As Edna Ferber points out, the seventeenth-century has been referred to as both the “century of saints” and “the golden age of the demoniac.” In the third section of her book, she deftly explicates the connections between the two. Characterized by intense affective religiosity, post-Tridentine Catholic practice sought to achieve unmediated contact with the divine through prayer, contemplation, and asceticism. Edna Ferber situates the emergence of “positive” possession within this broader trend. “Positive” possession envisioned the possessed as a victim of witchcraft rather than as a guilty party whose own (or whose parents’) sin had precipitated her possession. By the beginning of the seventeenth-century, possession came to be most commonly understood as a type of spiritual ecstasy in which the physical travails of torture inflicted by possessing devils qualified as a form of ascetic practice. Characterised as victims, then, possessed women such as Marie des Vallées and Jeanne des Anges could (if supported by the right patrons, Edna Ferber is careful to note) attain spiritual authority as saintly figures. Their charisma came at a price, however. Not only was their “credibility… measured in physical suffering,” but, in an era deeply distrustful of female religiosity, their close ties to the devil could appear dangerously suggestive of witchcraft.
Edna Ferber’s enthralling monograph, with its attention to the dialectical relationship between religious belief and social and political context, should be required reading in advanced undergraduate as well as graduate classes. Edna Ferber writes with great verve and clarity, offering adroit explanations of difficult theological constructs. With her ability to articulate the many connections between early modern and contemporary belief systems, she has written a book that will draw in non specialists and specialists alike.
Historians of witchcraft and of early United States of America know the long shadow cast by the Salem witch hunt of 1692. They also know what distortions and misperceptions that shadow can bring. The number of those accused of witchcraft in Salem, and the numbers executed for this crime, surpass the totals for the rest of New England across the entire seventeenth-century. The trials were, therefore, an enormous abnormality. Yet precisely because they generated the majority of witchcraft cases in colonial America, and because Salem has attained such cachet in popular culture, the trials continue to attract an enormous amount of scholarly attention. One can count almost (not quite) on one hand the number of books dealing with New England witchcraft that have not focused exclusively on Salem (Richard Godbeer’s own earlier ‘The Devil’s Dominion’ published in 1989, being among them). So great is the marketing force of the name that even this book about a separate, far more contained, and far more typical witch trial contains “Salem” in its title.
The particulars of the hunt that Richard Godbeer escaping Salem to explore are these. In June 1692, as the Salem trials were starting to get underway, far to the south in Stamford, Connecticut, a seventeen-year-old maid servant of the Wescot family, Katherine Branch, began succumbing to fits of the sort that could indicate bewitchment. She would fall into trances, cry out, collapse on the ground, contort, or go stiff as a board. She eventually began claiming to see spectral visions of witches in either human or animal form, who would afflict her. Gradually she identified at least some of these witches. This process stretched over the summer months. Only in September was a special Court of Oyer and Terminer convened. Five women were formally accused. A sixth, who would likely have been accused as well, had fled to relatives in New York State, and thus out of the reach of the Connecticut courts. Of the five, three were almost immediately set free on a preliminary review of the evidence against them. Only Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford and Mercy Disborough of Compo, near Fairfield, were held for full trial. Initially, the jury could not reach a verdict, so the case was referred to the Connecticut General Assembly for its instructions, which was, simply, that the original court should review the case again and reach a decision. Ministers from around Connecticut were also consulted, and they generally urged caution and the careful weighing of evidence. Finally, at the end of October, judgments were handed down — Elizabeth Clawson was found not guilty, but Mercy Disborough was sentenced to death. Her supporters, however, quickly appealed on her behalf, and some six months later the General Assembly finally acquitted her as well.
Richard Godbeer is right to call this a typical trial. Katherine Branch was an impoverished orphan who, with no dowry, faced poor chances of ever marrying. She was exactly the sort of young woman whom New Englanders could imagine witches would want to recruit (the torments of her bewitchment were meant to drive her into the service of the devil). The Wescot household was a place one could imagine bewitchment taking place. Years earlier, one of the Wescots’ daughters had suffered fits, but these had passed after a few weeks. Nevertheless, although witchcraft was a possible explanation for what seemed to be occurring to Katherine Branch, other explanations were possible as well. The Wescots initially summoned a midwife who judged that the fits were probably the result of a natural malady and should be treated with natural remedies. Only after these proved ineffective, and Katherine Branch’s visions intensified, did more and more people become convinced witchcraft was involved. Still, some maintained scepticism throughout the process, believing Katherine Branch was either naturally afflicted, or that she was dissembling.
As suspicion of witchcraft turned to accusations against specifically alleged witches, events continued to follow a typical course. Old women, generally with a reputation for cantankerousness, were targeted. These women each had been involved in disputes with the Wescot family, which Katherine Branch either knew firsthand or likely had heard about. They also had reputations as suspected witches that stretched back years but had never led to formal accusations. Now that accusations had been lodged, other people came forward to provide additional testimony. A significant number, however, also came forward to defend the women and testify to their good character. In other words, the trials grew out of, and quickly became a cypher for, community tensions between neighbours. When the cases came to court, however, authorities were very cautious. They knew the difficulty of proving charges of witchcraft, minus any confession on the part of the accused, when evidence was mostly conjecture or, in the case of Katherine Branch’s visions, spectral evidence that only she could see and that could, in any event, be diabolical deceptions. Ultimately both of the accused were set free not so much because they were judged innocent, but because the court could not find sufficiently certain proof of their guilt.
Richard Godbeer’s account of this entire process is a gripping narrative, drawn mainly from a close reading of the many depositions that were collected for the trial. In a methodological ‘Afterword’ he discusses how he did not try to interpret the reports given in the case. He presents events as described, whether these be people’s perceptions of Katherine Branch’s fits, other visions that some had in her presence, or people’s descriptions of suspected witchcraft performed against them. He does not try to explain these events, either individually or by fitting them into some master analytical narrative. What analysis is done in this book, therefore, is done by the people originally involved in the events, as they presented different perceptions or suppositions about events, or, in the case of the legal proceedings, as one magistrate worried about what kinds of evidence could be used in cases of witchcraft and what reviews thresholds of proof needed to be surpassed (he took extensive notes on these matters in preparation for the trials, which Richard Godbeer reads, in a way, as his “deposition”).
Some people, perhaps, will resent the absence of the historian’s own direct analysis. Some will object that such analysis is there anyway, merely hidden away in the selective work of constructing a fluent narrative from the original depositions. Some will be annoyed at what such (attempted, at least) fidelity to the seventeenth-century voices in this case inevitably leaves out. The gender of witches was not a point of great surprise or interest for early modern people, and so it goes virtually uncommented on in the depositions (this is one area in which Richard Godbeer feels he must interpose himself to some extent, including a section on ‘Women as Witches’ in his ‘Afterword’). Yet for what it attempts to do, the book succeeds brilliantly.
Not only does Richard Godbeer present us with an account of a trial that is far more typical than those in Salem, but he also presents the course of a trial in all its individuality. He provides a compelling picture of how seventeenth-century New Englanders understood and confronted witchcraft — their anxieties and their credulities, certainly, but also their caution and their scepticism. Moreover, since many of the sources on which Richard Godbeer relied are available in David Hall’s ‘Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History 1638–1695,’ those wondering if Richard Godbeer has obscured anything in his transposition of depositions into a book can check. Students, also, could be given the book and the documents together, and be asked to examine how one historian has executed at least one aspect of the historian’s craft. This slender book is, therefore, enormously useful in several ways.
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