How Professor Wellesley Rethinks the Salem Witch Trials


Sitting in one of Wellesley College professor Julie Walsh’s most requested classes, “Philosophy and Witchcraft,” you might imagine historic Salem and conjure up the image of a witchcraft trial. But before the course ends, you’ll dive into the philosophy surrounding this particular event in New England history.

In this course, offered each fall, Philosophy Professor Walsh focuses on witchcraft, its pursuits, and of course, Salem, Massachusetts. Hers is not a history lesson – not in a conventional sense at least. Yes, students study historical documents and sermons. They also take a trip to Salem, where this year the Peabody Essex Museum is home to an exhibition on the witch trials. But in this classroom, the discussion extends far beyond Halloween and far beyond the late 17th century. The way Puritan society dealt with its superstitions may be a thing of the past, but how we remember them is surprisingly relevant. And, depending on who you ask, painful.

Although these particular trials are considered the domain of historical records, Walsh argues that modern society can learn a lot from these episodes. His research focuses on epistemology, a branch of philosophy that is concerned with knowledge, belief and their relevant theories.

“I’m really curious,” says Walsh, “to think of how people in the historical past thought about standards of proof and causation.”

What’s fascinating about 17th-century witchcraft is that everyone in those Puritan communities believed it was, in fact, one thing. They believed that women would turn to satanic forces for sexual gratification because they could not be satisfied by men in the mortal realm. On top of that, thought goes, these women were immoral and adulterous and stupid – in short, they were easy to trick into dating the devil (see: Eve, Eden).

Perhaps the most frustrating part was that the accusations of witchcraft were almost impossible to refute. The evidence, Walsh explained, rested on “the contingency of being.” In this case, he often met marginal women: those who were poor, frank, widowed, destitute, old, “sassy” or “salty”.

“We still live with the legacy of the links between the contingent characteristics of someone’s being and their moral character,” she notes. “As a society, we have these ideas about how a person looks and how they are sexualized or racialized in our society relates to their moral character. So it’s sort of the philosophical framework that I’m really happy to share with the students.

It should be noted that in theory, a course in philosophy and witchcraft could cover any society where witches were deemed grim – England, Scotland, France, Germany – and Walsh doesn’t skimp here. (One of the texts his students choose is the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century witch-hunter’s guide.) But Salem’s attraction is so singular in the American theater of spellbinding madness, that you must ask yourself, “Why have so many of these trials been concentrated there?” ? ”

First, one would have to consider that New England, as a collection of colonies, was full of settlers who were, as Walsh deftly put it, “too religious for England.” Some have argued that the violent conflict with indigenous peoples led to widespread PTSD in the emerging settlements. Walsh disputes this, as the intrusion on Native lands has occurred all over New England (not to mention the mainland). She also disputes the theory that heavy rains resulted in an overgrowth of ergot – a grain-affecting fungus that has an effect on exposure not entirely different from LSD – because the rain was not exclusively poured on Salem, and neighboring towns have also harvested rye.

Instead, Walsh believes Salem was a hotbed for this kind of activity because he had a charismatic leader. Samuel Parris was a Puritan minister who promulgated very Puritan views: it’s us against them, the devil is among us, murder the devil, beware of the witch. And it was under his auspices that accusations of witchcraft exploded, as did executions because, again, such accusations are obnoxiously difficult to defend.

It should also be noted that the first woman accused and convicted of witchcraft was a woman named Tituba, who was found to be enslaved by Parris himself (she apparently managed to escape Salem). This, Walsh says, opens up a whole class discussion, and who would be targeted. Apparently the people of Salem did not tithe and Samuel Parris needed fuel for his literal fire during these winters. What better way to make your parishioners pay than to dive deep into a crisis that shows how much you need your spiritual leader?

Walsh’s goals for her students are clear in this course: She wants them to “turn their potential into power,” look for the loopholes in every false argument that comes up, and “reflect on how community biases influence their behavior. . “(And if they decide to major in Philosophy too, so much the better.)

Why is this relevant to anyone who doesn’t get high marks in that particular class? The answer is almost frustratingly simple: she just wants us to think about it.

“In many rituals, we often participate without thinking about their origin or what we approve of through our participation in them,” says Walsh.

Halloween is an obvious example. Walsh challenges us to think about where much of the imagery – especially witch images – comes from. Pointed hat and crooked nose? Anti-Semitic remains of depictions of Jewish religious rituals and physical caricatures. And green skin relates to whatever outward appearance is related to moral stature. Even the ritual of trick-or-treating, argues Walsh, mimics the action of a poor woman going door-to-door for food (the treat), lest you refuse it and suffer a goes out (the turn).

Walsh hypothesized that rituals can be detached from their origins, but that detachment does not have to happen in the first place if we accept our roles in contemporary society as agents of positive change. And she doesn’t take the discussion and interpretation of these events lightly: her class debates the relevance of lightness in the witch-hunt text. Malleus Maleficarum, and the ethics of Salem today by capitalizing on its troubling past. She also highlights the idea of ​​the witch in contemporary politics, such as the likeness of Hillary Clinton, a former Wellesley alumnus, transformed into the Wicked Witch.

“When a politician who’s a millionaire today, who has tons of power, says ‘I’m a victim of a witch hunt’ – oh, that catches me,” Walsh says. “We see the real witch hunts where poor people, for the most part, were targeted for being destitute and executed, tortured and imprisoned. This turn of phrase isn’t neutral, it’s got baggage and that’s got a lot of – there’s a lot of blood on that sentence. And I think we have to respect it.

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