“we will burn, we will burn together” or: Re-reading The Crucible now – reflections on what I learned in grad school

Continued from here (reflections on reading it in high school).


Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 11.06.53 PM


Since I started writing these, we have a vid of Richard Armitage commenting on the Old Vic production of The Crucible in which he’ll be appearing as John Proctor.

This is the bit of his remarks I want to talk about: “Arthur Miller’s really challenging an audience to look at themselves and and look at what they do in a heated society where humans are being incredibly cruel to each other.”

I definitely agree with the contention that Miller intended viewers of this play to consider themselves in relationship to the narrative, as I mentioned previously — the question being who they are and the potential trap being that viewers want to identify with the victims when we are really the prosecutors. But now I want put into context the “heated society” assertion he makes.

In short: the witches are almost a distraction. Dare I say it? The Salem “witches” were not all that important historically; the incident was primarily important, as Gretchen Adams shows, as a repeated moment of American memory that could be pulled out to demonstrate different conclusions. Arthur Miller is one participant in a long chain of historical, literary, and cultural memories of Salem that are essentially statements of American identity. Surveys still show consistently that the Salem episode is the most well-known event from U.S. colonial history among Americans. It’s just that much of what we think we know is wrong and what we know is seldom significant.

I. Historical context on Salem — not what most people think

08194 [Left: memorial to John Proctor from tercentenary memorial, dedicated 1992. With the exception of two of them, the victims were buried in unmarked graves near the place they were hanged.]

Scholars have advanced dozens of interpretations to explain the intensity of the European witch hunts, which took place roughly from 1450 to 1700, but spiked in the years from about 1560 to 1620. I studied this material in graduate school and have been teaching it for the last three years. f you’re interested in a useful, accessible overview for the educated general reader, probably the best one available is Brian Levack’s The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. A great book on Salem written at the level of a beginning university student is Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents.

First — Despite popular awareness of the Salem witch trials, it’s a boutique topic. New England executed roughly three times as many people for witchcraft as all other North American colonies together, but the numbers are still tiny. We are aware of 61 prosecutions and sixteen executions in New England from 1609 till the Salem episode in 1692. Although popular history likes to call Salem an especially bloody incident, and while I agree that executions resulting from witchcraft prosecutions were unjust and troubling, it needs to be seen in proportion. During King Philip’s War (a conflict between the colonists and the Indians that took place from 1675-78), at least 600 colonists and 3,000 Indians were killed. And I bet you I could ask every person sitting in the café with me today what they remember about that and they’d shake their heads in confusion.

Screen shot 2014-06-07 at 3.49.46 PM[Right: Title page of a later English edition of Cotton Mather’s book on the Salem trials.]

Second, even within the history of witchcraft prosecutions, Salem is anomalous. Review the numbers for New England as a whole till 1692, and then add Salem to them. The incident in Salem (and environs — eventually the problems spread beyond its borders) racked up roughly 150 bills of indictment, fifty confessions, nineteen trials, and nineteen executions. This means that for the seventeenth century, Salem takes up the lion’s share of official accusations and confessions, constitutes a quarter of trials conducted, and more than half of all executions. This proportion complicates the study of witchcraft prosecution in the Massachusetts colony significantly. Half of all executions documented in surviving sources stemmed from this one incident.

Finally, and significantly, the Salem trials are the only ones from New England where surviving documentation suggests that the participants strongly endorsed the high cultural and theological understanding of witchcraft as a matter of demonic possession (more on the details of that below). On the whole, historians today tend to see religion as one aspect of witchcraft prosecutions rather than the whole story. But this story comes closest to any in New England of fitting a “those narrowminded, murderous Puritans” stereotype, and it doesn’t come all that close. Richard Armitage’s remark, which underlines a view of The Crucible as a social drama, corresponds well to our current understanding of what and how religion meant in Salem (even if this view doesn’t fit incredibly well with things that Miller seemed to be saying).

