Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I have spent some time in this early summer thinking about evil. The days are gently warm, the air is pure, and the landscape lush. It seems like Satan and the nature of evil would be better suited to late summer when the heat is a furnace blast, the mountains around Los Angeles are dried to a crisp and a raging inferno seems imminent, making us believe that the end of times is near.

I checked out a number of books from the library to do some background reading on the subject. Of particular interest was John Demos’ book, The Enemy Within: 2000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World (2008). Demos has made a study out of the history of early America, and considers witchcraft an integral part of that history. In this book, he traces the rise of witchery in Europe and its journey to America with the Puritans. He also discusses some modern witch-hunts. The book covers quite a broad scope, a swath of human evil and devious behavior all in four sections: Europe, Early America, Salem, and Modern America. His work is exhaustively researched and rendered with a clear and vibrant eye.

Demos is at his best when presenting the stories of witchcraft and then analyzing them for their factual content and truth. He dispels the rumors and clarifies the legends. In this way he presents us with a clearer idea of what went on in those Puritan courtrooms and halls of inquiry.

In the first section, Demos deals with the prosecution of witchcraft in Europe. I found the chapter that explained the Malleus Maleficarum to be utterly fascinating. This is the book written by a Dominican priest named Heinrich Kramer, also known as Institoris. He composed the book in Latin around 1486. In it, Kramer details his investigation into charges of witchery in the German town of Ravensburg near the Swiss border. Although Demos assures us that Kramer’s was not the first book on witchcraft, it is the definitive text that religious officials used during the late 1600s, a period of intense witchcraft allegations, trials, and executions.

Of course, to anyone who has taught or read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the section on Salem, Massachusetts is gripping. Demos sketches out the history of poor, saintly Rebecca Nurse, a woman who against all evidence to the contrary was found guilty of witchcraft and executed. He also profiles Cotton Mather. In the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692-93, Mather was a controversial figure who claimed success in curing people accused of witchery, usually teenage girls whom he took into his home for intense prayer and meditation. This of course led to rumors and gossip about his methods, but he claimed he had to study the victims up close to gain an understanding of their afflictions. We discover in this section that other characters from Miller’s play also were true to life: Giles Corey was actually crushed to death in an ancient procedure known as peine fort et dure. “He was laid flat while large stones were piled on his chest.” Reverend Hale, Ann Putnam, Goody Proctor and John Proctor all had familiar roles and met similar ends in real life as they did in the play, although John was not a farmer but a tavern-keeper.

Demos dispels many of the urban legends and attempts to explain witchcraft as a phenomenon. He tells us that a theory in the 1970s that the behavior was caused by ergot fungus poisoning is not plausible when compared to the facts in the historical record. He also explains how the Enlightenment thinking of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton helped to negate some of the hysteria by advancing scientific knowledge and introducing a healthy skepticism into the culture. “The momentum for prosecution did not collapse all at once,” Demos writes. “Rather, it disintegrated piece by piece, day by day, person by person.”

Demos takes pains to tell us that the idea of a witch-hunt continues today. He discusses the anti-Freemason movement of the nineteenth century, the red scare and rise of McCarthyism in the twentieth century, and the more recent McMartin preschool case as examples. He presents and picks apart in detail the Fells Acres Day School abuse case in Malden, Massachusetts, ironically the site of early witchcraft prosecutions. The hallmarks of these modern cases are leading questions of child victims, the fantastic stories spun by those victims many of which defy logic or coherence, and rabid hysteria in the face of factual evidence. The story of witchcraft and a history of Satan usually includes a deviant sexual component, so the fact that modern witch-hunts involve sex crimes is not all that different from the witchcraft prosecutions in history.

I would highly recommend Demos’ book for those reading or teaching the Arthur Miller play. Students who have a nose for the macabre will appreciate the information that Demos presents, which is of a kind not fully explored in most history books. Demos does occasionally bog down the flow of the story with a little too much dogmatic research, but he presents a thorough and complete picture of witchcraft and its history. In the end, the witchery is far less hair-raising and more tragic in its impact on the innocent victims accused of the crime. The story makes for a clear window into the psyche of human beings detailing their ability to buy into the supernatural over the rational, and revealing the normal human predilections for jealousy, greed, and power of which our history is so rife to be the true cause of this most heinous miscarriage of justice in our history.

Illustration: Gustave Dore’s The Harpies’ Wood, from Dante’s Inferno


  1. Another enlightening post, Paul. I remember reading "The Crucible" in class when I was a sophomore in high school. I don't think people realize how far back witch-hunts go.

    The Domenicans seemed so much more stern & hard-assed than the Franciscans. I think the powers-that-be in Medieval times used fear of the devil to keep people under control. Haven't read as much on the subject as you.

  2. I think we all remember reading The Crucible in high school. And fear and conformity I too believe are the prime motivating factors for scaring the hell out of people. As for the priestly orders, the Jesuits have always seemed more scary to me than any other. I guess it is the intellectual challenge they embody makes me want to give a good first impression when I meet one. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. As a final note, I am sure Cotton Mather would find this whole internet thing an act of witchery. However, I think he would have recognized the power of the blog, don't you think? Take care.


I would love to know who is commenting. Therefore, please use the selections below to identify yourself. Anonymous is so impersonal. If you do not have a blog or Google account, use the Name/URL selection. Thanks.