Saturday, November 21, 2009

Salem in Social, Cultural, and Religious Context: An Analysis of The Devil's Dominion by Richard Godbeer

When the first colonists began to leave England for North America in the early seventeenth century, they carried a certain subset of beliefs and assumptions with them across the Atlantic which derived culturally from England and religiously from the Calvinist influenced doctrines of Puritanism. In his work The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Richard Godbeer examines the complex worldview of these early Puritan settlers and describes their mental and physical realities as far less homogeneous than is often explicated. Although the separation between the elites and the laity was a much smaller gap in Puritan New England than in Europe, many distinctions existed that provided context for their convoluted interpretations of magic, counter-magic, and witchcraft. Godbeer examines the origins of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 through the historical framework of late seventeenth century New England - specifically, the similarities and differences between European and colonial witchcraft beliefs; the impact of occult counter-magic and folk healing on the witchcraft trials; and the historical circumstances contributing to a cultural climate that allowed witchcraft trials to proliferate.

Throughout The Devil’s Dominion, Godbeer describes the nature of magic and occult phenomena, and embedded within this account is an inherent comparison of colonial beliefs and their European counterparts. Despite the distance across the Atlantic, the Puritan cultural and religious links with England were never completely severed during the seventeenth century. From 1620 to 1692, New England provides us with an excellent historical laboratory in which to observe both the continuity of witchcraft beliefs as they traveled from England to North America and the quintessentially Puritan version which arose organically amidst the political and religious turmoil of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The most apparent similarity between Puritan and English witchcraft was the emphasis placed on the witches’ interaction with the devil. Indeed, this was the salient feature of most Protestant interpretations of the crime. Before the accused could be held responsible for the crime of witchcraft, it was incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that the witch had dealings with Satan (153-155). Also like Europe, this explanation of witchcraft as a diabolical heresy pertained primarily to the elite, and in New England the elite class was composed of clergymen.

This elite integration of the devil into the idea of witchcraft was itself an indefinite process. How did one even define the devil? As in Europe, the ministerial fixation on Satan did not exactly accord with the preoccupation with practical magic and counter-magic among the Puritan laity. Satan was not simply evil personified but could also be envisioned as a non-anthropomorphized force or power in the world, manifested most dangerously through the actions of people (87). This apperception of Satan extended to broader dimensions than just the context of witchcraft. For example, demonological rhetoric was employed to attack Native Americans, who represented the great heathen Other (192). The racial, religious, and cultural differences between Puritans and Native Americans were obviously vast, and these differences were often highlighted in ways that portrayed these Native Americans as diabolical. In the demonology of witchcraft, the devil often offered the accused wealth in exchange for her services, and any trade between settlers and Native Americans may have been interpreted in diabolical terms.

Enemies from within the Christian fold were not immune from this line of attack either. The odd piety of the Quakers, who shook uncontrollably as they prayed, easily lent credibility to the Puritan belief that they were possessed by the devil. Their behavior likely seemed little different from those who writhed in contortions under the supposed spell of the devil (194). When the assaults fell within the political sphere, the colonists were not averse to using diabolical language to denounce their enemies. The term “adversary,” for example, was applied to Edmund Andros, the wildly unpopular Anglican ruler of the short-lived Dominion of New England, which deferred, perhaps unconsciously, to the original etymology of the word “Satan” (187). Andros was later demonized alongside Native Americans, with whom he was accused of conspiring against the New Englanders (188). This language of diabolical association would later be applied toward witchcraft in Salem.

The social distance between the laity and the clergy was far smaller in New England than Europe, distinctions were far less entrenched, and interaction between them was more common. As Godbeer mentions, the family, the town meeting, and the church provided the cohesive structures that bound society together. The latter two furnished direct contact between elites and the laity (3). Given this more integrated social structure, why did such a brutal witch hunt occur in Salem in 1692? For one thing, women were excluded from the town meetings (4). The social solidarity that collective decision-making supplied to the male colonists not only may have rendered these women outsiders in their own communities but may also have removed any power they had over their own political and social destinies. The harshness and ruggedness of existence in colonial New England already ensured that women heavily participated in the communal work of a village, but the elite cultural and religious assumptions of female weakness exposed women to a paradoxical existence: they did not participate in the civic or political processes but were fully expected to ascribe to its rules (118). Beyond the level of household, women had social contact with men only in church, and Godbeer contends that their religious conviction left them vulnerable to spiritual crises such as those that rocked late seventeenth century New England (114). Godbeer also reports that seventy-nine percent of all witches and eighty-four percent of all demoniacs in New England were women (68 and 114). By many accounts, this was a greater preponderance than in Europe.

