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History of the Text

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...

(The entire section is 1,249 words.)