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Will we ever know what caused the Salem Witch Trials?
January 30, 2012 8:22 AM   Subscribe

"I would point out to you that medical explanations are modern. That Americans today want medical explanations for things that in the 19th century would have been explained by hysteria, and in the 18th century would have been explained by religious conversion experiences in the context of the Great Awakening, when people were having these types of fits, and in the 17th century by witchcraft."
posted by empath (54 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Reading that article got my spleen in an uproar.
posted by fairmettle at 8:33 AM on January 30, 2012


fairmettle: "Reading that article got my spleen in an uproar."

I'm sure it's just caused by stress.
posted by pwnguin at 8:35 AM on January 30, 2012


I like how the reporter mentions that she put her jimsonweed theory on Wikipedia, and when you follow the link you find a jimsonweed-free article with a note about how they removed the poorly-sourced edit from a writer with a conflict of interest.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:39 AM on January 30, 2012 [15 favorites]


I liked the jimsonweed article, both the theory and because it really touches on how personally people can take their pet historical theories, but the other article the author mentions-- the incidences of female-centered violence in colonial times-- is really fascinating. I had no idea that colonial women would dismember Native captives with their bare hands if given half a chance.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:43 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Er, whoops, looks like that's my mistake, that article is more just on Weird Shit in General, but it's still great.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:44 AM on January 30, 2012


Retrospective medical/psychological diagnosis is a plague on historical understanding. Not a plague of locusts, because we understand those. More like a plague of blood or darkness, or a hysterical contagion among amateur (or amateurish) historians.
posted by RogerB at 8:45 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


“I don’t think there is a medical explanation for what happened. I really don’t. It has to do with the context of the time. It has to do with the Indian war that was going on. It has to do with the tremendous fear that people had of the Indians."
Being right in the middle of the unexpectedly-excellent Lies My Teacher Told Me, I was immediately on high alert when I saw that the first person the girls accused was a Native American. This is reinforced by the stuff Norton says above.

Because of the legal station of Native Americans, people were quick to accuse and gave the benefit of the doubt to whites where "benefit of the doubt" often meant something like "all their land". I can definitely see why it'd work to accuse a Native American and then the power goes to your head...
posted by DU at 8:46 AM on January 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Humans are quick to ask about the proximal cause of anything that disturbs them. I think it's something like a defense mechanism. If you can find the one thing that caused the disturbance, and learn what to do about that--no worries! You're safe. Or, if you must endanger yourself to deal with this thing, you know to keep your children away.

This was nicely illustrated in Batman Begins when young Bruce Wayne blames himself for his parents' deaths--because he was the one who asked them to take him outside. He later decided that the problem was with the criminal who did it... and shot the guy... and didn't get any peace from that, either, just more guilt from the one person who knows. So then he became Batman, and never visibly kills anyone somehow, and still hasn't really accepted that he will never beat up all the criminal scum.

Medical explanations for historical events are Batman solutions.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:54 AM on January 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


Yeah DU, that's what I was taught. Combination of the Indian war paranoia followed up with a completely legal way to get rid of people? I'm surprised it didn't go on longer.
posted by The Whelk at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The take-home from the trials shouldn’t be that poisonous plants can make you hallucinate, but that a perfectly capable, religious, and law-abiding community that laid the roots for American justice legally and conscientiously executed 20 of its own innocent citizens.
This here's the important bit, though it takes a circuitous route to get there. This is why it doesn't really matter what exactly led to a set of strange behavior three hundred years ago. What matters is that it shows the evil that can be inside decent people and respectable systems.

Speaking in an entirely nonreligious way, we've all got the devil inside us, and it's when we forget it that he comes out.
posted by echo target at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Look, clusters of young people with weird symptoms still goes on right now. We can't definitively answer them with the girls right in front of doctors at a University hospital. And we think we'll get it right for people who died centuries ago? Good luck with that.
posted by tyllwin at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now Slate is going to publish an article on how they have "proof" that the people executed as part of the witch trials where actually consorting with The Devil.
posted by The Whelk at 9:01 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


My theory is people are assholes. I've got more evidence for this than I can properly cite.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:01 AM on January 30, 2012 [15 favorites]


The gist of this - that it's the behaviour of the town that needs explaining, not he behaviour of the girls - is undoubtedly right. But I don't think the idea that 17th century people were basically just "pre-modern" savages who thought everything unexplained was due to witchcraft really stands up.

