• Email
  • Print

Witch Hunting

Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England

by John Putnam Demos
Oxford University Press, 543 pp., $25.00

So many able historians have worked over seventeenth-century New England that one would think there was little left to be learned from the people who lived there—fewer than 100,000 at the end of the century. Seldom, apart perhaps from the Greeks and Romans, have so few been studied by so many. In the past fifty years especially (almost as long as the Puritan experiment itself lasted), countless scholars have examined the New Englanders’ villages and towns, their families and churches, their private lives and public lives—and their ideas about everything that they had ideas about. Some of the best American historical writing of the present century has resulted. John Demos has now produced a book that will rank with the best, a book that shows us how much we still may learn from these people.

History, at its best, always tells us as much indirectly about ourselves as it does directly about our predecessors; and it is often most revealing when it deals with episodes and phenomena that we find repulsive. Demos’s subject is witchcraft, not the infamous Salem trials of 1692, but the general prevalence of witches throughout New England before that date. This is not simply a monograph on witchcraft but a major attempt to understand the kind of society and the kind of culture in which witchcraft had a place. To that end Demos employs nearly every conceptual tool available to the historian, including those borrowed from psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Not everyone will find every part of his analysis persuasive, but the book is so rich in insights, so restrained in differentiating speculation from fact, and so broad in range that it would require a firmly closed mind not be instructed by it.

New England was by no means unique in its attention to witchcraft. The number of alleged witches executed there was probably a good deal smaller in proportion to total population than in Switzerland, France, Germany, and Scotland during any comparable period during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (the span of the great European witch hunts). Demos counts 16 executions in New England and 93 indictments, excluding the 20 executions and 141 indictments in the Salem episode. What is important for him is not the number of cases tried in court but the role played by witchcraft in New England life.

Demos gives us, to begin with, a profile of the persons accused of witchcraft. They were predominantly, though not exclusively, women; but contrary to the modern stereotype they were not old hags, living out lonely and bitter lives on the outskirts of society. They were mainly women in middle age, mainly married (though often childless) and actively engaged in their local communities. Many were knowledgeable about medicines and cures, some were midwives. They had a higher than normal record as litigants in court and as defendants in minor criminal cases. They were for the most part socially mobile, more often down than up, and were generally at a low position socially when accused. And finally most of them had a reputation for abrasiveness and quarrelsomeness. Their victims fell into three main categories: young adult men, adolescent girls, and middle-aged women like themselves.

Victims there always were. One did not acquire a reputation as a witch in seventeenth-century New England simply by affecting intimacy with the devil. There had to be harm done to people in the reputed witch’s vicinity, either in their persons or in their possessions, harm that the victims were unwilling to attribute to natural causes: cattle that inexplicably sickened or died, children inexplicably convulsed by fits, cream that inexplicably would not churn. In the seventeenth century, as in every other century before our own, there was an abundance of such events. To blame them on witchcraft was a way of making sense out of them, a way of making the world intelligible. But there was more to it than that. Why were some people rather than others singled out as witches? What was the relationship between witch and victim? Where did witchcraft fit in the way a community functioned?

Demos attempts to answer these questions by close examination of individual cases, reconstructing through testimony in court and through genealogical and local records the structure of families and towns and the life histories of alleged witches and victims. A historian has to approach the people of another time on their own terms, to understand them as they understood themselves, but having done so he may strive to make them intelligible in the terms of his own time. In these case histories Demos has couched his analysis in the terms of today, especially in trying to expose the psychological pressures that afflicted those who thought themselves to be victims of witches. Here his addiction to Freudian psychology results in what seem to the reviewer to be some pretty far-fetched speculations.

Witchcraft victims, Demos suggests (at the length of fifty pages), were carrying out a regression into infantile attitudes and projecting on to witches a “pre-Oedipal” rage against their mothers, a rage that had been engendered in them between the ages of one and three. The evidence for such a diagnosis, even if one accepts its terms, is tenuous, though not much more so than the evidence supporting the recent attribution of the Salem outbreak to ergot poisoning from diseased rye. (Demos’s diagnosis does have the virtue of explaining why most accused witches were women.) Perhaps more plausible is his additional suggestion that the third category of victims, middle-aged women, may have been suffering (along with some of their alleged tormentors) from the trauma associated with menopause, a trauma that may have been unusually strong among New England women. Because they generally continued to bear children until they were unable to, they may have felt the more sharply the loss of what they had regarded as their principal function. In their distress some of them may have been ready to blame any kind of trouble on witchcraft.

But psychological explanations of witchcraft or of any other historical phenomena are conjectural, at best. We are on firmer ground in Demos’s reconstruction of communities and his analysis of the tensions within them. Attributions of witchcraft and an eagerness for witch hunts were usually generated within a community from the bottom up, not from the top down, not only in New England but elsewhere. Even in sixteenth-century Spain the officials of the Inquisition often dragged their feet in witchcraft prosecutions, while local communities thirsted for blood. And in New England the colony magistrates can be found reprieving witches who had been unanimously condemned by local juries. Witchcraft ceased to be a crime under English law after 1736, but popular lynchings and attacks on supposed witches continued into the nineteenth century in both England and America.

It would be impossible here to reproduce in detail any of Demos’s painstaking reconstruction of the local situations in which popular accusations of witchcraft erupted, but what emerges from them is the complexity of all human relations in a pre-industrial town or village. “Imagine,” he asks us:

The brickmaker who rebuilds your chimney is also the constable who brings you a summons to court, an occupant of the next bench in the meetinghouse, the owner of a share adjacent to one of yours in the “upland” meadow, a rival for water-rights to the stream that flows behind that meadow, a fellow-member of the local “train band” (i.e. militia), an occasional companion at the local “ordinary,” a creditor (from services performed for you the previous summer but not as yet paid for), a potential customer for wool from the sheep you have begun to raise, the father of a child who is currently a bond-servant in your house, a colleague on a town committee to repair and improve the public roadways…. And so on. Do the two of you enjoy your shared experiences? Not necessarily. Do you know each other well? Most certainly.

