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Witchcraft, Spirit Possession and Heresy

Author(s): Lucy Mair


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Source: Folklore, Vol. 91, No. 2 (1980), pp. 228-238
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.
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228
Witchcraft,
Spirit
Possession and
Heresy
LUCY MAIR
THE
idea that some
people
have a sinister
power by
which
they
can do
harm to others
simply by wishing
to has been held in the
past
in most
parts
of the
world,
and it still is
today
in
many.
These are the
people
that
anthropologists
call
witches;
they may
be either men or women. Of course
people
seldom
imagine
that
they
have such
power
themselves. But if
anything
goes wrong
with
him,
or his
family
or his
possessions,
someone who believes
in
witchcraft will at once assume that one of his enemies is
responsible,
and
therefore this
person
must be a witch. Witches are
people
who
quarrel
with
us,
and use
mystical powers
to
get
their own back.
Obviously,
if
they quarrel
with
us,
we
quarrel
with
them,
but we
forget
that
part
of it. I
put
this statement in the
present
tense
because, although very
few
people
in what we call the West -
though
it's
really
the north - now think there is such a
thing
as
'mystical
aggression,'
a
great many
like to blame their own failures on others
-
on the
jealousy
of their
rivals,
or the hide-bound attitudes of their
teachers,
or
just
'the
system.'
This
propensity
is a
very important
reason
why people
believe in
witchcraft where
they
do. Another
very important
one is the
imperfection
of
medical
knowledge,
or in
many places
its near-absence.
People
can't see what
carries malaria or
measles,
as
they
can see the source of an attack
by force,
and it
is not
illogical
to
suppose
that a disease has been 'sent'
by somebody
who
couldn't or wouldn't attack
directly.
All over the
world,
people's
ideas of what witches
do,
and what
they
are
like,
have a
great
deal in common. I think there are two main reasons for this. In the
first
place,
all witches are
supposed
to be able to harm their victims without
apparently coming
near them. That
might
be left as a
mystery,
but in
practice
it
isn't. Action at a distance has to be accounted for in some
approach
to
everyday
terms. Witches work at
night
like other
criminals,
but
you
can never watch them
at
it,
as
you
can sometimes with thieves or murderers. Witches
always
have an
alibi;
they
were sound
asleep
in bed. So
they
must have some means of
escaping
from their bodies and
getting
into their victims' houses in an
incorporeal
form.
Some Africans believe that witches have a
serpent
in their entrails which
they
send out at
night
to attack their enemies.
Early European
ones were
supposed
to
have a
magic
ointment which enabled them to
slip through
a
space
as
tiny
as a
keyhole.
A
person
who is ill feels his
strength,
or his
life, being
eaten
away;
so African
witches are believed
actually
to eat their victims' flesh.
Therefore, a
general
characteristic ascribed to witches is that
they
are
greedy
for
meat; and this is
elaborated in various
ways.
Often
they
are
supposed
to
gather
round a new
grave
to feast on the
corpse.
A more rationalistic view
-
shall we call it?
-
is that
they
WITCHCRAFT,
SPIRIT POSSESSION AND
HERESY 229
cause
people
to die so as to
get
a share of the funeral feast. Sometimes
they are
said to eat infants. There is a small shred of
reasoning
here. In countries
with
little medical
knowledge, many
infants die and their death is often ascribed
to
witchcraft; why
should the witches kill them unless
they
want to eat them?
Familiar
spirits
and werewolves
may
be the
accomplices
of witches in Africa
as
they
once were in
Europe.
The second reason for the likeness in the
imaginary picture
of the witch in
places
far
apart
in
space
or time is that
everywhere
the witch is
portrayed
as the
opposite
of whatever is
socially approved,
and there are not so
many
differences
between cultures in the kind of behaviour that
they approve.
In addition to
being
thought
of as
curmudgeonly types
who bear
grudges
and wreak their
revenge
in
secret instead of
coming
out into the
open,
witches are sometimes conceived as
representing
the
physical opposite
of what is
normal; they may
be
supposed
to
walk on their
hands,
for
example.
Also
they
are
supposed
to be
guilty,
in addition
to their
witchcraft,
of all the most heinous
offences,
particulary
incest. Parallel to
the African beliefs is the elaboration in
Europe
of the idea of the Black
Mass,
in
which Christian ritual is
reversed,
and
people
dance naked in
rings facing
outwards,
eat food without
salt, trample
on sacred
objects,
and so on.
