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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.