“we will burn, we will burn together” or: Re-reading The Crucible now – as promised, the “witch cake”

Continued from here.

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 11.06.53 PM***

Here’s that vid, if you want to watch it again:

and now — finally getting to comment on Richard Armitage’s statement: “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.”

A brief word on my attitude toward historical parallels and metaphor

Julius_Rosenberg_mugshot[Left: Julius Rosenberg’s “mug shot.” Contrary to everything we learned in school, he was guilty. Source.]

I’m constantly reading “witchcraft is just like” or “witchcraft is a near metaphor for” and statements like that with reference to all sorts of things — treatment of homosexuals, persecution of various minorities including political ones like the Red Scare (the parallel explicitly in Miller’s mind), child molestation allegations, recovered memory syndrome, and so on. To my mind, witchcraft accusations are sui generis, not least because most of the things they’re compared to (homosexuality, “dangerous” political opinions, child molestation) actually happen — in contrast to witchcraft in the sense in which it was “hunted,” which did not. Over a four century period, not one single known surviving source from an eyewitness demonstrates the actual occurrence of the witches’ sabbaths that early modern lawyers and theologians insisted that accused witches confess about, for instance. In comparison, homosexuals, Communist spies, and child molesters did / do actually exist — though we might disagree about whether they are dangerous. Julius Rosenberg did work for the U.S.S.R.; the preponderance of the historical establishment has concluded in the wake of VENONA declassification that Alger Hiss did as well. Moreover, the loose, modern use of the term “witch hunt” to describe unjust prosecutions, scapegoating, or moral panic is anachronistic. We don’t find it in the sources to describe what people who prosecuted witchcraft did (my vague memory is that the origins of the phrase come from the nineteenth century, but I don’t have an OED to hand at the moment. I have similar reactions to the use of the term “mass hysteria,” which is really a Freudian term and has nothing to do with the seventeenth century, but Miller had been undertaking psychoanalysis for two years just at the time he was writing the play, so I’ll cut him a slight break on that one). Please be aware that this sort of argumentation is inherently suspect to professional historians. What you consider a definitive historical parallel may not seem like one to us.

“Witch hunts still go on today” is the kind of statement I dismiss because in fact, the term doesn’t even describe especially well what happened in early modernity, and in fact, nowadays we do not believe in the widespread practice of maleficium, nor do we accuse our neighbors of witchcraft to authorities when we suffer from ills tied tied to our particular social and religious circumstances. The state does not take people to court over such perceived ills, we do not torture the accused while questioning them, and we do not convict and execute them for witchcraft. Even if we accept the sense in which the term has been used since the late 1930s (to mean a moral panic with judicial victims), it doesn’t describe all that well what has happened in the twentieth century. Seen from that perspective, the differences to much of what happened in the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries are as much or more significant as the similarities.

That said: if we want to talk in a more general, literary sense, about parallels and metaphors — in the sense of allusion or apparent intertextuality — that’s fine, and it’s there that slippery comparisons can be productive and provocative and make us creative, as they apparently did for Miller. But speaking historically, imprecise comparisons are anathema, and after years in the profession I’m likely to react very allergically. “The same thing goes on today” makes me particularly apoplectic. Actually, no, it doesn’t. The more deeply we study history, the more we recognize that the past is indeed a foreign country.

If historians are relatively strict about this, then why talk about historical parallels at all? Why not just say — it’s not a historically accurate play? Nothing requires any play to reflect history.

Ad quod respondeo: I find two reasons to examine the relevance of historical parallels. The first is not that important to us as connoisseurs of Richard Armitage, but it plays a role in our daily public lives as citizens — we claim to teach history because we want to learn lessons from the past. (I don’t know that many working historians actually believe that, but the public certainly claims to.) If that mechanism is to work, we need to point out the problems with popular historical depictions.