There were significant differences between European and New Englander cultures of magic, counter-magic and witchcraft. According to Godbeer, unlike Europe, folk healers seem to have been at greater risk of being accused of witchcraft in New England (66). Godbeer does not detail specific reasons for this difference, though it may have been due to the fact that no folk tradition of lay medical practitioners existed in New England. The line between magical and non-magical healing was a fine one, and practitioners of folk medicine were often either ignorant of the fact that their work was under suspicion or maintained that it was in no way diabolical (66-68). In any case, the ends may have justified the means in the arena of folk healing, and the merits of the medicine—whether a natural or supernatural antidote—seemed to hinge on its results. In New England there may have been a paradoxical increase in the Puritan use of magic and counter-magic due to the decline of the legal prosecution of witches from the early 1660s to the late 1680s. By taking spiritual matters into their own hands, these Puritans may have inadvertently created the very social conditions that condemned many of them for this use (177-8).

Pluralism, both religious and cultural, also produced different results in New England than in Europe. According to some scholars, pluralism led to greater tolerance in Europe, especially following the Peace of Westphalia, whereas pluralism disrupted the fragile existence to which Puritan New Englanders clung. After the Protestant Reformation began, Catholics and Protestants fought bitterly with one another in Europe, but after generations of living side-by-side, a mutual, if begrudging, respect emerged. Puritan settlers left England for North America, in part, because they desired religious freedom for themselves apart from other Christian sects. The presence of Native Americans, French Catholics to the north, Dutch to the south, and an influx of secular merchants and non-Congregationalist Protestants throughout the late seventeenth century upended their perceived homogeneous environment.

Though its themes come to a head with the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, The Devil’s Dominion is more concerned with the cultural and political climate of New England in the decades leading up to this event. Godbeer is at his most erudite when synthesizing the cultural, political, and religious trends and explicating how they coalesced and contributed to the trials. Historically, he asserts that the years from the founding of Plymouth colony in 1620 to around 1675 were relatively peaceful. This peace was disrupted by a series of events that shattered the Puritan world. King Philip’s War (1675-6), a brutal conflict with the Wampanoag tribe and a following small-pox epidemic, decimated the New Englander population (182-3). During the next decade, the revocation of the Massachusetts Charter and imposition of the Anglican-controlled Dominion of New England (1686-9) eliminated self-rule among the Puritan colonies and for a short time returned them to the very political conditions they sought to escape in England (184). In 1690 hostilities with Native Americans renewed, this time with French support, and shortly thereafter, the new colony charter granted religious toleration to Anglicans, Quakers, and other Protestant denominations, breaking the Puritan monopoly on religious authority in New England. Richard Godbeer convincingly argues that these events, amidst the cultural climate I have detailed above, generated suitable conditions for the witchcraft trials at Salem to flourish.

The Salem witchcraft trials, though violent, were ephemeral compared to the sustained witch craze of early modern Europe. The trials reached very high up the social ladder into relatives of the very people prosecuting the cases and, unlike the more natural progression of events in Europe, the ministerial authorities made a conscious decision to halt the trials. The very act of uncovering a witch undermined the self-proclaimed godliness of these Puritan authorities because the methods for discovering a witch had much in common with the counter-magic for which the laity was accused—trial by water, hot iron, scalding water, or other ordeals (160-1). If supernatural knowledge was required to a investigate magic, it defeated the purpose of the trials in the first place and exposed the clergy to charges of hypocrisy (220-222). Like England, Puritan elites and commoners never came to a consensus regarding the nature of witchcraft, but unlike England, the common ideas were never truly assimilated into the legal process. Ministers seemed to be at a loss to interpret counter-magic as anything other than witchcraft. Godbeer’s sophisticated treatment of the events leading up to the Salem witch trials masterfully contextualizes the cultural, political, and religious circumstances of late seventeenth century New England and their bearings on Puritan ideas of witchcraft.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Short Hiatus from Bloggerdom and Some Things to Come

I'm currently in the home stretch of my first semester as a graduate student in history, which, as you can imagine, is why I've been away from the blogging world over the past couple of weeks. In fact, not counting the revised papers on witchcraft I posted here, I haven't done much of anything original since late September. Obviously, I've got a lot to do, so I probably won't post again until the semester is over around the third week of December, but I thought I'd give a quick preview of some things I intend to get up here on the site before the end of 2009.

