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Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
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Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft

3.8  ·  Rating details ·  920 Ratings  ·  65 Reviews
Tormented girls writhing in agony, stern judges meting out harsh verdicts, nineteen bodies swinging on Gallows Hill.

The stark immediacy of what happened in 1692 has obscured the complex web of human passion, individual and organized, which had been growing for more than a generation before the witch trials. Salem Possessed explores the lives of the men and women who helped
Paperback, 231 pages
Published 1974 by Harvard University Press
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Sharon Miller I would watch an introductory documentary first, such as the one by the History Channel (available on youtube) or the excellent Three Sovereigns for…moreI would watch an introductory documentary first, such as the one by the History Channel (available on youtube) or the excellent Three Sovereigns for Sarah, from PBS, might be at your local library, before reading Stacy Schiff's new book, The Witches. It is long but it is a good introduction. Salem Possessed is an excellent book that focuses on the tensions in the community that led to a collective breakdown. The witchcraft crisis is a historical phenomenon that is about the projected fears of a particular culture. Hereditary witches who practice a spiritual tradition that predates Christianity are something else entirely. A good introduction to that subject is Starhawk's classic The Spiral Dance. (less)

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Katherine Addison
This actually isn't an unread book, since I read it when I was in eleventh grade. But that was over fifteen years ago, and all I remembered about it was getting badly confused by the economic and geographic analysis of the pro- and anti-Parris factions. A reaction which was, by the way, confirmed by this reading. Boyer and Nissenbaum have an excellent point, but they could have used another pass for clarity.

In essence, the argument of Salem Possessed is that witchcraft isn't about witchcraft. Th
Emily Farrar
Aug 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: school-reading
Salem Possessed

By Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum

Review by Emily Farrar

The year 1692 and the name of “Salem” have gone down in U.S. history as one of the biggest “witch hunts” ever seen in our history. But most people don’t know much else about Salem past the witch trials of 1692 which claimed 19 lives. The story fascinates them, makes them hungry for juicy details, but they don’t really care to learn about the deeper political controversy that lead to the events of 1692 and that proceeded tha
Kate M. Colby
Mar 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
What I enjoyed most about Salem Possessed was how the authors spent time explaining the different players living in Salem Village and offering profiles of several accused witches to demonstrate the similarities and differences in their circumstances. Likewise, the ample detail on Salem Village's struggle for independence from Salem Town provides another fascinating look into the context of the Witchcraft Trials.