They were by no means that stupid - and we're by no means all that sophisticated, either. What annoys me about Salem is the way that in popular culture it is unthinkingly used as a synonym for 'witches', not for 'persecution' or 'superstition'.
posted by Segundus at 9:02 AM on January 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


The take-home from the trials shouldn’t be that poisonous plants can make you hallucinate, but that a perfectly capable, religious, and law-abiding community that laid the roots for American justice legally and conscientiously executed 20 of its own innocent citizens.

And we did it again just a few years ago.

We never really stopped doing it.
posted by empath at 9:03 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Well, no one was actually executed, but they were definitely persecuted for complete bullshit).
posted by empath at 9:05 AM on January 30, 2012


Yeah "wmds" or "liquids on the airplane" is the new witchcraft.
posted by DU at 9:06 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if people who have theories about 17th century American colonial witch trials are at all interested in testing their theories on 21st century West African witch trials. There are currently-existing camps in Ghana populated by women (always women) living in exile due to accusations of witchcraft. Surely, with modern techniques we could track down the traces of ergot or jimsonweed or whatever.
posted by mhum at 9:07 AM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah "wmds" or "liquids on the airplane" is the new witchcraft.

I distinctly remember a variant of "I saw Goody Saddam consorting with WMDs down by the river!" joke around 2004 or such
posted by The Whelk at 9:08 AM on January 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Medicine itself is modern. a couple hundred years ago they would have tried to cure your pneumonia by bleeding out the 'bad' blood.

However, I do feel that psychology overall tends to, er, overfit a lot and apply 'diagnoses' to clusters of behaviors, without necessarily being real, concrete things.
They were by no means that stupid - and we're by no means all that sophisticated, either. What annoys me about Salem is the way that in popular culture it is unthinkingly used as a synonym for 'witches', not for 'persecution' or 'superstition'.
We studied The Crucible in high-school and that was very much the message we were supposed to take away, including the fact it was written as an allegory about commie hysteria in the 50s.
posted by delmoi at 9:10 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's basically the modern meaning of the word "Witch-Hunt" as well.
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 AM on January 30, 2012


"You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on January 30, 2012 [19 favorites]


But I don't think the idea that 17th century people were basically just "pre-modern" savages who thought everything unexplained was due to witchcraft really stands up.

If nothing else, it doesn't stand up because witchhunts and the related hysteria are largely an early modern phenomenon; they don't really exist in the Middle Ages until very late in the period.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2012


I asked Norton if she had any idea of how we’d explain the Salem witch trials in the next century, once we move out of the medical thought-period.

Clearly someone hacked into their social media platforms.
posted by XMLicious at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum have already made the most historically solid argument about the Salem Witch Trials: Salem Possessed.

For those that can't be bothered, there's a decent book review online put together by some UGrad student some time ago.
posted by absalom at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting. Norton makes the point that people actually did believe that there were witches. We can't know how much of it was actual belief in witches and how much of it was an opportunistic way of getting rid of people. We also can't know how much commie hysteria was based on legit, wrong or not, fears about soviet infiltration. We can't even know how much of the case agaisnt sadam was based on fear and how much was trumped up.

As a species we seem to have a pathological need to identify a threat. Statanic cults, online predators, terrorists. Through experimentation we already know that people left alone will form tribes with hierarchies and rules, and will identify other groups as outsiders. This has got to be a survival trait.

My question is, if an enemy does not exist, are we forced to invent one?
posted by Ad hominem at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


If nothing else, it doesn't stand up because witchhunts and the related hysteria are largely an early modern phenomenon; they don't really exist in the Middle Ages until very late in the period.

My understanding is that the earliest witch-hunts were attempts to stamp out pagan practices which had been tolerated by the local church, but could no longer be tolerated after the Council of Trent. It was an attempt to reform and rationalize the church, paradoxically.
posted by empath at 9:36 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


if an enemy does not exist, are we forced to invent one?