The second, however, could be important to us as (mere) viewers. Because there’s never only one historical comparison possible — and the social problems exemplified by the Salem witch trials are indeed symptomatic of issues raised by Miller’s play and concerns that have been shared by historiographers. What I want to talk about today is something that isn’t a general human pattern, but a matter of historical specificity — the emergence of a particular kind of social behavior that was not characteristic of the ancient world or the middle ages, but which emerged in early modernity in the West.

Social disciplining and emerging modernity

l_6holed_flint[Right: a “holed stone” of the type that Salemers hung in their stables to keep witches from stealing their horses. This picture is an example from Wiltshire.]

My contention that cruelty is not the right word for what happened in Salem (nor for what Miller means us to see happening in this play) sparked at least one robust objection over Twitter. I stand by my assertion, though, that the Salem witch trials represent a “normal” type of social dynamic for emerging modernity. Even in 1692, one didn’t encounter maleficium every day, but on a much broader level, in the context of widespread belief in supernatural actions, accusations and prosecutions of witchcraft represent normal actions that people took toward each other as a consequence of experiences in social relationships. (The interpolated notes in the script of the play seem to suggest that on some level, Miller was aware of the social relationships; we know that he had read C.W. Upham, the first author writing about Salem to explore this theme.) This is one reason why “conflict between neighbors,” a mechanism formally proposed by Alan MacFarlane in 1970 to explain early modern English incidents, has become an element many historical explanations. It is significant on two levels — at the event level, and as a social process.

In terms of actual incidents — three predominant scenarios seen regularly in English and North American sources characterize the neighborly conflict model. All are found in the Salem accusations. The first has one neighbor asking for a favor from another, who refuses it and then, when misfortune happens to the refusing neighbor, he accuses the asking neighbor of witchcraft. This is what seems to be happening in the Sarah Good case (“case file” here). The second involves an exchange of goods going wrong to the detriment of one neighbor. When bad things happened to the neighbor who benefited, the benefitor accused the neighbor who came out poorly of committing maleficium. This is a good explanation of factors that led to the conviction of Bridget Bishop. The third involves a quarrel over damaged property. One neighbor accuses the other of malfeasance, which enrages the accused. When the accuser’s family suffers, they attribute it to witchcraft on the part of the accused. This is the predominant motif in the prosecution of Dorcas Hoar.

In terms of a social process, what we have here is a mechanism where a negative interaction between neighbors causes one party to act in a way that leaves him feeling vulnerable to hypothetical revenge via witchcraft on the part of the other. We should note two things about this. First, in its origins, the accusation of witchcraft is typically the charge of the socially or personally more powerful or “winner” party against the less powerful or “loser” party; or at least as these matters pertain to the concrete transactions cited. Secondly, however, such accusations were not used self-interestedly in order to eliminate enemies; the accusers were sincere in their belief that the accused had harmed them, or had had reason to harm them, via maleficium.

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 9.04.01 PM[Left: A seventeenth-century horseshoe excavated on the Isle of Wight, which was nailed over a threshold to keep a witch from entering. Important — the shoe was luckier the longer it had actually been worn, and to function correctly, one of the nails used to put it over the door needed to have been used on a horse. Source.]

Thus no decision to be cruel (as opposed to kind) is really involved in these accusations. The villagers were not fighting over grand issues of philosophy or theology, and neither did they use these battles as a sort of playground game to establish their power, for the accusers were already amongst the powerful. Rather, they’re concerned over what caused their cow to die and in a situation where they were reliant on their neighbors in different ways than we are today, conflicts over transactions like this were huge matters. Seen from that light, accusing a neighbor of witchcraft is a means of protecting a community from someone who has done harm to it. We do this all the time in our own societies. Think, for example, of something like a car accident. Would anyone say that the victim of a car accident is being cruel for calling his/her insurance company to settle the matter? So really, Armitage’s “cruelty” is simply the status quo of much of modernity, a mechanism for mediating the transactions around problems between neighbors. In terms of its unusual focus and several coincidences that might have intensified what was happening there (the governmental interregnum, the war against the Indians surrounding it, the anomalous presence of Tituba) Salem was exceptional. Seen, however, as a case study in how neighbors might resolve conflicts over quotidian transactions in a historical period in which belief in the supernatural was strong and illness or misfortune were regular threats, witchcraft accusations and trials in Salem represent an entirely normal social moment.

