Authors: Katherine Howe
Tags: #Body; Mind & Spirit, #Reference, #Witchcraft
THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES
, the direct descendant of three accused Salem witches, is the
New York Times
bestselling author of the novels
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
The House of Velvet and Glass,
and the young-adult novel
, a modern-day retelling of
set in a Massachusetts prep school. She teaches in the American Studies program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
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First published in Penguin Books 2014
Introduction and selection copyright © 2014 by Katherine Howe
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eBook ISBN 978-0-698-14184-1
For my parents
Marblehead, Massachusetts, is a bedroom community in suburban Boston, a comfortable seaside enclave of historic houses. It has good public schools, intermittent bus service, and a weekly newspaper that is read mainly for the juicy names-naming police log. It is not the sort of place where one would expect to find a witch.
But a witch did live there, though she is not buried there. Wilmot Redd, or sometimes Reed, was one of the more than one hundred people who was accused during the Salem witch crisis of 1692, and, like the other condemned witches, her body was thrown into a shallow ditch at the base of a rocky ledge to the west of Salem Town after being cut down from the gallows. At that time, the area at the foot of the hill where the gallows stood was flooded with brackish water at high tide, and so Wilmot Redd, after resting uneasily in the rocky earth of coastal Essex County, was most likely carried out to sea. Today the ditch she was thrown into is hidden under a pharmacy parking lot.
Redd, like the other North American witches who have left impressions—sometimes lasting, sometimes glancing—in the historical record, presents something of a conundrum. How can the English colonists who settled North America, who were relatively literate compared with their European cousins, who were reasonably thoughtful and self-examining, who lived in tightly interconnected communities dependent on collective effort for success, have believed in witches? And not just believed in witches, but also put them to death? The historical fact of witchcraft weighs uneasily in our current culture, particularly given how much symbolic, nation-building weight the colonists are required to bear in the realms of popular history.
Histories of witchcraft have often revealed more about the time in which the historian was writing than about witchcraft itself. Within each all-encompassing theory of witchcraft in the English Atlantic world came a new set of contemporary biases and prerogatives, obscuring the fact that, to the individual living in the early modern world, from the sixteenth through the middle part of the eighteenth centuries, witchcraft was a legitimate, but dangerous, category for explaining reality. Witchcraft intersected, contained, and sometimes overwrote other important social questions—most notably of gender, class, inequality, and religion—but to treat it merely as a proxy for those other ideas, because those other ideas have persisted into our own time while witchcraft has not, strips away the explanatory power that witchcraft held for the people who were touched by it.
An idea, even today, does not have to be empirically verifiable for it to matter.
A surer way to access the meaning and function of witchcraft in the early modern world is to peel back the layers of popular myth and academic historiography and to look with fresh eyes at the primary sources. What ultimately emerges is a complicated picture. The witch appears first, in biblical terms, as the Other, as that which is not doctrinaire. Witchcraft is less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power, whether that power lies with the church, with the king, or with the dominant cultural group. Under the heavy guidance of English theologians, witches and witchcraft assume a set of identifiable principles and practices, though those practices remain distilled from oppositional definitions. Witches pervert the generative properties of womanhood in their suckling of imps and their copulations with devils; they subvert the church’s authority by turning Christian rituals on end; and they undermine class hierarchy by claiming unearned power for themselves.
The English abstraction of who a witch is, and what she is likely to do, travels with the colonists to North America. While primarily a Puritan phenomenon on North American shores, witchcraft penetrates deeper into colonial life than might initially be suspected. The majority of witch trials were held in New England, though the cultural content of witchcraft finds expression throughout the colonies, and in ongoing dialogue with England. The use of English precedent as template and justification for the conduct of the Salem trials underscores the fact that Salem, rather than being an aberration, was instead the most intense, and perhaps the most defining, expression of North American religious, cultural, and legal thought.
