Essay on “Salem Possessed, the social origins of witchcraft” by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum

The book under review – “Salem Possessed, the social origins of witchcraft” by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, is outstanding historical work that stresses the minds of its readers. The duet of authors presents us pretty unexpected interpretation of horrible events occurred in 1692, at Salem Village, Massachusetts. The main thesis of appropriate work devoted to refocus to social-economic roots of happened tragedy. This thesis hinges mainly on a study of the social context of the times and on a detailed consideration of each individual involved in the disaster. The authors thus demonstrate the social and economic gulf that existed between two groups of villagers, each represented by a dominant family, and the antagonism to or support for the local pastor. In this order, the writers tied events of 1692 to certain personalities and community’s controversies, instead of reference to “social epidemics” as we can read in other works dedicated to the same topic. As for me, authors thesis worth to be satisfied. This point is based on coherent presentation of pretty pithy and meaningful content that allows reader to get rather comprehensive understanding of looking logical writers’ views. However, it should be understood that history has several sides of the same coin, thus, authors’ thesis seems to be convincing mostly in the aspect of enlightened materials and views to the problem in this particular book.

As for the “Salem Possessed, the social origins of witchcraft” strengths, the list of them can be mentioned in fact. However, probably the most significant of them is the revolutionary meaning of authors’ message. In fact, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum proposed us extremely challenging and provocative work. The ability to go against the common idea has made this reading really outstanding and one that belongs to the heritage of American historical literature genre. Arguing against Salem Village’s tragedy treatment as some kind of separate event in Massachusetts history, the writers noticed long lasting roots of a problem that became only one of the chain’s links of confrontation. This became incredibly modest view, which allowed to see the same problem from the other side, and as the result, to run out rethinking and disputes.

It is curious, but outlined book’s main strength can be treated like its significant weakness on the other hand. Being very detailed and convincing with own thesis support, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum missed crucial point of scholar research, which is connected to multifaceted and comprehensive subject’s study. In this order, Bernard Rosenthal wrote: “the study stops short of inquiring into why the outbreak spread throughout Massachusetts Bay and caught in its net people having nothing to do with the quarrels of that particular village” (Murphy).  Actually, it is difficult to disagree with Rosenthal’s views. The history shows that witchcraft was widely spread social epidemics of the 17th century, which involved a lot of communities, even far from Massachusetts’s borders. In this regard, suspicions towards all events connecting link existence looks pretty convincing. The authors of “Salem Possessed, the social origins of witchcraft” left this point out of their research.

Leave a Reply