Historians have termed this process social disciplining (sorry, I can only give you a link to a German article), one occurring in most of the Latin West during the period of confessionalization inaugurated by the Reformation. The Puritans of New English were a heavily confessionalized society — religious belief both in its contents and in its desired effect on behavior was a chief characteristic of the society and the source of both law and much custom, something apparent if we keep in mind that until 1691, only Puritans males could vote in Massachusetts colony and they held their political debates in meeting houses used for religious purposes on the Sabbath. Social discipline involves the insistence that certain beliefs and behaviors become the standard, and the enforcement of these standards by a combination of religious and secular authority. Indeed, the authority of the state works on the basis of, and in conjunction with, the religious order it codifies and represents. Moreover, this insistence is neither a top-down nor a grass roots phenomenon, and comes not from any one direction, but from all parts of society, so that general agreement prevails among society members that said beliefs and behaviors are desirable, and that those who step outside of them should be “disciplined” for their transgressions. Speaking very cavalierly, now, some historians think that social disciplining works as a response or corrective to the emergence of individualism unleashed by the Renaissance and Reformation. (And that hypothesis would work well with Boyer and Nissenbaum’s diagnosis that the victims at Salem were outsiders, social climbers, and the non-deferent.)

IMG_0682[Right: An early American poppet of the sort referred to in the Salem sources and mentioned by Miller, as displayed in the Salem Witch Museum. Source.]

In my first discussion of this topic, I suggested that it can be (all too) easy to read this play as a moral allegory to conclude that there are villains and victims in the play and identify with the victims, when Miller would like us to understand the general contiguity ourselves and the villains and the ways in which victims make themselves into victims, a process in which John Proctor becomes peculiarly implicated. In the previous post, I argued that it’s also easy to get distracted both by the general (mistaken) historical memory of the incident, as well as by surface issues of ideology, as if there was some sort of meaningful conflict in Salem over reason vs rationalism or over something like free speech or even about differing views of religion (and the total red herring of alleged congress with Satan).

So far, in this post, I have argued that the actions taken by the Salem villagers sought to rectify harm done to them by fellow villagers, and that these actions represent the normal process of social disciplining that emerged historically in the West during early modernity. Hence, conflict between Salemers was not a result of disagreement over substantial worldview issues but ensued from the center of their society and their desire to maintain their notion of social discipline. (Interestingly, although the concept of social disciplining was only emerging in the scholarly world in the 1970s, Miller’s play can be read to support this notion.) That is to say — the vehemence of the villagers’ involvement in this incident was not a manifestation of hysteria, but rather an entirely reasonable one from their point of view.

Had it not been for 1692, [the inhabitants of Salem village] would most probably have been overlooked by … historians. But … it is precisely because they were so unexceptional that their lives (and for that matter, the trauma which overwhelmed them in 1692) are invested with real historical significance. […] It is only as we come to sense how deeply the witchcraft outbreak was rooted in the prosaic, everyday lives of obscure and inarticulate men and women, and how profoundly those lives were being shaped by powerful forces of historical change, that the melodrama begins to take on the harsher contours of tragedy.

[Boyer & Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974) , p. xiii.]

Broad agreement about the necessity of the action (even if not over the identity of its objects) prevailed among Salemers, at least if we look at events from the perspective of 1692, but even beyond that.

