Exorcising the Past: The Historiography of Witchcraft Cases in England and New England


I have been fascinated by witchcraft trials since I was a child. This fascination is partly rooted in a childhood that was filled with my Grandma’s stories of our ancestor who was hung as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials.[1] Today, I am more drawn to understanding the array of interpretations historians have developed to explain the phenomenon of witchcraft accusations. It is believed that the last legal execution of an alleged witch occurred in 1782 at Glarus, Switzerland.[2] Astonishingly, even before the last execution took place skepticism surrounding witch hunts developed among educated European elites. In an attempt to rationalize witch hunts, these early interpretations enlisted “monocausal” explanations blaming the trials on the alleged bigotry and ignorance of the clergy and judges. Essential to these explanations was the assumption that witch hunts occurred because of a pre-enlightened past in which irrationality and a lack of science enabled persecution. This Crucible- like interpretation is still the most widespread understanding of witchcraft trials in popular culture. [3]

Even though scapegoat interpretations remain embedded in our popular understanding of witchcraft trials, the subject is continually studied by generations of scholars. What is clear from all these scholarly interpretations is the inadequacy of a single explanation Moreover, an explanation that demonizes the past in comparison to the present is grossly misleading. When looking at the range of scholarly works on witch hunts, valuable explanatory perspectives become evident. Some scholars look to the social sciences for explanatory models while others utilize gender analyses, psychological theories, or conceptions of language and discourse.

An interesting trend also appears when one looks more closely at the scholarship on witch hunts in England and New England. While past works portrayed witchcraft trials in England as essentially different from those on the European continent, recent works are now stressing similarities between the occurrences. But, the positioning of New England is more complicated. Some scholars stress similarities between the witch trials of New England and England, but they also separate Salem. Other scholars maintain the events in New England are essentially different from those in England and Europe as a whole. After analyzing several works it seems the witch hunts in New England, especially those in Salem, also need to be tied back to Europe. In the end, an emphasis on the connections that permeated the greater transatlantic region will help to cast a new light on the witchcraft accusations of the early modern world.

Pioneered by American scholar G.L. Kittredge in the early twentieth century, some scholars have explored the history of witchcraft accusations from the “bottom-up.”[4] Rather than assuming that people at lower levels of society are simply the passive recipients of ideologies from the top, these scholars emphasize how witchcraft trials relied upon a bottom up process. Historian James Sharpe has characterized this methodology as “witchcraft from below.” [5] In his path-breaking work, Witchcraft in Old and New England, Kittredge enlists an array of printed sources to contend that early modern witchcraft prosecution developed from local community relations among the common people. Furthermore, he argues that witchcraft accusations “never flourish unless the common people are eager for it.” [6] Key to his argument is the idea that witchcraft prosecution arose from “the talk of the neighborhood…with regard to certain persons who have the reputation of being witches, cunning men, and so on.” [7] In all, for Kittredge, witchcraft accusations develop during times of political anxiety in which neighbors displace their fears onto the community deviants.

In addition to identifying community relations as an explanation for witch-hunts, Kittredge also examines how witch hunts in England were different from those on the continent. Why was England different? According to Kittredge, in England, “There was no Holy Inquisition. Scholars might theorize, but action was taken because of John Doe’s cow had fallen strangely sick…In a word Elizabethan witchcraft was simple and primitive.” Crucially, for Kittredge, witch hunts in England did not stem “from the learned or ruling classes but from humble folk, who clung tenaciously to their primeval belief in maleficium… and always had definite persons in view who passed for witches.” Thus, according to Kittredge, the witchcraft trials of England developed from the beliefs that permeated popular culture, and not the realm of the ruling elite. While these beliefs were exacerbated in times of political unrest, the common people initiated witch-hunts by projecting their fears onto the local deviant.[8] Kittredge detaches England from Europe, however, he does connect witchcraft beliefs in New England to England. Primarily looking at Salem, he concludes “The witch beliefs in New England were brought over from the Mother Country by the first settlers.” [9] Kittredge also rejects the notion that New Englanders were exceptionally intolerant, as he contends that outbreaks were “not due to Puritanism” and could not be “assignable to any peculiar temper on the part of our New England ancestors.”[10]

