Puritan waning power. This accusation of corruption is

Puritan society was extremely stringent in conforming to a
strict moral code, not conforming was believed to be sinful and deserving of
punishment. Furthermore, a belief in the devil was widespread, and hardships
affecting Puritan society were often explained as his doing, through “Witches”
who worked for him. Puritans believed witches could project spectres which
would physically torment people without physically moving or leaving witnesses.
Furthermore, Misogynistic Puritan attitudes led them to believe women were
particularly vulnerable to the Devils’ temptations, and therefore more
susceptible to becoming witches. These extreme beliefs made the Salem community
conducive to social hysteria, as through conforming to these beliefs they were
faced with an obligation to act against whatever they perceived as the Devils
spreading influence. In the case of Salem this sense of obligation is evident
through the Reverend Samuel Parris, who erroneously interpreted the girls
‘afflictions’ as a sign the devil had infiltrated their community and therefore
perceived it as his responsibility to remove the influence of witches. This
reasoning is beneficial in understanding how extreme Puritan beliefs allowed
such a hysteria to permeate, as it demonstrates the notion that they believed
they were benefitting and protecting society from the devil; which was
therefore justification for the excesses of the trials.

 

The conduciveness of Puritanism to hysteria was a significant
catalyst which precipitated the trials, however it was the interpretations of
the clergy which directly caused the trials. The interpretations although
rooted in Puritan beliefs were highly controversial, with many believing the
clergy were manipulating the situation for their benefit. Contemporary
historian Robert Calef believed ministers had encouraged the witch mania as
part of an effort to drive the people of Massachusetts back to the church and
thus reassert his waning power.

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This accusation of corruption is founded in the idea that
clergy would directly benefit from a resurgence in Church attendance, as in the
case of Samuel Parris the parish were responsible for paying his salary, which
prior to the witchcraft outbreak had not been paid in months. Therefore, by
sensationalising the situation and creating a “witch hunt” Parris was able to
exploit the situation, creating a sense of panic which re-engaged the community
with the church, thus increasing his influence.

Nissenbaum and Boyer further emphasise this notion of corruption,
through the case of Mercy Short, where local minister Cotton Mathers used her
“affliction” ‘not as an occasion for securing witchcraft accusations but as an
opportunity for religious edification of the community’. Mathers revived the
religious dedication of his congregation by transforming Mercy Short’s bedroom
into a gathering space for further religious practice, with as many as 50
people participating in prayers and Psalms. At one point this took place almost
nightly for a month. Thus, demonstrating the value, he recognised the situation
provided and further emphasising the clergy’s capitalisation on the situation. Some
modern historians have contradicted this interpretation of corruption,
particularly Samuel Eliot Morrison, who ‘found that Mather had kept a cool head
in dealing with the witches and spoke out against excesses during the trials’,
however this interpretation ignores the role Mathers played in guaranteeing the
execution of his rival, Minister George Burroughs. At his execution, Burroughs
contradicted Puritan teachings by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, something witches
were supposedly incapable of. Mathers however intervened and claimed to the
uncertain audience ‘the devil often had been transformed into the Angel
of Light’ which was why he was capable of reciting the prayer, thereby ensuring his death. Mathers
intentional intervention in causing a transpiration of the accusations into
executions, furthermore highlights a distinct corruption within the puritan
clergy, as it demonstrates an abandonment of his religious morals for his
personal benefits.

The clergy’s role in providing an interpretation of the girls
initial “afflictions” expands further to the role of Salem’s heavily sexist
community which caused the accusations to escalate into a hysteria.

The primary group accused of witchcraft was women, many of whom
defied social conventions by being old, single, childless, not attending
church, or having no sons or brothers meaning they’d inherit their families
land. By the end of the trials fourteen of twenty executed were women, thus
appearing to signify the significance of misogyny as a cause of the trials.
Reis concurs with this notion, claiming ‘the trials were mostly means of
keeping the non-conformist New England women subservient to male-ordained
authority, while also providing an answer rooted in Puritan theology.’ Reis
came to this conclusion by utilising puritan writings which provided the notion
that women were more closely connected to evil than men, which further
emphasises the influence of the puritan clergy in using the trials to benefit
their desires, in this case maintaining the subservience of women for their
religious benefit. The importance of female subservience is furthermore
demonstrated during the trial of Martha Corey, who was highly outspoken in her
beliefs that witches didn’t exist and the girls were lying, where she exclaimed
“Ye are all against me” in protest to the court, thus highlighting
the predetermined nature of the trials as ones not interested in finding truths,
but in removing people who didn’t conform to puritan values.

