Salem Possessed:
The Social Origins of Witchcraft

Reviewed by Kate Murphy

Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's Salem Possessed explores the pre-existing social and economic divisions within the Salem Village community, as an entry point to understand the accusations of witchcraft in 1692. According to Boyer and Nissenbaum, the village split into two factions: one interested in gaining more autonomy for Salem Village and led by the Putnam family, and the other, interested in the mercantile and political life of Salem Town and led by the Porter family. Boyer and Nissenbaum's deft and imaginative look at local records reveals the contours of communal life in colonial New England and provides a model through which to understand the witchcraft accusations as part of a larger pattern of communal strife. Such a tight focus on communal and social causes for the events of 1692, however, loses sight of the religious, gendered, and individual forces that played equally pivotal roles in the outbreak.

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft redefined the standard for the possibilities social history offers to understand the events and people of early America. Through a painstaking and creative look at local records such as legal records, the Salem Village record book, the minister's book, and tax records Boyer and Nissenbaum discovered a long-standing pattern of contentious behavior of which the witchcraft accusations in 1692 was just one episode. Their analysis provides an invaluable insight into the social history of New England generally, and the factions of Salem Village that led to the tragic events of 1692, in particular.

Boyer and Nissenbaum's explanation for the outbreak of witchcraft accusations in Salem hinges on an understanding of the economic, political and personal issues which divided village long before 1692. At bottom, geography and history divided Salem Village and Salem Town. Situated in the interior from the bustling mercantile town of Salem, Salem Village remained primarily an agricultural community. Boyer and Nissenbaum argue that this polarization of interests between the town and the village created a similar divide within the village itself. One faction, led by the Putnam family, most identified itself with the traditional agricultural activities of the village and consequently supported the village minister, Samuel Parris, and the drive for greater autonomy from Salem Town. The opposing faction, led by the Porter family, identified itself with the mercantile town, near which most of the Porter faction lived. In opposition to the Putnam faction, the Porters opposed the minister and wanted greater association with the town of Salem. The bitter and contentious disputes between the two factions within Salem Village both before and after the witchcraft outbreak, demonstrate a pattern of communal conflict which transcended the events of 1692.

These same fault-lines, according to Boyer and Nissenbaum, explain the pattern of witchcraft accusations. The same villagers who stood with the Putnams to support Parris and petition for an independent church for the village, show up as complaints on witchcraft indictments in 1692. Similarly, many of the accused witches in Salem belonged to the Porter faction or, according to Boyer and Nissenbaum, represented the projection of the grievances caused by such factionalism upon more obtainable targets like Rebecca Nurse and Martha Cory. Through such a reconstruction of the factional village of Salem, Boyer and Nissenbaum explain the Salem witchcraft episode from within the larger history of the transformation to a modern capitalist society, and the divisions and conflicts that naturally arose from this change.

Boyer and Nissenbaum's intensive focus on the dynamics of Salem Village blind them to other dynamics contributing to the witchcraft outbreak. Although the outbreak originated in Salem Village, the majority of the accused hailed from surrounding villages such as Andover, removed from the Putnam/Porter disputes and known for its harmonious community life. As Bernard Rosenthal points out, "the study stops short of inquiring into why the outbreak spread throughout Massachusetts Bay and caught in its net people having nothing to do with the quarrels of that particular village." The dynamics of village dispute can help to explain the origin of the outbreak, but cannot explain why this outbreak became an epidemic.

Boyer and Nissenbaum's almost exclusive focus on the socio-economic dimensions to the witchcraft episode obscures the importance of individuals and of Puritan religious beliefs. In his review of Salem Possessed, T.H. Breen argues that Boyer and Nissenbaum "assume a direct causal relationship between socio-economic conditions and individual behavior. Indeed, the authors manage to trace almost all personal motivation back to the pocketbook." While their deft reconstruction of Salem Village's factious society and the economic changes which contributed to such divides is quite convincing, the intellectual jump they make to connect these pre-existing divisions with the personal motivations of accusers is largely speculative and circumstantial. Boyer and Nissenbaum's analysis of communal conflict also omits the religious ideas behind the trials - the very ideas which the people of Salem would have believed to be most important. Writing forty-five years before Boyer and Nissenbaum, Perry Miller believed that "I do not need to demonstrate that belief in witchcraft was, for the seventeenth century, not only plausible but scientifically rational," because in 1939 Miller believed that the subject was well rehearsed. After the publication of Salem Possessed, however, we could use such a rehearsal. Miller's work demonstrated the logic of a Puritan theology which numbered witches and demonical presences as among the punishments God could inflict upon his inattentive people. Taking the theological and cosmological logic of the Puritans into account allows the Salem outbreak to be understood in its own terms, rather than simply in terms of economic rationalization and communal strife.

Any complete understanding of the Salem witchcraft accusations most also attempt to explain why the vast majority of accused witches were women. Carol Karlsen included Salem Possessed in her critique of histories of Salem which, "note that witches were usually women, most works pass over the fact quickly or conclude that witches were scapegoats for hostilities and tensions that had little to do with sex or gender." Although the directions the accusations took undoubtedly reflected pre-existing tensions within the community, Karlsen argues that the accusations also reflected societal ideas about women and the ways men reconciled changes in gender roles.

Although the intensity of Boyer and Nissenbaum's focus on Salem Village obscured forces foundational to a complete understanding of the events of 1692, through Salem Possessed, in the words of one reviewer, "new stage in our understanding of the dynamics of the processes of community development and social conflicts has been reached." Boyer and Nissenbaum help us to understand not only the ways in which the outbreak of accusations in Salem was part of a larger pattern of communal conflict, but also serve to warn us that the divisive powers such conflicts have the potential to instigate modern witch hunts.

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