Another belief that still
prevails
over much of the
world,
even to some extent
in
supposedly
rationalist
Europe,
is that certain kinds of mental disturbance are
caused
by
some alien
spirit entering
a
person's body:
what is called
possession.
Possessed
persons go
into
trances,
they
utter
unintelligible sounds,
which are
often taken to be
foreign languages
that
they
do not
know,
they may
be able to do
horrendous
things
such as
walking
on live
coals;
and when
they
return to normal
they
cannot remember what has
happened.
The
possessing spirits may
be
good
or
evil;
evil
spirits
have to be driven
out,
but a
good spirit possesses
someone in
order to make that
person
its
mouthpiece.
Such
spirit mediums,
as
they
are
called,
learn to
go
into trance at
will,
and in that condition
they give guidance
to
people
who consult them about their troubles. And
among
these troubles the fear
of witchcraft is
prominent.
Anyone
will remember instances of both kinds of
possession
in the New
Testament. Christ cast out devils from
people
whom we would call
mad,
and the
Apostles
on the
day
of Pentecost were
possessed by
the
Holy Spirit,
and
spoke
in
so
many languages
that
everyone
who was there could understand. Pentecostalist
churches seek this kind of
possession today.
Both these
types
of belief have flourished in non-literate
societies,
or in the
illiterate sections of
populations among
whom
literacy
was limited to a
minority.
Both became matters of acute
controversy
as literate Christian churchmen came
to formulate and reformulate the bases of their faith.
Outside
Europe today, only
the victims of individual misfortunes accuse
others of witchcraft. From time to
time,
an
attempt may
be made
to
get
rid of all
the witches in a small
community
and so to
speak give
it a fresh start. Some
people may
have a
reputation
as witches which makes them
likely suspects;
or
they may
trade on such a
reputation
to make
people
afraid of them. But
they
are
never
arraigned
or
punished simply
for
being
witches. The same was true in
classical and
early
medieval times. There was a
recognised crime called
maleficium which consisted in
causing
death or
damage by
occult
means, and it
230 LUCY MAIR
was
punished
in the same
way
as other attacks on life and
property.
And
the
accusations that
ordinary people
made were all of this kind of
injury;
that
is,
if'
you
stretch a
point
and include
causing
hailstorms to ruin
standing corn, which
was a common accusation in
Germany.
But from about the thirteenth
century
in
Europe,
the church
began
to take
a
new line on witchcraft. Now it was no
longer
a sin
among
other
sins,
but
an
explicit rejection
of God and defection to his
adversary
the devil - a
heresy
that
must be rooted out.
Incidentally,
this was
why
witches on the continent were
burned;
it was not for the heinousness of their crime as such.
England
burned
heretics
too,
but we didn't treat witches as
heretics,
and so we didn't burn them
but
hanged
them.
Paradoxically,
the association of witches with the devil took
form
just
at the time when debate
began
about the
boundary
between the human
and
superhuman,
between events that had natural causes and those that must be
explained by supernatural
intervention. Some of those who took
part
in this
continuing
debate denied that human witches could do
any
of the mischief
attributed to
them,
but
very
few
thought
it could not be
supernaturally caused,
and of course the
suprenatural agent
must be the devil. There was also a view
that when bad weather was
coming anyway,
the devil let the witches think
they
were
producing
it. But whether or not the witches were
misguided,
whether or
not
they
could do
genuine harm,
whether or not
they
had
expressly
sold
themselves to the
devil,
the received
opinion
was that
they
must be in
league
with him. And this defection to the
enemy
was far more serious than the
particular
actions of which
they
were accused.
The church
began
to be
seriously
concerned about
heresy
at the time in the
late twelfth
century
when the Catharist
religion
flourished in southern
France;
this was a
puritancial populist
movement which in
many ways anticipated
the
Reformation. The Cathars were sometimes accused of
having
made a
pact
with
the devil and
honouring
him in ritual. A crusade was launched
against them,
many
of them were
massacred,
and the Dominican Order was
given
the task of
seeking
out and
extirpating
those that were left. This was the
origin
of the
Inquisition.
Their method was the one that is
used
against
all secret
subversives,
to
get people
to
betray
their
friends,
or at least name
persons
who had been seen
at their
gatherings.
The
Cathars, then,
had been accused of
compounding heresy by
devil-
worship.
The next
step
was to treat
devil-worship
as a
heresy
in itself. This was
never a matter of
great
moment to the
simple
folk who
suspected
their
neighbours
of
maleficia,
and it was
they
who
brought complaints
to the courts.