Of course. An external, identifiable enemy is one of the easiest ways to band a group together.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2012


wasn't also suppression of Catharism a form of witch hunt?

Of course. An external, identifiable enemy is one of the easiest ways to band a group together.

I don't really mean a sort of pop psychology "I wanted you all to hate me so you would band together as a team" you see in sports movies. I wonder if people will unconsciously create an emeny where it isn't even possible for an emeny exist. Spirits, hostile gods or aliens.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:47 AM on January 30, 2012


I think we need to differentiate a couple of things here.

1.) The escalating panic and finger-pointing and everything which occurred during the witch trials, which probably don't have or require a "medical" explanation, and

2.) The symptoms of Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, which were diagnosed as possession, which then led to two adolescent girls being demanded to tell who was possessing them... well, there's probably a legitimate medical explanation for those initial symptoms, but whether it is relevant to much is up for debate.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:49 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also the Cathars where sitting on all the good land.
posted by The Whelk at 9:50 AM on January 30, 2012


Norton says, Even if people like Suzy Witten are right, it doesn’t tell you anything significant. That’s because the most important thing about the fits was what the people said they saw in their fits.

That's entirely a change of the subject. As Navelgazer points out, there are two factors that need explaining here: the cause of the fits and their content. Which of these is "significant" or "the most important thing" depends on one's goals. Personally, I'm more interested in the reason the girls had delusions at all (and whether they were truly delusional) rather than the reason the delusions had that particular content that they did, so Norton's sniffing dismissal is unappealing. I'm willing to accept that Witten is a pseudoscientist, but the author of this article suddenly dives from this revelation into an unwarranted hagiography of someone apparently unwilling to consider the importance of any non-social explanation.

“Whenever I go and lecture about Salem these days, one of the first questions I get is about ergot. That has sunk into the modern mentalité of people.”

When she said “mentalité,” she had me hooked. I was eating out of her hand. I can bear cleverness for only so long before I cave in to its charms. She was right—so, so right.


Was this intended to be parody? I found it impossible to read this as not being mocking, but given the rest of the article, it doesn't seem to be.
posted by painquale at 10:51 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a species we seem to have a pathological need to identify a threat. Statanic cults, online predators, terrorists. Through experimentation we already know that people left alone will form tribes with hierarchies and rules, and will identify other groups as outsiders. This has got to be a survival trait.

I don't think it's inherently pathological. But one is well-advised to be perpetually vigilant and think critically about who makes the accusations and whom they're leveled against, in addition to judging the merits and plausibility of the scenario depicted.
posted by clockzero at 10:54 AM on January 30, 2012


How very cool! I work in Salem, so this comes close to home. Literally. Have also been immersed in 17th-century America for the past semester.

But I don't think the idea that 17th century people were basically just "pre-modern" savages who thought everything unexplained was due to witchcraft really stands up.

Well, it may have been the zeitgeist and not a continuum because, as you say, witch hysteria appeared in this form, intensified for a period, and then disappeared. But I would never say that they didn't attribute the unexplained to witchcraft. Religious Puritans sought a cause for everything, but the cause was almost always in the nonmaterial world. It may be God's favor shining upon you as one of His elect, it may be Satan tempting you, it may be retribution from God for your evil thoughts, or it could be witchcraft. There was a lot of interior monologue, some of it transcribed by people, where individuals wracked themselves with questioning as to their true nature - saved or fallen - and how they should interpret strange events in light of the fate of their spirit. They also felt surrounded by spiritual forces, including those of Native people, which they didn't understand and which they feared - but it wasn't that they faulted Native people for superstitious, ignorant beliefs - they considered Native beliefs actively Satanic. So I feel sure, based on the primary sources, that at least a majority of Purians certainly accepted witchcraft as one possible cause of weird events.

“Whenever I go and lecture about Salem these days, one of the first questions I get is about ergot. That has sunk into the modern mentalité of people.”

This is 100% true. Somebody says "ergot" to me practically every week. It's a very sticky theory. I think the author is spot-on with the ways in which we struggle to make sense of nonsensical events, and the ergot theory ties things up neatly in a bow in a way which suits our contemporary thinking: medicalized, science-based, caused by some external intoxicant.