In these circumstances any conflict was full of implications that affected the whole community, and interpersonal conflicts were the breeding ground for witchcraft and accusations of witchcraft. Hostility and suspicion might build up over the years against an assertive, aggressive woman, who demanded favors of her neighbors and acted aggrieved when she was refused. Her neighbors might resent her demands and yet feel some guilt in denying them. At the same time they would be continually rubbing elbows with her in the rounds of daily life. “The relationships of witches and accuser/victims,” Demos argues, “were not defined by, or limited to, any single strand of experience. On the contrary, such relationships were typically complex, many-sided, and altogether dense.” Returning to psychology, he suggests that a “psychic bond” may have developed between supposed witch and supposed victim, in which each took out aggressions on the other, so that there was a kind of “veiled complicity” between them.

For the community itself, united to both witch and victim in a multitude of relationships, witchcraft served as a way of personifying evil, and thus a way to sharpen moral boundaries. A witch was sin incarnate. When hostility to her exploded in accusation, trial, and execution, the community defined itself and affirmed its righteousness by thrusting the witch out of it. And in normal times, Demos argues, the threat of such an ejection may have served as a restraint against deviant behavior by people who might otherwise have defied community mores. Witchcraft was not an extraneous element in ordinary community life but a persistent, if not essential, ingredient in the human relationships that tied New England communities together, If the thrusting out of a witch developed into a witch hunt, as it did at Salem and at countless places in Germany and France, the community might be torn apart instead of defined. But as long as the fury was contained and directed against a single person, a witch trial offered a kind of catharsis that left the community stronger.

In arriving at this point, Demos mentions almost for the first time the high culture that has drawn intellectual historians to seventeenth-century New England. In his many-faceted analysis of the functions of witchcraft and witch trials, theology has had no place, for, he writes, “Popular attitudes toward witchcraft and the views of ministers were not of a piece.” He only grudgingly allows “a wide influence to clerical opinion” in creating the religious atmosphere in which popular attitudes flourished.

In thus dismissing theology Demos could have cited the master of New England intellectual historians. Perry Miller devoted a chapter to the Salem episode, but he prefaced it by acknowledging that his whole analysis of The New England Mind would suffer little by total omission of the subject. Nevertheless, if Demos has achieved anything—as he certainly has—he has demonstrated the significance of witchcraft in the minds of New Englanders. It may well be that there was a considerable gap between the complex and sophisticated system of ideas that Miller called the New England mind and the complex web of relationships and attitudes that Demos has uncovered in the ordinary minds of ordinary New Englanders. But it is doubtful in the light of what Demos has shown us that one can be understood without the other, and it borders on the doctrinaire for him to attempt to do so.

It would almost seem that Freudian psychology for Demos has usurped the place that theology held for the Puritans and that in trying to explain seventeenth-century New Englanders in terms that will make sense to the twentieth century he has in some measure neglected their own understanding of themselves and of the supposed witches among them. It is unlikely that any of them would have been content with an explanation that gave as little attention as Demos does to the role of religious beliefs and ideas in shaping their attitudes and behavior.

Whatever else they may have been, they were an unusually devout people, and they supported a learned ministry whose job it was to help them cope with their belief that Satan would entertain most of them in the world to come. What must I do to be saved, saved from sin, saved from evil, was the question they asked themselves and to which they expected answers from their ministries. Although witchcraft did not play a conspicuous part in those answers, it is hard to believe that a people so concerned, when obliged to grapple with witchcraft, could have conceived of what they were doing outside the terms of the theology that explained for them the behavior of imperfect human beings in a world created by a perfect God.

Freudian psychology and Puritan theology offer strangely parallel and mutually exclusive theories of human behavior. Both deal with human beings as products of forces that are given and unchangeable, locked in human biology by original sin on the one hand and by the Oedipus complex on the other. And both explain the development of the self over time in a series of stages that may eventuate in a kind of salvation. The propositions of Freudian psychology, resting on the inarticulate experiences of infancy and childhood, are no more (and perhaps no less) empirically demonstrable than the theological propositions of John Calvin and are equally filled with seeming contradictions that have to be reconciled by high priests in a rarefied ratiocination requiring a special and arcane vocabulary.

What Calvin’s propositions have going for them in the present context is that seventeenth-century New Englanders knew the vocabulary and got lessons in the propositions every Sunday. They may have needed witchcraft to personify evil for them, and it may have served that purpose just as Demos argues, but we can misread their understanding of themselves if we leave it at that. Demos tells us that they “seem to have felt persistently vulnerable in their core sense of self. Tremors of uncertainty plagued their struggles to grow and endure as free-standing individuals….” Indeed. That was the lesson they got every Sunday: that tremors were called for, that evil was not confined to witches, that evil lay within all men and all women, that free-standing individuals were headed for hell. Their kind of salvation was not the kind that their descendants hope for on the analyst’s couch.

It is possible that modern psychology, anthropology, and sociology can enable us to understand the early New Englanders better than they understood themselves. Certainly Demos enables us to understand them better than we have before. But it is also possible, just possible, that they understood their own and all men’s vulnerability “in the core sense of self” somewhat better than we do. They may yet have something to teach us about that.

  • Email
  • Print