Firstly, I have several book reviews I've written over the past few months and a few from over a year ago that I would like to post. I don't really do book reviews too often, but it's something that academic historians do for shorter works in journals, so I'd like to get some up here. I recently read a really fascinating work for my witchcraft class called The Devil's Dominion, about the existence of magic and its integration into religion in Puritan New England in the seventeenth century. It really put he events in Salem in political, religious, and cultural context and really breaks down some stereotypes about not only the ultra-rigidity of Puritan religious beliefs but also the myth of the strict homogeneity of their colonies. I know, it's one more post on witchcraft, but since it has to do with Puritan New England, I can loosely tie it to Thanksgiving. I'll post it soon. Some other books, history (though most is not terribly current) and otherwise, that I'll review soon include a a biography of Alexander the Great, an examination of the military explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, some of the works of Arnold Toynbee, a few works on the history of astrology and magic, as well as some Jungian stuff. Like many other things I post here, these will mostly be revised versions of things I have written for myself in the past.

Secondly, I have two pretty big papers coming up and once the semester is over and I've gotten back professor comments and made the necessary adjustments I'd like to post them here. The shorter paper I am writing compares Giordano Bruno and Domenico Scandella, two victims of the Inquisition in Italy in the late sixteenth century. By examining their respective cosmologies and heresies, I hope to draw some conclusions about the similarities and differences between elite and common conceptions of the cosmos at a time when a multitude of contradictory ideas proliferated. Scandella, a literate Friulian miller, was a man on the margins of society. He was exposed to cultural diversity and pluralism in his profession, benefited intellectually from the rise of the printed word, and performed an integral function within his peasant community though he was often alienated from it for his unorthodox ideas. Bruno was a peripatetic scholar who never resided in one location longer than a few years, and consequently, he was often a mistrusted figure in his adoptive lands. He advocated Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophy, and his early acceptance of the Copernican heliocentric theory, though it had little to do with his eventual trial and execution, has earned him a place in the history of science. For these reasons, among others, both figures aroused the suspicions of the Inquisition. By positioning these two historical personages in the philosophical, religious, and socio-cultural settings of late sixteenth century Europe, I seek to better understand why their cosmologies were so offensive to the Church and why both were condemned for heresy. I also hope to submit this paper to a graduate student academic conference at North Carolina State. The longer paper is also a comparative paper, and I've written about the topic many other times, so I won't go into too much detail. In short, I'm comparing Andrew Dickson White - a late nineteenth century historian and president of Cornell University who wrote an extremely influential work on the history of science and theology, in which he argued that they have historically been enemies - with modern historian of science David C. Lindberg, who represents the modern school of thought that neither warfare nor harmony accurately depicts their relationship. Both these papers exemplify my general interests in history and I'll post them later in December.

Finally, I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of this bog's inaugural post, which is in the first week of January next year. This blog started, in part, due to the fact that I made it my new Year's Resolution at the end of 2008 to write more and I decided a blog would be the best testing ground for that commitment. I think the results have been pretty good though I am going to far well short of my one hundred post goal. I intend to write at least one post reflecting on my year of blogging and what I'd like to accomplish in the world of writing in the coming year. With my first semester of grad school almost behind me, I also want to write a bit on how that process has changed me, what I've learned, and how I have interpreted the lessons of graduate school. I don't necessarily want to write so much about history, but what higher education means to me and how this type of schooling is, in most ways, entirely different from all other education I've received up to now in my life. So, for the future, you can look forward (I hope) to some book reviews and some actual normal blog posts that have to do more with my life and less to do with my increasingly abstract thoughts. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Skepticism, Science, and Superstition: The Decline of Witchcraft Trials in the Seventeenth Century

