Tag Archives: Witch Trials

Set in Salem (sort of)

I have heard so many dreadful things about the new WGN series Salem that I was desperate to see it: our cable provider does not carry that station but I was able to watch it online and I also checked out the series website. It is indeed horrible, in more ways than one. Its central premise, that there were witches in Salem who themselves initiated the 1692 trials in a devilish divide-and-conquer strategy against the voiceless Puritans, sustains that mythology and ignores decades of research, but of course it is fiction, so I suppose all is well. Or is it? One of the series’ executive producers, Adam Simon, maintains that the history is fantasy but the magic is real and that Salem reflects all the knowledge we now have about the reality of European witchcraft. His reality is a strange mishmash of witchcraft folklore from the Continent, England, and the New World, with no cursing crones: a very sexy head witch, empowered by her very sexual pact with the Devil and aided by the very sexy Tituba, stores her familiar frog in her bewitched/incapacitated husband and prepares to face off against a very sexy Reverend Cotton Mather, whose father Increase burned scores of witches back in Essex (England, I presume, though to my knowledge Increase never visited there; he is better represented by his iconic assertion that”It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be condemned”.) Geography–a sense of place–is not a strength of this show, which is odd because it is named after a place. I get the feeling that the producers and writers don’t even know where Salem is (was): the big city is New York, not Boston, and the costume designer comments that In Salem they had more [sartorial] rules than the rest of Europe. I could go on with my critique, but I think you get the picture.

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The Streets of “Salem”, according to WGN America

This “Salem” got me thinking about other screen “Salems”, and there are many. Salem on film is a huge topic, impossible to capture in one post. If you differentiate between films that are supposed to be set in Salem (lots of Scarlet Letters, The Maid of Salem (1937), The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and several Crucibles, and films that were filmed in the actual Salem (the more recent Hocus PocusBride Wars, and American Hustle), it is more manageable. I’m more interested in the former, and it basically comes down to “Puritan films”  in the earlier part of the twentieth century and “witchcraft films” thereafter, with notable exceptions and overlap. I haven’t seen all the Scarlet Letters (the first one dates to 1911!) but I prefer the 1973 Wim Wenders version (in which Portugal stands in for 17th century Salem) to the 1995 Demi Moore film, and The House of the Seven Gables (starring Vincent Price) has nothing at all do with Hawthorne’s novel: we need a real/reel “remake”! There are also several versions of The Crucible: a 1957 French film adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, entitled Les Sorcières de Salem, and Arthur Miller’s own 1996 adaptation, which was filmed for the most part up the coast on Hog Island in Ipswich Bay.

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Set in Salem 1973

Set in Salem 1937

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Set in Salem 1957 Crucible

Posters for the 1926 and 1934 versions of the Scarlet Letter, and a screen shot of the 1973 Wim Wenders film; Posters for the Maid of Salem (1937) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and a photograph of the latter’s Salem opening at the Paramount Theater on Essex Street; Poster for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Sorcières de Salem (1957).

 

 


Spring Semester 2014: Tudors and Trials

Classes started last week, but I really don’t get my mind focused on teaching until after the long MLK weekend, which marks the commencement of the spring semester just as Labor Day cues the fall. The administrative work of my other role as department chair is continuous, which makes teaching even more special: a regular break from the tedious. I get three course releases for being chair, which means I am reduced to teaching just one course (Tudor-Stuart England) per semester, but this particular semester I’m also teaching a graduate course (Topics in European History: the European Witch Trials): this particular combination of content and community will make for an interesting semester, I am sure.

The Tudor-Stuart class is always filled with the best and the brightest students, not only among our History majors but also English and Theater majors. The Tudors have been so consistently topical in popular culture over the last decade or so that my students will feel that they “know” them; the Stuarts are more elusive. We’ll cover all the big events, most prominently the English Reformation in the sixteenth century and the English Revolution in the seventeenth, but two of the course texts will (hopefully) enable my students to get a bit more into the homes and heads of Tudor and Stuart people. I’ve never used Orlin’s text in class before (but what could be more essential than privacy?), but Friedman’s subject matter–cheap print–opens up a much wider window into the Revolution.