But the
judges,
instructed
by
the
theologians,
worked a mixture of folk-beliefs
into an elaborate
theory
of the behaviour
by
which
you
could
recognise
a
witch,
and that was what the accusers had to
prove.
The witches' sabbath was at the
centre of this
mythology,
and
a
large part
of the
interrogation of accused persons
consisted in
putting pressure
on them to name others whom
they
had seen at
those rites. This was not a feature of
English witch-trials; an American writer
says
this shows how
primitive
our witchcraft was
(H.C.E. Midelfort, Witch-
Hunting
in Southwestern
Germany, 1972, p. 234).
How did
Europe eventually
come to
reject
what
nearly everyone today
thinks
is a
farrago
of nonsense? Of course this was not a matter of an instant
WITCHCRAFT,
SPIRIT POSSESSION AND HERESY
231
enlightenment through recognition
of the laws of
physical
causation. A few
writers -
Montaigne
was one - ridiculed the whole belief
system,
but
public
opinion
in
general
moved
only slowly
from
partial
to total
scepticism.
In France a
very important
influence was that of
lawyers
concerned
with
criminal
justice.
Their
argument
ran like this:
granted
that there are
witches, and
that
they
are in
league
with the
Devil; granted
that their crime can never be
detected
by
normal
means;
all the
same, judges
should not be too
ready
to
accept
dubious
evidence,
such as confessions made under
torture,
the ordeal
by water,
the 'devil's mark' that witches were
supposed
to
show,
or mere
allegations
of bad
reputation.
As
early
as 1601 the Parlement of
Paris,
which at that time was the
highest
court of
justice
in northern
France,
had ruled that
anyone
who was
convicted of witchcraft had the
right
to
appeal directly
to it. From 1603 it
refused to
recognise
the
validity
of the ordeal
by water,
in which a
person
was
proved guilty
if he
(or she)
did not drown. In 1640 it
gave up
the
prosecution
of
people
accused of
making
a
pact
with the Devil. The church
too,
in the
persons
of the
theologians
of the
Sorbonne,
asserted as far back as 1615 that
nobody
should be condemned on the word of the Father of Lies.
In this
century
there
began
to
appear
a difference between rural and urban
witchcraft. Accusations of what
might
be called
ordinary maleficia
went on in the
country,
but in the cities there
appeared something
new. This was the idea that
devils had entered convents and taken
possession
of
nuns,
sometimes
many
at a
time;
some
priest
was held
responsible,
and when he had been condemned to
death the devils
usually departed.
There was
nothing
new in the exorcism of devils. What was new in these
dramatic cases was that the exorcisms were
performed
in
public.
For the church
authorities
they
were a continuation
by
other means of the
physical
warfare
between Catholics and Protestants that had
raged
in the sixteenth
century.
The
Devil was in
league
with the Protestants
-
or
they
with him.
Anyone
who
doubted the
guilt
of the
accused,
let alone the
genuiness
of
possessions,
was
siding
with the
enemy.
Of the crowds who came to watch the
exorcisms,
many
no doubt were edified at the
spectacle
of these
spiritual
combats and terrified at
the
strength
of the
adversary's resistance,
and some were
persuaded
to return to
the Catholic faith. But others took it like a
fair-ground
show.
The most famous case was that of the Ursuline sisters of Loudun. It has
inspired novels,
a
play,
a film and an
opera,
all
emphasising
the sexual
frustrations of the
nuns,
which
certainly played
their
part
in the events. But this
aspect
of the
story
is of minor
importance
in the context of the wider issues that
divided France at that time. Most of these were illustrated at some
point
in the
drama of Loudun.
Loudun was a smaller city than Belfast, but it was as deeply divided between
Protestants and Catholics. It was one of the
strongholds
which the Protestants
were allowed to
keep
at the end of the
religious
wars of the sixteenth
century,
where
they
had their own
garrisons
and
governors
of their own
choice; and at
first
they
didn't allow Catholics to live there. But this
arrangement was
only
meant to be
temporary,
and it came to an end in 1624. After that Richelieu set
about
demolishing
the fortresses.
232 LUCY MAIR
In Loudun Catholics had been
steadily returning.
Various
religious
orders
had
established themselves in the
town,
and in 1626 there was founded a
small
convent of the
Ursulines,
a
teaching
order that was first created in the
early days
of the Counter-Reformation. In 1631 Richelieu ordered the walls of Loudun to
be
pulled down,
and sent an
emissary
to see to
it;
his name was Martin
de
Laubardemont.