Finally: Tituba and the “witch cake”

Card BACK[Left: A seventeenth century “witch bottle” or counter-magical charm against witches; if someone cast a witch on its creator, excruciating pain was supposed to be reflected back at the witch. This charm was once common but this is the only one ever found intact, in Greenwich, England, in 2004. Read here to learn about all the odd things inside that made it work.]

Sorry I made you wait so long for this. But I’ll tell you a story that, I believe, illustrates these points.

Surviving court records from Salem reveal that the people involved in these cases as accusers were regular practitioners of magic themselves, and consultants of experts. Puritans, for all their subsequent reputation, differed in no significant way from their contemporaries in terms of their adherence to everyday practical magic. (One often reads that witchcraft before the accusations occurred in Salem at the behest of Tituba, but no surviving source documents this.) It was not just accused witches who suspended an egg in a glass of water as a primitive crystal ball, who stabbed dolls that represented their adversaries, who nailed horseshoes over their thresholds to ward off evil, but devout members of the church as well. They also engaged in counter-magical remedies against witchcraft — such as damaging something stemming from a victim of witchcraft in order to drive the enchantment out or identify its author. If these accepted normal remedies brought them no assistance, the Salemers saw no difficulty in consulting specialized practitioners, sometimes called “cunning folk” — Dorcas Hoar was one of these; she was known for the unusually accurate fortunes she told, and for her consultation of a book about palmistry. Indeed, Beverly (Massachusetts) pastor John Hale’s daughter, Rebecca, seems to have been aware of these activities. Cotton Mather described the Salemers as engaging in attempts at divination with sieves, nails, peas, keys and horseshoes.


Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 9.52.02 PMExcerpt from the deposition of John Hale against Dorcas Hoar, in which Hale’s daughter admitted to her father that she has seen the book by means of which “Hoar could reveale secretes & work witchcrafts”. Source.


In Salem, the natural and supernatural were not separate, but pieces of the same whole. It was not only ordinary people who trembled in fear when they saw a comet or derived comfort from the glimpse of a rainbow — these reactions were common in all walks of society, in which natural signs were intimately connected to supernatural forces. But people looked to find the mechanism of such effects, and they were just as likely to conclude that misfortune could result from divine Providence as from demonic influence (as Cotton Mather did when his son was born without an opening in his anus and died shortly thereafter). In January 1692, when his daughter and niece began to suffer from odd symptoms, Samuel Parris did not conclude immediately that they were afflicted by witchcraft. Rather, he consulted a local physician, William Griggs, who rejected physical illness as an explanation and told him that the girls “were under an evil hand.” How do we know this? From the account of John Hale, the Beverly pastor. In case the affliction came as punishment from G-d from the sin of the girls or their village themselves, however, the Salemers held private and public fasts in repentance. Parris himself said to his congregation, several weeks after the girls began to suffer, that “the affliction was several weeks before such hellish operations as witchcraft was suspected” (entry for March 27). The clergy in this case thus initially believed that the girls’ afflictions were physical ailments and only after the failure of the physician to clear up the case did they gradually come to accept the supernatural explanation; once they concluded that the girls’ problems were supernatural, they had to explain why and in what sense this was the case. The “man of science” proposed the supernatural explanation because reason and religion were not held to be separate. Views of the influence of magic were broadly shared among Salem villagers both learned and unlearned, religious and scholarly, and, as we will see next,

Once the influence of magic was established, the use of counter-magic was a natural response that preceded legal action against the suspects. At the instigation of Mary Sibley, a Salem village neighbor and church member, Tituba (Parris’ slave) prepared a “witch cake” or “urine cake” — mixing the urine of each of the girls with coarse rye flour, baking the mixture, and giving it to a dog to eat. (No record of the results of this experiment survive; had the dog had suffered after eating the cake, however, it would have been seen as definitive evidence of the occurrence of witchcraft; Hale described this procedure as conducted “to find out the witch, as they said.”) Only several months later did Parris, and the Salem village church, chastise her for doing this; in his remarks, Parris suggested that the entire affair had not been diabolical at all until Sibley instigated the creation of the urine cake (see entry for March 27 1692).

