Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Meditationf on Our Progreff in the Eftablifhment of a Biblography for Refearch into the Hyftory of Vile Witchcraft in Falem Town, and Thoughtf on our Hypothefif and Directionf of Refearch

It's clear to me that I will be very intimate with Cotton Mather by the time this semester is over, but my very quick, hesitant forays into his work have left me, as usual, with more questions than answers.

My biggest question now is about Cotton Mather himself. The impression that I get is that his work was immensely popular, and that his writings on witchcraft gained him considerable fame, prestige and authority, and most likely money as well. The big question, for me, is whether he meant to do this. 

It doesn't sound like it makes a big difference. It sounds, in fact, like a kind of historical trivia. Still, it makes a huge difference in the relationship between Mather and the accusers. Was Mather a greedy, irresponsible sociopath who stuck the notion of witchcraft into the community's head and then exploited it for personal gain? Was he as much a part of the moral panic as everyone else? Or was he himself duped by ordinary Puritan social climbers who used him for their personal gain? 

The trouble is, of course, that I may have to settle for never quite knowing. Some of the accusers confessed to deliberately making false accusations, but did all of them? More importantly, how many did so out of genuine remorse, as opposed to a simple desire to avoid social ostracism once the moral panic ended? The end result is that, whatever my thesis is, it's probably not going to point fingers at anyone. With so many accusations flying around, it wouldn't stretch credulity for at least some of the accusers to believe they were bewitched, or for Mather to fear openly opposing the trials. Ideally, I would like to pin down a thesis that would make the question of intent irrelevant except

Besides Mather's writing and the testimony of the accusers, accused and agents of the court, I'm considering adding Stephen T. Asma's On Monsters, which has a chapter on European witchcraft beliefs, to the bibliography, as well as Leonard R.N. Ashley's The Complete Book of the Devil's Disciples. The latter is not particularly useful, since it's a decidedly unscholarly work (I once used it as bathroom reading) but it contains a very useful bibliography of scholarly works on the Salem Witch Trials, none of which Ashley actually bothers to cite. A text on the Satanic Panic of the 1980's might be valuable as a link to modern times, and a book about moral panic might provide some perspective. I plan on taking Thursday and a portion of Friday to burrow through the library and get a functioning bibliography going.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Treatise on Books with Prodigiously Long Titles, with Commentary on the Efficacy of the Ventilation and Air Filtration Systems in the Library of the University of Central Florida, Orlando and on the Effects Thereof Upon the Author

First thing's first: I hate the UCF library. It's ugly, hard to navigate, overcrowded, lit like a prison, and alternately noisy and dead silent. Its shelves come in colors selected for their ugliness and inability to match any other colors ever made by humankind. Worst of all, though, is the filtration system. I grew up by the ocean, and my body is used to breathing moist air, so after twenty minutes in the library, I'm bone-dry and can feel my palate shrivel up in my mouth. Today I spent the entire afternoon, after office hours at least, in the library. I'll be spending even more time there in the next few months.

Still, it was worth it for the chance to get past the paywall that blocks Evans Digital Database. I dug around in the witchcraft sections and found what I'd always wanted out of life: a PDF of a Cotton Mather book on witchcraft published in 1689, only three years before the infamous witch trials. The book, which had the cumbersome title of Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, was perfect for me in terms of its publication date. It was published early enough to influence the Salem Witch Trials, and recently enough to still be remembered when they began. Poring through it, I found so many potentially intriguing things: Endorsements from other leading clergymen, a dedication to someone named Wait Still Winthrop, and remarks about the supposed demonic possession and sexual licentiousness of Quakers. Moreover, I found an explosion of new editions in 1697, implying that the witch trials had a positive effect on sales.

It's a juicy read, and I can't wait to really get into it. I especially want to compare the accounts in Mather's book to the accounts given by supposed victims of witchcraft in Salem. In the meantime, though, I need more cough drops.