Witches of the Atlantic World: An Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook

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This unique anthology is the first to provide a multicultural perspective on witchcraft from the 15th to 18th century. Featuring primary documents as well as scholarly interpretations, Witches of the Atlantic World builds upon information regarding both Christian and non-Christian beliefs about possession and the demonic. Elaine G. Breslaw draws on Native American, African, South American, and African-American sources, as well as the European and New England heritage, to illuminate the ways in which witchcraft in early America was an attempt to understand and control evil and misfortune in the New World.

Organized into sections on folklore and magic, diabolical possession, Christian perspectives, and the question of gender, the volume includes selections by Cotton Mather, Matthew Hopkins, and Samuel Willard, among others; Salem trial testimonies; and commentary by a host of distinguished scholars.

Together the materials demonstrate how the Protestant and Catholic traditions shaped American concepts, and how multicultural aspects played a key role in the Salem experience. Witches of the Atlantic World sheds new light on one of the most perplexing aspects of American history and provides important background for the continued scholarly and popular interest in witches and witchcraft today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A well-selected and admirably introduced collection of primary sources and secondary interpretations . . . By incorporating Africans and native Americans into a story that normally deals only with Europeans (at home and in the colonies), Breslaw opens new approaches to a familiar but always fascinating subject.”
-Francis Bremer,Millersville University

“This is a useful collection of material on witchcraft.”
-Journal of World History

“Breslaw breathes new life into many debates about witchcraft. Witches of the Atlantic World takes us on a fascinating, occasionally chilling, tour of witchcraft in four continents. Breslaw provides opposing viewpoints and judiciously balances the writing of historians and anthropologists, participants and observers, victims of possession and some accused witches themselves. Breslaw’s book will prove a welcome and long-overdue addition.”

-Alison Games,author of Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World

“Elaine Breslaw has performed a signal service for teachers of history, anthropology, religious studies, women’s studies—indeed, anyone who wishes to urge students beyond stereotypical views of witchcraft. The cross-cultural approach that informed her work on Tituba comes to fulfillment in this comprehensive collection. Confronted with evidence of witchcraft's significance for varied peoples across time and space, students cannot leer at Puritans as ‘credulous,’ Africans as ‘primitive,’ Amerindians as ‘diabolical,’ or Europeans as ‘superstitious’ because they practiced magic; rather, they must confront witchcraft's widespread importance as a historical and human phenomenon on its own terms.”
-Charles L. Cohen,University of Wisconsin

“This is undoubtedly one of the best reference works ever published on witchcraft. Breslaw, fresh from her well-received revisionist history Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem, brings together work by some of the best-known scholars of the field, including Elizabeth Reis, Carol Karlsen, John Demos, Paul Boyer,Stephen Nissenbaum and David Hall. She organizes primary sources (including the 1486 manifesto Why Women Are Chiefly Addicted to Superstitions) and insightful secondary essays around topics of European, Native American and African witchcraft. The anthology is to be applauded for its commitment to representing cultural variance—showing how, for example, indigenous American magical traditions differed greatly from tribe to tribe. Breslaw’s awareness of diverse cultural contexts highlights the multiple functions that witchcraft and anti-witchcraft served in individual communities.”
-Publishers Weekly

Breslaw (history, U. of Tennessee) has created a fascinating reader<-- >for undergraduate classes in history, anthropology, religious studies, or women's studies<-->surveying the subject of witches, witch hunts, and the larger political context of both. The sections, which cover Christian perspectives, non-Christian beliefs, diabolical possession, issues of gender, and a lengthy section on the Salem witch trials, each include an introduction by Breslaw, primary sources, then secondary commentaries on the sources. The latter are excerpts from books and articles. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Publisher Weekly
This is undoubtedly one of the best reference works ever published on witchcraft. Breslaw, fresh from her well-received revisionist history Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem, brings together work by some of the best-known scholars of the field, including Elizabeth Reis, Carol Karlsen, John Demos, Paul Boyer,Stephen Nissenbaum and David Hall. She organizes primary sources (including the 1486 manifesto "Why Women Are Chiefly Addicted to Superstitions") and insightful secondary essays around topics of European, Native American and African witchcraft. The anthology is to be applauded for its commitment to representing cultural variance--showing how, for example, indigenous American magical traditions differed greatly from tribe to tribe. Breslaw's awareness of diverse cultural contexts highlights the multiple functions that witchcraft and anti-witchcraft served in individual communities. --Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814798508
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2000
  • Pages: 550
  • Product dimensions: 7.31 (w) x 10.26 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Elaine G. Breslaw retired as Professor of History from Morgan State University in Baltimore after 29 years and has taught on an adjunct basis at Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is the author of Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (NYU Press, 1995), Witches of the Atlantic World: An Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook (NYU Press, 2000), and Dr. Alexander Hamilton and Provincial America: Expanding the Orbit of Scottish Culture.

