Salem Possessed

Salem Possessed
History of witchcraft is an old and vast theme of different researches in the world. Who are Salem’s witches? Are they accomplices of the Devil or innocent victims of human bloodthirstiness and still human vanity? It is an awful fact, but over a several centuries period, ordinary people destroyed similar to them people based on the ridiculous accusation in witchcraft. There were burnt on fires and killed by no less cruel methods hundreds of thousands people in the so-called period of "witchcraft scare". Historically, at the end of the 17th century, the small American Salem Village was fixed and the surprising on the rashness flash of hunt on "daughters of the Devil". The country experienced hard times and the people experienced one misfortune after the other. Describing misfortunes we could mention among them smallpox epidemics, raids of American Indians, drought, severe winters and so on. All misfortunes and hardships in those times people explained by the devil’s intrigues.

I would like to research this question with more details and use for this aim the book Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft written by Boyer and Nissenbaum. This book contains the interesting analysis of the Salem Witch Trials and many historical facts about the event that allowed me to think about the social origin of witchcraft. In this paper, I will analyze the book’s content, but do it not only based on the book, but also using my own thoughts and historical facts.

Firstly, it is necessary to think about what life was like in those times, because it will help us to understand the essence of the witch trials and explain why the situation had such a horrible character. Life in a 17th century Massachusetts colony was tense. Fear of the Devil, disagreements among families of Salem Village, and a power struggle between the Village and Salem Town, in combination with outbreaks of small pox and fear of Indian attacks, created good conditions for fears and suspicions. Soon prisons accepted more than 150 people from cities, surrounding Salem and in their turn they were named "yelling" from the torments of young girls who felt pain there. All prisoners were waiting for death penalty, because in those times, the punishment of witchcraft was death.

According to Boyer and Nissenbaum, witchcraft had a social origin and to find witches in Salem was the part of political and economic plan. To me, the authors were right, and I want to quote a statement from the book which says: “to understand this intensity [of the emotions underlying the trials], we must recognize the fact that self-evident to the men and women of Salem Village—that what was going on was not simply a personal quarrel, an economic dispute, or even a struggle for power, but a mortal conflict involving the very nature of the community itself. The fundamental issue was not who was to control the Village, but what its essential character was to be.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1974) Paying attention to economic, political and geographical position of Salem, we see that it was not an ordinary village. Boyer and Nissenbaum described not only historical facts, but it becomes understandable that exactly society formed such attitude to situation and, in their turn, personal conflicts also greatly influenced this process.

Boyer and Nissenbaum explain that villages that produced agriculture production for its needs surrounded Salem Town. Many villages eventually stopped to work for the keeping of town needs and Salem Village remained dependent on Salem Town. Dependence of a such kind did not suit in all senses Salem’s habitants there were no place for the development, because nearby land belonged to other villages, farms were gradually exhausted and divided on more shallow on an inheritance, people became poorer. Yet there was a problem with different quality of lands in east and western parts of the village - in east part business was better, economies were prosperous and families had greater political weight and connections with a city.

So, greater part of prosecutions was proclaimed by the inhabitants of western part of the country against inhabitants of the eastern part. In such a way, the inhabitants who became poorer part of the village, who lost their influence in society, accused those, who presently were in the best position. A crisis covered all of them and a social division took great strides forward.

In addition to above presented information we should pay attention on fact that hysteria concerning on Salem witch trials in 1692 was one of the most tragic events in American history. It is also necessary to study Salem witch trials from social, religious and political influences of those times. History shows us that puritans from England settled in Massachusetts with an aim to hide themselves from religious pursuit on a motherland. All of them had strict moral norms and their way of life was determined by their religious beliefs. Charge of witchcraft and subsequent executions of sentences considered higher expression of deep moral contradictions. Negative attitude toward witchcraft in The Holly Bible and true faith in its satanic origin generated paralysing fear of witchcraft, which made witchcraft outside the law.

Personal enemies and "publicly undesirable" personalities grew into the enemies of society, consequently became the servant of the Devil. In the period between 1690 and 1692, several events became reason of this hysteria. In other words, I want to quote some arguments that were proposed by Boyer and Nissenbaum, and according to them, it becomes understandable that: given the social assumptions, which prevailed in seventeenth-century New England. It was a perfectly normal procedure for a town to rid itself of deviant or threatening individuals by changing them if possible, by exile or execution if necessary. A long succession of people, including a number of isolated “witches,” had learned that fact in the most vivid way possible. But what confronted Salem Village, as seems clear in retrospect, was not a handful (even a large handful) of “deviants.” It is a group of people who were on the advancing edge of profound historical change if from one angle they were diverging from an accepted norm of behavior, from another angle their values represented the “norm” of the future. In an age about to pass, the assertion of private will posed the direst possible threat to the stability of the community; in the age about to arrive, it would form a central pillar on which that stability rested.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1974)

Thus, based on all above presented facts and on authors’ opinion we could conclude that the question of social origin of witchcraft has deep roots and their analysis is not an easy process. The book Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft is a kind of new understanding of the problem, because it helps people to think about witches and compare their own thoughts with printed facts. I think that all people in their analysis of any fact and any historical event should first of all read different sources of information and only then form own opinion about researched question. In such a way, I strongly believe that Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Boyer and Nissenbaum is a good book that will help to be more professional in considerations about the Salem witch trials.

Work cited:
Boyer, Paul & Nissenbaum, Stephen. Salem Possessed The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Salem Possessed 8 of 10 on the basis of 1866 Review.