Salem Witch Trials Thesis Samples
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While the problem of evil has preoccupied fervent Christians, Satan, the embodiment of evil within the Christian consciousnesses does not figure largely in the Old and New Testaments. As Christianity developed over various centuries in the West, the Devil slowly entered Christian mythology during the High Middle Ages as a formative part of the dichotomy between good and evil upon which Christianity functioned. Christians have imagined Satan in a multitude of ways, often constructing him as a grotesque figure marginalized by the hegemonic culture. The construction of the Other vis-a-vis the subaltern figure became inextricably linked with the Devil and has become formative in understanding the role of the devil in North American popular culture. Recorded demonic possessions by observers remained a gendered phenomenon despite the fact that both men and women were subject to demonic possession. Feminizing demonic possessions in popular culture functioned as a means of fortifying a gender hierarchy that subjected women to a lesser position despite their agency through idiosyncratic practices in piety. Demonic possessions of lay and religious women and the association of Satan with subaltern groups were contingent upon historical and geographical trends that ultimately reveal that popular conceptions of the Devil in the Anglophone world often reflected the trajectory of gender and race relations within these various societies. Popular culture in North American ultimately constructed these subaltern social identities as evil by using Satanic iconography, which enabled the Christian world to construct certain groups as "Others."
The Devil in the western world became increasingly associated with the sexualized female in order to fortify certain gender roles within a European framework. Often sexualized, the Devil possessed the bodies of humans via torture and temptation by Satan, thereby creating a direct link between the Devil and the human body. Women were viewed as more vulnerable than men to becoming possessed by the devil as a result of their inherent, biological weaknesses. Public treatises that circulated in American discourses argued that women's cold, moist and imperfect nature that rendered them passive and vulnerable to the temptation of the devil. Commentators penned various pamphlets about so-called witches that also blurred religion with popular culture by associating the women’s natural weakness with their susceptibility to demonic possession. Thus, women became both victims of Satanic possession as well as agents of the Devil's work as a way to reify the existing gender status quo. Moreover, moralists used the concept of the Devil to decry female vanity. When women altered their bodies through piercings, hair color change, and padding areas of their body, observers limned them as succumbing to the Devil. If they comported themselves in a sexual manner that transgressed the repressive code of etiquette expected of them, they were also accused of doing the Devil's work. Stories proliferated that presented moralistic messages decrying female vanity and glorifying purity that female saints demonstrated. Women who acted outside of societal expectations thus were juxtaposed with the Devil.
Popular culture portrayed demonic possessions, especially those that took place within religious institutions, through iconography and sensationalized accounts that further disseminated negative images of women in the media. The demonic possession of a large crowd in a religious setting emerged as primarily a female experience, as nunneries and convents emerged as theatres of the devil in the early modern era. The religiosity of women in the early modern era sheds light on why mass possessions took place in convents, and contextualizing it within the socio-cultural and religious milieu of the time period also explains why popular culture duplicated such notions in public discourse. Between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries, various episodes of nuns displaying characteristics attributed to demonic possession were recorded. These nuns displayed extraordinary physical power, cursed their superiors, decried sacred objects including the Eucharist, succumbed to fits of rage, and suffered from contortions, seizures, and even paralysis. Witchcraft, or the deliberate collaboration and collusion between a human agent and the Devil, or Satan, with the intent of inflicting harm, and demonic possession, an instance where satanic spirits momentarily take control over a human against their wishes, increasingly became conflated during the sixteenth century. Religious propaganda juxtaposed demonic possession with witch craft accusations within female convents, resulting in the execution of those subject to both. Demonic possession granted nuns the ability to "to participate in a discourse on topics from which they were normally excluded," indicated that deviance represented the only avenue through which women could exercise some agency. Propagandists and contemporary scholars articulated misogynist overtones by labeling possessed women, and thus by associated women practicing witchcraft, as "hysterical" and behaving in an aberrant way antithetical to societal expectations. Juxtaposed with the devil and ostracized within the religious context, women became muted and subjected to an inferior social status.
Carol Karlsen and Elizabeth Reis elaborate on female gender components, values, and issues associated with them in colonial America. They analyze the role of religion in the quotidian experiences as well as on social tensions that defined the era. The notion of evil as a potent force has existed far longer than Christianity has. Karlsen and Reis carefully study the Salem women accused of witchcraft during a three-month period between the end of 1692 and the beginning of 1693. Anne Lombard had discussed how colonial men and members of society at-large possessed ambivalent cultural attitudes towards women. She asserts that society possessed a “subterranean hostility” towards women who existed outside of the dominant heteronormative paradigm. Widows and women who refused to be governed by male patriarchs because they sought to garner their own independence functioned as the antitheses of the ideal Puritan wife and mother. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum had published a seminal monograph which argues that the witch trials were symptomatic of the social tensions that were ubiquitous in early American society. Such tensions included conflicts within the family, issues that germinated between families and their neighbors, and tensions that fomented between the pastoral and commercial areas of Salem. Karlsen and Reis contribute to this corpus of literature through an economic as well as a gendered analysis that render the accused women as threats to a masculine social order. Autonomous women threatened patterns of male inheritance, and women who refused to confess to their crimes undermined cultural expectations of women in the prevailing gender ideology.