Historians Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane also look at witchcraft trails as a bottom-up process in their social histories of English witch hunts.[11] Both Thomas and Macfarlane argue that witchcraft accusations were not caused by malice or ill will on the part of judges or clergymen. Instead, they contend that witch hunts arose from interpersonal tensions within local communities.[12] According to Macfarlane’s findings, the alleged witches were usually poor, elderly women who were most likely to request charity. As a result of socioeconomic changes, such as population increases, the socioeconomic divides among villagers became more stringent.[13] Many villagers also began associating negative occurrences, like the deaths of livestock, with the disgruntled older woman whose requests for charity they had rejected.[14] Thus, like Kittredge, Thomas and Macfarlane describe the witch hunts of England as arising from social relations within lower levels of society.

The works of Thomas and Macfarlane created a major shift in scholarly interpretations of witchcraft as a social phenomenon. Yet, their works have not gone without criticisms. Macfarlane and Thomas follow Kittredge’s assessment that England’s witch hunts were different from those in Europe, but James Sharpe has challenged this assertion. As Sharpe notes, the German mass-trails of the early seventeenth century were not the typical continental situation. Instead, the English pattern of low intensity witch trials and isolated accusations against an individual witch or small groups was actually more typical of many European regions. For Sharpe, the witch trials in England are better understood as a “variation of themes,” and not a demonstration of completely different processes.[15] This emphasis on the experience of witchcraft trials also leads Sharpe to suggest a new approach for interpreting the historical significance of witchcraft accusations.[16] Sharpe maintains that a closer look at the discourse of witch hunts could shed more light on the conceptual and emotional world of early modern Europe as being “rooted in acceptance of a magical universe.”[17] Ultimately, for Sharpe, there is a need to understand how ideas and language operated in witchcraft cases in order to fully conceptualize the lived experiences and power dynamics of early modern Europe.[18]

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, in their fundamental work Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, employ a similar methodology to Thomas and Macfarlane. Developing a socioeconomic model for the witchcraft trials of Salem, Boyer and Nissenbaum utilize a variety of sources such as tax lists, church records, residential patterns, village elections, and sermons. Boyer and Nissenbaum describe the crisis as a result of mounting tensions between the increasingly commercialized market economy of Salem Town and the more traditional agrarian economy of Salem Village. [19] Similar to the MacFarlane-Thomas paradigm, Boyer and Nissenbaum underscore changing socioeconomic conditions to explain the Salem Witch Trials.

But, the “usual suspects” of past scholarly works do not fit the scenario of Salem that Boyer and Nissenbaum provide in their study. Unlike other instances of witchcraft accusations, which were typically aimed at poor, older women, the accused of Salem frequently crossed gender lines and often incorporated highly respectable members of the community. In their analysis, Boyer and Nissenbaum separate Salem into two factions: the pro-Parris faction (or those in favor of the Salem village minister) and the anti-Parris group. The former consisted of supporters of the trials while the latter consisted of trial critics and those who fell amongst the accused. [20] Hence, the accusations in Boyer and Nissenbaum’s depiction fall along factional lines within a community and not on a specific class of individuals.

John Demos also studies the witchcraft phenomenon of New England, but he believes that Salem does not give an accurate illustration of the region’s witch hunts. In Entertaining Satan, Demos argues that “Salem was unique in its quantitative dimensions – witch-hunting gone wild.”[21] Demos also maintains that there are clear connections between the witch hunts in England and New England, writing, “New England was at least as active as Old England in finding and prosecuting witches…the figures look most nearly equivalent when New England is matched with the country of Essex…Essex supplied a disproportionately large complement of settlers for the new colonies across the sea. The linkage is suggestive to say the least.” [22] Demos employs physiological theories in his analysis of the region’s witchcraft accusations. [23] To this end, he argues that the accusers projected their own internal fears onto the accused.[24] On this point, he explains: “Not they, but rather their neighbor- the ‘witch’-possessed the traits they so deeply despised.”[25]