My only critique is that I felt the authors took too many narrative liberties in reco
Jul 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
This work is one of the essential social history readings for understanding the causes of the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692. Boyer and Nissenbaum critically analyze the events of 1692 by pace, status, church membership, wealth, and geography (double emphasis on geography) to find that Salem Town and Salem Village (modern-day Danvers) maintained internal factions on these measures which culminated into anti-Parris and pro-Parris groups (around Puritan minister Samuel Parris) with Salem Village ...more
Hannah Givens
Sep 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, nonfiction
A fascinating read that's also stellar history. The authors found and examined a mass of "boring" everyday documents and used them to describe, in great detail, the social context of the town and the different factions within it. They're careful to point out that Salem wasn't actually that different from other towns in the same time and place, but the witch trials didn't happen at the same scale anywhere else -- meaning there must have been significant differences in Salem. They're able to ident ...more
Jun 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
"Geography is destiny," my medieval studies prof always used to say, and that's no different here. Absolutely fascinating look into why Salem devolved into hysteria over witchcraft versus any other town. Hardly a mention of witches at all, but instead warring family clans, the battle of agrarian Puritanical collectivism against mercantile individualists, and a string of disinherited sons. The beginning is a bit of a slog, but it sets the stage for the later more gripping chapters.
Mar 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
I had to read this book for my Anthropology class. It is a great historical compilation of diaries, town records, sermons, etc. that tries to adequately explain what happened in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. A couple of points of view I found very interesting because I never considered those views. (I don't want to say any more because I don't want to spoil it in case you want to read it.) ;o)
Kevin Oliver
Jul 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dan Gorman
Feb 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: us-history
The book is not always a thrilling read; it was the 1970s, so Boyer and Nissenbaum, fashionable social historians, were enamored with statistics and psychology. The focus is on Salem Village's men, not so much the many women embroiled in the trials. Anyone who reads "Salem Possessed" will find their knowledge of the witch trials enriched, even if they do not find a story as thrilling (or female-centric) as Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." The accusations of witchcraft exacerbated interlocking ten ...more
Jul 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A very good examination of the factors creating the perfect conditions leading to the deaths of innocent people; conditions which, the argument goes, led to religious revivals less than a half century later.
The economic, geographic, and psychological factors are well explained and well argued.
If you are fascinated by this horrific event this is a wonderful examination of how ordinary people and their circumstances can lead to extraordinary events.
Jamie Z.
Jan 14, 2018 rated it liked it
Informative but at times boring.
Äsruþr Cyneaþsson
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
A well structured and researched insight into the social environment of the colony in the seventeenth century.
Michelle Hoogterp
Sep 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
fascinating. different from what little is covered in history class.
Jun 17, 2018 rated it liked it
3.5 stars - rounding down
Feb 11, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-own
I like the idea of it, but it's a bit dry.
Mark Bowles
Aug 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
A. Summary: This book is the study of a single event--the Salem Witchcraft trials in 1692. This is the first book to place this event into its social context--the history of Salem village. The main issue was the factional dispute between Salem town and village. Since there was no central government in Massachusetts at this time a resolution was impossible to legislate. The Salem villagers, feeling alienated by the commercial townsmen, were the central accusers of the “possessed” girls. This accu ...more
Sharon Miller
Dec 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
Short, concise, and well argued, a must-read on the subject. I think the title should be more specific, the work explains the social context of this one witchcraft outbreak and doesn't mention any other parallels, so it is relevant really only to the Salem phenomenon. While you can extrapolate yourself to other witchcraft outbreaks, I was hoping for a sweeping thesis on "the social origins of witchcraft", which this book doesn't provide. Oh well...Maybe I'll have to write that one. Like other au ...more
Feb 06, 2014 rated it liked it
In 1974, Boyer and Nissenbaum combined their efforts to publish a historical accounting about the Salem witch trials of 1692. In addition to the usual body of sources--legal depositions at trials, narrative and polemical publications--the two historians incorporated previously unexplored documents--community votes, tax assessments, lists of local officials (from church archives), as well as wills, deeds, estate inventories, lawsuit testimonies, and a manuscript volume of Reverend Samuel Parris' ...more
Christine Nicole
Thoroughly researched and well presented, but still wholly disappointing in the failure to present the big picture or relay how this small picture fits into it. It's like seeing a square inch of a Monet - you get a taste for the chaos, but none of the point. The entire book is dedicated to the "social origins of witchcraft" yet not a word regarding the accusers or the accused unless it is to describe their socio-economic status in the community. This is a study in colonial economics and politics ...more