I also think it's bullshit, though. Part of the reason is that, though we know about the Salem individuals because they are famous, New England was just rife with witchcraft accusations and attacks for a few decades. It wasn't localized, and it's not as though the Parris girls' fits were an uncommon kind of expression. The victims of witchery behaved in strikingly similar ways across the New England colonies. We know a lot more detail about the Salem cases, partly due to the extremity Salem reached and due to the fame given the incidents in latter scholarship and pop culture, but all you have to do is look at court and parish records of other, far distant cases in which a girl suffered from a witch's attack to realize Salem was only unusual in degree, not in kind.

(Also, I'm not sure the scholar didn't just say "mentality.")

That’s because the most important thing about the fits was what the people said they saw in their fits.

I think that's the important thing, too - the hysteria took the form of pinning responsibility for evil or departure from what was hoped or expected on individuals who could then be excoriated. I think that's why these fits took the consistent form they did: there was a meme for it - there was an explanation, and there was an expected effect, and the victim behaved as expected - not even through their own conscious effort. Stress manifested itself, and took the form of a familiar schema suggested by and reinforced by the religious context.

I've never had that hard a time believing the fits were psychological in their basic cause. After all, I was a camp counselor for 12-14 year olds. It doesn't take much for modern kids to whip each other up, identify scapegoats, construct a narrative of accusation and demonstrate seemingly powerful (to them) evidence, and have overabundances of emotion with no real appropriate outlet. And we are not in a homogenously religiously and sexually repressive environment in which your every move and action was considered evidence of God's view of your family and your chances in the afterlife, and hence your significance in the earthly community. I've never bought medical expectations because they just aren't necessary. We've got everything we need already.
posted by Miko at 12:49 PM on January 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


(Also, I'm not sure the scholar didn't just say "mentality.")

On second thought, she probably did say the Frenchy version.
posted by Miko at 12:54 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I would confidently predict that 50 or 100 years from now there will be a completely different explanation.”

...I agree with that too, and for 50 years from now I nominate something from presently emerging brain science, like mirror neurons.
posted by Miko at 12:56 PM on January 30, 2012


But I don't think the idea that 17th century people were basically just "pre-modern" savages who thought everything unexplained was due to witchcraft really stands up.

We're not talking about '17th century people', as in the whole of humankind. We're talking about a specific group of isolated religious zealots.
posted by empath at 1:21 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Totally true, though the isolation and Native stressors are only part of the picture of why people feared witches. In Europe, witch hunts throughout the middle ages were equally fierce, and sending many more people to their deaths than ever occurred in the US. Witch hysteria wound down in Europe just as it was enjoying its last gasp in the New World, but was certainly brought here by Europeans as part of their pre-Enlightenment intellectual baggage.
posted by Miko at 1:33 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was in The Crucible as Mary Warren when I was in HS, so I memorized a lot of words I didn't bother to forget. In one scene, Abigail frightens Mary by telling her that she saw her parents' heads smashed in by Indians in their own beds. The teacher cut that from the production, but I thought (and still think) that to cut that removes an important insight into the events.

In Europe, witch hunts throughout the middle ages were equally fierce, and sending many more people to their deaths than ever occurred in the US.

Say what you like about the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they never burned their witches. I vividly recall one talking-head scholar on a TV documentary about European witch hunts -- he said that one German town, in one day, burned more than enough people to coat the buildings downwind in their town square with a tangible layer of human fat.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:25 PM on January 30, 2012


"You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."

I don't think this was Languagehat's intention at all, but I think we lose something when we claim that our current methods will be just as laughably false in the future as the older ones. Yes, every broad scientific paradigm will eventually make way for a new one, but that happens because the new ones answer more questions, better, and with greater application. Modern medical science is based on the scientific method and involves tracking of data and expirmentation which didn't exist in any real form with the paradigms of demonic possession or with the four humours, both of which were also drivenm by massive biases (for reinforcement of theocratic order and for a desire for philosophical elegance, respectively) which science in the broad sense lacks, or at least checks against with peer reviews in the interest of verifiable results. Perhaps in a future age our society will be mocked for searching for a materialistic answer for everything, but I have no problem calling our modern methods superior to what we had in the past.