So: If you’re a historian, do you include Salem in your study in order to expand the paltry number of cases, or do you leave it out?

The decision to include or omit it as data is complicated by the fact that Salem was so different from Europe, England, and New England in every respect. Witchcraft prosecutions were rare in comparison to Europe; English law did not allow alleged witches to be questioned under torture. And the conviction rate — which is generally stated at 50 percent for all of European and England during the period of the trials — is off the map. 100 percent conviction was simply unheard of. The only comparable number to that — 90 percent — comes from the Catholic cantons of Switzerland.

Some explanation, if you’re interested.

Phips_portrait[Left, Governor William Phipps. Source: wikipedia]

The Massachusetts colony was founded in 1623, shortly after the peak in witchcraft prosecutions; moreover, the New England witchcraft statute made it difficult to obtain a conviction. Conviction required a voluntary confession or evidence from at least two independent witnesses, but as in the English statutes, questioning under torture was forbidden. In European trials, the vast majority of confessions had been obtained under torture; very few people confessed voluntarily to witchcraft without it. Moreover, the statute required not just evidence of the effects of maleficium, or black magic intended to harm others, but that the accused met the theological definition of being a witch. Following this thinking, it was not simply enough for an alleged witch to mobilized the supernatural to harm people; rather, this harm had to happen by a specific mechanism, which involved the witch causing demons to afflict the victim. The confession or evidence thus had to prove that the accused had covenanted with the Devil and inflicted harm through a familiar spirit. Witness testimonies in New England, however, usually focused on harmful magic — despite the attempts of the authorities to lead them in a different direction — and not on supernatural covenants. Before Salem, only 26 percent of the accused were convicted in New England, and the difficulty of obtaining a conviction is usually adduced to explain a drop in court cases after 1660, even if popular sentiment about the malevolent supernatural remained constant.

But, you are saying, they did torture in the Salem trials! Why?

In 1684, the previous colonial charter had been revoked and rewritten on absolutist terms; when James II was deposed in 1688, the colonists arrested his governor and stopped observing the hated charter. No constitutionally or legally established government operated in Massachusetts until May, 1692, five months after the possessions began. The royal governor who arrived then, William Phipps, appointed a special court to deal with the problem, but its members were not lawyers and were not bound by any statute that determined what evidence would constitute proof. The lack of legal training explains the decision of the court to accept spectral evidence — such observable phenomena were described as evidence of demonic possession in the popular theological treatises of the time, they had never constituted valid evidence before a court, except in this case. The resort of the court to torture is usually explained in this context, as well, because torture had been a constant feature of continental European prosecutions.

Schoolbook depictions often claim that all the good people of Salem jumped on the bandwagon (hence the use of terms like “frenzy” and “witch craze”). On the contrary: the court was always controversial and it never enjoyed the full support of the populace. One of its members, Nathaniel Saltonstall, resigned the first day, June 2, in response to what he thought was the unjust conviction of Bridget Bishop, and two weeks into its activities, it was already mired in controversy and people were complaining to Phipps. The court met in only four sessions, for the last time on September 12th, and Phipps suspended it toward the end of October, 1692.

“Salem” as a legal event happened, then, precisely because everything in the Massachusetts colony was topsy-turvy. Other particular contextual circumstances were in play as well (such as the question of recent wars with the Indian population, of which the historical Abigail Williams, eleven years old, was one survivor; and fears over the crown’s opening of the franchise to all Protestant men, not just Quakers, in 1691), all of which go to show how odd Salem was. (These factors — war and religious anxiety — are addressed directly in a really readable book on the incident by Mary Beth Norton.)

f0107[Right: interior view of a Puritan meeting house, artist’s depiction. Source.]

