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Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674785267
ISBN-10: 0674785320
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Frequently Bought Together

  • Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
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  • The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents
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  • Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (Middle Ages Series)
Total price: $70.24
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Editorial Reviews

Review

Provides an admirable illustration of the general rule that, in Old and New England alike, much of the best sociological history of the twentieth century has only been made possible by the antiquarian and genealogical interests of the nineteenth… This sensitive, intelligent, and well-written book will certainly revive interest in the terrible happenings at Salem. (Keith Thomas New York Review of Books)

The authors' whole approach to the Salem disaster is canny, rewarding, and sure to fascinate readers interested in that aberrant affair. (The Atlantic)

This is an 'inner history' of Salem Village that aims to raise the events of 1692 from melodrama to tragedy… It is a large achievement. This book is progressive history at its best, with brilliant insights, well-organized evidence, maps, and footnotes at the bottom of the page. (Cedric B. Cowing American Historical Review)

This short book is a solid contribution to the understanding of the 1692 witch trials. The authors use impressively rich demographic detail to support the thesis that the witch trials are best explained as symptoms of typical social tensions in provincial towns at the time. According to Boyer and Nissenbaum, Salem villagers played roles determined by economic, geographic, and status interests. (Richard Ekman Canadian Historical Review)

An important, imaginative book that brings new insights to the study of the 1692 witchcraft outbreak in Massachusetts. Building on Charles Upham's Salem Witchcraft (1867), Boyer and Nissenbaum explore decades of community tension and conflict in order to explain why Salem was the focus of this episode. The authors reveal a complex set of relationships between persons allied with the growing mercantile interests of Salem Town and those linked to the subsistence-based economy of outlying Salem Village. (Carol Karlsen Journal of Women in Culture and Society)

A provocative book. Drawing upon an impressive range of unpublished local sources, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum provide a challenging new interpretation of the outbreak of witchcraft in Salem Village. They argue that previous historians erroneously divorced the tragic events of 1692 from the long-term development of the village and therefore failed to realize that the witch trials were simply one particularly violent chapter in a series of local controversies dating back to the 1660s. In their reconstruction of the socio-economic conditions that contributed to the intense factionalism in Salem Village, Boyer and Nissenbaum have made a major contribution to the social history of colonial New England… [They] have provided us with a first-rate discussion of factionalism in a seventeenth-century New England community. Their handling of economic, familial, and spatial relationships within Salem Village is both sophisticated and imaginative. (T. H. Breen William and Mary Quarterly)

An illuminating and imaginative interpretation…of the social and moral state of Salem village in 1692. A sensitive, intelligent, and well-written book. (New York Review of Books)

A large achievement. This book is progressive history at its very best, with brilliant insights. (American Historical Review)

Salem Possessed is a provocative book. Drawing upon an impressive range of unpublished local sources, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum provide a challenging new interpretation of the outbreak of witchcraft in Salem Village… A major contribution to the social history of colonial New England… Sophisticated and imaginative. (William and Many Quarterly)

About the Author

Paul Boyer was Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Stephen Nissenbaum is a cultural historian.
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Product Details

  • Series: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
  • Paperback: 231 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1st edition (February 1974)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674785320
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674785267
  • ASIN: 0674785266
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #76,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
When I was a history grad student in the mid-1980s, Salem Possessed was widely viewed as a masterpiece of the "new" social history, i.e., the history of the lives of everyday people, as opposed to major political events and cultural high points. In it, scholars Boyer and Nissenbaum take the then-standard Salem witchcraft narrative and subject it to reinterpretation on the basis of patterns and trends they see in the social history of Salem and Salem Village (now Danvers). Essentially, they argue that the witchcraft accusations and prosecutions were an unconscious (or perhaps conscious) means by which the poorer and more agrarian segment of the Salem Village population got back at the wealthier and more worldly types.
As social history of Salem and Danvers in the 17th century, much of the book is fascinating and insightful. However, as an explanation of the witchcraft crisis, the book is, in my opinion, implausible. Too often, the authors seem to be reading into the data, finding evidence of discord where little or none exists. As one example, they interpret the bare negotiating positions of Salem Village and Samuel Parris regarding the hiring of Parris as minister to evidence aggressive overreaching on Parris's part, without any comparison to the agreements typically reached by other towns and ministers. More importantly, it's simply very hard to believe that, based on the types of disagreements the authors claim to have existed, people would hate their neighbors enough to throw about accusations of capital crimes on a vast scale.
Salem Possessed stands today as another in a long line of unsatisfying attempts to make sense of the witchcraft crisis.
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Format: Hardcover
Finally, someone to take the hocus pocus out of this period of history and actually try to make some sense out of a sociological phenomenon gone wildly awry. While others relied on the tabloid type accounts of events left behind in court depositions, Nissenbaum and Boyer get into the nitty gritty to show you what really happened. Accessing Parris's sermons, wills, seemingly unrelated civil conflict court records, tax records, censuses, and more, this book starts from the beginning - the founding of Salem Village and takes you step by step through the most likely scenario of what really happened in this conflict in terms of personal power struggles, family legacies, societal conflicts between agrarian and commercial lifestyles and so on. This book also changed my perspective on the Puritan way of life and stirred my interest in the Great Awakening of 1751 which had similar outbreaks as the "spectral evidence" of Salem but was interpreted in a wholly different way.
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Format: Paperback
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's Salem Possessed - The Social Origins of Witchcraft has long been recognized as one of several standard texts for university level classes on the subject. The authors view Salem as a specific and perhaps hyperbolic extension of the world-wide socio-economic tensions occasioned by the rise of Mercantile Capitalism (209). Specifically, they postulate that the growth of political-religious factionalism within Salem Village was due primarily to causes beyond local control; and that, when combined with the inopportune convergence of certain chance factors (such as long lasting intra-family feuds and the debate over the church) and personalities (such as Parris, Putnam and Porter), resulted in the collective abreaction of social tensions we now know as the Salem Witchcraft Episode (178, 191). Salem Possessed is a logical, extremely readable, and seemingly well researched book. However, a closer examination of both the focus and methodology may be in order.

It will be readily admitted that a definition of the term "social history" remains ambiguous. There are, however, certain basic expectations a historian expects to have fulfilled by any worked labeled so, among them: explanations concerning the broad socio-political background leading to a specific event; how the effects of this background narrow in focus and relate to the local event; how the event itself impacts various effected segments of society; and how these segments themselves view and/or react to the event. The specific focus chosen by Boyer and Nissenbaum fail to fulfill the great majority of these expectation.
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Format: Paperback
I was actually assigned this book for an anthropology class, but I couldn't put it down. Boyer and Nissenbaum look at every possible contributing factor to the witch craze that took hold of Salem in the late 17th century. They are careful to present all of the data upon which they based their hypotheses, allowing the reader to judge the validity of their claims. Salem Possessed provides an enlightening look at the pressures (social, economic, religious) that affected all of the villagers, and manages not to vilify any particular person.
This book's strength is it's thoroughness, but it is also it's major drawback. It can be difficult to keep track of all the names, households and dates. However, it is well worth the effort, and I heartily recommend this book.
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