Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1249
A Brief History of Western Witch-Hunting: The subject matter of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—the outbreak of witch trials in the American colonies—represents the tail-end of a phenomenon that flared across continental Europe during the Renaissance and early modern eras.
- The European trials were far deadlier. The worst were the trials in and around the German town of Tier between 1581 and 1593, which, helmed by the local archbishop, produced upwards of a thousand corpses. By the time the American Puritan colonists had begun to pillory potential witches in the late 17th century, the practice had begun to wane in Europe. Perhaps counterintuitively, witch-hunting rose as Europe advanced from the “dark ages.” Indeed, witch-hunting was very sparse in Europe in the Middle Ages, even during the height of the Catholic Inquisition in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. During this period, European Christians were aware of the folklore of witches, but, because such folklore had no place in Christian doctrine, the church refused to recognize the existence of witches and witchcraft. Therefore, the persecution of witches was a crime, in many cases one punishable by death. Witches were a thing of the pagan past, largely believed in by uneducated rural people.
- The picture changed during the Renaissance, when strains of occultism rose among the elite, who increasingly viewed theological issues in terms of a struggle between God and Satan. Folkloric entities, particularly witches, were imagined to populate Satan’s forces. Unfortunately the theological elite took their muddled ideas literally, and rural women paid the cost for this idiocy. In continental Europe, where witch-hunting reached its zenith, the figures most often accused to be witches were farmers’ wives, particularly those said to have a garrulous or assertive character. In other regions, such as Russia and Iceland, men were more often accused of witchcraft. In general, however, women bore the brunt of witch-hunting, receiving at least three-quarters of all accusations.
- The causes for the decline of European witch-hunting are as obscure as those of its rise. It may be that witch-hunting was a response to a series of disasters that had struck early modern Europe, including a series of wars, plagues, famines, and droughts that were caused—or least aggravated by—the Little Ice Age that cooled Europe’s climate from 1400 to 1800. Alarmed, figures of authority turned to scapegoating, seeking powerless women they could blame for broader misfortunes, framing them as agents of Satanic malevolence. As material conditions improved and Enlightenment empiricism increasingly replaced impulsive magical thinking, witch-hunting faded into history and was gone by the end of the 18th century.
The Salem Witch Trials: The witch trials were conducted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 and 1693. With 200 people formally accused and 19 people found guilty and hanged to death, it was the deadliest witch trial in American history. The trials were conducted in the Massachusetts towns of Salem Town, Salem Village, Andover, and Ipswich. The heaviest litigation occurred in Salem Town, and so the broader constellation of trials bears that town’s name.
- The events that precipitated the trials began in February 1692, when a group of Salem Village girls—Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, and Elizabeth Hubbard—began to behave strangely, falling into fits and experiencing inexplicable aches. The townspeople of Salem Village began to investigate the cause of the behavior, assuming that someone had meddled with and provoked the girls. Based on the testimonies of the girls, three women were soon suspected: Tituba, a South- American woman enslaved by local reverend Samuel Parris; Sarah Good, a homeless woman considered a pariah within the community; and Sarah Osborne, a woman looked down upon for her perceived disinterest in church activities. The forest fire of accusations quickly proliferated. Townspeople who expresses doubts about the reality of witchcraft were themselves accused, as were those who tried to defend the character of an accused individual. As the witch hunt went underway, pre-existing grievances among townspeople became fuel for the fire. If a townsperson had a long-standing property squabble with his neighbor, accusing that neighbor of witchcraft became an appealing solution. Considering that Salem Village was already rife with such feuds and quarrels, the town was ready to ignite when lit by the torch of the hunt. Scores of accusations poured in, and in June of 1692, a court was established in nearby Salem Town to address the situation.
- Arthur Miller drew directly from the historical records of the witch hunt and trials in writing The Crucible. The characters of the play are all based on historical figures, and the dialogue is based on the spoken dialect of the colonials. While the essential events remain intact, Miller omitted certain figures and altered the order of the trials and executions to suit the dramatic arc of the play. Miller also fabricated the affair between Abigail Williams and John Proctor.
McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare: In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a new set of threats claimed the attention of the US Government. While the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) had been allies in the war, the USSR’s post-war seizure of satellite nations across eastern and central Europe triggered concerns for the US Government. Thus began the Cold War, a covert conflict between the US and the USSR, between democracy and socialism, and between capitalism and communism.
- With the threat of communism abroad, the US Government began to train its sights on communism at home, launching the second “Red Scare,” the first having occurred following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The government found that it had plenty of work to do. Over the course of the 1930s, communism had become increasingly popular among Americans, many of whom embraced the economic system for its natural appeal to labor unions. By 1940, there were 75,000 American communists. As the 1940s wore on, however, the national reception of communism cooled. In 1947, President Truman issued an order for federal employees to be screened for their loyalty, thereby weeding out potential communists. The FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, poured a great deal of energy and attention into investigating potential communists. The most public arm of the anti-communist effort, however, belonged to the US Congress. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched a series of investigations and indictments of prominent Americans, many of them members of the entertainment industry. Joseph McCarthy chaired the committee, and he brought a brand of strident rhetoric and paranoid moralizing that infected the national consciousness. Suspected communists were forced to testify before the committee. In most cases, they were given a choice: if they shared names of other communists, they would be exonerated; if they remained silent, they would face public opprobrium and potential imprisonment.
- In the early 1950s, Arthur Miller was touched by these proceedings when Elia Kazan, a well-known theater director and a close friend of Miller’s, testified before the HUAC and gave names of several actors. Miller was stunned by Kazan’s capitulations and by the broader climate of moral panic. The new Red Scare reminded him of the Salem witch trials, which he had studied as an undergraduate. He began to research the witch trials and found that both the Salem trials and the HUAC trials were defined by a collective accusatory mania. He wrote The Crucible in an attempt to capture the shared essence of the two events. By dramatizing the Salem witch trials, Miller hoped to shed light on the anti-communist hysteria of contemporary American life.
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