The height of the witch craze in Europe occurred between roughly 1560 and 1630, but the decline and eventual disappearance of witchcraft trials transpired in a much more disjointed fashion chronologically and geographically. Several historiographical explanations exist to account for this demise, and emergent cultural and intellectual trends throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provide a context through which to understand these changes. The rise of the mechanistic world view of Descartes, Newton, and others posed a problem for witchcraft because prevailing natural interpretations of previously unexplainable events established a schema into which witchcraft could not easily be assimilated. Greater religious toleration and the acceptance of religious pluralism in many places allowed diverse beliefs to coexist within the same social milieu and thus fears of witchcraft diminished. However, it should also be noted that although the trials themselves ceased, a general belief in witchcraft, especially among commoners, did not. This points to a gradual shift of the import that the notion and term “witch” carried in popular consciousness. The category and terminology surrounding the idea of the witch lost a great deal of cultural cachet during the seventeenth century among the elites in charge of its prosecution and devolved into broader associations with superstition. I intend to critique four historians’ approaches to the problem of witch trial decline and the growing gap between the elite opinion regarding witchcraft “superstitions” and the commoner continuation of belief largely devoid of its legal implications.

In his analysis of the decline of witchcraft, Brian Levack asserts that new legal safeguards and procedures regarding the prosecution of witches accompanied the edification and centralization of the nation-state. In keeping with his overarching thesis that the centralization of authority actually contributed to a decrease in witch trails and helped to restrain more zealous local authorities, Levack argues that new legal protections beginning in the early seventeenth century made it more difficult for authorities to prosecute for witchcraft. He cites four major changes contributing to a decline of witch trials: greater judicial centralization, limited or forbidden use of torture, greater necessity of evidence for conviction, and better legal defense allocated to those accused of witchcraft. According to the new judicial world view, far fewer people were actually capable of being witches. Skepticism grew among elites, but at first this skepticism did not extend to a belief in the authenticity of witchcraft. Rather, it entailed judicially specific skepticism of the efficacy of torture to extract true confessions and to greater doubt concerning the adequacy of evidence presented in the majority of trials. Even while authorities in the early seventeenth century grew more skeptical of the presence of a vast conspiracy of witches, its reality as a crime remained.

This new skepticism was accompanied by a redefining of the term “witch” to narrow its meaning and grant it less power. Johann Weyer, for example, distinguished witchcraft from “magicians, evil-doers, enchanters, and poisoners” all of whom might be charged with witchcraft by less discerning prosecutors. He explained witchcraft as a natural phenomenon and, through textual exegesis and linguistic analysis, claimed that the Biblical witch from the heavily quoted Exodus 22:18 did not directly correlate to those accused of witchcraft in the early modern era. Similarly, John Webster argued over a century later that witches were better classified as “Deceivers, Cheaters, Counteners, and Imposters” and that natural explanations could be employed to explain the persistence of these beliefs. A greater emphasis on natural explanations to describe seemingly supernatural events coincided with this growing skepticism. During the seventeenth century, the intellectual outlook of European elites inclined toward more empirical, materialistic, and scientific visions of the universe, and this has historically been regarded a common justification for the decline of witchcraft trials. There are two problems with this approach. One is that, according to Levack, the rise of this world view came several decades after the worst of the witchcraft prosecutions had already subsided. The other is that, within the time frame of the decline, the “scientific” world view embraced far more natural philosophies than simply the materialistic. Neoplatonism, for example, still exerted a great deal of intellectual influence as late as the mid-seventeenth century, and it much more readily accommodated occult and esoteric ideas. Only the mechanistic weltanschauung would not incorporate witchcraft, and according to Levack, it had not yet ascended to prominence.

Levack acknowledges the problem of chronology and does not specify precisely when the trials came to an end, leaving a very broad time frame for decline—beginning in some places as early as 1600 and not in others until the 1670s. This implies not only that new scientific and philosophical ideas diffused at different rates in different regions but also that the abatement of the importance of witchcraft as a categorical notion depended largely on cultural factors in specific regions. In the case of England, for example, Marion Gibson contends that controversy surrounding particular witchcraft trials caused a hesitance to prosecute on the part of the judiciary. Gibson refers to J.A. Sharpe and recounts a more precise chronology than Levack, tracking skepticism via the decline of witchcraft pamphlets through the 1620s and 1630s. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, published in 1621, was the last until 1643. However, Gibson claims that the reduction of pamphlets led to a decrease in witch trials though it seems just as likely that declining elite interest in witchcraft hastened the demise of the pamphlet. From the chronological information provided, the two appear to have ebbed simultaneously. In either case, witchcraft simply did not hold the cultural or judicial currency for prosecutors it once possessed.