As to applying them retroactively to something as distant as the Salem Witch Trials, well, lat me just say that the answer to the title question of the FPP here is "no."History will always be fuzzy. Recent history will always carry the biases of news outlets and the biases of the people reading them, and the more distant it gets, the further removed the historian will be from a personal understanding of the cultural mindsets involved. But if history has a value (which I'd posit it obviously does) then ostracizing certain types of theories out of hand seems as dangerous as accepting them due to current fads.

To wit, my personal, non-scholarly take on the "causes" of the witch trials is:

1. Salem was already a notoriously fractious town, even by the standards of the times. Prior to Parris coming to town (with Betty and Abigail) Salem couldn't hold onto a Minister, who was in every sense the town leader in that place and time. While Boston would have political struggles for the position, nearby Salem was basically a hazard position.

2. So, when Parris did come to town, and stay, his authority was bound to be pretty paramount. The town was civilly divided, but appearances were so important and so based around shows of piety that even local enemies would defer to the congregation's chosen leader.

3. It's Parris' daughter and niece who have the fits which set the whole thing off, which makes the diagnosis of possession that much more of... not just a scandal in the way we think of it today, though I'm pretty certain that aspect was there, but also a jarring and terrifying security breach of their community.

4. These people lived their lives with the specter of Satan always in the back of their minds, and read their bible and biblical teachings like we watch the news and commentators, and with a similar, and likely far more amplified feedback-loop of their worldview. And that worldview was one of Providence, where their fortunes were entirely in the hands of God, who was waged in an eternal battle with Satan.

5. This is the one I am least certain of, because I feel like my own projections of our modern times might be getting the better of me here, but Betty and Abigail are 9 and 11, respectively. I have to believe that their young age made their essential innocence presumed, even in a worldview of original sin and inescapable damnation for those not "chosen."

6. The flipside of this, of course, is that the girls were at a good age to be manipulated - even passively - into believing that the possession theory was true and then pointing fingers at those the adults already suspected. On a tangent, as much as I love The Crucible, I get a little offended by Miller's decision to age up and tart-up Abigail into a clear villain where I don't think she was one, and given the popular history of her then basically being driven out of town, living as a prostitute and dying as a teenager (unconfirmed, but such was the story of the time) it seems counterproductive of his theme, to me, for him to have altered history so as to fit with the scapegoating of Abigail which the community clearly exercised in the wake of the trials. She was a child, one who I believe was led by hints from the adults around her into not just making accusations, but accusing the "correct" people. for instance:

i. Tituba: Non-white, non-Christian, with the Natives already highly feared among the community. Plus Tituba probably was closer with the girls than with the adults of the community. Easy pick.

ii. Sarah Good, homeless and with a poor reputation, which in a community of Calvinist theology would basically mean her death warrant. Keep in mind that in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and surrounding regions there was a dominant social belief in Christian Charity. (In Sarah Vowell's exelent book The Wordy Shipmates she repeatedly refers to citizens exiled by John Winthrop for their destructive force on the Christian community, but whom he nonetheless ensured were kept safe in Boston until the end of the winter so as not to be uncharitable to them and their welfare.) In this context, Sarah Good would likely have been seen as an evil influence which the villagers had to dutifully endure nonetheless, in their own homes and with their own food. But if she were a witch... perhaps if she is in league with Satan we need not be so friendly...

iii. Sarah Osborne: Simply an outsider from the Congregation and the subject of much negative gossip. But Gossip that an adolescent would hardly be expected to form individual opinions about. Basically, someone the girls would have heard about whom the adults would approve of being accused.

7. The Putnams get in the game, for possibly political reasons. I'm not going to speculate too much here because from my understanding the belief in Satan was so steadfast and true in this place and time that perhaps even a powerful local family would not be so cynical as to intentionally exploit the fervor here to target an enemy, but Ann Putnam, Jr. definitely did just that, although she too was young (12 to 13) and perhaps simply also named names she had heard repeatedly demonized and which she knew would meet with approval.