Finally, there’s the point about religion. We’ve all learned in school about the intense religion preoccupations of the New England Puritans were, and Salem is supposed to be an outgrowth of the general wrongheadedness of a theocratic society and an exclusive focus on the divine (indeed, that was a point made in American history schoolbooks as early as the 1790s!). Most historians in contrast have moved away from such a broad interpretation of Salem, stressing instead that by the 1690s, Puritanism had reached the end of its sway in New England (the first Great Awakening was only a generation away, and curiously, those affected by religious fervor in the 1730s showed many of the same physical and emotional symptoms as those affected by maleficium in the 1690s). If anything, witch trials reflect not the strong views of a powerful Puritanism that could marginalize dissent by violent means, but rather reflect a third generation of Puritanism in crisis.

This interpretation gains strength from the sources because, although the Salem records finally show the accusers “saying the right things” about witchcraft (attributing it to diabolic influence, in contrast to evidence from most earlier New England witch trials), no actual theological or philosophical debates were occurring in Salem. There was no conflict of belief between those villagers who accused their neighbors and the targets of those accusations; rather, they all believed the same things. And not just theologically — also in terms of the supernatural. That is, those who felt themselves to be targets of black magic in Salem very quickly resorted to counter-magical measures in order to discern what was happening to them and to try to protect themselves against harm. Along with the fact that it was not Samuel Parris’ initial conclusion that his daughter and niece were afflicted by maleficium, the fact that all the Puritans were extensive practitioners of practical magic is probably one of the biggest things that surprises students learning about Salem.

(This is a way in which The Crucible strongly (mis)interprets Salem. Miller was living in a period heavily influenced by the work of Margaret Murray — now mostly discarded — which argued that there was an organized witch cult in Europe, and his script, which equates Communism with diabolism, reflects this impression on his part: “I have no doubt that people were communing with, and even worshiping, the Devil in Salem” (p. 32 of the edition I have). This is nonsense. Armitage’s remark suggests that this production is not going to rely so heavily on the religious parallels Miller draws, which is really heartening. More about this eventually.)

6cba53a09da0d42832cb5110.L._SY300_So what do historians say about Salem now? Two interpretations have become dominant in the U.S.

The first was proposed by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. These historians spent years on a detailed social analysis of the physical and economic “locations” of the accused and accusers, mapping out not just their properties and archival trails, but also their familial and marital relationships and connections. They study only Salem and thus make the choice to factor it out of the broader context, although they draw parallels where they can to other incidents. I read this book frequently with students, and it’s amazingly enjoyable, but the reader does have to maintain a certain level of energy for keeping track of all of the people involved in the accusations and their social relations. Most importantly, Boyer and Nissenbaum concluded that a number of conflicts separated accusers from accused — a long series of property disputes between two local families, the Porters and the Putnams; a conflict between Salem Village and Salem Town over the village’s financial independence and its right to have its own church that also reflected cultural differences between a rural and a port city worldview; a dispute, once Salem Village had been given the right to have its own church and own minister, over payment of the man’s salary, and who should pay it; and tensions between different villagers who were experiencing greater or lesser success in a highly volatile economic period. The accused, they concluded, tended to be social outsiders, geographically mobile, and relatively indifferent or undeferent to local authorities in Salem Village. “Satan,” they note, “represented at one level the forces of social change” (p. 211).

karlsenThe second interpretation, Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, is corrective to Boyer and Nissenbaum but related; Karlsen’s work stems from a school that was eager to consider the glaring problem of why women were so much more likely to be accused than men — with a few odd exceptions, like Iceland, Brittany, and Russia, roughly 80 percent of those accused of witchcraft were women. Karlsen incorporated the Salem data into a broader discussion of the New England data, and focused on the prominence of the victims as well as their property relationships. The most important conclusion of her research showed that while it was still the case that the traditional stereotypical target of witchcraft accusations held (the cunning woman, the elderly lady on the edge of town who healed people, mentally ill individuals, etc.) those women accused and convicted of witchcraft were disproportionately likely to find themselves in positions considered socially inappropriate for women. In particular, women who were likely to inherit property in their own right at the expense of men in their extended families were more likely to be accused and if accused, more likely to be convicted.

