29 August 2010


Diane E. Foulds. Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt. Globe Pequot Press, 2010.
This book by a descendent of one of the accused in the Salem witchcraft trials, differs from the numerous other books on the outbreak in that it concentrates of the personalities involved. These are presented in a series of short biographies, arranged alphabetically, in separate sequences for accusers, victims, clergy, judges, political and social elite.
In the absence of dramatic new primary sources material, such as re-found court records or lost diaries, I am not sure whether this adds much to our existing knowledge of the outbreak, and the alphabetical as opposed to chronological listing of the accusers and their victims obscures more than it illuminates.

However this concentration on the individuals involved does draw out the role of the strained times, the frontier wars in which both sides resorted to ethnic cleansing, the sense of ever present danger and general insecurity, the general fragility of the colonial society (how many of the older figures were married time and again as early death claimed one partner after another), and the strains of living under what can best be described as a decaying totalitarian theocracy superimposed on a classic small scale society, with its own tensions.

Salem and its European counterparts offer a stark challenge to some of the contemporary idealisations of wild nature and traditional small scale societies. For these settlers nature was not some warm huggy green paradise, but a howling wilderness, pregnant with war, death and disease, and the ideal village community is seething with quarrels, resentments and jealousies.

To compare this pre-modern world with existing 'third world' really fails to grasp how different it was. Today, even in the most poverty stricken or war torn realms, there are oases of modernity, and an outside world capable of providing some kind of assistance. In the 17th century everyone is in it together, there are no modern doctors, hospitals, transport, or communications anywhere.

Above all this was a society in which everything that happened was attributed at least indirectly to personal agencies. When the bad wolf days came and misfortune struck you, someone was always to blame. Either you were to blame and God was punishing you for your numerous sins, or your neighbour was to blame because he or she was a witch in alliance with the literal Arch-enemy, the Great Satan himself.
This was a society in which the existence of witches was regarded as certain a fact, as the existence of paedophiles, drug dealers and terrorists is to us. Just as today disaffected members of society, the poor and the marginal, can be tempted to become drug dealers or members of radical groups to gain a measure of wealth and/or respect, in those days such people were almost certainly open to the temptation to fantasise about being a witch and to carry out the actions their society told them witches carried out. And the general society genuinely feared witches in the same way we fear our secular demon figures.

1 comment:

The Afflicted Girls said...

Also read:
THE AFFLICTED GIRLS A Novel of Salem by Suzy Witten (ISBN: 978-0-615-32313-8)
Winner of 2010 IPPY SILVER MEDAL for Historical Fiction

"Something terrible happened in Salem in 1692 . . . but it isn't what you think!"

THE AFFLICTED GIRLS by author-researcher Suzy Witten presents a startling new theory of the Salem Village witch-hunts which is certain to put this 300-year-old unsettled mystery to rest by expertly guiding readers through The Historical Record to revelation. Centering her story on Salem Village and its inhabitants, exploring their dark household corners as if she is solving a crime, the author adeptly details how the disintegration occurred while spinning familiar facts in new directions, with the mysterious "afflictions" finally explained. A controversial debut by a new Historical storyteller. (For ages 17 and older)