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Salem Village through the eyes of 20th century historians: A historical and geographical review

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  1. Introduction.
  2. Why Salem Village?
  3. Puritanism and witchcraft.
  4. Puritanism in Boyer and Nissenbaum's view.
  5. Hoffer's view on the relationship between the Devil and the outside forces threatening the Puritans.
  6. Gender and Witchcraft.

In 1953, Arthur Miller composed a highly-charged work for the theater that struck its audiences as frighteningly relevant to the times. That play was called The Crucible, and its fictional examination of the Salem Witch trials has become a classic of American Theater. Miller's play was well named, for the Salem Witch trials still function as a crucible today, one in which historians can discover many different truths about American history. The complexities of that time and place have created a moment in history that can be examined over and over for fresh insights about the nature of our culture, our politics, our attitude towards women, etc. This paper's examination of the Salem Witch Trials will focus on the following questions, ones which have been a source of debate for historians over the last several decades. The first question is Why Salem Village? What was unique about Salem Village that caused such an outbreak of accusation? And why also did those accusations lead to so many executions, on a scale nearly unheard-of in the colonies?

[...] One final example of Hoffer's insight is his interpretation of the issues that faced the Massachusetts colony at the time of the Salem Witch Trials, and how that interpretation differs from Boyer and Nissenbaum's. The Massachusetts colony at the time of the trials was undergoing significant political upheaval. This had a certain material effect on the trials. For example, because the colony was without a charter in 1692, many of the witches languished in jail for far longer than they would have otherwise.[xlviii] While Boyer and Nissenbaum use that observation to inform their assessment of the trials, they do not make the connection between that upheaval and the fear of the Devil that it created. [...]

[...] Salem, the completely accidental arrival of a Barbados planter turned merchant turned lay preacher and his African-born Barbadian slave were the reasons the crisis took the form it did.?[xxii] His examination is narrow, but detailed, giving the reader insights into what Salem Village felt like in 1692. He mentions, for example, that Salem Village felt different that year because it was exceptionally cold.[xxiii] Reis also narrows the focus of the Salem Witch Trials, differentiating Salem Village from the other incidences of New England, but focusing more on how the women behaved there than why they behaved differently.[xxiv] Writing also in the 1990s, her details are not external but internal, and so she only gives cursory information about what made Salem stand out. [...]

[...] The Salem Witchcraft Trials [xlvi] Boyer and Nissenbaum make no significant mention of the Indian wars. Demos mentions the ?anxiety, hatred and terror? (380) created by the wars with the Indians, but does not explicitly link them to the Devil. Karlsen is the first to note how many of the accusers were refugees from the Indian wars and how some witnessed their parents violent deaths (226-27). [xlvii] Peter Hoffer. The Salem Witchcraft Trials [xlviii] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed [xlix] Peter Hoffer. [...]

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