Feminist historian Karlsen provided an alternative
interpretation of the role of sexism as a cause for the trials, arguing the
accusers were representative of all young women in New England’s ‘fierce
negotiation… about the legitimacy of female discontent, resentment and anger’,
thus claiming that the young accusers were acting out to regain their agency
from the restrictive patriarchy. I will however argue that this interpretation
is more pertinent in the case of Tituba, the first woman to confess to
witchcraft, rather than in the case of the accusers. Tituba was a native slave
woman, owned by Samuel Parris, who prior to the trials had been the victim of
years of persecution with no hope of relief – this supports the idea that her
confession was an act of defiance intended to achieve a sense of control over
her life.

 

Tituba’s built up resentment and hatred for Parris and the
community was eventually provided a means of retribution through being one of
the first accused of witchcraft, alongside Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne. In
her confession Tituba implicated Good and Osbourne, which nullified their
previous pleas of innocence. Furthermore, Tituba made the claim there were four
witches ‘Goody Osburn and Sarah Good and I doe not know who the other were’,
this is highly substantial as it created a sense of panic that there were more
witches within the community who had yet to be caught, and therefore Salem was
in increased danger of succumbing to the devil. This was a significant cause
for turning the trials into a hysteria, as Breslaw claims “The epidemic of
strange behaviors and accusations did not spread to other victims until after
Tituba’s arrest and her several testimonies”, which therefore implies had
Tituba not made the claim that there was another witch then the trials might
not have escalated past her, Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne. Through this
understanding, Tituba’s confession becomes a manipulative punishment of the
Salem community’s prejudices, a point Breslaw builds upon, claiming that ‘by
manipulating the fears of Salem’s Puritan leaders, Tituba’s confession can be
seen as an act of slave resistance against the abusive treatment of her master
Samuel Parris, Salem’s Puritan minister.’, thus emphasising her importance in
escalating the trial, whilst further reiterating the importance of the role of
the puritan clergy in causing the frenzy.

 

Karlsen’s interpretation that the accusers were acting out to
feel a sense of increased control shouldn’t be dismissed altogether however, as
it provides the dilemma of whether the young girls can truly be held
accountable for the deaths which resulted from their allegations.

Within the Salem community opportunities for women were
restricted to marriage and motherhood, and almost all aspects of their lives
were determined by others. John Demos perceived the hysteria as a teenage
attack directed subconsciously towards their mothers who they perceived as the
source of this social repression, which is why over 2/3 of the accused were
women over 40. Through their accusations, the girls were endowed with immense power,
control over life and death. Julian Franklyn supports the notion arguing the
girls ‘found themselves mistresses of a gratifying situation whereby they held
the whole adult world of their environment at their mercy’ and were ‘only too
glad to wield the power thus conferred upon them’, this concept of the girls as
displaying pure unbridle malice is further escalated by Rossell Hope Robbins
who asserts they ‘knew exactly what they were doing’, in ‘causing death without
rhyme or reason, for sport’. These interpretations of events portray the
accusers as pure evil who sought to intentionally murder other members of their
society, yet fail to recognise the role of adults in escalating wild
accusations from imaginative children, to the execution of 20 innocents. Due to
this reasoning it is more founded to interpret events as spiralling to such an
extent that as Morison claims the girls ‘persisted in their accusations for
fear of being found out’. This interpretation is provided further credence by
Anne Putnam, one of the accusers, who later demonstrated remorse at the
situation recognising ‘I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly
and unwittingly… I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and
their families; for which cause I… earnestly beg forgiveness of God’. Putnam’s
repentance emphasises the notion that she was fearful of the significance of
her actions at such a young age, which thereby underlines the failures of the
adults, by facilitating the children’s imaginations. Had the adults determined
the children weren’t being entirely forthright and dismissed the claims of
witchcraft, the trials might have been avoided. 

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