8. Boom, town fractures explode and witch-accusations are the fad of the time for dealing with them.

And all of these aspects require no understanding of what caused the fits, aside from possibly that we're pretty sure now that it wasn't actual witchcraft. I see the academic curiosity in that question, however. Food poisoning was surely rampant at the time and communication was limited, so the ergot story makes as much sense to me as any other. For the initial fits. The initial fits aren't really the point of the story, though, and their exact cause is of only marginal interest to me.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:53 PM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


All true enough, but all of that kind of thing happened outside of Salem, too.

It was a particularly stressed town, which is why I think things went so far so fast until the verifiably unimpeachable were accused, putting an end to the whole thing. But nothing about the manifestations, accusations, or trials was unusual for Colonial New England, except for their scale.

So any theory that attempts to explain manifestations of witchery in Salem really has to be able to cover all the other locations, and not be totally dependent on the specific personalities and stressors in Salem, which account only for its intensity, not for its mere occurrence. From Margaret Jones in 1648 onward, there were scores, not only in Mass. Bay but in New Hampshire, RI, Connecticut and elsewhere, extending Southward at least to Virginia. The focus on Salem, I think, sometimes gets too particular, making it seem like some bizarre and complicated exception to normal Colonial life. The truth is, it was sort of representative of normal Colonial life, at least in the seventeenth century. That makes it harder to see this witch-eradication movement in its proper and much wider perspective.

I have to believe that their young age made their essential innocence presumed

Much older, married women were also afflicted across the colonies, as you can see on the list. I don't know that children were considered innocent so much as unformed, impulsive, not yet surely saved and thus vulnerable to Satan, and needed constant correction because of this (I haven't honestly read anything in primary sources that indicates much idea of innocence in children - I think childhood innocence is more of a Rousseau-ian romantic concept that comes along later).

There's this neat little interactive timeline/map showing the relationship of Salem houses to one another.
posted by Miko at 4:33 PM on January 30, 2012


Oh, and there's one other major factor in why the Salem trials went so far - the judge's unusually lenient admission of spectral evidence, and to convict on this evidence alone, despite church leaders' concern that it was easily manipulated by Satan. Nine of the Salem witches were convicted only on spectral evidence, which basically meant they were convicted if a single person on the stand described a dream or vision in which this person appeared to them as a spectre, and no objective evidence against them was admitted. Cotton and Increase Mather had urged the court not to admit spectral evidence in every case, because Satan might take the guise of an innocent person, but this went unheeded. After the trials, in his Cases of Conscience, Increase Mather came out with a strong statement against depending on spectral evidence, which he called "too slender to evidence the crime they sought to prove."

This eventual distancing from spectral evidence is a key development in law. The insistence that at least some evidence had to objective (who can argue with curdled milk?!) paved the way for the progression to our present-day, Enlightenment-based reliance on evidence in justice.
posted by Miko at 4:51 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Much older, married women were also afflicted across the colonies, as you can see on the list. I don't know that children were considered innocent so much as unformed, impulsive, not yet surely saved and thus vulnerable to Satan, and needed constant correction because of this (I haven't honestly read anything in primary sources that indicates much idea of innocence in children - I think childhood innocence is more of a Rousseau-ian romantic concept that comes along later).

As I said, for one thing, I'm not a scholar of this and what reading I have done on it supports what you say here, but what I meant by "innocence" is more like a psychological view by the magistrates that the girls would have no reason to lie about what happened. I'm about to tread into trickier waters and thus must be more careful with my meaning.

I think a good analogy in some respects to the mindset brought forth by these trials is that of pedophiles today. Now, in the first point of being careful here, obviously child molesters exist in real life, and do scarring damage to their victims. I'm making the comparison because in the worldview of the Puritans, witches were absolutely as real as we know child molesters to be today, and just as damaging to them if not more so.

And I think the situations bring/brought about similar levels of increased concern. Whether it's the Calvinist belief of children as unformed or our modern views, the central concept is the same: children = vulnerable, and there is a deep psychological and social need to protect them. It's not unheard-of in our age for psychologist or guardians ad lidem working with children to "lead" a child into a story of sexual abuse without realizing they are doing so. (Though I understand that this is becoming less and less common now, thankfully.)