Owen Davies answers some of Gibson’s lingering questions in his acknowledgment of the fact that witchcraft declined at different rates in different geographical areas for distinct reasons. For Davies, the growing cultural divides between rural and urban spaces most greatly affected long term witchcraft trends. Particularly, the lack of an agricultural lifestyle in urban settings and different levels of contact with livestock may have had an impact on the subsiding trials. Davies attests to the utilitarian nature of the peasant version of witchcraft, noting that nearly half of all witchcraft cases in rural Surrey involved livestock and humans as opposed to less than a third in the comparable urban setting of Southwark, implying that rural accusations still revolved around the hexing or cursing of animals. However, this seems to be a broad assumption because Davies never defines the degree to which urban environs differed from their rural counterparts before the Industrial Revolution. A complete dichotomization of rural and urban settings had not yet occurred in the seventeenth century, and it would not be until industrialization that a substantial divorce arose.

The more convincing aspect of Davies’ argument is his contention that the constant flux of people in and out of cities comprised the greatest difference between rural and urban landscapes: families lived for generations in rural peasant communities whereas cities had a higher turnover rate of inhabitants. This lack of communal cohesiveness made it far more difficult for the type of internal feuds that oftentimes typified witch hunts. The idea that witchcraft ran in families lacked cultural significance in cities where multigenerational contact and continuity was not often the norm.

Davies is also very careful to note, as Levack and Gibson imply, that the decline in witchcraft prosecution does not necessarily indicate an absence of witchcraft belief. He notes numerous accounts of common witchcraft belief throughout nineteenth century England and in France, in one particular incident, as late as 1968. Of course, by this time the trials had long since subsided, and these existed as folk explanations of unusual activities devoid of illicit meaning. This pertains to physical objects as well. Horseshoes, for example, once held specific significance for witchcraft deterrence, but later seem to have dissolved into general superstitious belief. By the time dangerous witchcraft beliefs came to be regarded as innocuous superstitions by the elites, witchcraft prosecutions waned. Later elite contempt for the explanatory power of witchcraft likely contributed to the Enlightenment view of witchcraft as a simple superstition since this was the most immediate and contemporary form of belief educated elites encountered among common people.

Given that the concern for witchcraft diminished in the legal sphere throughout the Enlightenment, why was there a continued acceptance of witchcraft among commoners? It is possible that we see a return to pre-trial era modes of discourse about witchcraft, and the meaning that this term carried may have reverted back to "illusions and phantasms." While it may not have contributed directly to the decline in witchcraft trials, the “disenchantment” of the world throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries almost certainly contributed to a decline in the acceptance of witchcraft among the educated elite. Among the commoners, Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra concurs with Davies and surmises that a more stable domestic life and a less precarious agricultural system affected witchcraft beliefs because misfortune no longer required a supernatural explanation. This was reserved for “personal” justification of events—beneficent experiences were attributed to God, whereas maleficent ones could still be blamed on witches. However, as the witch hunts decline, this had little bearing on “impersonal” explanations of the mechanistic, material universe.

In conclusion, it was largely the elite perception of witchcraft that underwent a substantial change throughout the seventeenth century. Peasant understanding of its nature continued as it had for generations while a growing skepticism, informed by new ways of thinking about the natural world, issued from elites. This change was gradual and not until science ceased to encompass occult ideas did a marked decline occur. In a sense, just as elites made the crime of witchcraft more serious in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they also made it less serious throughout the mid to late seventeenth. The shifting zeitgeist of the time period is reflected in the morphing terminology used to define and describe witchcraft, in the greater legal protection afforded to the accused, in the waning of pamphlet publications in England, and in increasing distinctions between rural and urban life. For these reasons, among others, witchcraft trials decreased throughout the seventeenth century.