The Salem witch trials are not part of the history of witchcraft

Posted on October 5, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

We admit to a bit of hyperbole in that title, but we’re just amplifying the message sent by Diane Purkiss in her August 2015 review of the new Penguin Book of Witches (edited by Katherine Howe).

Her review article is called “We need more types of witches”, and in it Purkiss points out and criticizes the overwhelming fixation historians and average Americans alike have with the Salem witch trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

The Penguin Book of Witches disappoints. A better title for this volume might be “The Penguin Book of Witches in the American Colonies”, or even “The Penguin Book of Massachusetts Witches”. As its editor Katherine Howe admits, the English materials she selects are chosen as “antecedent”–her word–to the Salem trials, which are the sole witchcraft trials covered in detail in this slender collection.

The effect is to reinforce the already disproportionate place of Salem in the popular imagination. The Salem trials were very late; they occurred in 1692, while the peak decade for executions in the Anglophone world was in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. Historians estimate that 30,000 witches died in the witchcraft persecutions [in Europe], of whom just twenty died at Salem. …In truth, Salem was in many respects profoundly unusual.

So far so good. We do take issue with Purkiss’ description of the causes of the witch trials:

The monocultural hardline Calvinism of the colonies, the lack of older and once powerful cultures as an anxiety-provoking substrate, the absence of the usual special interest groups, and the vicious hierarchy of the Calvinist churches all militate against using Salem as a representative case of witch-hunting. Yet that is how it is used, both here and elsewhere.

There was no “vicious hierarchy” in Massachusetts churches, which were not Calvinist in the first place (they were Congregational/Independent); Purkiss references the “extreme Calvinism that had led to the establishment of the colonies in the first place”. We assume she means Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies. But the English reformers who went to New England were not “extreme Calvinists”; they had already worked out unique compromises with Calvinism before they ever left England, during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and his son Charles I. That was in 1630—by 1692, even the original Congregationalist platform had been pretty thoroughly undermined and partially demolished by the loss of Massachusetts’ political independence and the resulting influx of non-Congregational populations, as well as the growing Baptist movement in the 1670s, before the loss of the charter.

We go into this timeline in more depth in our article on Stacy Schiff’s new and wildly inaccurate piece of historical fiction The Witches of Salem. It’s a shame that even people making excellent points about the Salem trials don’t know the history well, but we do want to focus here on the many things Purkiss gets right. She points out the ridiculous fantasy that is The Crucible, and laments its hold on both the popular and scholarly imagination. And Purkiss points out that Matthew Hopkins, who took advantage of social turmoil and fear during the English Civil War to execute 300-500 women as witches in just two years, is never mentioned in the current Penguin anthology, and seems to be completely lost to history, while the people involved in the deaths of just 20 men and women in Salem continue to live in infamy.

If you’re interested in the history of human belief in witches, it’s best to study that entire history, not just one incident that has likely become famous simply because it was the only incident of witch-mania in all American/U.S. history. The anomaly always fascinates, but we can’t let it obscure the history.

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