Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Search of History : Salem Witch Trials


Today's post provides Part One of a three-part offering of the Manuscript for The History Channel's special on The Salem Witch Trials.

Manuscript by Em Graves

In 1692 mass hysteria and rampant paranoia swept the New England countryside.  Citizens in the small village of Salem were being accused of casting spells, of consorting with the devil, of being witches.  This persecution was a relatively new phenomenon in America, but across France, Italy, Germany and England massive witch hunts had been going on for 300 years.

From the 14th to the 16th centuries an estimate forty to fifty thousand people were executed.  The religious impetus for this human devastation came from the holy scriptures. 

DAVID GOSS      [former] Executive Director, Beverly Historical Society

“What is written in the bible is the word of God.  It is viable.  It is   infallible.  And we have to live by it on a daily basis.  And when you read, in the Book of Exodus Chapter 22 Verse 18: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.  There it is.”

Despite the biblical condemnation, early Christians were relatively tolerant of Paganism and witchcraft.  But as the Roman Catholic Church began to consolidate its power, heretics were looked on as enemies.  By 1231 Pope Gregory IX instituted the Inquisition in order to expose and punish heresy.  From this point on attitudes toward witchcraft took a decidedly violent turn.

 In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII declared witchcraft a heresy.  The punishment was death.  Witch hunts were often conducted by superstitious villagers.  As animosities and tensions rose amongst them, the villagers used the witch hunt as a convenient and powerful tool to get rid of their imagined or real enemies.  And the authorities did very little to stop them. 

RONALD HUTTON            Professor of History, University of Bristol

“Let’s make a play on what a witch hunt actually means.  It doesn’t mean that people with hoods go around knocking on doors and asking if any witch is there.  It means that unusually the authority is actually encouraged local people to be afraid of each other and to denounce each other as witches.   It’s both a purging of the local community by itself and a hysteria whipped up by people who ought to have known better -- people in charge.”

Once a person was accused of being a witch, it was still necessary to provide concrete evidence before prosecution.  But how do you prove that a spell or curse has been cast?  What the authorities needed were other, more tangible signs, of witchcraft. 

In 1486 a guidebook on finding witches called MALLEUS MALEFICARUM, or The Hammer of the Witches, was published.  It provided a definition of witchcraft as well as rules on how to investigate, try and judge cases.  The book stated that one sure sign of a witch was the Devil’s Mark or Witch’s Teats.  Looking for the Devil’s Mark became a very popular pastime and may have served more prurient interests than the health and welfare of the community.  It involved a careful inspection of the suspected witch’s body, which could only be accomplished after shaving all of his or her hair, including the genital area.

RONALD HUTTON            Professor of History, University of Bristol

“It’s an old folk tradition based on the idea that the Devil, making a pact with the witch, leaves a special mark which is in turn based on an even older tradition that witches have teats through which they suckle their familiar spirits -- the animal spirits that serve them.  The idea is that if you can find these marks, these teats, you can prove that this person’s a witch.”

DAVID GOSS      [former] Executive Director, Beverly Historical Society 

“They would then test that mark by piercing it with a needle or pin.  If pain was felt or if blood was drawn from the mark, there was no evidence there to indicate that this person was a witch.  On the other hand, if after probing with a needle or pin, they find there is no pain and there is no blood, it is not normal.  It is not natural.  It is unnatural.  Then there is evidence, in their view, that this might in fact be a witch’s mark.”

Another popular method in the Middle Ages was called “Swimming a Witch”.  The theory was that water, being pure, would reject all evil.  The belief was that a witch would float and an innocent person would sink.  The test always provided a victim.  The Malias Maleficarum also encourage torture as a way to illicit a confession from a suspected witch.  

RONALD HUTTON            Professor of History, University of Bristol

“The best way of obtaining a confession is to apply force.  That’s in purely brutal, practical terms.  The most effective actual method used was known as ‘the stripadum’ and was just like having your arm twisted around your back, as in the school playground, except that it goes on for hours.  Now the reason why this was used is that it was excruciatingly painful.  It was horrible.“

Torturing suspected witches was justified in the eyes of the law.  English Magistrates considered the practice of witchcraft a crime against the Church and the State.

DAVID GOSS      [former] Executive Director, Beverly Historical Society 

“From the days of Henry the VIII and onward, the King is the head of the Church.  So your political leader is also the head of the Church of England.  And for this reason, when you turn your back upon God and upon the Church, you are also very much so turning your back upon your King.”

 Witchcraft was therefore considered an act of treason and a capital offense. Witch hunts continued unabated through the 17th century.  Neighbors accused neighbors.  Thousands of innocent lives were lost. 

In 1629 King Charles I of England granted a religious splinter group called the Puritans -- a charter to settle and govern an English colony in the Massachusetts Bay.  Their desire?  To create a new, perfect society based on the principles of the Bible; a theocracy with no separation of Church and State.

CAROL KARLSEN               Visiting Professor, Harvard Divinity School & Professor Emerita, University of Michigan

“Their goal was a kind of model community -- what they called “a city on a hill” -- that would be a kind of light to people all over the world.  We still have that notion of the U.S. with us today but it was very intense in those early years.”

Not everyone who crossed over was a Puritan. 

JANE KAMENSKY             Professor of History, Brandeis University

“Others leave because they have no land, because they have no jobs; because their lives in England are so difficult that going to the edge of an unknown world and building a society out of nothing sounds better.  One of the things that eventually produces a natural kind of tension in many New England communities, as indeed in many Colonial communities, is you have people there for many different reasons."  

***Look for the upcoming Part 2 Manuscript for The Search for History: Salem Witch Trials on this blog in April 2012! 

1 comment:

  1. Where can I found the next part??? It is very neccesary now!!!!!!!