Beat the Devil

The three hundredth anniversary of the Salem witch trials of 1692 comes at a time when witchcraft commands a scholarly attention that would have been puzzling in 1892 or even in 1792. In 1792 witchcraft was still widely practiced and feared, but it no longer held the attention of the educated elite in either Europe or America. The men who drafted the United States Constitution in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 took no notice of a mob that carted and killed a witch in the streets outside their windows. The event was reported in a single paragraph of all the Philadelphia newspapers, but none of the Founding Fathers thought it worth mentioning in any surviving diary or correspondence. It was the kind of thing to be expected among the benighted classes who had not yet benefited from the educational opportunities that the new republic would surely bring.

By 1892 enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England. They were a part of the past that was best forgotten, a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries, embarrassing because there had been so far to come, embarrassing because they made it difficult to attribute liberal virtues to revered ancestors, but scarcely a subject worthy of study by any but antiquarians.

In the course of the twentieth century we have learned to look, if not with approval, at least with more sympathetic understanding on witchcraft. Science, which in 1892 seemed on the verge of making everything in the world intelligible, has now made the universe more mysterious and precarious. Its practitioners speak a language of quarks, neutrons, and anti-matter no more comprehensible to most of us than the spells of a necromancer three centuries ago. In reaction a new obscurantism has spread, often presented with a scientific veneer. Occult forces like those underlying witchcraft are discovered in rock crystals and plastic pyramids. Athletes chart their biorhythms, and a president of the United States consults his astrologer. Women purporting to be witches meet in conclave and protest like any other minority against discrimination; commemoration of the Salem trials is said to perpetuate a destructive stereotype.

Historians meanwhile have elevated popular culture to an equal rank with high culture, and witchcraft is a point of intersection that has yielded insights into both. Richard Godbeer’s new book has to be read as the latest in a long succession of studies that recreate for us a world in which sorcery was still on speaking terms with science, and religion was struggling to distinguish itself from superstition. Through them all stalks the eldritch figure of the witch, the instrument of unseen forces, sorceress and acolyte, predator and victim. The most illuminating of these studies in recent years, the starting point (at least in England and America) for most subsequent work, including Godbeer’s, is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). From a multitude …

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Letters

Convicting Witches August 13, 1992