Witchcraft and Society in England and America

by Marion Gibson

I bought this book as part of my attempt to understand what I consider to be one of the most momentous events in human history: the shift to rationalism that manifested itself in the Enlightenment. I’m not trying to understand the Enlightenment itself — the period itself is well-understood. Instead, I’m trying to figure out the psychological and cultural shift that drove the Enlightenment. Why did Western civilization suddenly embrace rationalism so determinedly? There were two driving forces, a positive one and a negative one. The positive one was the rationalist triumph of science, as embodied by the work of Isaac Newton. It is difficult to communicate the heady sense of excitement that swept over Western societies in the aftermath of the Principia Mathematica — and that’s a subject that I need to investigate further.

But the negative force was the revulsion felt in response to the witch-hunting craze. It’s most apparent in the response to the Salem witch trials. We all know that this incident was repugnant for its vicious superstition. But few people realize just how strong the counter-reaction was. Even the primary perpetrators were expressing their sense of guilt just ten years later. Similar experiences were had in England and Scotland. The fanatics went after witches, and hundreds of people were hanged (burning people at the stake had been rejected as overly cruel by the late 1600s in England, Scotland, and America). But decent people everywhere were deeply unsettled by the excesses and the nagging fear that innocent people were executed. It was their revulsion that stamped out superstition and ushered in the new era of rationalism in society.

This book is a wide-ranging collection of literary sources on the perception of witchcraft in England and America. It begins with legal documents from various witch trials in England and America. It presents the testimony of witnesses and the accused and the legal reports on the trials. What emerges is confusing. There were certainly plenty of bloodthirsty fanatics out to hang anybody and everybody; often these fellows traveled from town to town, inciting trials and executions. Most of the legwork was done by more reasonable people who couldn’t say no to evil dressed in the robes of authority. They seemed to know that these trials were wrong, but insufficient enthusiasm often resulted in suspicion turning towards them. This phenomenon is universal human behavior. In the 50s and 60s, anybody who was insufficiently rabid in their anti-communism was labeled a “pinko”. Since 9/11, anybody who balked at the excesses of the war on terrorism has been labeled a “terrorist sympathizer”. Go along with the crowd or be ostracized — that was one social force behind many witch trials.

The book also includes contemporary writings on witchcraft, references to them in literature of the period (“Double, double, toil and trouble”) and tracts denouncing the witch-hunting craze. Interestingly, most of these skeptical writers did not attack the possibility that witchcraft was real. Instead, they argued that the evidentiary methods were unjust. Dreams, unusual events, and coincidences were unreliable forms of evidence, they argued. Nothing less than physical evidence or the confession of the accused would do. Oddly enough, some people did confess to crimes that were physically impossible. This in itself reveals something of the temper of the times: superstition was so strong, and social pressures so powerful, that powerless people could be convinced of their own guilt. Again, we see echoes of this phenomenon even today: women who feel a sense of guilt after being raped, or victims of abuse (women or children) who believe that somehow they deserve such brutal treatment. It seems that powerlessness induces an adaptive behavior that undermines righteous anger at ill-treatment.

I learned so much from this book that I am now even more confused than before.