While Carol Karlsen also looks at the witchcraft hunts of New England, she utilizes a gender analysis to understand the phenomenon. “The story of witchcraft,” Karlsen insists, “is primarily the story of women.”[26] As she explains, women were more likely to be accused in New England if they were “inheriting women.” Through a reconstruction the life histories of accused witches, Karlsen concludes that the accused women represent “demographic accidents”: the accused usually had no living brothers, or husbands, and were in the position to inherit property. But, as Karlsen further explicates, these women also lived in a patriarchal culture that resisted the notion of economically independent women. [27] Unlike Thomas and Macfarlane’s picture of English witch trials, in which ostracized, poor, elderly women were often accused, Karlsen describes New England’s trials as targeting economically successful women.

Elizabeth Reis also brings a gender analysis to bear on the witchcraft trials of New England. However, Reis focuses on the connections between the gender attitudes found in New England and Europe. Comparable to Diane Purkiss’s work on witchcraft cases in England, Reis contends the female body in early modern Europe was conceptualized as a “weaker vessel.” [28] Since a women’s body was weaker, they were more susceptible to accepting Christ and, conversely, the devil. Reis acknowledges that in puritan theology a woman’s place was elevated, however, she points out that “by defining a witch as a person whose (feminine) soul covenanted with Satan,” puritans inherently demonized women in comparison to men during the witchcraft trials.[29] In the end, she argues that “New Englanders focused on the darker side of womanhood, emphasizing the vulnerability of women’s bodies and souls to the devil, rather than their openness to regeneration.”[30] By drawing attention to the larger context of European attitudes towards women, Reis effectively demonstrates the effect that European beliefs had on New England’s witchcraft cases.

Mary Beth Norton also moves the discussion of witchcraft cases outward, yet she focuses on the greater colonial context for the Salem witch trials. In The Devil’s Snare, Norton looks at Essex County as a whole, arguing, “Although the crisis began in Salem Village and the trials took place in Salem Town, a plurality of the accused (more than forty) lived in Andover. Thus the term Salem witchcraft crisis is a misnomer; Essex County witchcraft crisis would be more accurate.”[31] By investigating connections to the frontier, Norton contends the witch trials of 1692 were a result of personal and cultural anxiety stemming from the horrific violence of the First and Second Indian Wars.[32] In contrast to Boyer and Nissenbaum, Norton moves the narrative of the Salem Witch Trials outward providing a colonial context for the events.

For Norton, the events in Essex County were not a unified expanding process, instead she argues that the events occurred in two major stages. During the first stage, she contends that the accusations occurred mostly in Salem Village and resembled earlier accusations of witchcraft. For instance, the accusations were few, local, and aimed mostly at older women.[33] However, this changed in April of 1692 with the confession of Abigail Hobbs, a refugee from the Maine frontier. On the significance of Hobbs’s confession, Norton writes: “Abigail Hobbs’s statement on April 19th set off a chain of events that within thirty-six hours explicitly linked the witches and the Wabanakis’s assaults against New England.” [34] According to Norton, the accusations of witchcraft exploded after Hobbs’s confession.[35] To support this point, Norton underscores the accusations against George Burroughs, a former reverend from Salem. After a controversial time living in Salem, Burroughs moved northeast to the frontier settlement of Falmouth, where Norton argues he must have known Abigail Hobbs and another accuser, Mercy Lewis. When the Salem magistrates prosecuted the former minister, the floodgates opened, as disgruntled and frightened settlers now had an outlet to unleash their frustration.