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Read an Excerpt

Witches of the Atlantic World

An Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook
By Elaine G. Breslaw

New York University Press

Copyright © 2000 Elaine G. Breslaw
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0814798519

Chapter One

Christian Perspectives on Witchcraft in
Europe and North America

RELIGIOUS CREEDS AND WITCHCRAFT practices are both aspects of supernatural belief--their focus is the spiritual realm. From the Christian perspective, however, witchcraft is in opposition to religion and is linked to demonic practices. The four primary sources excerpted in part 1, written between 1486 and 1689, illustrate the variety of notions prevalent among the educated Christian population about the working of witches and the devil in Europe, England, and England's Puritan colonies.

The first selection, from the Malleus Maleficarum (also known as the "Hammer of Witches"), was compiled by two Dominican priests and inquisitors in Germany in the fifteenth century, the Inquisitor General Father Jacob Sprenger and Father Heinrich Kramer, called by his Latinized name, Institoris, who was the main author. The work became the most important source of information on witches and witchcraft for both Protestants and Catholics and was consulted by theologians as late as the eighteenth century. Their compilation of witch stories provides both atheoretical support for the idea of an evil witch and a practical manual for identifying diabolical supporters. Much of what they report in this excerpt was part of the occult folklore of medieval and pre-Christian Europe. But a great deal of the elaboration, extracted under torture, came from the fantasies, both sexual and diabolical, suggested by the inquisitors themselves.

Kramer, who was the major instigator of witch persecutions in Germany, was particularly anxious to prove the guilt of those he tortured and to place their crimes within the theological context of a devil's pact and conspiracy. Sprenger later regretted his approval of Kramer's excessive methods.

The stereotype of the witch, according to the Malleus, was one who, through an agreement with the devil, acquired special powers to both do harm and solve problems or cure sickness. Unlike European folk beliefs regarding occult practices, the Catholic inquisitors and later the Protestant witch finders made no distinction between helpful witchcraft and the intent to do harm. All witchcraft, they assumed, derived from the devil and was therefore inherently evil or at least anti-Christian. The Catholic inquisitors inspired a new conspiratorial mythology about witches as people who made a solemn agreement to serve the devil by participating in a variety of antisocial acts (such as sexual orgies among themselves and with Satan), promoting the murder of infants, committing acts of cannibalism, and seducing more followers. All this, they argued, was with the intention of subverting Christianity. Their theories about the demonic focus of magical practices lingers on in the mythology of witchcraft today.

Matthew Hopkins, a Protestant, was England's most active witch hater in the seventeenth century. Under the influence of the Malleus, he set out to prove that witches in league with the devil were rampant in parts of eastern England in the 1640s. Hopkins established himself as a "witch finder," testified against those of questionable reputation, forced confessions using forms of torture slightly more subtle than the Continental rack, and inflicted countermagic on his victims such as the water test, which had been rejected by English theologians and most jurists. In his 1647 pamphlet excerpted here, Hopkins defended himself against charges of personally benefiting from these actions. He also claimed that his methods had ferreted out and brought on the death of two hundred people. At the same time Hopkins had added new elements to the lore surrounding witches by giving the devil's helpers a variety of ludicrous new names and bodily shapes.

