Can Witch Trials Be Reasonable?

By Katherine Howe

No matter how many Salem books appear, the question of New England witchcraft never seems to be exhausted. It forces us to confront the fragility of some of Americans' dearest assumptions about ourselves: that we are tolerant, that we value the socially marginalized, that we are rational and can be persuaded by reasoned argument. Salem means that we can't take our toleration for granted. Instead, we hunt for justification. Usually we point to “hysteria,” as though living in the past, according to a past set of beliefs, automatically makes one crazy.

But it is not so. They weren't crazy at all.

In 1690s New England, Salem was only the most extreme example of an otherwise common legal problem. We don't bother to legislate against imaginary threats, after all. The Salem participants – accusers, accused, judges, jury, theologians, the lieutenant governor – all lived in a religious system which assumed witchcraft to be real. The Salem episode was unusual for its breadth and longevity, facts not lost on observers at that time. But for people who believed themselves to occupy still-new lands “that were once the Devil's territories,” the presence of Satan working through earthly interlocutors was a credible, and terrifying, threat. Looked at from this perspective, the Salem trials resemble the most rational response available to a community struggling to free itself from the ravages of evil incarnate.

The idea of witch-hunting as rational, however, might be too chilling to contemplate. A mere decade after the panic ended, several participants began to regret their role in the trials; Samuel Sewall, a judge, and Ann Putnam, an afflicted girl, both made humble public apologies for their participation in what they now felt was a miscarriage of justice. The speed with which Salem was reconsidered, even in the colonial world, is itself reassuring – even they thought they were being crazy! Phew.

And yet, for the first many months of 1691/92, inquiry into the presence of witches in Essex County was anything but crazy. In fact, it was imperative, given the cultural and religious structures in place in that community at that time. One wonders what other assumptions, imperative in our own time, will be hysterical in another?

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Katherine Howe is author of The Physick Book Deliverance Dane, just published by Voice (Hyperion).

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  1. Perhaps this is looking at the problem the wrong way. The tradition of witchcraft in many forms goes back a long way. So, yes, witches did exist. Looking for them wasn't unreasonable. Finding them everywhere probably was.

    It's doubtful that those tried in Salem were actually witches. In general, witch trials were unreasonable because they relied on hysteria and manufactured evidence and frankly, most of the victims weren't witches.

    But can trying a witch be reasonable? If you try a person for his/her actions rather than just a conflict in belief, yes, it might be reasonable. There have been witches who used their powers or perceived powers to cause harm. Stopping that action is reasonable.

    So, it's not the belief in whether or not there are witches. It's letting that belief override justice that causes the problems.


  2. This idea is so intriguing! I think that the more important question, as mentioned, is:
    “…what other assumptions, imperative in our own time, will be hysterical in another?” This is so key to understanding why, time and time again, we find ourselves head-over-heels in love with purging the latest version of “witch” from our safe-havens.

    I think it has a good deal to do with a reliance on pinpointing each timely scapegoat of social downfall, no matter the harm done to the accused. A common enemy brings many communities together, again, at the expense of a select few. I’ll be interested, albeit most likely embarrassed, to see what we will be scrambling to deny in ten years that we are so willingly pounding our fists about, today. Thank you for a thought provoking post!

  3. There is nothing inherently ridiculous about witchcraft beliefs being rational. At the popular level, they fitted into a worldview where words had power, although it might take several years for someone to develop a sufficiently bad reputation for effective cursing to motivate a formal accusation. It takes a village to accuse a witch.

    The belief in the power of words was still only beginning to fade among intellectuals.

    Catholic clergy were not unknown to provide religious inscriptions in the form of an amulet, for protection or healing, and exorcisms were also employed by them in cases of severe bewitchment or demonic possession. Transubstantiation was achieved by the words of the priest.

    Among many Protestants, such beliefs and methods were increasingly rejected, for theological reasons, but that hardly meant that words were immediately believed to be powerless. The types of words used by Catholics (and Lutherans to some extent) were deceptive, but they might be vehicles for the Devil. The words of the doctor, the lawyer, the judge, the monarch, the Bible and the minister's sermon remained powerful for good.

    However, among intellectuals, the notion that the Devil and his minions stalked the earth was far from dead. It fitted into theology and, with a little effort, into natural philosophy. Some of the greatest intellectuals of the day experienced little difficulty with the belief, although they began to question whether the accused person was actually a witch and whether the Devil could actually achieve his seeming miracles. Each successful witchcraft prosecution was therefore the product of a successful negotiation between the popular beliefs that motivated accusations and the more intellectual beliefs that preoccupied doctors, lawyers and clergymen.

    In any given jurisdiction, this negotiation might fail for entirely specific reasons. The Inquisitions were the first courts to abandon the belief system, although more mundane sorcery still bothered them, and the Dutch trials ground to a halt shortly after the outbreak of the Dutch Revolt.

    It takes a whole society to hang or burn a witch. In the early modern period, that conjuncture occurred in much of Europe.

    David Harley

  4. By the way, the notion of "mass hysteria", now confined to popular belief, developed in the context of colonial administration and anthropology, to explain unusual social phenomena. It was not available in the 17th century, so the afflicted women accusers of the Salem incidents could not be diagnosed thus. As an affliction of the womb, hysteria was not going to affect them all at once without action at a distance.

    Perhaps the only person who had an explanation for the phenomenon of a lady's maids all becoming hysterical when their mistress did was the Platonist philosopher Kenelm Digby. He used the analogy of sympathetic vibration, as in the well-known example of stringed instruments vibrating when one of them was plucked.

    David Harley


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