If Salem wasn’t especially bloody, especially typical of witchcraft prosecutions either in New England or in general, wasn’t significant historically, and seems to have been more about local disputes and possibly property inheritance relationships, then why go on and on about it, Servetus? Why not just skip straight to McCarthyism?

That — and the connection between “witch hunting,” Salem, McCarthyism, and other historical parallels — is for next time. I’ll leave you with a cliffhanger title.

II. Social disciplining: Tituba and the “witch cake”

Because the point of The Crucible isn’t that the right-minded persecute the wrong-minded, so much as that certain kinds of societies generate a particular kind of dynamic. Here Armitage is wrong to characterize this as people being especially cruel to each other — what the further study of witchcraft persecution shows, and something that Miller picked up on — is that what goes on in the witch craze is an entirely normal, indeed banal, sort of social interaction.

OK, a bientôt. I need to finish the last part of the drive.



~ by Servetus on June 7, 2014.

16 Responses to ““we will burn, we will burn together” or: Re-reading The Crucible now – reflections on what I learned in grad school”

  1. Thanks for writing this, and explaining the various aspects and some of the background history leading up to this famous incident. There’s always so much more to every glossy version of history we were taught in school!


    • I was thinking back to what I learned about this in history class, and I think the sum total was “Puritans=work ethic + witch burning.”


  2. Merci. Cela me fait penser à “The scarlet letter” aussi…


    • yes, very good — that’s closer, I think, to what Miller wanted to be saying than what he is commonly taken to be saying.


      • You know, I’m quite interested in those Salem trials. I read “the crucible” (Les sorcière de Salem” in French) a long time ago but my mum gave me “The Scarlet letter” in English recently. (we love to read in English in my family). Je ne suis pas diplômée en Histoire mais je le suis en Littérature ^^ ( c’est + ou – l’équivalent d’un Bachelor’s degree, je pense).


  3. Wow, another interesting read. As the “Salem Trials” are no ‘general canon’ in Germany, that whole course of events, how it all correlated, and how it all gathered momentum is fascinating and grim at once. (Can’t remember learning about them in history lessons, though it was my favourite subject! But then…. it’s been a while.. 🙂 ). Anyway, by the time it’s August I’ll be prepared properly and thoroughly!
    By all means I’m expecting this performances to be a fierce, tempestuous, and vigorous tour de force /forced ride (Parforceritt!).


    • Had it at school, I think in combination with the book “Jugend ohne Gott”, as far as I remember. I think we came to a conclusion of social dynamic allowing the same to separate and extricate supposed ‘others’ from its ranks to strengthen its own sense of ‘we’. Not to purposely be cruel to the others or even pre-define or hate them, but to primarily define and create an own identity and find new strength in this new formed identification with the own purpose.


      • Forgot to mention, Servetus, I so very much support your statement, that in general it is a ‘normal’ social dynamic, not primarily meant to hurt someone, but more in a way to define a workable way, form of society or way out of a crisis.
        As I see that as a ‘normal’ social dynamic, it is so very important to see and observe what is happening around and counteract, not react or let oneself be driven. That is one reason, why I find historical study so very important and find it so very (extremely) sad, that history currently is seen as absolutely unimportant in Germany.


    • I can’t imagine why any German history book would care about this, really. There are some fantastic examples of witch trials from German territories with great documents (Bamberg, 1628; Langenburg, 1672) to study. The largest number of victims (30,000 of the estimated 50,000 deaths) are attributed to territoriesi n the Holy Roman Empire.


  4. Thank you for these posts! I am really enjoying reading them. I feel like I am sitting in one of your classes, in the best possible way!


  5. […] Continued from here. […]


  6. […] that the play had anything much to do with the 1690s had been cleared away before seeing it. I wrote about this a lot in the weeks before the play. It’s definitely a play of the misogynist […]


  7. […] about the historical significance of the play as a text we read in U.S. high school classrooms, as a commentary on Salem and witchhunting, as a commentary on twentieth-century politics and McCarthyism, and as a commentary on personal […]


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