Not all English thinkers took the folklore about witches seriously. Reginald Scot, a learned Protestant layman and country gentleman with scientific interests, was moved by what he thought was an unwarranted persecution of old women to write his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). He thought that many of those confessing to witchcraft suffered from some psychic disorder. In arguing against the witch trials he was highly critical of the demonologists such as the authors of the Malleus.

In dissecting demonological lore as an illusion and witchcraft stories as delusions, Scot also suggests what has been affirmed by modern scholars about the origin of the accusations. A quarrel between a poor old woman and her potential benefactor could result in harsh words that, when followed by some accident or illness in the benefactor's family, led him or her to blame the old woman for causing the problem through her witchcraft. Charges made against such helpless and possibly senile old women often led to confessions that were partly the result of the power of suggestion. Scot acknowledges that a confession could give such women a feeling of control. They reasoned, he thought, that if they were accused of such power over others, maybe it was true. He also observes that some of the confessions were due to the effects of "melancholy," an old term for depression, leading to delusions.

In a typically Protestant mode, Scot attributes the witchcraft lore to the work of learned Catholic writers and absolves the Protestant thinkers. His refutation of witchcraft beliefs is in part an attack on Catholic sacraments. He was offended by the continued acceptance of older magical religious rites even by those professing to be Protestants. Scot's arguments became a model for later writers who continued to link witchcraft only with Catholicism and attempted to disassociate their own belief system from the demonized magic of witchcraft.

In America, where few people were persecuted for witchcraft before the 1660s, belief in magical powers was still part of the mental baggage the Puritans brought from old England. Those English folk beliefs regarding witchcraft were reinforced by zealous Puritan reformers concerned about the decline in religious fervor after the early years of settlement. The excerpt from Cotton Mather's 1689 Memorable Providences" details what he thought was evidence of the devil's work in the covenanted Puritan community. He associates religious backsliders with diabolical acts. He does not call for any mass executions of suspected witches; rather, he calls for a spiritual renewal to prevent the spread of their activities. In the process he provides a concise outline of his beliefs about witches, their powers, and why they appeared in Massachusetts.

Mather accepts the notion of a diabolical pact and the idea that God permits evil spirits to roam as a warning. Satan's presence was to test the faith of men. The appearance of witches and their use of witchcraft in the Puritan community, therefore, implied a decline in religious conviction--a loss of faith among God's chosen. By publishing this evidence of a diabolical presence, Mather hoped to reform the less zealous and offer them the possibility of redemption through prayer and confession. His stories, though, may well have contributed to popular fears by confirming folktales of such miraculous happenings and paving the way for the more vigorous prosecution of witches in New England.

Faced with these examples from the learned community and a host of other commentaries both lay and clerical on the witchcraft infection, twentieth-century scholars have concluded that most of the theological arguments were based on myth and fantasy and an understandable misconstruction of the causes of natural disasters. The following selections from five scholars on Continental, English, Scottish, and American theological beliefs about witchcraft explore the mental world that predisposed people to accept such ideas as fact. The authors all point out the close connections between the religious environment and witchcraft beliefs. The selections analyze the origins of the stereotype of the witch and the theological notions that prevailed at the time.

Norman Cohn dismantles the notion, propounded by Margaret Murray and others, that the European witch hunt from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries was aimed at a society of witches that actually existed, adherents of a highly organized pre-Christian religion that was practiced throughout Europe and had descended from ancient fertility cults. Cohn does not dispute the persistence of pre-Christian beliefs or practices; rather, his point is that there is simply no historical evidence for the existence of an organized body of witches as posited by the witch hunters. Claims that witches practiced infanticide, kissed the behind of a toad or a goat, or participated in a secret conspiratorial society of witches were pure fiction, Cohn maintains. These stereotypes belong in the realm of literary creations or possibly drug-induced hallucinations.

