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Mary Beth Norton - In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 
14th-Aug-2006 05:05 pm
Once again cross-posting a single book from my regular Tuesday Book Reviews.

In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton

Mention 'Salem' nowadays, and the first thing that tends to come to mind is 'witchcraft'. In the early months of 1692 (which was actually the later months of 1691, by the old Julian calendar), a small group of girls and young women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement at Salem Village fell ill with a number of strange ailments. When the local physician was called in to look at them, he speculated that the illnesses were not natural and might have been caused by bewitchment...a diagnosis that was later to prove fatal for the 14 women and 5 men who would be hanged for maleficium, the practice of diabolic magic intended to bring harm to others. Several other accused witches died in prison without ever coming to trial, dozens of men and women (and even children as young as four or five) were arrested or fled the colony to avoid arrest, and still more bowed to outside pressure and confessed to being witches, implicating neighbours and family members in the process. Not even the wealthy and powerful of the colony were completely immune to being 'cried out on' as witches, a most unusual circumstance in the days when the general idea of a possible witch was a poor to middling older woman who had neither the friends nor the financial wherewithal to preserve her good name. The Salem outbreak was the largest of its kind in New England, and the records kept on the accusations and trials have been relatively well-preserved, making the study of the Salem witchcraft cases both popular and constantly open to new, revisionist perspectives -- most of which attempt to make sense of why a few random accusations spread into a full-on outbreak.

Mary Beth Norton's book is certainly revisionist, in the sense that she approaches the trials from a slightly different angle than previous works. Most books about the trials tend to focus on social aspects of the accusers, the accused and the accusations; why certain people were accused and others not, why certain people confessed or refused to confess, why the most powerful people in the colony were so willing to believe that Satan could be thoroughly bent on the destruction of the Massachusetts colony. Norton's premise is less centred on social history than it is on politicial and military history. She argues that the Salem witch-trials cannot be studied without extensive reference to the ongoing wars between the settlers and the Indian population of New England, particularly the Wabanaki tribe of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In her closely-argued book, she draws connections between the Indian wars and the effect the wars had on many of the key players in the trials. The connections might be a little hard to follow (or credit) at first, but as Norton lays out and piles up the evidence, her conclusions seem very reasonable. What's more, they take social history to a new level by showing how closely-knit the communities of settlers were, and how children are so easily manipulated to settle the long-standing grudges between their elders.

One important caveat that I should mention, first and foremost. To get the most out of Norton's research, it helps to have at least a passing familiarity with some of the primary participants in the Salem witch trials. Anyone who has read or seen Arthur Miller's The Crucible will know of condemned witches John and Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey, as well as the awful death of Martha's husband Giles Corey who refused to consent to a trial and was pressed to death with heavy weights in accordance with current English law. The names of Abigail Williams, Ann Puttnam and Mercy Lewis -- three of the 'afflicted girls' -- also appear frequently in the text, for they and their relatives were instrumental in the spread of accusations. There are several good general books on the trials that would work as an introduction, and reading one of those before looking at Norton's work is likely to make Norton's analysis and conclusions a good deal easier to follow. (I consider myself fairly well-acquainted with the standard literature on the trials, and I still had to stop and go back in a few places to ensure that I hadn't missed something crucial in Norton's dense narrative.)

That said, I found Norton's book to be a superb addition to the existing literature, exploring a side of the trials that has only been vaguely spoken of in the past. Granted, there are times when some of her arguments seem a little too tenuous, and she has a habit of making conjectures which she feels are warranted but which I feel make for awkward reading. But I'd recommend In the Devil's Snare as one of the must-read books about the Salem outbreak, if nothing else for the extensive footnotes and solid historiography that underpins the text.
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