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I teach two courses on the European witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one undergraduate and one graduate, and I much prefer the latter. The reasons why more than 100,ooo people were tried for witchcraft in this (early modern) era are complex, and I find that undergraduates want them to be simple. They don’t have the background, the patience, or the time (or inclination, really) to read all the texts they need to read in order to figure out all the factors that went into this frenzy. But graduate students read: we go through at least one book (or series of scholarly articles) a week in my class. It’s a dynamic field, so there are always great titles to choose from: I always start with a few texts on the fifteenth century to lay the foundation, and then take a regional tour around those areas that experienced intensive witch-hunting. There are definitely some universal causes of the witch hunts in this era, but the catalysts are more local, even personal, so this is a topic that can be well-served by case studies such as Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles, a classic study of counter-magic in northern Italy, Thomas Robisheaux’s Last Witch of Langenburg, and James Sharpe’s Bewitching of Anne Gunter.

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We will try to understand sensationalistic cases of demonic possession in France (through Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France), some of the anthropological and psychological factors present in the region which experienced the most intense witch-hunting in Europe (through Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze. Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany), and one of the last major European series of trials (30 years before Salem, through P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Abundance of Witches. The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt). I always try to switch out the books every time I teach a class to keep everything “fresh”, but two perennial texts for this course are Friedrich Spee’s Cautio Criminalis (1631), a plea for judicial caution and against torture by a Jesuit confessor and poet who had witnessed (and participated) in the worst trials in Germany and Charles Zika’s The Appearance of Witchcraft. The image of the witch, projected far and wide through the relatively new medium of print, is one of those universal factors I was referring to above, and Zika’s visual analysis is masterful.

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Tudor Book 4


The Witchfinder on Film

Between weekend errands, I organized a little Vincent Price mini-marathon for myself, culminating in a truly horrible (in more ways than one) movie called The Conqueror Worm (1968), which was produced and released in Britain under the more appropriate title Witchfinder General. The film is very loosely based on Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch-finder General” who was responsible for the condemnation and execution of more than 100 people for witchcraft in 1645-46, during one of the more chaotic phases of the English Civil War. Hopkins’ reign of terror in Essex represents the peak of the witchcraft hysteria in England, which was rather less hysterical than many hot spots on the European continent. I suppose that the American title, which alludes to a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, was chosen to take advantage of the popularity of Vincent Price’s Poe films like The Fall of the House of Usher, but the film has nothing at all to do with Poe.

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I have a distant childhood memory of seeing bits and pieces of this film on television, certainly without my parents’ knowledge, as it is intensely and gratuitously violent: Price’s Hopkins (about 30 years older than the actual Hopkins) is lecherous and his fellow “witch-pricker” John Stearne is absolutely sadistic. These men might have possessed these qualities and tendencies, and they did torture their victims, but it’s no matter: the film is all about sensation, not context, and certainly not history. And in that typical 1960s manner, everyone is running around with swinging sixties hair. There are too many historical inaccuracies to list here; perhaps the most egregious is Hopkins’ ability to just string up his victims, with no presentation of evidence or trial. Even in this chaotic era, lawlessness did not reign. When Hopkins engages in “due process”, it’s the notorious, and seldom-implemented, “swimming test” for witchcraft. The posters above represent the general anachronistic and sensationalistic nature of the film quite well, while also conveying the spirit of the “burning times” when in fact all English witches were condemned to death by hanging. Better to refrain from the film altogether and view Hopkins through Malcolm Gaskill’s substantive-yet-accessible Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy.

Witch Finder General 1647
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Frontspiece to Matthew Hopkins’ “Discovery of Witches”, published by Richard Royston, 1647, British Museum; Illustration from C.R. Weld’s History of the Royal Society, 1848; Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders. A Seventeenth-century Tragedy (2007).


Witches and Trees

It strikes me that there are many historical, folkloric, and cultural connections between witches and trees: witches are often described and depicted as gathering under, hanging from, and riding on branches of trees, “witches’ broom” is a tree disease or deformity, the rowan tree was traditionally associated with the warding off of witches. I’m leaving aside the arboreal associations of modern witchcraft. There’s something about the forest primeval in general, and trees in particular, that creates an environment of secrecy and sorcery: this was a setting that was cultivated by Renaissance etchers and resurrected by Victorian illustrators. The trees are often spindly, haggard, misshapen, and barren, like the women underneath them.

