Context

Witchcraft trials are a sociocultural phenomenon, and like all other historical sociocultural phenomena, they did not occur in vacuums. Despite the attention the Salem Witch Trials recieve in U.S. history textbooks and in popular culture, the events of 1692 and other New England witch trials were more akin to a final tremor of an affliction that mainland Europe had already purged from itself. The timeline1)This timeline is the original content of Katya Beisel and was created using KnightLabs’ TimelineJS below summarizes the history of Christian witchcraft persecutions, as well as the historical events that helped define the context in which the Salem Witch Trials occurred.


In the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Firstly, we have to understand that the Province of Massachusetts Bay was a distinctly religious colony governed by puritan values under the authority of the English monarchy. In this system, puritan ministers were frequently given legal authority.

While Puritans once held political and moral sway under the Stuart monarchy and enjoyed majority status under Oliver Cromwell following the Glorious Revolution, puritan fortunes changed rapidly after Cromwell’s death in 1658. Two years later, the restoration of the Stuarts to the monarchy under Charles II put puritans firmly on the outs with monarchical power. Parliamentary forces tried and executed Charles’ father, Charles I, in 1649, triggering the interregnum and years of bitter conflict between loyalist cavalier forces and the parliamentary roundheads. The reconciliation of the Stuart monarchy and Church of England during the Savoy Conference in 1661 and the Act of Uniformity in 1662 solidified that England’s future rested with the monarchy and the Church of England, and not with the puritan republic that Cromwell and his parliamentary forces briefly forged.

Secondly, the seventeenth century citizen did not have much in the way of legal rights. The enlightenment, which breathed humanism and secularism into governments all over Europe, had yet to arrive. Here is a brief timeline of advancements in human rights up until 1692.

  • 1215 – Magna Carta is signed, establishing the right to Habeus Corpus, representation of the nobility for taxation, trial by one’s peers and forbidding retroactive punishment.
  • 1610 – The decision in Dr. Bonham’s Case establishes the right of the judiciary to overturn laws proposed by parliament if they violate common sense and reason.
  • 1628 – The Petition of Right establishes the illegality of enacting taxation without parliamentary consent, and arbitrary imprisonment.
  • 1679 – The Habeus Corpus Act forbids unlawful imprisonment and established the right to appeal a decision.
  • 1689 – The English get a Bill of Rights and John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” is published.

To recap, a settler in the former Massachusetts Bay Colony had a right not to be taxed without the approval of parliament, not to be arbitrarily imprisoned, to be tried by their peers, the right to appeal a decision, as well as a few other odds and ends.

The state of civil liberties at the time can be neatly summed up in a description of what those jailed in the trials endured. They were charged for their food, water and bedding. Conditions were atrocious; Sarah’s Good’s baby, Lydia Dustin, Sarah Osbourne and possibly as many as twelve people died in jail due. Its also worth mentioning that the jail would have been a deep freeze in winter and a sweltering hothouse in summer, lacking any of the modest amenities that made seventeenth century homes livable, such as a fireplace or the ability to freely open windows.

 

References   [ + ]

1. This timeline is the original content of Katya Beisel and was created using KnightLabs’ TimelineJS