Keith Thomas, less concerned with the truth or falsehood of particular witchcraft lore, explores the intersection of religion with ideas about evil and magic in both popular and elite thinking. In England, where the idea of devil worship seems to have been peripheral to most accusations of witchcraft, the crucial factor in any witch scare was the preoccupation with maleficium, the doing of harm. But not all harmful events or natural disasters were attributed to witchcraft. Drawing on anthropological theory, Thomas argues that witchcraft is chosen as a satisfactory explanation when it is possible to take action against some likely scapegoat. The identification of such a witch happens as a result of interpersonal tension or grudges motivating an act of vengeance. In England, witch and accuser, he discovered, always knew each other and had a history of prior conflict.

Moreover, witch beliefs served a variety of social functions. They may have provided some sense of control over the gravest misfortune while also helping to maintain communal harmony. Thomas suggests that accusations of witchcraft were a means of restraining deviant people, usually the poor with unacceptable social characteristics. On the other hand, the threat by these dependent members of the society to use evil magic gave the poor themselves some control over their own lives--a means of retaliation against those who would deny them some benefit. Their curses offered the same protective effect against oppression as the courts gave to the wealthy. Accusations of witchcraft had as much to do with social problems and social structure as they did with supernatural concerns and theological justifications.

Building on the work of both Cohn and Thomas, Christina Larner takes as a given that most of the early modern witchcraft beliefs were amalgamations of more ancient lore elaborated by the elite for their own political or theological purposes. She compares the witch hunts in Scotland, which reached the ferocious intensity of those in Germany, with the milder events in England in the seventeenth century. Although Scotland's witch hunters added little to theories about witchcraft, she notes that because of the unusual political structure in that country, the pattern of accusations and beliefs differed from those in England and on the Continent while borrowing from both. As on the Continent, Larner points out, the competitive spirit of the local clergy in league with civil authorities often fueled witch panics. As in England, the fantasies of the witches' coven had few horrific details, and charges of sexual orgies or acts of cannibalism were rare.

In Scotland as everywhere else there was no single continuous witch hunt but rather sporadic occurrences between 1590 and 1662 and thereafter a decline. King James VI of Scotland (soon to become James I of England), convinced that demons were infesting the land, certainly encouraged the earliest outbreaks. Then a second wave coincided with the peak of Continental trials during the 1620s. But the most sustained period occurred between 1649 and 1661, an era of reforming Presbyterianism in Scotland and Puritan ascendancy in England, finally ending soon after the restoration of the Anglican monarchy in the 1660s. These were times of acute tension between church and state, reflecting a determination on the part of the reforming ministry to secure legitimacy and maintain control.

What is even more significant, Larner notes, the Protestant stress on the personal relationship with the devil and the idea of a covenant, a people's pact with God, so central to the Calvinist idea, gave the concept of a diabolical pact a peculiar intensity. That Calvinist emphasis would be echoed across the Atlantic in the Puritan villages of New England.

The American version of radical Protestantism in New England certainly encouraged fantasies of diabolical action. Richard Weisman focuses on the specific relationship between Puritan doctrines and witchcraft beliefs in New England. The intellectual dilemma faced by the theologians was to reconcile a variety of paradoxical beliefs--God was sovereign, yet there existed a powerful devil; the God-given social order was immutable, yet arbitrary events could occur; God had a divine, providential plan for humans, yet occult practices violated God's law. The concept of a diabolical pact resolved these dilemmas, giving Puritans both a scapegoat for their own religious decline and a temporarily satisfying way out of their theological paradoxes. Thus the strengthened belief in witchcraft may have been an essential element of the peculiar Puritanism developing in America.

In the broader intellectual context, Europeans of the time, whether Puritans or not, like their Indian and African counterparts discussed in part 2, lived in a world of supernatural forces that could trip them up and cause calamities for unknown reasons. David Hall evokes the mentality of that seventeenth-century world, both folk and elite, that saw all natural events as the work of invisible forces. Theological language and the printing industry might have helped shape the thinking about those wonders, but it did not stop the tendency to see prodigies and evil omens in everyday events or a general belief in the efficacy of magical rituals to resolve problems. While the printing industry inspired even greater interest in supernatural lore among the folk, the clergy tried to shift attention to the wonder workings of God rather than demons and witches. The failure of the ministry to overcome the attraction of both folklore and zealous publishers suggests another reason for the continuing focus on witches and witchcraft among the lay population. The English, of course, were not unique in these beliefs.

