Over the past several weeks, I’ve been using WGN’s Salem as an entry point into the Salem Witch Trials. I’ve pointed out problems with the show’s treatment of its putative location, its inaccurate depiction of the people involved, its misrepresentation of torture, and its failure to address the community tensions that probably played a large role in the Trials, as well as its probably accidental identification of factors that might have led to Mercy Lewis and other young women making their accusations. But for all the serious errors the show makes, I think the real problem lies elsewhere, with the very concept of the show.
Women and Witchcraft Accusations
For anyone who studies witch trials, one of the first things they notice is how disproportionately the charges tended to target women. From the 1960s, when quality scholarship about witch trials first started, down through the 1980s, it was generally said that virtually all accused witches were women. Authors in that period, often feminists who were not actually scholars, asserted that witch trials were explicitly about misogyny, and that the witch trials were a women’s Holocaust.
By the 1990s, detailed statistical studies had modified that perception a little; across all of Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries, roughly 80% of defendants in witch trials were women. But there was some variation. In some regions nearly all defendants were women: Basel, Switzerland: 95%; Essex, England and Namur, Belgium, about 92%.But elsewhere numbers were somewhat lower; in parts of Scotland, Germany, and France, the figure is between 72 and 82%, and in Spain it was 71%.Even more strikingly, in Freiburg, Switzerland, it was 64% and in Waadtland, Switzerland, it was 58%. In Normandy, France, only one of four defendants was a woman, and in Iceland, all defendants were male. Assertions that witch hunting was about nothing more complex than male hatred of women can’t be supported in face of such statistics, but clearly gender was an extremely important factor in European beliefs about who witches were.
Not all women were equally vulnerable to charges of witchcraft. While there are always some outliers in the data, the typical accused witch was an older woman, between 50 and 70. She was also likely to be either a widow or an unmarried woman (termed a singlewoman by scholars). In one French trial 58% of all the accused were widows. Poverty was a third common characteristic, although to some extent that was a common quality that older widows and unmarried women tended to share. A less-commonly accused group were younger women with a reputation for sexual promiscuity. It is not uncommon to see an older unmarried woman and her younger illegitimate daughter both accused. Patterns mean something, and historians have devoted much energy to trying to make sense of these patterns around witchcraft accusations. What was it that made older, unmarried, poor, and sexually promiscuous women more likely to be accused of witchcraft than men or married women?
The literature on this is truly enormous, and if you really want to dig into it, take my class on witchcraft sometime. Some theories, such as the idea that witches were mostly female medical practitioners, have been exploded because there is little factual basis for them. Some scholars have theorized that accusations had a ‘social function’ of keeping women in line with community standards, but Social Function Theory sees social functions are being almost mechanical; to work it needs to happen regularly and constantly, the way that ‘fag jokes’ and student aggression against less masculine boys in high school serve to reinforce behavioral gender norms. But witchcraft accusations were neither constant not regular; communities could go decades without seeing a witch trial and then suddenly experience a surge of them, only to see the trials fade away a few months or a year later.
The late historian Christina Larner argued that witchcraft accusations were not sex-specific, but sex-related. In other words, witch-hunters were seeking out witches, not women, but their ideas about witches were so intimately tied into ideas about women that far more women than men were likely to be accused. That doesn’t explain places like Normandy and Iceland, where most accused were men, but it provides a helpful handle on the problem to explain at least some of the issues.
Going back at least as far as Classical Greece and Roman, there was a strong tendency to associate women with witchcraft, because the things that tended to be considered witchcraft were things that women were thought to use to circumvent male control. Love potions and love curses were seen as ways that women tried to control male desire, and poison was understood to be a woman’s weapon because they were not strong enough to physically confront their opponents. Abortifacients enabled a woman to cover up an illicit affair, and thereby evade male control over women’s bodies. The stereotype of the witch as an old hag was already deeply embedded in Western thought by the end of the Roman period. So notice how major elements of this begin to explain why some women were being accused in the 17th century.
