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11 décembre 2012

Salem, a conditioning society

Classé dans : text — witchcraftpopularbeliefsjusticeandsociety @ 3 h 57 min

Salem was created to be a perfect puritan society, « a light on the world ». Nothing could hint that about 60 years after the foundation of the colony a group of young girls would set the seed of a disorder which revealed social tensions, fears and a blinded faith in a strict religion. The religious conditioning of the puritan society may have favoured excentric reactions especially of the children whose consciousness of god, of sins or of the devil were overfed: in the book of Liliane Crété, Les sorcières de Salem, it is reported that a seven year-old girl named Ann Bradstreet « began to « take cousciousness » of the lord’s ways and not sin ». Another example: Elizabeth Butcher, two and a half year-old girl, had been heard asking the following question: « What is my corrupted nature? »

The political instability during the period of the trials led to a miscarriage of justice which now could be considered parodical, even criminal : allowing  « the spectral evidence » as sufficient evidence to judge a suspect was completly irrational and also absolutely catastrophic.


Classé dans : text — witchcraftpopularbeliefsjusticeandsociety @ 2 h 50 min

History Channel: Salem Witch Trials

Ergotism is a medical explanation of the girls symptoms before and during the Salem trials:

« This medical explanation for the theory of “bewitchment” is one first propounded by LinndaR. Caporael in 1976 in an article in Science. In her article, Caporael argues that the convulsive symptoms, such as crawling sensations in the skin, tingling in the fingers, vertigo, tinnitus aurium, headaches, disturbances in sensation, hallucination, painful musuclar contractions, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as psychological symptoms, such as mania, melancholia, psychosis and delirium, were all symptoms reported in the Salem witchcraft records. »


A document study

Classé dans : text — witchcraftpopularbeliefsjusticeandsociety @ 2 h 20 min

 Salem Witch Trials

                        In search of history


This video document deals with the Salem Trials. I will use it as a support to make a summary of the events and to shed the light on the causes of the affair which are evoked by the experts.

At first the documentary exposes witchcraft in the context of the Middle Ages in Europe. The christian church was powerful as it was a religion of state like in England, France, Germany or Italy. Since Innoncent the 8th, the Church considered witchcraft as a heresy which meant a crime. Christians refered to these words of  the Bible “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). During the late Middle Ages the weakening of christianity led to an incquisition administrated by the Church  against heresies and therefore against witchcraft.

Another book is mentioned: The Malleus Malifecarum which is a treatise on the prosecution of witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German catholic clergyman. According to this book, they’re various ways to prove someone to be a wizard.


-         a mark of the devil (teet on a body)

-         to put somebody in the water (“swimming a witch”)

In the Middle ages torture was also encouraged to fight against witchcraft.

In England, witchcraft were considered as a crime against  the church and so against the state, which was a “capital offense”. And so, during centuries, the church propaganda led people to accuse each other.


The second part of the documentary introduces Salem which was designed to be “A city on the hill” (cf: Governor John Winthrop). The town were founded by Puritans who were true believers in Satan and witchcraft heresy.  The first case of witchcraft in Massachussets occured in Charlestown where Margaret Jones had been accused, judged and hanged. Another name is mentioned: Godwife Glover whose case had been investigated by Cotton Mather.  He was the son of Increase Mather, and wrote a book intitled: Memorable Providence, Relating to wichcraft and Possessions (1689) : “Mather’s account, describing the symptoms of witchcraft, was widely read and discussed throughout Puritan New England. The book was in the meager library of Samuel Parris, the Salem minister in whose house began the tragic events of 1692.”  http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/asa_math.htm


A third part is dedicated to the Salem trials history. The story, as it is known, began during the winter 1691-1692 in the house of the reverend Samuel Parris where a woman called Tituba, the slave of the family, showed voodoo tricks to Parris’ daughter and niece. Then Tituba’s tricks became secretly attractive to a group of  young girls who at first kept their obvious sins secret and then started to change their behaviours. (“they throw things, they scream and cry”).

The girls were declared “Under the evil hand of witchcraft”by a doctor named William who diagnosed a “spiritual cause” for their diseases. The girls admitted their participations in Tituba’s “ceremonies” and went further in their confessions which became accusations. The trials of Salem began on 01/03/1692. The young girls confirmed their first testimonies and their accusations moved forward. They declared to have been tortured by the spector of a lot of people from Salem and from other towns of the New England. The Salem trials ended in october 1692. More than 200 people had been accused, about 20 had been hanged and 4 died in jails.

Few years later public repentences and Anne Putnam’s testimony confirm that the community slowly regained consciousness and that the girl’s accusations threw the town into suspicion and mass hysteria.



Although this document  introduces clearly the facts and some questions about the causes of the dramatics affairs,  I would like to come back to the turning points of the trials.

According to me the fact that the magistrates allowed the “spectral evidence” as a sufficient evidence to accuse anybody, was one of the most important elements which threw confusion in the community. Because it led to an absolute subjective way of treating the convicts. Proof couldn’t be seen by the court but only by the girls.

Another important event occured when the girls accused Rebbecca Nurse although she was considered as a model of puritanism by the all community. And so, from that moment anyone in  Salem could be be suspected of practicing sorcery. It is also remarkable that despite the reaction of some people who doubted of the girl’s words it was certainly the suspicion about more important people like the governor Phips’s wife which led the trials to an end. The words of Increase Mather whose wife was also suspected sums up the will to give an end to an unfounded and tragical process “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that the innocent person should be condemned” (Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits)


According to this documentary few other questions have to be asked. First, about the girls’s behaviour: why did they act like that? “The rock star syndrom” especially holds my attention: “They were at the bottom of the social scale, getting attention for themselves”. The parental influence is also evoked: “[The girls] accused people who, according to their parents were people who had a reputation of witchcraft in the community”. And so it leads directly to ask if there were any personal benefits from these trials? It has to be remembered that tensions existed between the two parts of Salem, between the merchants of the town and the farmers of the village. In 1692 the extension of private property was quite impossible because of  the limits of the Salem borders. Greed might have had its influence in Salem during the progress of the events.


This document has both a historical and narrative approach. It leans on the purpose of specialists of the whichcraft topic whose interviews lead the viewer to adopt a rational posture in front of apparently irrational topic. It seems obvious that popular beliefs in the devil and in its capacities to tempt humans, involved fears and mass hysteria. I would add that in the second part of the 17th century a feeling of a loss of puritan values was pre-existing to the events of 1692. The dreamed « city on the hill » was involved in a conflict with the crown of England, and so living without real bounds (read the article Context), but also with the local Indians, and other confessions like Quakers. Money, greed and personal conflicts was considered by the puritans themselves as the first sins of the puritans of Salem.


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