In my criminal defense training, we had a session on how to deal with "sympathetic witnesses," which was generally a euphemism for "children in abuse cases." In these situations, as a defense attorney (which means disregarding the guilt or innocence of your client as a way of life) there are three aspects which always need to be considered.

1. The witness will be visibly scared on the stand, and understandably so. To be put in that position imposes a weight on the child to do things properly with little to no actual support up there. What support they do receive will be coming from the judge and the prosecuting attorney, and even those will be in odd spurts and in methods they might not understand and are almost certainly unprepared for. Moreover, that's not who they are worried about pleasing, because the judicial system for a child resides at home. Home is where a child gets rewarded or punished, and that fear and belief strikes to the core of a child. But to the jury or magistrate, that mostly registers simply as fear, and a fearful child elicits an instinctive, protective response from almost anybody.

2. The witness will be well trained, sometimes in a story in which many of the blanks have been filled in for them. Sometimes in a story in which they've had their own initial account rejected and/or corrected. This effort is not as cynical as I make it out here, but the prosecutors are genuinely worried about the impact on the child of taking the stand, and their theories will have biases as well, in which they change a child's story as told to them to make more sense in their adult, educated narrative of events as they understand them. As a defense attorney, one's job there is to try to suss out the details which wouldn't have been covered in this training, and use them to create either contradictions or else just shine a light on how much of the story is the prosecutor's, using the witness as a mouthpiece, but this is very difficult, because:

3. It's almost impossible to cross-examine a child and not appear villainous.

So picture defending an accused child-molester, and for the sake of this argument let's even assume that you know to a certainty that he is innocent. How do you approach the witness after she has accused your client in front of everybody? How do you restore your client's reputation?

Now, let's change the word "child molester" to "witch" and assume the same facts. Everybody in the courtroom knows to a certainty that witches are a fact of life, and one which threatens not only the safety of the children and their eternal reward or punishment, but that of the community as a whole. How do you approach the witness?

Now, take away the "vigorous defense" aspect of being a defense attorney, as well as any knowledge of the guilt or innocence of the defendant. You are impartial, and the fate of this girl's alleged tormentor rests with you and you alone. How do you approach?

That is what I meant by a child's presumed innocence.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:33 PM on January 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Witch trials in Western Society in the late 20th Century: Martensville satanic sex scandal.
posted by ovvl at 5:34 PM on January 30, 2012


"You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."

Devils, Drugs and Doctors by Howard Wilcox Haggard was written in 1929, but his insights are timeless... and seeing the swell of irrationality rising in the 21st Century, perhaps timely.
posted by ovvl at 5:46 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


How do you approach?

I see what you mean and love the analogy to a present-day court situation.

I haven't read enough court records from the late 1600s to get a good sense of how they viewed or interrogated children, though. I'm wary of extrapolating our modern views of childhood to the Puritans, so I wouldn't want to say they gave children special consideration due to visible fear, without having some examples. In some cases the fear seems not to have protected children and afforded them innocence, but to have tarred them with more doubt, particularly in the case of the children who were accused - often by other children - as witches themselves:
The notion of a child as a witch did not contradict Puritan belief. Particularly in the unusual case of Salem, witches and children alike were seen as easily influenced and potential or existing conduits for the devil...Because the devil worked through people in this way, no prior experience or knowledge was necessary to make someone a witch; thus the notion of very young, uneducated children as potent witches was perfectly compatible with Puritan belief. Cotton Mather stated this directly, remarking, "Are they Young? Yet the Devil has been with them alreadyO They go astray as soon as they are born."

In fact, Puritan practice may have made children more likely than adults in some ways to actually believe that they were witches. The historian Judith Graham notes that "Puritan girls and boys grew up in a culture that relentlessly required them to confront their sinfulness, and to contemplate the possibility of being separated from the regenerate and condemned to the palpable horrors of hell."24 Puritan doctrine may thus have worked with childhood fears to convince children of their own inherent immorality and unworthiness. In such a context, it is hardly surprising that children as young as five or seven could convince themselves that their "sinfulness" had been translated into direct collaboration with the devil. The children's confessions from 1692 support this assumption.