Both Classical and Medieval authors tended to assume that women were morally weaker than men, and therefore more liable to succumb to temptation. Early Christian theologians like Tertullian and St. Jerome strongly linked women to lust and vanity, two sins that Tertullian explicitly associated with witchcraft. Tertullian established the notion that all women were inheritors of the moral guilt of Eve, who had given in to Satan’s temptation (in fact, the Bible never claims that Satan was present at Eve’s fall, but Tertullian gave Latin theology a pretty strong shove in that direction, which is why people tend to read Genesis 3 as involving Satan). Medieval authors like Andreas Capellanus accused women of being inherently envious, given to slander, and rebellious against male authority. And in the 15th century, we start to see ideas about witches engaged in sexual relationships with the Devil.
So by the end of the 15th century, a picture of witches had emerged as primarily being people who were envious of others, given to arguing and slander, insufficiently submissive to both divine and male authority, lustful, promiscuous, and manipulative. While all of these qualities could be applied to men, they were all most typically associated with women.
One consequence of this pattern is that women who tended to be quarrelsome or litigious toward their neighbors or family, instead of being properly submissive, might find eventually themselves eventually being accused of witchcraft, not by their opponents, but by other members of the community who saw their quarrels and lawsuits as the sort of behavior that witches typically engaged in. In other words, women who failed to fit the demure, submissive role expected of women in this period might open themselves up to accusations of witchcraft. Carol Karlsen found considerable evidence for this in New England; a sizeable number of those accused of witchcraft in colonial New England as a whole had at some point been involved in an inheritance dispute, for example.
So modern scholarship has emphasized that the women who were accused of witchcraft were not in fact guilty of any activity related to witchcraft, although some may have engaged in folk magic of various kinds. Instead, these women fell victim to deeply misogynistic ideas about women as naturally given to certain forms of evil and sinful behavior, such as lust; rebellion against husbandly, paternal, or religious authority; and envy. The only thing the accused women had done was fail to confirm to their society’s rules about proper female behavior.
A Moral Trainwreck in Slow-Motion
Unfortunately, Salem has serious problems with the way it navigates this issue. At the start of the show, it makes a big point of saying that the people getting executed for witchcraft are innocent. Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) explicitly says that the witches’ plot requires the death of a number of innocent people. So when the pilot opens, three people have already been hung for witchcraft and Giles Quarry is pressed to death unjustly. In the next episode, the innocent Bridget Bishop is executed when Mary uses her magic to deform an already dead fetus that Bridget is trying to birth. Then Mercy Lewis and her posse orchestrate the accusation against the innocent but horrible father of one of the girls. Then Mary and Mercy orchestrate the execution of the innocent Barkers.
So the show initially seemed to be aware of the problem of saying that the people executed at Salem were actually guilty. With the exception of the first three anonymous victims, all those executed were actual historical people, although historically the Barkers dodged execution by confessing to being witches.
But then the real witches start getting caught up in the search. The brothel-keeper Mab gets caught and commits suicide, and Mary’s evil mentor Rose gets caught, although it’s Mercy who finally kills her. Mercy’s gang of girls gets captured and tortured, and then Mercy accuses Tituba, who is tortured by Increase Mather. So by the end of the season, the show has forgotten to only orchestrate accusations against innocents. Although most of these women are fictional, other than Tituba, the show shows that some of those who were apprehended, tortured, and killed were actually guilty.
Even worse, the actual witches in the series conform quite well to the 17th century stereotypes of witches. With the exception of Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley), all the real witches are women. Rose is an old woman, and there is a group of elderly and hideously deformed witch women who live out in the forest. Mary Sibley is rebellion personified; she wishes to overthrow the Puritans of Salem, she has cast a magical spell on her husband to render him a total invalid, she commits adultery against him (as well as fornication and abortion during the pilot), and she has seized control of the Salem government. Mercy similarly craves power, knowingly accuses an innocent man, grows envious of Tituba, and by the end of the season is plotting some sort of rebellion of the disaffected youth of Salem. In other words, Salem actually affirms that Puritan fear that there were witches around, and it affirms that witches were exactly the way that the Puritans thought they were. If the women of Salem were all properly submissive, the show would literally have no plot.