Due to Norton’s reliance on cultural anxieties, caused by the First and Second Indian Wars, the events of 1692 are portrayed as being significantly different from other witch hunts. Rather than painting political or socioeconomic changes as being the main causes of the witchcraft hysteria, Norton looks to the cultural clashes that permeated Essex country, New England. During the brutal First and Second Indian Wars, Norton contends, the boundaries between civilized versus uncivilized, Godly versus ungodly, became increasingly blurred. And, this crisis of identity produced the witchcraft accusations. In the end, by moving the narrative of Salem outward Norton illustrates an exceptional account of Salem “essentializing” its difference from other witch-hunts.

While Norton stresses the exceptional nature of Salem, Sarah Rivett advocates a more inclusive approach to the subject. For Rivett Salem is “scholarship’s last frontier of American exceptionalism.” [36] Salem, according to Rivett, is often portrayed as the threshold to a particular American identity and modernity. As she explains it, there is a “desire for Salem to be not us but defined in proximity to us.” Most of all, she asserts, Salem is cast as the framework for American witch hunts from colonial times to the era of McCarthyism. In this framework, American witch-hunts are illustrated as bouts of “violence-producing irrationality” in need of a healthy dose of modernization. [37] Thus, as Rivett argues, Salem is too frequently used to support the claim that America is especially placed on the pathway towards freedom, because of its unique history. Hence, American witch hunts have been tied down by modernization narratives that espouse a view of America as exceptionally forward.What would happen, Rivett questions, if the subject of Salem were moved away from this structured analysis? [38] Advocating for a move towards a transatlantic approach, Rivett contends a more “thematic, cultural, and epistemological” context could help reframe Salem. For an example of this new methodological framework, Rivett suggest placing Salem in the context of the Enlightenment in seventeenth century Europe. Specifically looking at the use of spectral evidence, Rivett suggests that this represents “a site for convergence for empiricism, natural philosophy, and Puritan theology.” At a time when discerning what was knowable and unknowable was especially consuming, distinctions were made between the invisible and the visible worlds. But, the prospect that the invisible world might be unknowable was daunting to some. For many, spectral evidence was a way to prove the invisible world was knowable. Yet, what was knowable and unknowable remained a controversial issue. As Rivett describes, “The years prior to the Salem witchcraft trials reveal an epistemological crisis in the works.” Similar to the James Sharpe’s analysis on England’s witch hunts, Rivett demonstrates the importance of understanding Salem within larger European belief systems and processes.

In the end, all these works provide valuable insights on the historical significance of witchcraft trials. The “witchcraft from below” approach demonstrates the importance of understanding the role of communities and social relationships in the production of witchcraft accusations. As these works attest, witch hunts were not simply the outcome of trickle-down processes. Additionally, the contributions from social historians are significant, as they illustrate the dynamic socioeconomic factors surrounding the witchcraft trials. Yet, a human element is missing from these socioeconomic analyses. While it is important to understand structural changes, humans should not be reduced to mere objects reacting within a system without subjectivity. In all, the lived experiences of those in the past are fundamental to understanding the vast array of human history. While analyses that stress internal factors, such as past mentalities, are also essential to conceptualizing past lived experiences, psychological interpretations tend to disguise past perspectives in the clothing of our contemporary sensibilities. Gender analyses are crucial as they exemplify the complexity of social relationships and the force of gendered ideas. Still, the early modern perception of the female body should not be disregarded from the narrative of witch hunts within New England. Finally, as all these works demonstrate, it is important to appreciate the immediate historical context of witchcraft trials, whether geographic, social, or cultural. Nevertheless, similarities stretching over time and space should not be discarded.

As noted before, historian James Sharpe argues that English witch hunts were “variations on themes” when compared to their European counterparts. In my view, the witchcraft trials of New England should also be reconsidered “variations on themes.” Exploring all frameworks helps us to exorcise the past. As recent scholarship is moving the English witch hunts closer to those of Europe, a similar treatment should be considered for the witchcraft trials of New England witchcraft trials, especially those of Salem. As Sarah Rivett points outs, the events of Salem did not happen in a vacuum isolated from greater transatlantic epistemological worlds. Moreover, examining similarities along with differences is crucial to conceptualizing the past. One should not be replaced for another. Most of all, it is essential to remember that the history of witchcraft trials, as with all historical subjects, is continuously being written and rewritten. Why? Because, in the end, our writings should not dictate the past, the past should dictate our writings.

