The Witchcraft Trials

Where Historians Disagree – The Witchcraft Trials

The witchcraft trials of the 1690s—which began in Salem, Massachusetts, and spread to other areas of New England—have been the stuff of popular legend for centuries. They have also engaged the interest of generations of historians, who have tried to explain why these seventeenth century Americans became so committed to the belief that some of their own neighbors were agents of Satan. Although there have been many explanations of the witchcraft phenomenon, some of the most important in recent decades have focused on the central place of women in the story.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, most historians dismissed the witchcraft trials as "hysteria," prompted by the intolerance and rigidity of Puritan society. This interpretation informed perhaps the most prominent popular portrayal of witchcraft in the twentieth century: Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, first produced in 1953, which was clearly an effort to use the Salem trials as a comment on the great anticommunist frenzy of his own time. But at almost the same time, the renowned scholar of Puritanism Perry Miller argued in a series of important studies that belief in witchcraft was not a product of hysteria or intolerance, but a widely shared part of the religious worldview of the seventeenth century. To the Puritans, witchcraft seemed not only plausible, but scientifically rational as well.

A new wave of interpretation of witchcraft began in the 1970s, with the publication of Salem Possessed (1976), by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. Their examination of the town records of Salem in the 1690s led them to conclude that the witchcraft controversy there was a product of class tensions between the poorer, more marginal residents of one part of Salem and the wealthier, more privileged residents of another. These social tensions, which could not find easy expression on their own terms, led some poorer Salemites to lash out at their richer neighbors by charging them, or their servants, with witchcraft. A few years later, John Demos, in Entertaining Satan (1983), examined witchcraft accusations in a larger area of New England and similarly portrayed them as products of displaced anger about social and economic grievances that could not be expressed otherwise. Demos provided a far more complex picture of the nature of these grievances than had Boyer and Nissenbaum but like them saw witchcraft as a symptom of a persistent set of social and pyschological tensions.

At about the same time, however, a number of scholars were beginning to look at witchcraft through the then relatively new scholarly lens of gender. Carol Karlsen's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1987) demonstrated through intensive scrutiny of records across New England that a disproportionate number of those accused of witchcraft were property-owning widows or unmarried women—in other words, women who did not fit comfortably into the normal pattern of male-dominated families. Karlsen concluded that such women were vulnerable to these accusations because they seemed threatening to people (including many women) who were accustomed to women as subordinate members of the community.

More recently, Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare (2002) placed the withchcraft trials in the context of other events of their time—and in particular the terrifying upheavals and dislocations that the Indian wars of the late seventeenth century created in Puritan communities. In the face of this crisis, in which refugees from King William's War were fleeing towns destroyed by the Indians and flooding Salem and other eastern towns, fear and social instability helped create a more-than-normal readiness to connect aberrant behavior (such as the actions of unusually independent or eccentric women) to supernatural causes. The result was a wave of witchcraft accusations that ultimately led to the execution of at least twenty people. - Famous Trials - The Salem Witchcraft Trials


This link is part of the University of Missouri, Kansas City's Famous Trials site. Examine the site, including the narrative and some of the primary sources. Does this site's examination of the trials consider the types of arguments presented in the text? For example, does it address the role of gender? If so, how? If not, why not? Does it address the issue of context and other events of the time, as Mary Beth Norton's book is described in the text? If so, how? If not, why not?


Examine the three sites above. The first is a National Geographic site, the second is a site maintained by the city of Salem, Massachusetts, and the third is a University of Virginia site. How do the presentations of the hysteria and trials differ on each site? Do any of the sites include information about the changing historical interpretation of Salem?