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Witches under a tree 1878

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Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let me Go), early 16th century etching, British Museum; Edward Gurden Dalziel, illustration from Judy Magazine, 13 February 1878, British Museum; Arthur Rackham, ‘The Witches Sabbath’ illustration for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, George Harrap & Co, 1928.

The association seems to be strongest in the folklore associated with Italian witchcraft. In Benevento, the “City of Witches” (occasionally referenced as the “Italian Salem”), witches from all over the world were said to gather annually under a storied walnut tree–a tree that was definitely fruitful. It’s an age-old, deeply-rooted story whose origins seem impossible to trace (at least for a short blog post), but the streghe under the walnut tree have certainly inspired a variety of cultural expressions and commodities, from works of art to musical compositions to the famous Strega digestif, manufactured right in Benevento since 1860.

Witches at Walnut Tree Guglielmo della Porto mid16th met

Benevento

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Guglielmo della Porta, The Witches at the Walnut Tree of Benevento, pen and ink drawing, mid 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lithographed songsheet for Paganini’s Dance of the Witches, 1830s, British Museum; Strega label and walnut tree outside the Alberti factory in Benevento.

To the north there is another representation of witches gathered under a fertile tree:  the famous mural of Massa Maritimma, dating from the mid- to late 13th century and uncovered in 2000. Situated on a wall in the town center enclosing the communal “Fountain of Abundance”, this tree bears strange fruit:  phalluses which the women below are picking and gathering. The discovery of the obscene (???) mural was shocking for some (and its subsequent cleaning remains controversial—you can read about it here), but not to anyone who has any familiarity with the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Witches’ Hammer)  a practical guide to identifying, detecting and prosecuting witches published in 1487. Due to its sheer popularity, which is evidenced by many editions and translations, most historians believe that the Malleus contributed to the intensification of witch-hunting in the early modern era, though its exact role is open to debate. It seems pretty clear to me that the book’s popularity is based in its accessibility, and the sensationalistic anecdotes that its authors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger–probably more the former than the latter) include, among them oft-cited passages about witches stealing men’s “virile members” and hiding them in nests nestled in the branches of trees.

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Massa Maritime detail

The Massa Marittima Mural and detail; you can see it in situ here, and read more about its symbolism here.


Pendle and Salem

While weeding in front of my house yesterday I encountered a group of tourists who had come to Salem for the “witches” but were surprised to find so many nice buildings too. Poor people! Once we started chatting I couldn’t stop myself from subjecting them to a lecture, well, several really: first I told them all about Samuel McIntire and the merchants and sea captains who built Chestnut Street and then we got into the witch trials. They did ask questions, but clearly it’s a good thing that the semester is about to start.

One thing became clear in our “discussion”: they thought Salem was the only place in the world that prosecuted accused witches, at least after the “Dark Ages”. Even after fifteen years of teaching a popular course on the thousands of witch trials that occurred in early modern Europe, I was surprised. The singularity of Salem always bothers me; “our” trials are so seldom placed in western or global context, at least outside of academia.

There are important parallels between the Salem trials and the largest and most notorious English witchcraft prosecution, the Lancashire (“Pendle”) trials in northern England in 1612. The Pendle trials were held 401 years ago this week, and their 400th anniversary was commemorated last year. Salem and Pendle were both (relatively speaking) “frontier” communities, with the Pendle district of Lancashire located in the “dark corners of the north” of England, where various types of nonconformity still reigned. Salem cast a much wider net (185 accusations, 59 trials, 31 convictions, 19 executions, one death by torture/interrogation) than Pendle (16 trials and 10 executions, with one death in prison), but both were notoriously collective, conspiratorial episodes–unusual in the history of English prosecutions for witchcraft. Both trials were well-publicized, with the Pendle “source”, (more of a personal reflection really), clerk of the Lancashire court Thomas Potter’s Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (1613) being particularly influential.

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Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. London, 1613. STC 20138.

