Witchcraft and Land Law

“Early New Englanders,” says Mary Beth Norton in In the Devil’s Snare, “envisioned themselves as residing in… a ‘world of wonders’, in which the universe of invisible spirits surrounding them was as real as the one they could see, touch and feel. … With very few exceptions, they believed unhesitatingly in the existence of witches.”

In the Devil’s Snare is an exploration of what must be one of the most studied events in American history — the Salem witch trials. What distinguishes Devil’s Snare from the many other books written about the topic is that it seems to explore the influence of the multiple wars waged between the Native Americans and the settlers, on the accusations of witchcraft.

One thing strike a modern person immediately while reading these accounts: the sheer, blind belief in the existence of magic and evil, in the potentially physical manifestation of the Devil in people’s behavior. There are even handbooks on law and dealing with the judgement of accused people that detail the types of behaviors suffered by the afflicted.

Many of the accused were simply older, disenchanted women; women who were perceived to be not quite moral; women from families who were feuding with the afflicted individual’s family; women simply related to already accused women. From our standpoint, these seem like quite obviously biased reasons to be accusing anyone of colluding with the Devil, but the spoken or unspoken social mores and dictates must have been so strong that people simply assumed that if they were not wholly good, they must be wholly evil.

The way witches were examined is, in today’s context, laughably biased. The accuser — generally a teenager or older — would say that their afflictions were caused by a specific person; if enough people accused the same individual, the person would be brought to trial in a courtroom in which the afflicted were actually present. Then, as the examinations began, the accusers would fall into fits and cry out, saying that they saw the specters or familiars of the accused in the courthouse. Pressed to prove that they were not responsible for these afflictions, the defendant would become flustered, agitated, and eventually be arrested.

The really fantastic thing, to me, about 17th century New England wasn’t this pervasive moral policing and lack of objectivity, but the juxtaposition of these features with what seem to be complex economic and legal systems. There are extensive court records that provide detailed accounts of these happenings. There was a proper system of trade with the local Native Americans. There are letters and memoirs — written with outstandingly variable spelling — that detail the effects of the accusations on those involved. Besides the many details of military attacks, legal proceedings and so on, Norton writes about one of the accused, who had been “arrested for the unpaid debt from his wife’s funeral and other outstanding liabilities” — which seems pretty heartless. There are notes about land tracts and agreements.

What’s interesting is that there seems to be a very clear delineation between the logic and systems involved in the day-to-day operation of a community, and the logic that went into their behavior towards those who were accused of witchcraft.

Perhaps it was simply fear. Fear of a wrathful god, at whose mercy they had to eke out a living on a distant and unforgiving land whose inhabitants were none to happy to share.

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