways in which the outbreak of accusations in Salem was part of a larger pattern of communal conflict, but also serves to warn us that the divisive powers such conflicts have, have the potential to instigate modern 'witch hunts'.