How Social Tensions led to Witchcraft
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How Social Tensions led to Witchcraft
Social Tensions led to Witchcraft
The history of witchcraft during seventeenth
century New England is inherently a history of direct confrontations within
communities where relationships become tainted with suspicion, revenge
and anger. The documents in Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England
have retold the events and stories of Puritan New England to give the modern
reader an understanding of the repressive social institutions of religion
and family structure which were controlling factors that lay behind the
particular cases discussed in the book. However, in order to really
interpret the structure of witchcraft, it is important to consider that
social tensions (most likely a dispute or argument) combined with personal
or familial bad luck, were the root of all these occurrences.
In New England, the term "witch" in New
England served as identification used for punishment, revenge, or both.
For the most part, townspeople used this term to belligerent or "troublesome"
people. These "witches" were accused for making children sick, causing
animal deaths, and inducing pain and suffering. Or they could have been
accused due to evidence of strange events, or their mysterious character.
Perfect models of this characteristic would be Hugh and Mary Parsons.
Mary and Hugh Parsons lived in Springfield,
Massachusetts. In chapter 2 of Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New
England, the introduction clearly conveys that relationships within the
Parson family were filled with problems.
With the town’s houses built so close to
each other, it could be assumed that neighbors were able to hear every
argument and fight that took place within the Parson household. In the
Puritan community, the kind of behavior that was observed of the Parson
was out of the ordinary. Consequently, when Mary accuses Widow Marshfield
of witchcraft for an unknown reason, it seriously damaged the Parsons social
reputation – something that the Puritans took very seriously (Hall 29).
From then on, suspicions and lack of trust started to be associated with
Accusations of witchcraft often followed
arguments that would increase the social tensions in the community.
These damaging accusations were usually the spiteful acts of angry, petty
people who were looking for revenge following an argument. Hugh fits these
criteria perfectly – he was a very quarrelsome workman, often displeasing
his customers to the extent of where they hate him. A situation that demonstrates
this is the case of Blanche Bedortha and her painful fits. Blanche blamed
her ailments on Hugh based on an argument between him and Rice Bedortha,
her husband. When having her "fits," Blanche distinctly recalled
the dispute and at once suspected that Hugh had used witchcraft on her
(Hall 36). This demonstrates that Hugh was considered troublesome, and
to accuse him of witchcraft would be the perfect punishment – or reprisal.
Actions of a person can also cause social
tension among the town. The way a person behaves, acts, and responds can
differentiate from the ordinary to the weird. In Puritan society, anything
out of the normal is very suspicious, especially when someone does not
react to a situation they way society would. Many people were accused of
witchcraft because they behaved abnormally to a death of a family member
or a neighbor. When Moxon’s child died, Hugh did not have any emotions
or sympathy. This attitude combined with the past argument that they had,
Moxon immediately accused Hugh of witchcraft. Again, this case happened
again when his wife Mary accused him of witchcraft. This was due to the
fact that Hugh once more had no emotions when his kids died.
When accusations were released, the accused
would in no way regain their social standing ever again, even if they were
found innocent after a trial. Magnified suspicions and distrust increased
the social tension between the accused and the public. Therefore, when
inexplicable events took place, the people accused were the first on the
blame list. This was the case in many seventeenth century New England
towns. Again, this situation could easily be seen in Hugh’s case. After
being tried as a witch, every move, action and word was taken as evidence
of witchcraft. Combined with his bad luck, and family misfortune, Hugh
was turned into the town’s social scapegoat, responsible for every strange
and inexplicable event that religion or reason could not explain. A perfect
example was the "rusty knife" incident. When Griffith Jones was having
dinner, he noticed that his good knives had mysteriously disappeared.
He resorted to using a rusty knife in place of them. When he was cleaning
the table, he suddenly saw that the good knives were next to the rusty
knife. Griffith perceived this a very puzzling
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