I think thus far the story goes to show that everyone involved in these accusations, accusers, afflicted, and targets, shared a worldview conducive to creating the preconditions for social disciplining. (Incidentally — the intellectual position of even the resistant Salem villagers, that witchcraft existed, but that not every misfortune was evidence of maleficium, is termed “moderate skepticism,” and was fairly typical of Protestants throughout Europe as well.) I’ve outlined fairly clearly already the evidence that many of these accusations relate to social transactions gone wrong and community tensions; the point that they were not conscious, manipulative ploys to displace enemies is underlined by the fact that the girls who made the accusations often did not know the people whom they accused. What’s left to discuss, then, is the evidence of this episode as an act of social disciplining.


Tituba is asked what she sees when she encounters the Devil. (H) is Judge Jonathan Hathorne; (T) is Tituba.

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 10.20.49 PMWhat is this appearance you see

And replies:

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 10.21.11 PMSometimes it is like a hog



Three matters in particular point to the qualities of social disciplining that we see here.

First, and interestingly, of the three women accused on the first day, Tituba was the only one to confess. Moreover, she immediately made an exemplary confession in the necessary form, which involved her encounter with a man who could be the devil, the command to serve him, the related demand that she (and others) hurt the girls, the description of a familiar (a yellow bird) for one of the women, the admission that she rode to meetings with other witches on a stick and arrived immediately, the man’s use of a book in which she was to write her name, and so on. It’s interesting that the woman who could conceivably be described as the most marginalized person in Salem village makes this incredibly perfect confession (she was a slave whom the sources call “Indian,” so that debate rages of whether she was Native American or Black or mestizo). She and her husband, John, came from Barbados with Parris, so it’s interesting that, if indeed she was acquainted with the magical traditions of the Caribbean as so many have speculated, nonetheless all of the data supplied in her confession is European in origin — that is to say, Tituba’s confession conforms in every way to the demands that would have been made on every Massachusetts witch and thus reads like an exercise in strengthening local social and cultural norms.


William Barker Sr. affirms his confession:

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 11.13.17 PM

5.7.92: the above Said is the Truth as wittnese my hand:

and affixes his signature:

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 11.13.26 PM



Second, we have an exceptionally high rate of confessions in Salem. Some of them must undoubtedly be attributed to the use of torture during questioning, but even considering that, it was unusual for such a significant proportion of the accused in witchcraft prosecutions to confess. Moreover, many of these confessions were not merely pro forma; rather, they were detailed and graphic, like the confession of William Barker — who described a gathering of 307 witches! The ongoing tendency of the innocent in modern systems of discipline to confess has long interested historians. In Salem, those who had confessed later recanted often cited psychological pressure from their interrogators to do so or false promises (that they would escape execution if they admitted their actions and named names) — but the question remains of why this pressure was so successful, and the fact remains that they recanted confessions only when the social pressure lessened. Confession by the innocent can be seen as an index of the extent to which membership in a particular society works on a particular individual by bringing certain standards to bear that apply not only to the virtuous, but also the sinner. In that sense, confessing (even to something which one has not done) can be read as a transactional participation in and sustaining of the norms that hold up a modern society in which even “bad examples” play an important role. Note in the Salem case the weird paradox that with the exception of Tituba, the only people who died immediately were those who refused to perjure themselves, refused to subject themselves to the norms of social disciplining — and so their executions, presumably against their desires, nonetheless served that purpose. From the perspective of social disciplining, this result makes complete sense, because the reward always comes to whose conform to social standards, even if they do so as transgressors. So many innocent in Salem confess because, whether or not they understand themselves to be witches, they believe they will benefit most at any point from conforming.

