Listicle history: 5 Ways to Explain the Salem Witch Trials

Social discontent has been catalytic throughout history in the production of scapegoats. In the Salem of 1692, however, it was failure on a different level that produced some of the most inexplicable scapegoats in human history, transcending the Old World and the New: witches. Here are some of the ways historians have tried to explain the infamous Salem witch trials:

  1. Mini Ice Age

Unlike sociological tags like virginity or disability, an economic downturn or a failed crop can affect all members of a generalised area. This is perhaps why historians in recent years have theorised that Salem can be explained by way of economics and natural sciences. Emily Oster and Alan Woolf separately examined weather and agriculture in regards to witchcraft, finding that trials occurred across Europe in direct correlation with significantly colder or more extreme meteorological conditions. The crop failures winter 1690 and autumn 1691 (generally attributed to the ‘little ice age’ of 1680-1730) demonstrate how failure to provide and failure to own could have triggered colonial anxiety. In an insular, highly theocratic society, failure was not attributed to the dominant social group of white Puritan men, rather to marginalised groups within that society (white women, Native American women, publicly disliked men, etc.).

  1. I pick the apples, I own the apples

The colonisation of New England coincides with the rise of what we now call ‘Lockean philosophy’. John Locke was a widely influential British philosopher and physician, and he wrote an essay titled ‘The Second Treatise of Government’ in which he envisioned a unidirectional gain relationship from the land whereby the act of labouring over nature turns that element of nature into private property. Meaning, essentially, if I pick apples off that tree, the apples are mine. If I plant seeds in this field, the land is mine. It’s very possible the Americas could have been read as what we now call the ‘Lockean Wilderness’- a land where all this and more was still possible. It was less and less possible in England, where common arable land was increasingly bought up by the landed gentry. This comparison was first put forth by Paul Corocan in his essay, ‘John Locke on the Possession of Land: Native Title vs. the ‘Principle’ of Vacuum domicilium’. Corocan draws a parallel between Locke’s mythical utopia and England’s early sixteenth-century experience of Amerindian agriculture, to essentially say that the Pilgrims believed the American soil they tilled was truly their own, to control and convert into private property. In his account, On Witchcraft: The Wonders of the Invisible World, Salem’s Protestant Minister Cotton Mather claimed that New England was a true Utopia,” and that “the first Planters of these Colonies were a chosen Generation of Men, who were first so pure.” The Pilgrims placed great faith in both themselves and in the new land itself, but they had serious trouble farming the unfamiliar soil in unfamiliar weather conditions, during the Little Ice Age, in fact- so very deep colonial anxieties surfaced. The mythical conditions of the Lockean wilderness were not met, colonisers were unable to establish control of the land, and their devotion to God was not good enough- so the blame fell on witches.

  1. Capitalism!

In Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum claim that instability during the witchcraft hysteria occurred alongside “the emergence of a commercial economy in New England generally and the wider Salem community specifically”. In their view, what prompted accusations of witchcraft were the anxieties and resentments festering among some Salem families who were “faltering and falling behind in a society being rapidly transformed by the quest for profit and material comforts”. Richard Bushman speculated that “the growth of commercial capitalism in New England and the spread of “enlightened” learning had yielded, by the opening decades of the eighteenth century, a far more secular, competitive, litigious, and materialistic society—one in which “Puritan” piety was rapidly being eroded by “Yankee” worldliness”. Thirdly, Winthrop Jordan noted that “life in America put great pressure upon the traditional social and economic controls that Englishmen assumed were to be exercised by civil and often ecclesiastical authority.” He concluded that, subsequently, “this unfettering resulted in an almost pathetic social conservatism, a yearning for the forms and symbols of the old familiar social order.” Essentially, American capitalism in its infancy could have triggered a full-scale step back to conservative devotion. Taking a look at Cotton Mather’s book on witchcraft, it seems quite plausible. Mather wrote:

 “Whosoever travels over this Wilderness will see it richly bespangled with Evangelical churches”

“I suppose there is no Land in the Universe more free from the debauching, and the debasing vice of Ungodliness”

Cotton Mather, Protestant minister of Salem

“The first Planters of these Colonies were a chosen Generation of Men, who were first so pure…those good Men imagined that they should leave their Posterity in a place, where they should never see the Inroads of Profanity or Superstition.”


  1. Puritans hating themselves

In order to understand the New World, it is important to understand the position of the Puritan colonisers- or the Pilgrims, as they are better known. Puritanism is a religion characterised by a belief in the total depravity of man. Essentially, everything that went wrong in the life of the Puritan was caused by the devil- but God allowed the devil to do it, because humans generally suck, and they must be punished. Historian M. Norton discussed this in his research on the Salem witch trials:

“Since Puritans insisted that the devil could do nothing without God’s permission, they logically decided that God bore the ultimate responsibility.”

Norton’s thesis is supported by various surviving manifestoes, including Martin Del Rio’s The Maleficia of Witches (“For not a hair of one’s head can fall without God’s permission; nor can an evil spirit do more harm than God allows”). It’s possible the Pilgrims found it difficult to reconcile their image of themselves as devoted, God-fearing zealots with the rise of crop failures, infant mortality and illness that naturally occurred around them through the process of colonisation. They then began to believe God was punishing them, by allowing the devil to infect local populations with witchcraft.

  1. Racism

In the midst of Eurocentrism, Western ideas of non-western people and the burgeoning white superiority dogma rendered the scapegoating of America’s first people almost inevitable. The first accusation of witchcraft in Salem, according to historian Mary Norton, was against Tituba the Indian woman. Norton notes that villagers viewed Tituba’s ethnicity “as an inseparable part of her identity”. It is practical that, following three years of frontier violence and warfare, the first witch identified was Indian. This was someone who could be seen to be tormenting New England as a whole.  On top of that, the social image of a heroic, god-fearing Puritan settler depended on the existence of witchcraft and savage Indians who were well acquainted with the devil. The religious rhetoric employed to justify legitimate harm on the colony (crop failure, infant mortality, illness) needed to do so without simultaneously denying Puritan infallibility and white superiority. Essentially, there needed to be a big scary enemy to make Puritan settler’s look like heroes.

Tituba, the Indian Woman

There is an absolute cornucopia of ways we can retrospectively explain witch trials- from the dimensions of plain superstition and gender to the seemingly more obvious parameters of sexuality and virtue. No single motive can solve the intercontinental phenomena because, although we believe white women were persecuted more commonly than other social groups at the time, people outside this group were persecuted too. We cannot, therefore, settle to say that witch trialling was popularised by latent international European misogyny (though this is certainly a contributing factor. Shockingly.) The most likely explanation is that much like the witch trials of Europe in the years preceding, a witch-hunting phenomenon came about through all of the above.

And who is to say it won’t happen again?

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