[1] To my astonishment it appears Mary Beth Norton is also related to Susannah North Martin. I realized this after reading her article “Essex Country Witchcraft,” The William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2008): endnote 1.

[2] James Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England (New York: Longman, 2001), 1.

[3] Ibid., 4-7.

[4] Describing popular beliefs about witchcraft, Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote, “those elementary village credulities which anthropologists discover in all times and at all places.” See Hugh Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Harmondsworth, 1969), 9.

[5] Shapre, 8.

[6] Ibid., 370, 372. Emphasizing the importance of the community Kittredge writes, “The responsibility for any witch-prosecution rests primarily on the community or neighborhood as a whole, not on the judge or the jury.”

[7] Ibid., 359.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Ibid., 370-372.

[10] Ibid., 329. Describing Salem, Kittredge writes, “the Witchcraft Delusion of 1692 in its due proportions,- not as an abnormal outbreak of fanaticism, not as an isolated tragedy, but as a mere incident, a brief and transitory episode in the biography of a terrible, but perfectly natural, superstition.”

[11] Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971); Keith Thomas, Religion & the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971).

[12] Macfalane, 182. Emphasizing the importance of community and social relations to accounting for the growth and the decline of witchcraft he explains the goal “is to show that the social relationships which determine the way in which people react to misfortune changed.”

[13] Ibid., 147-154.

[14] Ibid., 535-539, 564-565. Concerning the relation between charity rejected and witchcraft accusations Thomas writes, “The conflict between resentment and a sense of obligation produced the ambivalence which made it possible for men to turn begging women brusquely from the door, and yet suffer torments of conscience after having done so. This ensuing guilt was fertile ground for witchcraft accusations; any subsequent misfortunes could be seen as retaliation on the part of the witch, and class hatred constituted a major stimulus for her prosecution,” 564.

[15] Sharpe, 12.

[16] Ibid., 13.

[17] Ibid., 94.

[18] Stuart Clark espouses a similar viewpoint. Attesting to new approaches Clark explains, “social scientific approaches of previous decades” was more concerned with “explaining witchcraft away.” The older approaches are increasingly replaced by recent scholarship, which looks at “witchcraft as a cultural phenomenon with a reality of its own.” Emphasizing the human experience, these new approaches aim at understanding “the lived experiences of those originally involved in witchcraft cases.” See Stuart Clark, Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 6.

[19] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Harvard University Press, 1974),181. Explaining the socioeconomic changes Boyer and Nissenbaum write, “For here was a community in which these tensions were exacerbated by a tangle of external circumstances: community so situated geographically that its inhabitants experienced two different economic systems, two different ways of life…”

[20] Ibid., 184-185.

[21] John Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 3.

[22] Ibid., 12.

[23] See Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.) Utilizing literary sources and Melanie Klein’s psychoanalyst theories, Willis argues witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions arose from fear of malevolent female magic.

[24] Demos, 208-210.

[25] Ibid., 210.

[26] Ibid., xii.

[27] Ibid., 115-116. Describing “inheriting women” Karlsen writes. “However varied their background and economic positions as women without brothers or women without sons, they stood in the way of an orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.”

[28]Diane Purkiss, “Women’s stories of witchcraft in early modern England: the house, the body, the child,” Gender and History, 7, (1995).

[29] Elizabeth Reis, “The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England,” in Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development, ed. Stanley N. Katz, John M. Murrin, Douglas Greenberg (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2001), 221.

[30] Ibid., 239.

[31] Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (Vintage Books: New York, 2003), 8.

[32] Ibid., 93-111.

[33] Ibid. 22-23, 46-47.

[34] Ibid. 81.

[35] Ibid. 78-81.

[36] Sarah Rivett, “Our Salem, Ourselves” William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2008).



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