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Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft [Paperback]

Paul Boyer , Stephen Nissenbaum
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1976 0674785266 978-0674785328
The stark immediacy of what happened in 1692 has obscured the complex web of human passion which had been growing for more than a generation before building toward the climactic witch trials. Salem Possessed explores the lives of the men and women who helped spin that web and who in the end found themselves entangled in it.

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Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft + In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 + The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
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Editorial Reviews


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.

Product Details

  • Series: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
  • Paperback: 231 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 31, 1976)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674785266
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674785328
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #63,879 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
63 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Important but flawed July 4, 2004
By Zeldock
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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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth a read - with caution December 10, 2004
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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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, thorough book August 18, 2000
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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a complete picture of a time and place October 10, 2002
This is a wonderful book. Boyer and Neissenbaum take you to society and the time right before the witch trials took place. They give you all the information you need to feel what life was like there and to understand the underlying tensions and disputes, jealousies and arrogance. Things were changing. Some people wanted --and benefited from the changes-- others didn't want, and were antagonistic to, the changes. The ideal of the community was being tested by economic opportunity, which was fostering economic greed. An increasing stratified society was coming into being. Meanwhile, there was no mechanism available for petty disputes to be resolved via the courts or other public venues -- this is just a short list of the variety of problems that sat unresolved and which eventually broke loose in the hysteria of a witch hunting. This is an amazingly complex and fascinating story--the research and scholarship here is extraordinary. If you want to know what lead up to the witch trials this is the book you want to read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read.
The item was as described. The price was great. It arrived shortly. An interesting read.
Published 6 days ago by D. Martin
5.0 out of 5 stars Thanks
Y'all did a great job. Keep up work, it was my fault the book went to wrong apt. I will reorder it again from u. Thanks
Published 1 month ago by Teresa Horine
5.0 out of 5 stars Book delivers all promised
Very well documented. Boyer used all primary sources, and very thoroughly covered the aspects of the society that propelled the residents into the horror of the days. Read more
Published 7 months ago by DAVID M KLUMB
5.0 out of 5 stars A very good read
Informative, well written and thought provoking. The book provides a good background on the disputes and social upheaval that was taking place in and around Salem Village that... Read more
Published 11 months ago by ROBERT R LARSON JR
5.0 out of 5 stars an excellent study of religious fanaticism
This is a very detailed description of what happened in Salem Village in 1692 and after. If you're interested in the religious fanaticism that led to "the Salem Witch Trials,"... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Constitutional Lawyer
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful
Needed for class. It got the job done. Interesting book and I'm glad I had to read it. Would recommend.
Published 19 months ago by Amanda Zielinski
4.0 out of 5 stars Important Theory, More Important Data
One of the great things about not being the first reviewer of a book, is that you can feel free to limit yourself to a discussion of what you felt was important about the book to... Read more
Published on May 1, 2012 by B. Marold
5.0 out of 5 stars Primary research at its best
Being a genealogy/historical records buff, I loved Salem Possessed. Rather than relying on court records or newspaper articles, the authors look at previously overlooked records to... Read more
Published on January 13, 2007 by M. Brown
4.0 out of 5 stars A Rational Look at an Irrational Moment
From an enormous body of surviving documents, the authors piece together a micro-historical account of life in 17th century Salem (Danvers), MA, comparable to Emmanuel Le Roy... Read more
Published on March 25, 2006 by Ivan Linderman
5.0 out of 5 stars Salem, 1692
Why did the social fabric of Salem break down so thoroughly that by 1692 people were being accused of and executed for witchcraft? Read more
Published on September 9, 2005 by Bomojaz
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