...Accused children, like ideal children, were religiously precocious, but they babbled confessions instead of sermons and covenanted with the devil instead of with God.
I know Puritans were exceedingly suspicious of children and alert to the slightest hint of lack of correctness, and I'm not sure there would be a presumption that they'd have no reason to lie -- because of course, the reason could be the devil at work making them lie. For the men in this situation, the head and representative and chief religious instructor in a household, any negative behavior on the part of children had to get crushed right quick, or you would soon be the one perceived as a direct danger and a community liability.

It would be fascinating to spend some time looking at what we can see of children on the stand. I've been wading through some of the documents but don't have the attention to search for children giving testimony and look for any questioning of children -- there is just a shitload of papers -- but that would be an interesting project.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Miko: Thanks for the quotes and information. This is fascinating stuff to me.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:15 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


We're not talking about '17th century people', as in the whole of humankind. We're talking about a specific group of isolated religious zealots.

The judges in and commentators on the Salem witch trials were among the best educated people in the New World at that time, and probably among the best educated people in the English-speaking world as a whole. This is a really important thing to grasp about how terribly wrong they could be--it was not because of a lack of information or sophistication for everyone involved.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:20 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Probably the biggest change we'll see in the next decade is biologists getting a whole lot more careful about their use of the word random. (Disclosure: I'm a computer security guy, which means I bust purportedly random systems professionally. That's also a declaration that I'm not a biologist, so I'm not actually speaking from authority outside a moderate hobby.)

We're about to get a lot more visibility into genes on the very large scale. It would be very strange if our predictions of this territory were particularly accurate, and I don't expect them to be. We're going to find genes different where we expected them to be the same (across twins, across tissue types, even without chimerism). We're going to find them similar, even identical, in ways that do not match models of random mutation.

What will the full sequencing of 10,000 randomly selected sperm look like? Will it look the same within a 20 year old and a 30 year old? What about the same subject, spread across a decade? This is data we have random assumptions about, but no experimental data.

High speed sequencing is Bioinformatics getting its Large Hadron Collider. The new data is coming, at high speed. And it's going to blow some assumptions up.

Natural selection is cool and all, but it doesn't actually have to be the only mechanism at play. In fact, we know it isn't. Epigenetics basically shows that there are mechanisms that take experiences in the real world and directly chemically modulate (methylate) the genome in heritable (up to seven generations) ways.

At the point where you've got environmental change modifying the genome at all, the burden of proof shifts to showing how those changes can't possibly be permanent. Good luck with that. If there's one thing I've learned from playing in bio, it's that there's always another bit, always another channel by which information is stored or sent or changed or even lost. The dichotomy between random chance and explicit design isn't going to last, and the world will end up proving far weirder than we imagined.
posted by effugas at 12:18 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


And if you're curious why I consider genomics relevant to this conversation-- it would be incredibly naive to think that biological knowledge could only have been foolish in the past, and now with Science ascendant, we know everything. Medicine got where it is only after dramatic advances in physics (optics in particular) and chemistry. Those very fields are undergoing a paired revolution in the pursuit of genomic data, right alongside a computational explosion of resources.

Biology in general and medicine in particular have historically gotten much more interesting after foundational advances.
posted by effugas at 12:23 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I totally agree, brain science is the next SCIENCE! to explain things like this. The interactions between the meat and what we call the psychological effects is where things are getting really interesting in cognitive and behavioral science.
posted by Miko at 6:22 AM on January 31, 2012


> I don't think this was Languagehat's intention at all, but I think we lose something when we claim that our current methods will be just as laughably false in the future as the older ones.

Thank you for the presumption of innocence. It rather boggles my mind that my Saturday Night Live quote could even hypothetically be taken as a claim that our current methods will be just as laughably false in the future as the older ones; I assure you that my sole intention was to get a cheap laugh.

I'd like to add that this has been one of the more interesting and educational threads I've seen on MetaFilter, and extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone who has made it so.
posted by languagehat at 6:57 AM on January 31, 2012


effugas: Congrats on stopping SOPA, btw :) Whatever you told the White House worked.
posted by empath at 7:03 AM on January 31, 2012


empath--

Wasn't just me, but thanks :D
posted by effugas at 9:16 AM on January 31, 2012


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