The source of those wonders and portents in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world may have differed among different classes and cultures, but ordinary people assumed that the world was a mysterious place full of miraculous occurrences. Almost everyone everywhere in the Atlantic world of the time, the literate and the illiterate, the highly placed elite and the common people, imagined that remote and unseen forces guided their destinies and caused their misfortunes. How satisfying it must have been to give a face and name to the cause of such unhappiness, to find a witch.


Excerpted from Witches of the Atlantic World by Elaine G. Breslaw Copyright © 2000 by Elaine G. Breslaw. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
I Christian Perspectives on Witchcraft in Europe and North America 13
1 The Methods of the Devil 21
2 On Witchcraft 28
3 The Discovery of Witches: In Answer to Several Queries 37
4 On Witches and Witchcraft 42
5 The Non-Existent Society of Witches 49
6 The Relevance of Social Anthropology to the Historical Study of English Witchcraft 60
7 Scottish Witchcraft in Its Comparative Setting 72
8 Witchcraft and Puritan Beliefs 77
9 A World of Wonders 89
II Non-Christian Beliefs 97
10 The Night Battles 107
11 The Night-Witch in Popular Imagination 117
12 Image Magic and the Like 126
13 Divining, Healing, and Destroying 132
14 Activities of African Witches 145
15 Witchcraft among the Azande 153
16 Magical Practices and Beliefs 169
17 Archaeological Evidence for a Possible Witch in Barbados, West Indies 176
18 An Afro-American Folk Religion 181
19 The Indian Response 189
20 Indian Shamans and English Witches 196
21 Pueblo Witchcraft 204
22 The Medicine Man and the Kanaima 213
23 Factions and Exclusions in Two South American Village Systems 221
III Diabolical Possession 229
24 The Possession of Elizabeth Knapp of Groton 235
25 Bewitchment of the Goodwin Children 246
26 Classic Accusers: The Possessed 259
27 Possession and Dispossession 267
28 Witchcraft in New England 272
29 Witchcraft: The "Captivity to Spectres" 277
IV Gender 283
30 Why Women Are Chiefly Addicted to Evil Superstitions 289
31 The Character of a Virtuous Woman 296
32 Two Sermons on Women and the Devil 300
33 The Making of the Great Witch-Hunt 305
34 The Myth of the Improved Status of Protestant Women: The Case of the Witchcraze 309
35 The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England 322
36 Words, Witches, and Woman Trouble 330
37 The Economic Basis of Witchcraft 337
38 Who Were the Witches? 347
V Salem: A Case Study of the Primary Documents 355
39 Conjuration and Witches 365
40 On the Identification of a Witch 369
41 Examination of Tituba 377
42 Examination of Rebecca Nurse 381
43 Examination of Bridget Bishop 385
44 Narrative of the Salem Events 389
45 Elizabeth Hubbard against Tituba 399
46 Abigail Williams against Tituba and Rebecca Nurse 400
47 Ann Putnam, Jr., against Rebecca Nurse 402
48 Deliverance Hobbs against Bridget Bishop 403
49 John Hale against Bridget Bishop 405
50 Advice of the Clergy 407
51 A Multitude of Errors 411
52 The Apology of the Jury 420
53 That Sad Catastrophe 422
VI Historians' Commentaries on the Salem Case 427
54 Witchcraft at Salem Village 430
55 Witchcraft, the Courts, and Countermagic 437
56 Tituba's Confession: The Multicultural Dimensions of the 1692 Salem Witch-Hunt 444
57 Through the Clouds 454
VII Medical and Psychological Interpretations 465
58 Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair 467
59 Ergot, Demonic Possession, and Hallucinogenic Drugs 472
60 Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England 480
VIII The Salem Legacy 489
61 An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits 495
62 Altered Lives 499
63 1692: Some New Perspectives 507
64 The Invisible World at the Vanishing Point 512
65 Magic, Astrology, and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760 516
Afterword 525
Bibliographic Note 527
Subject Index 533
Name Index 542
About the Editor 550
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