Mama K
Jan 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I tried a few months ago to read the new Salem books--The Witches by Schiff--and I hated it; too much research recap and not enough analysis. A friend who is also a Salem fanatic suggested this book instead. I LOVED it. The book looks at how social structure, geography, and quest for power may have contributed to the events of 1692. Furthermore, the authors accomplish this task without outwardly demonizing any of the Puritan settlers. I have long suspected that the social structure of the Purita ...more
Sep 09, 2008 rated it really liked it
All in all, an excellent read, though I take issue with B & N's use of tax records, the fairy-tail (wicked step-mother) projection motif that dominates the latter half of the book. psychoanalysis isn't easy to do, especially if it's only done by halves. In essence, I missed a more thorough effort to explore the psychological pressures that created this long-lasting catastrophe. I also disagree with N & B's decision to dismiss the girls and their psychological/political motives. To B & ...more
V.R. Barkowski
Apr 29, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a second reading for me. Boyer and Nissenbaum’s work is a landmark look at the factionalism—social, political, and religious—that engendered the witch hysteria in 1692 Salem. Despite what some scholars seem to believe, what can be said well in 100 words, cannot be better better said in 200, and I no longer have the patience for this kind of bloviated academic writing. Although B&N's interpretation is vital to understanding the subject, unless this is required reading, read elsewhere ...more
Jan 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a re-read, but I can't remember how long ago I read it. Historical record of the events of 1692 in Salem that teases out the tense situation that existed in the town, with pretty clearly marked out sides, that exploded into the famous witchcraft trials. Having re-read Entertaining Satan recently, the book about witchcraft trials in New England (apart from Salem) it really emphasized how much the whole idea of witchcraft was an accepted part of society, and how the phenomena was distorte ...more
Sep 29, 2012 rated it liked it
Boyer and Nissenbaum give an interesting insight of the social history in late 17th century Salem, and this book is and interesting read; but don't expect a bunch of witch tales if that is what you are looking for. The Authors give good sources for their theory of how the Salem Witch Trials occured, but I find it hard to believe that it was all over political factions. Though I did learn plenty from this book and do recommend this book for those who would like a deeper understanding of the histo ...more
Alice Rackham
Jan 29, 2014 rated it liked it
I had to read this for an Early American History class that I'm currently taking at Valeton. I really wanted to like this book, but I found it so completely dry that it was painful to get through. The book paints a picture of Salem as a period of social competition more than anything else. As a student of history, I suppose that's all well and good and researched and interesting, but as a writer I found myself struggling to lose myself in it. It's a story that SHOULD be much more interesting tha ...more
Oct 13, 2012 rated it it was ok
I suspected that this was a gussied-up dissertation and I believe I was right in my suspicions. The premise of the book was interesting and to me it was new information: the witch trials in Salem Village were as bad as they were due to longstanding factionalism in the village that went back generations. Having made their case the authors went on to make it two or three times again accompanied by a lot of dull charts and illustrations. It's not necessary to finish the book, as is the case with so ...more
Jeff Bell
Mar 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-books
This is a fantastic history of the Salem Witch Trials. Boyer and Nissenbaum are masterful historians, and weave a story that brings to light the underlying issues that led to that horrific event. It's fascinating to read about the social issues that preceded and surrounded the Trials, showing that it was not just a random anomaly, but the result of long-standing issues between the people of Salem Town and Salem Village. It might be a bit dry to people who are not interested in history, but for a ...more
Mar 24, 2013 rated it liked it
This book was intriguing in that the authors delved into the schisms of family and neighbors and clearly drew lines that later became the basis of the accusations of witchcraft. They posit an interesting theory as well: what if in the beginning, the possessed girls were merely acting out a religious awakening, what we might call today being 'full of the spirit' or 'speaking in tongues'? The maps drawing the lines of battle between the factions of Salem were also a nice touch.
Michael Mayer
Sep 07, 2007 rated it liked it
The title was rather misleading; while it is an excellent social history of Salem Village and Salem Town politics and economics the book doesn't delve too deeply into the religious or psychological origins of witchcraft. I found myself continually flipping to the back of the book to see how many pages were left.
Apr 04, 2016 rated it liked it
2 stars, 3 stars, I struggled to decide. The first half was a fascinating analysis of Salem Village, yet the second half felt like grasping at straws. I also failed to understand why the women and girls who actually did the accusing were largely ignored. Seemed like a major piece of the puzzle to leave out, even if evidence left behind is most likely largely about the men of the village.
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Paul S. Boyer is a U.S. cultural and intellectual historian (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1966) and is Merle Curti Professor of History Emeritus and former director (1993-2001) of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has held visiting professorships at UCLA, Northwestern University, and William & Mary; has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fou ...more