In the
city
there was a
priest
called Urbain
Grandier,
a
handsome,
intellectual
and
arrogant man,
who made
enemies,
as such men do. He was critical of
the
mendicant
orders,
he wrote a tract
against
the
celibacy
of the
clergy,
and he had
Protestant
friends,
among
them the Governor of the
city.
His sexual adventures
were
widely known; they
were
unseemly
in a
priest,
but far from
unique
in those
days.
He
joined
in
protests against
the destruction of the walls of Loudon. He
was asked to become the
spiritual
director of the
Ursulines,
but he refused. The
man who
accepted
the
post
was called
Mignon,
and he was
already
an
enemy
of
Grandier.
In 1632 first the
prioress,
Sister
Jeanne
des
Anges,
and then all the
nuns,
began
to show
signs
of diabolical
possession;
as one of the most
striking,
the
prioress
was said to have been seen
walking
on the roof of the convent. Father
Mignon
tried to exorcise them.
They insisted, through
the mouths of their
devils,
that Grandier was
responsible
for their afflictions. Grandier's enemies
had
already brought
various
charges against him, though
not
charges
of
witchcraft,
and he had
successfully
defended himself to both civil and
ecclesiastical authorities. Now he
appealed
to the
Archbishop
of
Bordeaux,
and
the
Archbishop
sent a doctor to examine the
nuns,
and then ordered the
exorcisms to cease.
The affair took on
political significance
when it came to the notice of
Laubardemont,
who had clashed with Grandier at the time when the Loudunais
were
trying
to
preserve
their fortifications. Two of the
high-born young
ladies in
the convent were his
cousins,
and when he learned from their families what was
going on,
he
got
a
special
commission from Richelieu to make an
investigation.
Exorcisms
began again,
and now
they
were held in
public.
Platforms were set
up
in the
churches,
and the
possessed
women
lay
and writhed on them while two
or three exorcists
together might try
to
compel
the devils to leave their
victim,
and members of the
public
climbed
up
to
get
a
good
view. The news
spread
all
over
France,
and
people
came in
crowds,
one or two even from
England,
to see
the battles with the
powers
of darkness. The visitors
gave
alms to the
convent,
which
considerably
increased its revenues. Richelieu
paid
the
expenses
of the
official
exorcists,
but others offered their
help;
friars of different orders
competed.
Laubardemont set
up
a tribunal of his own to examine
Grandier,
disregarding
the local court of
justice;
most of the members were Grandier's
enemies. In what was a
speedy process
for those
days, they
found him
guilty,
tortured him to make him name
people supposed
to have
joined
him in the Black
Mass, which he refused to
do, and couldn't have done
anyhow,
and had him
burnt at the stake before a crowd of six thousand
people.
But the
possessions went
on,
and now
anyone
who had
spoken up
for Grandier
was liable to be accused. But
by
this time Richelieu had had
enough. People
began
to think the nuns had
acquired
a sort of addiction to
exorcism; and it was
WITCHCRAFT,
SPIRIT POSSESSION AND HERESY
233
noticed that at other times than the exorcism sessions
they
conducted their lives
in a
perfectly
normal
way.
Richelieu transferred the
responsibility
for exorcism
from the
Capuchin
Friars to the
Jesuits,
and the new confessor whom
they
appointed
dealt with his
penitents
in
private.
Then the Cardinal ordered the end
of
exorcism,
and with that
possession
too came to an end for most of the nuns.
The
political
destruction of Protestant Loudun had been
achieved;
Grandier's
friend the
governor,
who had
always
stood
up
for
him,
had been assassinated. If
Richelieu had also cared about the destruction of
Grandier,
as some
thought
he
did,
that too had been
accomplished.
Of course I am not
trying
to make out that
Richelieu
gave
Laubardemont his mission
simply
for that
purpose;
Richelieu
was committed to the restoration of the Roman
religion
and Laubardemont was a
fiercely
orthodox Catholic. I am
just offering posssible
reasons
why
Richelieu
lost interest in the case at the
point
when he did.
The
story
shows
very
well
how,
in a case where
guilt
or innocence can never be
really proved, people
are influenced
by
their interests on extraneous issues. It is
not that
anyone necessarily
made accusations that he knew to be
false,
but rather
that their
judgement
was affected
by
their
preconceptions.