While Lombard situates the notion of the rational male within the economic context and trends in English society, Carol Karlsen examines English common law and the social standing of women in Salem who were accused of witchcraft in order to fully articulate an argument that these so-called “witches” directly threatened the gendered economic order of Puritan society. By 1692 when the witch trials commenced in Salem, the term “witch” was imbued with a litany and meanings in the history of colonial America. It unequivocally connoted female Otherness and functioned as a mechanism that policed social deviance while also enforcing hegemonic definitions of normativity. Within the context of the Salem Witch trials, this term insinuated simmering patriarchal fears about female power in the public sphere. Karlsen looks at statistics to contend from a feminist point of view that the most vulnerable individuals to be accused, convicted, and executed for witchcraft were middle-aged, single women who had no brothers or sons and were somewhat poor yet still considered worthy of inheriting a large amount of land nonetheless. The witchcraft trials and the associated laws resulting in the loss of civil rights bolstered this patriarchal social order defined by female dependence and male hegemony. Although approximately twenty percent of the accused women were barely able to subsist due to impoverishment, educated, elite women also posed potential threats to the traditional cultural norm of female dependency. Usually, married elite women enjoyed the protection of a male patriarch and thus were immune to charges that they were witches. Women defied male authority by challenging witchcraft accusations, and Karlsen ascertained that women who were past their childbearing years yet inherited wealth from a male relative also undermined the common law practice of property transfer.
Often, the daughters of artisans, farmers, and mariners as well as again widows lacked male protection when lawsuits were brought up against them. Thus, economics played an important and complimentary role in sustaining gender hierarchies. Although English common law forced men to comply with the “widow’s third” clause, patriarchs often left their eldest son a double allotment. If brothers or sons inherited property, then clearly men retained the power. Moreover, the so-called “feme covert” law mandated that married women could not willfully own any property. Statistics gleaned from the witch trials demonstrate that eighteen of the sixty two accused witches who had male inheritors in their family were also the progeny or granddaughters of females who did not. There was extra motive to convict women of witchcraft because following the trial and execution of a convicted witch, the property of the convicted witches was subject to seizure and redistribution. The experience of women during the Salem witch trials were unequivocally shaped by the enforcement of male inheritance in Salem. Witchcraft had an economic basis with regards to inheritance and financial dimensions of the accused witches' cases.
The Salem witchcraft trials reproduced the economic order of Puritan society and policed the gender mores in early America. The cultural conception of a witch developed in conjunction with society’s discernment of women’s changing roles. Elizabeth Reis examines late seventeenth century female denials and confessions during the Salem witch trials within the context of the Puritan religion and cultural mores. She demonstrates that men coerced women to confess to witchcraft in congruence with prevailing notions that women were inherently depraved and colluded with the devil. Salient notions of male and female sinfulness provided an impetus for male accusations in order to prove that these nefarious women eschewed “proper” female comportment. Men accepted the responsibility for committing their own sins, while women charged with committing witchcraft had to prove that they were absolved of any sin, which often proved to be a futile and fatal task. Nonetheless, witnesses and petitioners who appeared in court for the accused tried to deploy this hegemonic discourse to depict the defendant as a pristine individual who lacked human flaws. Thus, the defendant would never collude with the devil.
The prosecution of witchcraft necessitated the ritualized aspect of consent, which enabled women to redraw the parameters of Puritan Womanhood. The notion of the respectable confession indicates that a relationship between gender and consent existed. In the trial of Samantha Post, the defendant’s guilty confession asserts that she had conversed with the Devil for over three years in the forms of a bird, a cat, and a black male. She had promised the Devil that she would carry out his bidding. Post admitted that she made a grievous mistake by consorting with the devil and begged for forgiveness. Ironically, her admission and pleading sealed both her guilt and her acquittal. The majority of guilty confessions functioned as a morality tale for the community, warning members that the devil only offered empty promises while also reinforcing the ideal Puritan woman. Women’s denials or confessions were not perceived as their desire to assert their defiance against authority. Rather, Reis argues that the ideal Puritan woman was one who showcased her sinfulness and dependence on others.
Christianity has functioned as a rudimentary force in shaping the contours of the western world. Despite increasing industrialization and modernization during the early modern era, the Christian worldview has remained firmly entrenched in Western society. The notion of the Devil has functioned as a potent concept in popular culture vis-a-vis written and printed materials to maintaining order in the face of chaos and reifying traditional gender and racial hierarchies. Women were constructed as biologically predisposed to demonic possessions as a result of their innate weakness and passive nature. The concept of the Devil in popular culture thus functioned as way to fortify their inferior positions. Moreover, men associated women with the Devil in order to blame them for acts of illicit sex. The nexus between sexuality and the Devil thus carried immense social and cultural currency throughout the early modern era. The Salem Witch trials were centered on conflicts of gender in relation to religiousity.
Boyer, Paul S., and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed; the Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Cadden, Joan. Meanings of Sex Differences in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Karlsen, Carol. "The Economic Basis of Witchcraft," in Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, ed. Elizabeth Reis. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1998.
Lipsett-Rivera, S. “Miro Lo Que Hace El Diablo: The Devil in Mexican Popular Culture 1750-1856,” The Americas 59.2(2002): 209.
Lombard, Anne S. Making Manhood: Growing up Male in Colonial New England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Reis, Elizabeth. "Gender and the Meanings of Confession in Early New England, " in Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, edited by Elizabeth Reis. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1998.
Sluhovsky, M. “The Devil in the Convent,” American Historical Review 107.5(2002). 1389.
Torre, M. A., and A. Hernández, A. The Quest for the Historical Satan. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.
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