Hoffer - Devil's Disciples

July 20, 2004

Peter Charles Hoffer
The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

Hoffer offers another retelling of the Salem story. Unlike Boyer's focus on conflict within Salem town and Salem village, Karlsen's focus on systematic misogyny and constructed social behavior, Hall's focus on the world of wonders, and Carlson's explanation grounded in disease, Hoffer tells the tale as a prosopography. In his interpretation, the trials took place because of a combination of individuals, each with their own histories and motivations, connected by the vagaries of the Atlantic economy, and each responding to the others. It is a multivariate interpretation focusing on individual agency. As such it does a good job of telling the tale, a good job of using the tale to dig into some of the social interactions of the late seventeenth century, and a poor job - because he is not trying to do that job - of providing sweeping interpretations that could be used elsewhere. In that he bows strongly to the microhistorians - he is telling his tale, not trying to elucidate the rest of time and space in some grand theory of human behavior. As a result, the book works internally. We do get a good feel for the individuals, we do see how and why they act, and we do see some of the combination of motives and pressures that led the community to go along with the prosecutions.

Hoffer focuses on Tituba the black slave, Parrish the minister, and the three afflicted girls, with a later discussion of Cotton Mather's vindication of the trials as part of Mather's deep need to be seen to be useful to his society. He claims in his introduction that he is setting his tale in the Atlantic world, and to the extent that he focuses on the story of Tituba and Parrish this is true - the two met in Barbados, moved to Salem, and were caught up in a crisis driven in part by the Glorious Revolution in England, the Dominion of New England at home, and the legal difficulties of the colony. Still, his core explanation for the continued trials is that the three girls were colluding in their evidence, coaching one another in their behavior, and making up tales for the sheer pleasure of taking down the obnoxious people in their community and the great people in the colony. They went from nobodies to celebrities, and thus they must have been making up their tales. For the rest, he explains why people felt the need to accept the girls' tales, and he tells the overall story of the witch trials as a tragedy stemming from fallible humans each trying to solve their own problems and collectively creating a disaster. This is a common narrative mode in history writing, and an effective mode, but it can be a depressing mode when you think about it.

I think I will use this as part of my class on Salem.

Posted by Red Ted at July 20, 2004 05:19 PM | TrackBack
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