But the most important comparison/connection between Pendle and Salem was the admission of legal testimony by a minor in the former trials, which set the precedent for the latter. Before the Pendle trials, the testimony of children under the age of fourteen was inadmissible in English courts, but nine-year-old Jennet Device was the star witness of the 1612 trials, offering up testimony that implicated her entire family as well as others. Jennet’s family would have been vulnerable anyway–they were a marginalized family led by a “cunning” matriarch, and probably represented the lethal mixture of nuisance and nonconformity to the community–but her vivid testimony was key to their conviction. Jennet was the informer at what became a sensationalistic show trial. Like Salem, the Lancashire trials seem to have become a somewhat self-generating process, engulfing the accusations of the “Pendle Hill” witches as well as so-called “Samlesbury Witches” who were also implicated by the testimony of an adolescent girl. The Salem girls most definitely had their forerunners, and perhaps their inspiration.

Then, of course, there is the cultural aftermath, theatrical and fictional accounts based on Pendle and Salem, tourism, commemorations. Several decades after Pendle, Thomas Heywood brought his comedy to the London stage, while several centuries after Salem, The Crucible transformed the American trials into an ongoing allegory. Salem has, of course, transformed itself into “Witch City”, and in the Pendle district there is a Witch Way bus service with individual buses named after the officials and victims of the Lancashire trials. There are statues in both places, although Pendle’s is of a real victim, Alice Nutter of the village of Roughlee, and ours is of Samantha Stevens, a fictional television character! (Of course we have the beautiful and meaningful 1992 Witch Trials Memorial, but I am afraid that more tourists see Samantha). There are also logos galore, on both sides of the Atlantic, official and otherwise, with just a sampling below.

Witchcraft Plays

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Witchcraft Statues

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Spring Witches

In central and northern Europe the closing days of April and commencement of Spring converge on Walpurgisnacht, a bonfire festival based on both pagan and Christian traditions. On the eve of May 1, the canonization day of Saint Walpurga, an English Christian nun and missionary based in southern Germany in the eighth century (and presumably was so named to replace a pre-Christian harvest goddess also named Walpurga), witches gather to fly off to the highest mountain (in the case of Germany, Brocken Mountain in the Harz mountain range) to pay homage to the Devil with a night-long bacchanalian celebration. Newly-empowered and inspired, they fly back to society, on broomsticks or goats, to continue their demonic service.

Spring Witches

Hermann Hendrich Die Walpurgishalle in Goethes Faust

Fireworks over the Rhine on Walpurgisnacht, 2012, and Hermann Hendrich’s vision, 1901.

Like Halloween, exactly six months later, Walpurgisnacht is a perfect example of early medieval assimilation, in which a saint’s day is grafted onto an existing “calendar” and there is a clash of evil and good, or perhaps a last hurrah for evil before good prevails in the merry new month of May. Evil is always very, very close–but the actual ritual by which the witch enters into the pact with the devil–described and perceived as in inverse Sabbath–happens far away, in a remote place that one could only access through flight. As I wrote about in an earlier post, fears about a conspiratorial demonic force intensified in the sixteenth century along with the Reformation, resulting in over 100,000 trials for witchcraft in the early modern era. Two hundred years later, after the Devil had lost much of his power, he was revived by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic and tragic Faust (1808-1831), with its vivid scenes of Walpurgis Night.

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Title page of the 1908 Hayward/Hutchinson translation of Goethe’s Faust, with illustrations of Walpurgis Night by Willy Pogany.

Goethe, along with his near-contemporaries the Brothers Grimm and a host of other authors and artists, was both reflection and inspiration for an intensifying interest in German folklore in the nineteenth century. Witches became more fanciful than fearful; even if it was with or for the devil, they still danced. Given its long association with the witches’ sabbaths, the Brocken and its adjacent Hexentanzplatz  (a plateau long referred to as the “witches’ dancing floor”) became popular tourist destinations. A hilltop hotel on the Hexentanzplatz drew a steady stream of visitors from 1870 on, and the addition of an open-air theater and the Walpurgishalle, a museum dedicated to Goethe and Walpurgis Night, increased their number after the turn of the century. The Hexentanzplatz became a place where everybody could come to dance, on the eve of St. Walpurga’s Day, Beltane, May Day, or simply Spring.

