Thursday, 23 October 2014

Review: 'A Storm of Witchcraft' by Emerson W. Baker



I really enjoy reading non-fictional historical books. I think one of the main "tasks" of books and literature is to educate and therefore there is nothing more important than well-written books on history and culture. Witchcraft is also a major interest of mine because I think it is absolutely fascinating, especially how it interacts with history.
Beginning in January 1692, Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts witnessed the largest and most lethal outbreak of witchcraft in early America. Villagers--mainly young women--suffered from unseen torments that caused them to writhe, shriek, and contort their bodies, complaining of pins stuck into their flesh and of being haunted by specters. Believing that they suffered from assaults by an invisible spirit, the community began a hunt to track down those responsible for the demonic work. The resulting Salem Witch Trials, culminating in the execution of 19 villagers, persists as one of the most mysterious and fascinating events in American history. 
Historians have speculated on a web of possible causes for the witchcraft that stated in Salem and spread across the region-religious crisis, ergot poisoning, an encephalitis outbreak, frontier war hysteria--but most agree that there was no single factor. Rather, as Emerson Baker illustrates in this seminal new work, Salem was "a perfect storm": a unique convergence of conditions and events that produced something extraordinary throughout New England in 1692 and the following years, and which has haunted us ever since.
Baker shows how a range of factors in the Bay colony in the 1690s, including a new charter and government, a lethal frontier war, and religious and political conflicts, set the stage for the dramatic events in Salem. Engaging a range of perspectives, he looks at the key players in the outbreak--the accused witches and the people they allegedly bewitched, as well as the judges and government officials who prosecuted them--and wrestles with questions about why the Salem tragedy unfolded as it did, and why it has become an enduring legacy.
Salem in 1692 was a critical moment for the fading Puritan government of Massachusetts Bay, whose attempts to suppress the story of the trials and erase them from memory only fueled the popular imagination. Baker argues that the trials marked a turning point in colonial history from Puritan communalism to Yankee independence, from faith in collective conscience to skepticism toward moral governance. A brilliantly told tale, A Storm of Witchcraft also puts Salem's storm into its broader context as a part of the ongoing narrative of American history and the history of the Atlantic World.
Salem and its witch trials are a major part of not only our entertainment but also of our history without us really being aware of it. As a European, Salem isn't part of "my history" perse and it has never really been taught in my schools. The closest I have come to learning about it was when I read The Crucible. However, witch trials and the persecution of witches was a major issue in Europe during the Middle Ages and it has always fascinated me how something as "unreal" as witchcraft could be a palpable threat to enlightened people. Baker really astutely remarks that for 17th century people witches were as real as bakers or butchers. Although we might take this with a grain of salt, it is still important to realize the differences in thinking that exist between their and our time. A Storm of Witchcraft is full of these little gems of sudden insight which Baker carefully works towards. It makes it a very interesting and engaging read.

Unfortunately Baker sometimes seems to lose himself in the details. There is so much information that he has collected that at times chapters get clogged up and lose their thread. Although he always manages to pick it back up, some chapters can be a hard read. Especially when it comes to the people involved, the endless names become quite confusing. Although Baker does well in showing the scope of those afflicted by the witch trials, it can be very hard to follow and at some points you just give up on trying to remember exactly who is being discussed. But as I said, Baker usually picks the thread back up after the information dump and brings the chapter to a clear resolution. What the multitude of "characters" are good for is precisely for showing how widely these witch trials impacted not just Massachusetts but all of America.

As the synopsis says, Baker argues for the coming together of a whole range of events that led to the eventual witch trials. As such, it is one of the most convincing and interesting theories I have read so far. I am in agreement with Baker than big historical events are always a product of their time and therefore of the surrounding factors all coming together at once. The history of the town of Salem itself was also something completely new to me. Baker's insights into Puritanism, the conflict between the Native Americans and the Americans and the tense relationship with England were all really interesting and formed the highlights of the book for me. A Storm of Witchcraft is definitely a fascinating insight into the complexity of something now usually referred to simply as temporary madness. I also really enjoyed his analysis of how the legacy of Salem changed throughout the years and how, in some ways, Salem came to stand for exactly that which the Puritans most feared into 1692.

I give this book...

3 Universes.

I would definitely recommend this book to those of you who are interested in knowing more about Salem and the witch trials. If you are just interested in something a bit sensational and a bit educational at the same time, Baker's book isn't for you. It asks for a lot of attention and patience, but those virtues are rewarded by very rewarding insights. Overall, this book kept me interested throughout and I am very glad with my extra knowledge.

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