Whereas nineteenth-century historians treated colonial-era belief in witchcraft as a faintly embarrassing holdover of medieval thought that was quickly purged, the belief in and pursuit of witches must instead be seen as a central concept informing a shifting North American identity. Even after Salem forever changed the way that witchcraft would (and, soon enough, would not) be prosecuted, belief in witchcraft persisted well into the Enlightenment. Witches served as both literal and figurative scapegoats for frontier communities under profound economic, religious, and political pressure. The figure of the witch, the idea of the witch, and the need to flush her out of her hiding place and into the light served as a binding agent among fragile communities that were subject to waves of arrival and departure, living with uncertain rights in unsecured territories. The witch—ever the embodiment of the oppositional—served a vital role in the formation of what would eventually be a new united nation. That’s one of the reasons that she and the events of Salem persist in our political discourse and in our popular culture. We need her in order to know who we are
so that we can begin to imagine who we are.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This book argues for witchcraft’s presence in the mainstream of thought in colonial North American culture, extending beyond passing fits of unreason or hysteria. Belief in witchcraft was not an anomalous throwback to late medieval thought by provincial colonists, nor was it an embarrassing blip in an otherwise steady march to an idealized nationhood. It was not a disease. It was not a superstition. Witchcraft’s presence or absence was constitutive to the colonial order. It was a touchstone that reinforced what was normal and what was aberrant. For upper echelons of society—in the world of the Protestant church and the court system—prosecution of witchcraft allowed for the consolidation of power and the enforcement of religious and social norms. For common people, belief in witchcraft explained away quotidian unfairness and misfortune. These two circles of belief intersected in the bodies of individuals, usually women, who were out of step with their society, and who were thought to have pledged themselves to the Devil in exchange for the power to work their will through invisible means.
The Penguin Book of Witches
is an annotated volume of primary source documents about witchcraft in English North America that is designed for readers interested in learning about the reality behind the fiction. Its goal is to assemble a broad array of sources, chosen for their representative value as well as their narrative power, which, taken as a whole, will leave a reader with a solid command of the meaning of witchcraft in early American life. The first chapter focuses on the legal and cultural beliefs about witchcraft in precolonial England, as the region that made the greatest contribution to the beliefs about witchcraft in colonial North America. The second chapter presents selected records of witchcraft cases from North America before the Salem panic, from the earliest hints of witch suspicion to the first confirmed witch trial in Massachusetts. This chapter does not limit its scope to New England, also looking at the few witch trials outside the Puritan settlements of northern Massachusetts. The third chapter focuses on the unique events of Salem, which, in addition to being the most infamous North American witch trial, was also the most widespread, and the most deadly. The final chapter investigates witchcraft after Salem, when witchcraft was decriminalized but remained an enduring part of American culture. Witchcraft did not vanish from North American consciousness in a sudden burst of reason and Enlightenment. It persisted as a shadowy reminder of an intellectual world that had faded but had never fully disappeared.
Witchcraft continues to fascinate us today, a fact evidenced by the ongoing popularity of witches in fiction, tourism, history, popular religion, and historical writing. Much of what we think we know about witchcraft is actually cribbed from popular culture. When we talk about witches, we imagine a Halloween stereotype of a woman with a pointy hat, broom, and cat, blended with the magic-using housewife of
, who could wiggle her nose to make a pot roast. But the real witches of early modern England and North America are not cackling cartoon characters in pointy hats. The reality of witchcraft in English North America is much more fascinating—and terrifying.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On a chilly spring day not too long ago, I lined up with my gossiping neighbors outside a modest antique house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, that dated from the late 1600s. The occupant had lived there her entire life and had lately passed away. The line was for admission to a tag sale to dispose of the belongings the occupant’s family didn’t want. Inside, the house was tiny—possibly eight hundred square feet—its walls stained with tobacco smoke, every corner crammed with the flotsam of a long and often difficult life within view of the sea. For extra space, the occupant had expanded into her unfinished basement, where one corner had been set up for sewing projects, another for laundry. One wall was filled, somewhat unnervingly, with shelves of homemade dolls. A far wall held a small spice rack of herbs next to several photographs of women pasted up, at first glance, at random.
Or not at random. The photographs were arrayed around a cutout of the earth from a science magazine. On closer inspection, the pictures of women seemed to be generations of the former occupant’s family. Next to the altar—for that is what the wall of devotional pictures proved to be—stood a bookshelf packed with well-thumbed texts about witchcraft, mostly of the contemporary post–New Age variety that dated back to the 1970s. The neighbors rooted through her belongings, bartering for candlesticks, haggling over Federal-style end tables, unaware that a witch had been living next door for three decades.
I took home her dusty mantel clock, a simple table that became my desk, and the well-loved witchcraft books. But my real joy lay in knowing that my neighbor had found a connection to history that was meaningful to her, and from which she drew empowerment. Even after witchcraft disappeared as a deadly legal problem, the belief in witchcraft persists, continuing to do its cultural work, hiding in plain sight in the staid bedroom communities of Boston.