Finally, if we look at the resolution of the matter, it’s clear that the society itself saw the Salem incident not as a moment of bizarre hysteria but as a series of actions for which the local government and church were responsible and needed to make reparations. In making this incident “good,” however, the agents of reparations reinforced existing social rules rather than conceding error. Governor Phipps suspended the court; while the discussion about what to went on, those still in jail who had confessed began to recant their confessions; they were released early in 1693. While controversial, however, Parris remained in Salem Village till 1696 — social standards still supported what he had done and said enough to prevent him from the need to flee precipitously. The state and society of Massachusetts colony needed to fold the events at Salem into its story of themselves in order to maintain their authority and their capacity to continue to discipline members. Hence, in 1697 the jurymen issued a public apology; in 1706, Ann Putnam, one of the accusers, admitted in an application for church membership to being under “a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time .. whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental … to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood.” She continued that she did not do this out of malice, but rather out of delusion — a confession that itself conforms to the very social norms that led to the conviction of the witches, who also were “made to do it” by the Devil. In 1711, the colony reversed the convictions, judgments, and attainders (removal of property and rights to inherit of their heirs) against the victims; the General Court made financial restitution; and in 1712 the Salem village church reversed the excommunications against the dead and reinstated them as church members. Again, they did this not by saying they had been wrong, but by underlining that they had new evidence that the accused had repented before their deaths.



Arthur-millerOne of the chief things the Salem incident demonstrates is the extent to which the notion of victim and perpetrator are clouded by the fact that everyone involved was participating in an episode of social disciplining that acted to sustain, rather than question, the developing norms of modern society.


If you can stand any more of this, next time we’ll get to Arthur Miller, McCarthyism, and a critical discussion of what Miller said about the creation of the play. I’ll allege that it’s the social disciplining issue that truly connects Salem to McCarthyism, that Miller was at least occasionally aware of this, and explain why, for me, this is the most interesting light in which to read the play.

~ by Servetus on June 12, 2014.

9 Responses to ““we will burn, we will burn together” or: Re-reading The Crucible now – as promised, the “witch cake””

  1. Merci – très très intéressant …Je commence bien la journée ^^
    In German/ italian /French (about social discipline) http://www.hls-dhs-dss.ch/textes/f/F16551.php


  2. […] Reflections on re-reading The Crucible, continued from here. […]


  3. Serv, this post, along with several of your other meatier entries, are still in my “new” inbox to look at more fully over the weekend…. but have to express my firm agreement with your distaste for knee-jerk historical parallels. If we want to compare two historical events, we must be prepared to contrast them as well…. otherwise we draw ridiculous conclusions about how we ought to respond. Reminds me of our dear Feds at both poles, but that’s all I will say about that. 🙂


    • Thanks — I don’t expect as much discussion on these longer pieces, because it’s harder for a novice to enter them. They’re really written for me. Well, the whole blog is written for me, but in these posts i think less about what other readers might be interested to read.

      and thanks for the affirmation re: differences. I haven’t said this yet, but it’s coming up in the next post — labeling something a “witch hunt” has become a way to delegitimate the actual attribution of responsibility for anything. It implies that everything about a political incident is merely for show. That wasn’t true even in 1692, certainly, but if you look at current things that might be described as witchhunts — well, some of them are chasing after smoke for effect, while others aren’t. You’re absolutely right that all our politicians use this technique now. What’s interesting to me is that they don’t see precisely how the practice of show trials (or in our case, hearings) politically delegitimates the public discussion about whatever they are concerned about.


  4. […] Farber’s remarks about how she understands the work stands, and perhaps the length of my discussion about events in Salem as an example of social disciplining might give readers a clue about how spot-on I feel such a reading of the play could […]


  5. […] 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 1950s, and one […]


  6. […] and not really about Salem, which serves as a symbol for what Miller really wanted to discuss and shows stronger parallels to the U.S. 1940/50s in the area of social disciplining. When LondonFriend learned I’d be coming to see the play myself, she mused that I was perhaps […]


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