It is
always easy
to
assume the moral
obliquity
of
people
who
disagree
with
you,
and this is the
easier when
right
views are held to be
inseparable
from adherence to
religious
doctrine. Liberal humanism
suggests
that these issues should be
kept separate;
the
political
creeds that seem to be
taking
its
place
are closer to those of the devil-
hunters. In this case some Protestants
questioned
the
genuineness
of the
possessions
because
they really
doubted
it,
others because Catholics
accepted
it.
People
who stood for local
autonomy against royal
absolutism resented the over-
ruling
of the local
judiciary by
the
king; naturally many
of them were
Protestants. Catholics
thought
it was evidence of an alliance with the Devil to
doubt that he was
responsible
for the afflictions of the
nuns;
naturally they
thought
the Protestants were his chief allies.
Laubardemont,
for his
part,
was so
deeply
committed to the
king's
cause that he saw
opposition
to
royal authority
as
itself a kind of
heresy.
These events have their
place
in
history
because of the discussions
they
raised
about the
way
to treat accusations of witchcraft. Of course the
question
whether
there was such a
thing
had been debated for a
very long
time. But without
entering
on
dangerous religious ground, people
could consider two
questions
more
carefully
than
they
had in the
past.
One was what evidence should be
regarded
as
enough
to condemn a man to
death;
that
preoccupied
the
lawyers.
The other was the
possibility
that the women who were
supposedly possessed
were
simply suffering
from
hysteria.
This was a
subject
that had
preoccupied
medical men for a
long
time
too, though
the
explanations
that
they
offered for
hysteria might
seem to us bizarre. But
they very sensibly
asked in this case
whether
any
of the nuns' contortions were
really
more than could be done
without
supernatural
force. Both
they
and the
judges
asked whether
possession
was sometimes faked. The devils were
supposed
to
speak
in
languages
that their
victims didn't
know; this was one of the
recognised marks of
possession.
The
doctors noticed that the devils themselves didn't seem to know much
Latin, and
one said it was odd that
they
had such a
strong provincial accent.
For those who
accepted
the
reality
of
possession, there was
yet
another
234 LUCY MAIR
possibility;
it could be
interpreted
as a mark of divine
grace.
Satan could
not
afflict
anyone
in this
way
unless God allowed
it;
so God had honoured
the
Ursulines
by submitting
their faith to such a
rigorous
test. In another case of
this
kind,
a nun who was asked whether she had been
possessed
said that God had
not
done her that honour. Sister
Jeanne
de
Anges began
to be visited
by good
as
well
as evil
spirits.
She had visions of her
guardian angel,
a beautiful
youth.
On
one
occasion when she was at the
point
of death Saint
Joseph appeared
to her
and
restored her with a
sweet-smelling
ointment. The shirt on which the
ointment
had been
dropped
effected miraculous
cures,
and even assisted the birth of
Louis
XIV. Her
angel
told her to make a
pilgrimage
to the tomb of St.
Franqois
de
Sales,
and this became a
triumphal progress,
in the course of which she
was
received
by
Richelieu and
by
the
king
and
queen.
Later the
guardian angel
inspired
her with secular as well as
spiritual wisdom,
and
people
all over France
consulted her on their
problems
with lawsuits and
marriage plans, just
as
today
in the third world
people
take
comparable problems
to
spirit
mediums and
shamans. Her emotional interests were directed towards her new confessor and
towards Laubardemont.
Just
because this case was so
notorious,
it stimulated debate on the
general
question
of the
judicial
treatment of this kind of accusation. As I mentioned
before,
the Parlement of Paris
gave up prosecutions
for witchcraft as
early
as
1640, though
it still had to decide on cases sent
up
to it from lower
courts;
in
those cases it
usually
reduced the sentence. As the
century
wore
on,
the
authorities came to treat the
supposed
victims of
possession simply
as
disorderly
characters. Their accusations
against
others were not taken
seriously,
and
they
were turned out of cities or locked
up
in madhouses. This is
certainly
an
indication of
increasing scepticism.
But another reason for a
change
in attitudes
was not
directly
connected with
arguments
about natural causes. This was the
extension of central
authority
under Louis XIV. In the field of law this
brought
many
local courts under the
jurisdiction
of
superior ones,
and enabled the
Parlement of Paris in
particular
to enforce its
ruling
that convictions for
witchcraft must be referred to it. Their
ruling
was resisted for some time
by
many
lower courts where
judges
often shared the
popular beliefs; also,
taking
a
strong
line on witchcraft was
entangled
with
standing up
for
autonomy.
