Historiography of the Salem Witch Trials

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The changing historiography of the Salem Witch Persecutions of 1692. How current/contemporary and historical interpretations of this event reflect the changing nature of historiography.

The number of different interpretations of the Salem Witch Trials illustrates that historiography is ever changing. The historians, Hale, Starkey, Upham, Boyer and Nissenbaum, Caporal, Norton and Mattosian have all been fascinated by the trials in one way or another because they have all attempted to prove or disprove certain elements about the trials. By analysing their augments about the causes of the Salem Witch Crisis, it is evident that this historical event can be examined from a range of different perspectives and interpreted in a range of different ways. This, in itself, reflects the changing nature of historiography.

The fever of witch denunciations began in Essex County, Massachusetts, mainly in Salem Village, in the winter of 1692, when a group of young girls including the daughter and niece of the local minister Samuel Parris, began exhibiting signs of seizures and fits. The only independent eyewitness to the girl's afflictions who later described them in print was John Hale introduce him in A Modest Inquire into the Nature of Witchcraft, in 1702. The Children "were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms necks, and backs turned this way, and returned back again, and so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any Epilepitick (sic) fits"#.

A number of home remedies were applied to the children but their condition did not improve#*. Eventually Doctor/Physician William Griggs diagnosed the girls as "under an evil hand"#. Once this suggestion of witchcraft was proposed as a source of the girl's troubles, the children began accusing increasingly respectable, propertied, and religiously observant members of the community, 30 percent of who were men#…… Make reference to its significance. By late Fall approximately one hundred and fifty people had been arrested, nineteen hanged and one pressed to death on the charge of conspiracy with the devil, largely based on "spectral evidence" in the form of visions and apparitions that the afflicted girls claimed to see#*.

The proceeding at Salem had been controversial from the start, and in October, when a number of prominent Massachusetts clergymen including Increase Mather, called for the trial's suspension, the court proceedings were dissolved#. By the following spring, all remaining prisoners were released from jail and in 1697, recognising the great wrong that had been committed through the whole community, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of atonement#.

Historians have grappled for explanations of the Salem Witch Trials, developing a variety of hypotheses and interpretations in an attempt to explain this strange historical tragedy. Salem is the most well known and celebrated witchcraft events in history, although there were only 10 executions which was a much lesser amount than those convicted and killed in English and Swedish witchcraft outbreaks#. So why are the Salem Witch Trials so significant? It has been differentiated from other outbreaks of witchcraft because, unlike other witchcraft events, the authorities had given the accusers their full support rather then opposing them#.

This uniqueness has fascinated historians leading to hundreds of different explanations of the trials. It seems that members of nearly every major school of historical analysis have attempted to explain the trials, from Freudian scholars, who posit mass hysteria# to Marxists class conflict over property#, from Feminists who argue about the unfair treatment of women#, to more ecologically minded historians who focus on a hallucinogenic ergot fungus on grain#.

But the main academic interpretations of Salem 1692 can be loosely divided into three basic approaches: anthropological, social and economical, and psychological...
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