Archive for June, 2015

The truth behind the Salem witch trials

What was behind the famous American witch trials in Salem in the 1600s?

I can usually spot him even before my talk is over – a middle-aged man with a smug expression on his face, borne of the total confidence of someone who spends a lot of time watching history programmes on television. Am I aware, he wants to inform me the moment the Q and A begins, that the real cause of the Salem witch crisis was ergot poisoning? I should look into it, if I wasn’t. Why, thank you, gentleman audience member. How good of you to share that with me.

In the 1970s – a time somewhat steeped in drugs, as it happens – a theory was advanced that the most deadly witch trial in North American history could be blamed on ergotism, a rare hallucinatory syndrome caused by consuming moldy rye bread. The adolescent girls who blamed their troubles on difficult, argumentative women in their community were suffering nothing worse than a bad acid trip. Comforting though this idea might be, the theory was discarded within months of its advancement. Not all the afflicted girls lived in the same household, for one thing. Hallucinations are generally preceded by violent vomiting, for another (which is absent in the contemporary accounts of the girls’ behaviour), and often conclude with one’s feet rotting off. It turns out that witchcraft cannot be solved with a simple disease, nor can it be safely consigned to the past. Early modern English witchcraft is more important than that.

The brutal truth is that witch trials had much more to do with power and gender than my interlocutor would like to believe. The typical person accused as a witch in the English Atlantic world in the 1500s-1600s was a woman, first and foremost, in part because at the time women were thought to be more innately at risk of temptation into sin. She was often someone who made her neighbours profoundly uncomfortable. Contrary to the Hansel and Gretel image of a withered old hag, most women accused as witches during this period were in middle age, or the time of life when they should have been at their most influential and powerful – heads of families, members of their church. Women who were childless, or had been abandoned by husbands, or who were destitute, or who were insane wore their exclusion from society in painfully conspicuous ways.

One North American English alleged witch, Rachel Clinton of Ipswich Massachusetts, was accused, among other things, of “hunching a woman of quality with her elbow” when the other woman passed her in the meeting house. What does this tiny detail nearly lost to history tell us about Rachel Clinton? First, that she is not herself considered to be a “woman of quality.” Second, that she doesn’t know her place. Third, that she is very, very angry. And finally, that when she is angry, she lashes out. Rachel, a childless, middle aged woman whose indentured servant husband had absconded with all her money, leaving her penniless and dependent on the charity of her neighbours in a time of great scarcity even for better-off people, embodies all the greatest fears of early modern English village women. Rachel’s desperation reminds all the other women of her small, closely-knit community what is at stake if they don’t behave the way women should.

In Salem Village Massachusetts in 1692 the last large-scale witch trial of the western world began because a little girl of about nine years old and her relative, a girl of eleven who was bound out to service, fell into fits that quickly spread to other adolescent girls in their community. Prayer couldn’t solve the girls’ fits, and neither could the nearest doctor. Only then was witchcraft floated as a possible cause. The first women accused were Tituba Indian, a slave from Barbados who was later beaten into a confession, Sarah Good, who was so poor that she survived by begging from door to door and had been absent “for want of clothes” (ie she was clad – literally – in rags), and Sarah Osburn, who had taken her handyman for her lover. Put another way, a group of severely disempowered girls living in a rigidly hierarchical society experiencing psychological troubles they lack the language to understand laid the blame on three women who had even less power than themselves.

Gender, power, and class form a powerful nexus, in the 1600s as today. Culture finds ways to punish people who don’t know their place, and who aren’t afraid to express anger about the status quo. Witchcraft wasn’t a quaint, archaic affliction easily solved by modern medicine and reason, no matter what my (usually male) audience member would like to insist to me, the sometimes angry woman speaking at the front of the room. “The past is never dead,” American author William Faulkner once wrote. “It’s not even past.”

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