In the
reverse direction there was one occasion when a
royal
official insisted on the
condemnation of a witch
simply
because the local court
opposed
it. The issue
here was a
purely political one;
but as it
happens,
in most cases the central
authorities took the more
sophisticated
view.
In
England
it was the Protestants who took the offensive
against
the enemies of
God.
They rejected exorcism,
but
they
still believed in demoniac
possession,
and
that human
malice
could cause it. Their
remedy
was
prayer
and
fasting,
which
no doubt was
equally
effective with exorcism. But
they
too sometimes
experienced relief at the moment when an accused
person died; and some
people
reverted to the Catholic church when it seemed to offer a
stronger defence. The
death
penalty
in
England was
imposed
in these cases not for
heresy
but for
maleficia.
The most famous case in a Protestant
country,
and the last famous case in
history,
is that of the witches of Salem in Massachusetts. The divines of New
WITCHCRAFT,
SPIRIT POSSESSION AND HERESY
235
England
were indeed
greatly
concerned with the
extirpation
of
heresy,
but
that
was not the issue in this case.
Nevertheless,
Satan was involved. The colonists
of
Massachusetts believed that New
England
was an
outpost
in the War with
the
Devil,
and this
metaphor regularly
coloured their
preaching.
Salem was a
tiny village,
with a
population
of some 200 adults. It had been
first settled about 1639 in the hinterland of Salem
Town,
and it was attacked
by
the Devil in 1692. The afflicted
persons
there were
mainly
little
girls,
and
nobody supposed
that God was
honouring
them
by allowing
the Devil to assault
them. But it was
supposed
that the New
Englanders
as a
body,
a
people
especially
chosen
by God,
were for that reason
subjected
to
particular trials,
and
the
activity
of witches was one such trial.
Again,
none of the afflicted
girls
of
Salem turned out later to be a saint. But all the same there is a
point
in common
here between
my
two stories.
Nobody thought
the Salem
girls
had been
divinely
inspired.
But some
forty years later,
more
young people
in
Massachusetts,
this
time in
Northampton, began
to manifest
just
the same kind of
symptoms,
and
this time
nobody thought
the Devil was at work. Their
'fits,'
as
they
were called
in
America,
were
interpreted
as an
'outpouring
of the
spirit' repeating
what had
happened
at the
original Pentecost,
and
pointing
the
way
to the
millennium,
the
kingdom
of God on earth. In this case the
inspiration
-
in the strict sense of that
word -
was the
precursor
of a
major religious
movement in American
history,
what is called the Great
Awakening.
Its followers claimed to be
returning
to
just
that
austerity
of life that Salem
Village
stood
for,
as we shall see. Of course
authority
was
against them,
but this time the lines were not drawn on the
analogy
of a
holy
war. In the context of
my present theme,
the contrast between
1692 and 1735 shows that in America as in
France,
and as earlier in
Judaea,
the
same kinds of disturbance could
equally
be ascribed to the
powers
of
light
and of
darkness.
In Loudun the devils had attacked the house of a
religious
order. In Salem
they
first attacked the house of a minister of
religion.
In Salem the minister was not in
league
with
them,
he was the
champion
in the
fight against
them. But he too was
at the centre of a conflict that had more than a
religious significance.
The
division of the
people
of Salem
Village
was between those who wanted to share in
the
prosperity
of Salem Town and those who wanted to cut themselves off from
it;
between those who held to the Puritan values of
austerity
and those who
pursued
that
acquisitiveness
that we have been
taught
to call the Protestant ethic.
In the New
England theocracy
the autonomous
political
unit was a
parish
with
its own minister. So the division of views in Salem was
crystallised
in
opposing
attitudes towards the
appointment
and maintenance of a minister. The minister
in
question
was the Reverend Samuel Parris. He was in the uncomfortable
position
that one faction of the
villagers
had
duly appointed him,
but the other
was
refusing
to maintain him. It was his small
daughter
and her cousin who first
began
to suffer from what their elders called
distempers
and
fits, troubles
beyond
the resources of the
village
doctor. The children were
badgered
to
say
who was
amicting them, and
eventually they
came
up
with the names of three women.
These women were
duly
examined and sent to
prison,
but this didn't end the
afflictions.
More and more
girls
were
possessed, and more and more names were
given. Naturally
these must have been the names of
people
whom their elders
236 LUCY MAIR
disliked;
as time went
on, they began
to name
people
in other towns whom
they
cannot even have known
by sight.