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Walpurgisnacht in Meissen

The focus is clearly on the Hexentanzplatz hotel in postcards from the 1890s and 1911 (along with the now-naked witches); a century later the more generic Wulpurgisnacht is celebrated in Meissen (photo by Tobi_2008@ Flikr).


Weather Witches

The witch trials in early modern Europe, which resulted in the execution of between 40,000 and 60,000 people and targeted double that figure, focused on devil worship more than anything else, but maleficia (harmful magic) was often the trigger, and the evidence, for the identification of conspiratorial witchcraft. And of the various types of harm that witches were accused of committing, nothing was more generic, and more harmful, than weather witchcraft. One of the earliest printed depiction of witches makes the connection concrete:  two hag witches are literally whipping up a storm in a cauldron.

Ulrich Molitor, (fl. 1470-1501), De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (Cologne, 1500).

Even if we can’t understand the fear of witchcraft in our rational era, we can understand the threat of weather witchcraft to a civilization that depended on the climate for food, and life. Our supposed mastery of nature leaves us a lot less vulnerable–at least we like to think so. But in the premodern past, a storm could bring hunger at best and starvation at worst. The source of evil is always a problem in Christianity, as it is in every culture:  why do bad things happen to good people?  The devil and his witches–the servants of Satan–provided an accessible explanation. And for these reasons, I think that the earliest disseminated images of the witch focused on weather witchery:  certainly those of the greatest printmakers of the day, Albrecht Dürer and his apprentice Hans Baldung (Grien) did: Dürer pictures a goat-riding witch attending by several putti and bringing forth rain, while Baldung’s more shapely weather witches are yielding their apple-capped flask to bring forth a storm with the aid of another demonic putto and of course, the demon-goat. This particular image is obviously a painting, but Baldung created several influential woodblock prints of witches depicted in an overtly sexual manner, intensifying interest in them even more in the early sixteenth century.

Albrecht Dürer, The Witch (1500-02), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Hans Baldung Grien, The Weather Witches  (1523), oil on panel, Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

As I am writing this, I keep checking for updates on Hurricane Sandy, and I just read about the abandonment at sea of the Canadian replica tall ship HMS Bounty (made for the 1962 Marlon Brando film), and the loss of several members of her crew.  This was the particular witchcraft fear in Scandinavian cultures:  witches stirred up storms at sea and sank ships. You can see this fear illustrated in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus of Olaus Magnus (1555), a grand compendium of Nordic popular culture and folklore, as well as in King James I and VI’s pamphlet about the famous North Berwick trials:  Newes from Scotlanddeclaring the damnable life and death of Dr. John Fian (1591). Upon his engagement to Anne of Denmark, James spent time in Scandinavia and became exposed to continental witchcraft beliefs: the stormy voyage he endured on his return trip home combined with his belief that as “God’s lieutenant” he was the target of demonic conspiracies inspired him to be a particularly zealous witch-hunter both in Scotland and England.

Magnus’s Historia and Newes from Scotland woodcuts:  Ferguson Collection, University of Glasgow Library Special Collections.

The contemporary record of one of the largest witch hunts in European history, occurring at Trier in western Germany from 1581 to 1593 and resulting in the death of over 360 people, is illustrated with a composite picture of all the activities of witches, including storm-making with a broomstick. In central Europe, hail seems to have been the most commonly-identified form of magical weather and could definitely provoke accusations. Hail does seem kind of magical, if you think about it.

Title page of Peter Binsfeld, Tractatus de confessionibus maleficorum et sagarum (1592).

You can see from the title page of one of the pamphlets reporting the Lancashire (Pendle) trials of 1612, the largest trials in England, that weather witching was one of the accusations, along with riding the wind. I am not certain if any specific weather charges were leveled at the accused witches here in Salem, although I do know that the intense cold, and the hardship it brought to this community, has been considered among several contributing factors in the background of the 1692 trials. This follows the European historiography, which has been considering the impact of the “Little Ice Age” on witch-hunting for some time.

A goat-riding witch brings down a storm:  from  the Compendium Maleficarum of  Francesco Maria Guazzo (1628).


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