Friday, May 9, 2014

When Witchcraft was Real

A TV show about Salem?  Fabulous? Or a disaster?

I had to take a break from grading to share the following review of the Salem series over at Books & Culture.  Here's a taste:

The end goal of television is to have viewers watch commercials, so we historians don't expect to learn our history there. However, we can learn what viewers want to learn about history. After watching the first episode of the new TV series Salem, it is obvious that viewers today want to turn The Crucible upside down and hear the witches' side of the story. ... The most startling aspect of Salem is that it oddly vindicates Cotton Mather. TV viewers are apparently ready to watch him ferret out the truth about demonic plans to up-end the social order.

And they, the witches, fight back.  Interesting.  I like the premise of the show. Starting a show with the premise that witchcraft IS real seemed to me to be a great way to probe what is for me the central fascination of the Salem episode: for early Americans, witchcraft WAS real.

I often have hard time convincing my student that what was going on at Salem wasn't simply faking or teenagers getting carried away.  Witchcraft outbreaks occurred not because witchcraft was a set of silly fears exploited by the vengeful or powerful, but because witchcraft was real.  Wait what?  Yes.  For English colonists in the 1600s, witchcraft was real. Witchcraft was crime committed by supernatural means.  The witch was a criminal who worked in supernatural ways.  And yes, most of the criminals who worked in supernatural ways and were accused as such were women -- for a variety of reasons that you can read about in Carol Karlsen's wonderful study Devil in the Shape of a Woman.

However, identifying the patterns behind witchcraft outbreaks and constructing a sociological profile of the accused (i.e. who was most likely to be a witch and why) does not mean that it was all a conspiracy.  Yes, there might have been an element of personal enmities being framed -- conveniently -- as witchcraft.  But as historians we have to start from the far more challenging premise that for these people witchcraft was real, it explained their world and relations within it.  When a woman was accused of witchcraft the community was legitimately committed to extirpating this threat from within. It wasn't all some form of 17th-century false consciousness.

Puritans lived in a world in which the natural and supernatural were separated by a thin veil, a world in which God communicated everyday through the natural landscape -- as did the forces of the Devil.  God and the Devil were engaged in an ongoing battle, waged in the natural and supernatural realms.  This was a world in which people practiced forms of folk magic and witchcraft and accused others of the same.  It was a world in which a crime could be explained in a number of natural -- and supernatural ways.

This is a worldview that feels so foreign to us that it is comforting to assume some level of exploitation of witchcraft belief, using the fears of some to scapegoat the accused witches.  But a witch wasn't a scapegoat.  She was someone who was believed to have done something she should not have -- coveted, acquired, injured, manipulated -- and thereby disrupted the social relations of small extremely intimate and always threatened colonial communities.  (Of course, witchcraft accusations tended to disappear when outbreaks of violence betweens Puritans and Indians picked up.  Witches were enemies and criminals within.  And as Mary Beth Norton convincingly shows in In the Devil's Snare, there is in fact a connection between distant and impending violence between Puritans and Indians and the outbreaks at Salem.  The colonial context matters.  But I digress.)

The Salem outbreak "spread" so quickly and rapidly in part because the prospect of witchcraft was so plausible, so feared, so real.  Salem was also pretty exceptional, something historians are still trying to explain.  In addition to the late date and the sheer numbers of accused and executed, also the geographic spread (the outbreak traveled), it also broke many of the "rules" governing witchcraft -- the accusers were mostly adolescent girls who were afflicted by spectres, something unheard of before and never seen again -- and was famously capped by judge Samuel Sewall's  apology.  That hadn't happened before and it wouldn't happen again.  Salem would be the last witchcraft outbreak in colonial America. (Well, as my colleague pointed out to me, the last official, state-sanctioned witchcraft trial, but there continued to be accused witches across the 18th-century, their crimes prosecuted vigilante-style -- a topic that demands more thorough study.)

I was intrigued by the show because it began with a thought experiment that excites me. What if we start from the premise that what happened at Salem was real?  Unsurprisingly, the collective conclusion among my friends and colleagues who have been watching is that WGN just has not done justice to the complexity and nuance of English Protestant witchcraft beliefs. But maybe we judged too quickly, maybe there is still something interesting and worthwhile going on in this show.  Salem, the series, doesn't help us understand Puritans, but it can help us understand the questions and fantasies and scenarios that 21st-century Americans (and Hollywood) bring to the past.  I might just have to watch and come to my own conclusions...after I finish my grading.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating piece - yes, the belief in witches and witchcraft was very real in European culture - evident everywhere from German fairy tales to Shakespeare - Macbeth's 'weird sisters' were very real witches to Elizabethan audiences. The concept of witches was perpetrated and exploited by the Catholic Church to keep women in their place and properly married. Most women targeted 'witches' were single and independent - especially independent thinking women. And of course, men feared this - especially independent women gathering in groups. To shout 'witch' was a powerful social tool to suppress what eventually burst through in the 60s / 70 in the form of modern feminism. Married women were also conveniently branded a a witch if her behavior was deemed 'odd' - could be post natal depression or some other onset that we are much more educated about now. There is a famous fascinating case of Bridget Clery - the last women 'burned' as a witch (by her husband who was convinced she was a changeling) in Ireland. Medieval? I'm afraid to say it was a recent as 1895 - an aberration rather than the norm. Witchcraft in Ireland was more accepted (Ireland full of wise women haha) and never as feared (except when the Catholic CHurch got involved) as it was in puritanical England where there were regular dunkings and burnings. It is always a fascinating topic on so many levels.

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