The accused
persons
in Salem
Village,
not
all
of them
women,
were
questioned
in
public;
the
girls
were
present,
and
they
shrieked and
generally
made disturbances when
people appeared
who
they
said
were their tormentors. In
all,
nineteen men and women were found
guilty
and
hanged.
Then the trials came to an
end, though
the
opposition
to Parris went
on
for another five
years,
until he
gave up
and left Salem.
If there were
any people
in New
England
who doubted the
reality
of witchcraft
and
possession by devils,
none of them said so at that time.
Nobody questioned
the existence of the Devil. But the ministers of
religion
who were the leaders
of
thought
in that
society
did ask whether all
reports
of
possession
were
genuine,
and
they
did ask whether
people might
not sometimes be condemned to death on
insufficient evidence. The famous Increase
Mather,
one of the first Presidents of
Harvard,
and his son Cotton
Mather,
both
spoke
and wrote on this
subject.
Cotton Mather's discussion of an earlier case of
possession
shows that he was
very
credulous
by
modern standards. But he did
argue
that the victims
might
have
brought
their troubles on themselves
by deliberately trying
to
get
in touch
with infernal
forces,
as the first Salem victims did.
During
the Salem crisis he
wrote a letter to the Governor of Massachusetts which
urged
both the
'vigorous
prosecution
of
proven
witches' and 'a
very
critical and
exquisite
caution' in
judging
the evidence. It was a sermon
preached by
Increase Mather that
finally
led the Governor to end the trials and forbid further
prosecutions.
As the doctors
had done earlier in
France,
Mather
argued
that the contortions of the victims
could,
as he
put it, 'proceed
from nature and the
power
of
imagination.'
He
recalled a notorious case of fraud that had
recently
been detected in
England.
But
in
particular
he criticised the
appeal
to what was called
'spectral evidence,'
the
belief that the Devil
might appear
to one of the victims in the form of the
person
responsible
for his
possession.
Of course this idea
opens up
unlimited
possibilities
of accusation. For some
strange reason,
the
people
of Salem
thought
the
testimony
of children to such visions was
particularly
reliable because of
their innocence. Increase Mather
argued,
on the same lines as Grandier had in
his own
defence,
that it was
utterly
inadmissible to take as reliable evidence
communications from the other world which
might
have been sent with intent to
deceive. He asked 'whether it is not
possible
for the Devil to
impose
on the
Imaginations
of Persons
Bewitched,
and to cause them to believe that an
Innocent,
yea
that a Pious
person
does torment
them,
when the Devil himself
doth it.' And he concluded with an
uncompromising
statement of his
position:
'This then I declare and
testifie,
that to take
away
the life of
any one,
merely
because a
Spectre
or
Devil,
in a bewitched or
possessed person,
does accuse
them,
will
bring
the Guilt of Innocent Blood on the Land where such a
thing
shall be done.'
Hardly were the trials over when the people of Salem became appalled at what
they
had done - not least because a
girl
whose own
grandfather had been
hanged
confessed that she had
wantonly
accused him. There were no more witch trials
- but not because New
England
had
rejected
its belief in the devil and all his
works. That was as
strong
as ever.
In this case we know how accusers and defenders were
aligned because both
WITCHCRAFT,
SPIRIT POSSESSION AND HERESY 237
sides were
constantly signing petitions
and manifestoes on the
subject
of Parris's
position
as minister. And we know the characteristics of the two sides from the
brilliant work of two American
historians,
Paul
Boyer
and
Stephen
Nissenbaum
(Salem Possessed:
The Social
Origins of Witchcraft, 1974). They
have combed the
records of this
tiny community
in a
way
that no one has done with the data from
Loudun,
and
they
know the actors in the drama as if
they
had
grown up
with
them. The most obvious division was
geographical.
Parris's
supporters,
who
were the
accusers,
lived on the landward side of the
village,
his
opponents
on the
side that looked towards Salem Town. But what was
significant
was not a matter
of
being
near the town but of attitudes towards it. Salem Town had
grown
in
fifty years
to be the second commercial
port
of
Massachusetts,
and the
growth
in
its
prosperity
had
brought
with it
great
differences in
wealth,
as it
always
does.
The
leading men,
those who were elected to
political office,
were not farmers
any
more; they
were
merchants,
and
they
were better off than
any
farmer. Members
of the faction
opposed
to
Parris,
who defended the accused and
opposed
the
trials,
were
markedly
richer than his
supporters.