Given that the Salem Witch Trials were one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in American history, the idea that the witch hunters were actually right about everything except who their targets were is incredibly offensive. Imagine, if you will, a TV show in which the Nazis were somehow right that there actually was an international conspiracy of Jews to destroy Germany, and that Hitler and his cronies were actually unwitting dupes of the sinister Jews who sent them after other, innocent Jews as part of some grand scheme for the Jews to seize power, and that those tragically misguided Nazi were sometimes killing evil Jews as well as innocent ones. That’s basically the plot of Salem. Put in those terms, it’s an appalling show. Pretty much the only thing that keeps the show for descending into total moral putridity is that it emphasizes that Bishop, Quarry, and the Barkers were actually innocent.
The show is trying to pursue too many shades of grey. It wants Mary Sibley, the main character of the show, to be both a villain and a good guy at the same time. It has her leading a plot that, if properly pulled off, will apparently kill an appalling number of people. It has her orchestrating the deaths of innocent men and women to advance that plot. And yet she’s conflicted because she truly loves John Alden and so she starts having second thoughts, causing the other witches to start turning against her in various ways.
Perhaps the most obvious place where the show can’t figure out how to handle Mary is the episode with Bridget Bishop. One of the town prostitutes is pregnant and in labor, and Mary wants to use this situation to ruin Bridget. So she casts a spell to horribly deform the fetus, which is already dead. So orchestrating an innocent woman’s death is acceptable, but aborting a live fetus or causing a stillbirth is too heinous an action for the show. She needs to be evil, but not that evil. It’s interesting that killing a live woman is ok, but killing an unborn child is beyond the pale. What’s particularly interesting is that at this point in the show, Mary and the viewers falsely think that she’s aborted her own illicit child. Right at the end of the season, that turns out to not be the case. I guess a villain can abort her child, but not someone else’s, but in order to redeem her, her baby has to get un-aborted.
Similarly, Magistrate Hale is an evil man who’s actually sort of good. He’s a willing participant in this plot that will killed lots of people. But he’s also a loving family man whose primary motive is that he saw witch hunters kill his parents and now he wants to create a place where his people (that it, the witches) can live free and in the open. That’s all well and good, but the show has already established that his people are evil murderers. Again, it’s sort of as if his goal is to create a state in which the Nazis can murder Jews in peace. I’m not against moral nuance; I love well-written morally grey characters, because most human beings are morally grey in different ways. I love morally complex villains and heroes who have moral flaws. The problem is that the show isn’t doing morally grey characters; it’s trying to make explicitly evil people the good guys.
In other words, the show is actually a total mess morally. It can’t resist the temptation to lionize characters who are doing genuinely evil actions. It validates some of the worst misogynistic stereotypes of Western Civilization, and comes perilously close to suggesting that some of the people who died at Salem actually deserved their deaths. Pardon me while I sit over here in the corner and be quietly appalled.
Want to Know More?
SALEM SEASON 1is available through Amazon.
Carol Karlsen’s book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New Englandabsolutely dazzled me when I first read it. If you only read one book on New England Witch Trials, make it this book.
The late Christina Larner’s most important work is probably Enemies Of God: The Witch-Hunt In Scotland.
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“ It’s interesting that killing a live woman is ok, but killing an unborn child is beyond the pale.“ and that sums up US abortion laws.
Just to contribute my bit of knowledge regarding that fact that the vast majority of accused witches in Iceland were men: it’s my understanding that unlike many other European/Scandinavian countries where the traditional practicers of folk magic (and certain pre-Christian religious rituals) were women, in Iceland (Finland, too) folk magic was practiced primarily by men. So when people thought someone might have put a curse on them, they immediately thought of a man.
David B.Strader said:
Thank you for bringing the truth to light. The historical John Alden was my 10th great uncle, son of direct ancestors John and Priscilla (Mullins) Alden.
Enjoy your posts.