Monday, 1 February 2016

The Salem Witch Trials Revisited

Like many others, I've always been fascinated by the history of witch trials. I'd read two previous books on the Salem trials,  In the Devil's Snare by Mary Beth Norton and A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill, and I found them to be informative and well-written. I was therefore pleased to see that a new book had been published in October 2015, The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

 Unfortunately the book has garnered a number of negative reviews, primarily because of its dense narrative style. Ms. Schiff uses extremely long sentences that are often interrupted by parentheses or dashes, forcing you sometimes to re-read them to understand the point the author is making. Moreover, there is no real sense of cohesion in the book, with the author frequently reprising earlier events.

Having said  this, I plan to finish the book, which I'm now halfway through, because I'm enjoying learning more about the trials. It's interesting to know, for example, that prior to the events in Salem, only twenty-five per cent of New England witch trials ended in conviction. That's probably the reason why those who were first accused thought that common sense would prevail and they would be acquitted of the charges.

I've also learned that details of witch trials in Sweden, recorded in contemporary sources available to New Englanders, were often reproduced in the colorful accounts given by the Salem "victims". The accusers in the Swedish trials were children, who later said they had been lying.

What Ms. Schiff does very well in the book is to recreate the chaos of the court proceedings as the young women writh in agony on the floor and accuse the defendants of pinching and biting them even though, as the author points out, some of the accused did not have teeth. The reader can feel the hopelessness and despair of the accused and the horror of their imprisonment in squalid conditions, wearing chains weighing eight pounds. Those of the accused who tried to point out that the victims writhing on the floor might be  "dissembling" were among the first to be hanged. It was a sin, after all, to deny the existence of witches because this was an essential component of everyday life. As Schiff indicates, the element of causality was very strong: if the crops failed or an animal died, there was witchcraft behind it. Otherwise, how else did you make sense of the world? Ironically, the majority of those defendants who admitted to witchcraft were spared from death, and it seems that the more fantastical their confessions were, the more likely they were to be believed.

So if you are interested in learning more about the Salem trials and have a great deal of patience, I think you will enjoy Schiff's book. But remember that this is a carefully researched, textual account of the Salem witch trials. You will need to go to popular fiction if you want to be entertained.

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