And while
they got richer,
the
farmers
got poorer
as there was no more land to
open up.
Several of the anti-
Parris faction lived
along
the road that led to Boston.
Along
this road came news
both from Boston and Salem
Town; along
it were taverns where news circulated.
Salem
Village disapproved
of
strong drink;
ministers said that
young
men who
went to the taverns were 'seldom
away
before Drunk or well
tippled.'
One of the
inns was licensed to sell drink
only
to what we call bona fide travellers. Two inn-
keepers
were
hanged
as witches.
This is a
description
of the
types
of
person
who
supported
and
opposed
the
separation
of Salem
Village
from Salem
Town,
a
separation
that was
epitomised
in the
presence
of Samuel Parris as minister. It is not
quite
so
easy
to find
common characteristics
among
the
people
who were accused of witchcraft. One
that is mentioned
by Boyer
and Nissenbaum would not
surprise
an anthro-
pologist. They
were all outsiders to the
village;
that
is,
they
had not been born
there. A more
unexpected finding
is that
they
were all
socially mobile, though
not all in the same direction. Some had come
up
in the
world; they
had incurred
the
unpopularity
that is often the
price
of that kind of success. Others had
fallen,
and did not
accept
their lower status in the deferential manner of
people
who had
been born to it.
I said there was no
express question
of
heresy
in the Salem
prosecutions.
But if
you
assume that the established order is the
right one,
and if
you
believe that
there is a
Devil, you
can
easily
believe that those who subvert the established
order are in
league
with him. He can lead
people astray
in matters of morals as
much as doctrine. The order that Parris and his friends were
fighting
for was
that of a
closely-knit community
in which
every
member
put
the commands of
God and the
good
of the whole before his
private
interests.
They
were
fighting
a
losing
battle
against
the attraction of new
opportunities.
The
opposition
could
not be
readily
formulated in the
way
that
arguments
about the
validity
of
exorcism could. It is
Boyer
and Nissenbaum who have formulated for us the
troubles of a
community
where the New
England clergy
could see
only
'a
spirit
full of contentions and animosities.'
When I
spoke
of Loudun I
emphasised
the conflict of material and
political
238 LUCY MAIR
interests that surrounded the
question
of
heresy,
and of the
agency
of the
Devil
in the afflictions of the nuns. I have
argued
that there was such a conflict
in
Salem too. I am not
trying
to see moral ideas as a mere reflection of
the
infrastructure. I
only
think it is reasonable to
suppose
that
nobody espouses
views that are
plainly contrary
to his interests. It is the sense of the
moral
obliquity
of
your opponents
that leads
you
to believe that the Devil has
inspired
them. But there is more to it than a
pure certainty
of
being
on the Lord's
side.
Boyer
and
Nissenbaum,
here
following Perry Miller, argue
that it was the
internal conflicts of the Salem
villagers
that
inspired
their conviction that
witchcraft was
destroying
their
community.
The trouble was
that,
in Miller's
words,
'the
wrong thing
was also the
right thing.'
If the saints
pursued
their
calling
with the
diligence
that God
commanded,
some of them were bound to
make a commercial
success,
and with this would come the
enjoyment
of the
things
of this world that their doctrine condemned. The
argument
resembles
that of Dr. Norman Cohn when he writes of
'Europe's
inner Demons.' To him
the
ascription
to heretics of an alliance with the
Devil,
and the
outrageous
fantasies that
go
with
it, express
an unconscious resentment of the
very religion
that is
ostensibly being defended,
a
Christianity
whose
precepts
are too hard to
follow.
I would like to conclude
by mentioning again
the
light
that these stories throw
on the
ending
of trials for witchcraft. In both stories it is clear that this did not
happen
because the idea was
rejected
as
impossible.
The
people
who were most
influential in both cases were concerned with fair
trial;
it was the value of the
evidence that was used that
gave
them
doubts,
and in
France,
rather more than
in New
England, they
also considered the
possibility
of other causes in
particular
instances.
Judges
dismissed
cases,
and
eventually
the
public,
after
grumbling
a
good deal, gave up bringing
them. In France it was made
illegal
to claim to
detect
witches,
as it has
regularly
been in British colonial law. In
England
the
law
making
witchcraft a crime was
repealed
in
1736,
but
judges
had been
rejecting
indictments for some time before that. If it is a mark of
enlightenment
to abandon the
prosecution
of
witches,
and indeed it
is,
historically
the
enlightenment
has been that of a concern with
justice
rather than of an
acceptance
of natural science.