Sunday, October 23, 2011

An Abstract of Elizabeth Reis's "Revelation, Witchcraft, and the Danger of Knowing God's Secrets," With Commentary on the Usefulness of Reis's Work to Our Enterprise, as well as that of one Conchetta Bommarino, Lately of Orlando and Also Much Concerned with the Discovery of Witchcraft in Salem in 1692

Reis, Elizabeth. “Revelation, Witchcraft and the Danger of Knowing God’s Secrets.” Women in Religion in America: Reimagining the Past. Chicago Divinity School. October 8-10, 1993. PDF.

By focusing on the role of gender and authority in the Salem witch trials, Reis argues that knowledge of the supernatural in Puritan England was often contested, especially women’s knowledge. Celestial guidance may have been desired, but absolute knowledge was considered dangerous and generally demonic in nature (2). Witchcraft in particular was dangerous because it manipulated the divine plan, and because it raised the question of what was acceptable or desirable knowledge of that plan. To know a witch was to know her damnation, which meant knowing God’s plan, which was potentially dangerous knowledge, especially because divination was the prerogative of the wealthy and educated elite (3, 21). These elite charged themselves with interpreting signs and wonders which indicated God’s pleasure or, more often, displeasure, but that while such signs were trusted, revelations were not, especially not women’s revelations (4-6). Signs were another example of Puritan belief that God would reveal all, including all sins, in due time, and in fact had to do so for repentance to take place and for the outward appearance and inward nature of the sinner to match (12-13). This was especially true of witchcraft, a sin which by its very nature constituted both a betrayal of God and a secret sin, such that the professed piety of some of the accused became evidence against them, as it proved the extent of their alleged hypocrisy (14). Accusers who targeted pious women were given increased credibility, as their claims were seen as courageous acts, even by the accused, who were often guilty of other sins than those with which they were charged (15-16). Ultimately, though, what was important was confession, which allowed the judges to distinguish repentant witches from the damned, who denied the accusations to the last, and which created a public knowledge that evaded the moral ambiguity of private and thus privileged information (17-18).
Reis takes something of a whirlwind tour through the forms of supernatural knowledge available to women in Puritan England, and the result shows just how circumscribed women were. Not only were they denied the ability to tell fortunes or have revelations, but the simple task of interpreting a sign was considered inappropriate – anything resembling a revelation had to come from an authority. Reis also balances primary and secondary sources, including the writings of John Winthrop and the confessions of accused witches, while also describing particular historical incidents, such as the heresy of Ann Hutchison and the trial of Elizabeth How. This is really helpful for my thesis, as it shows how limited women were in their ability to participate in the struggle against evil, except as exemplars of good. At the same time, Reis seems to avoid the fact that spectral visitations and other alleged symptoms of witchcraft were seen as valid testimony despite their often unverifiable, directly revelatory nature, which gave women a means by which they could briefly participate in the battle between good and evil which the Puritans saw taking place all around them. She provides some information that relates to this – especially the fact that testimony against especially pious women was considered especially reliable – but otherwise is mostly useful for providing context, which she provides a lot of in a very compact article that never feels as dense as it is. I would recommend it, especially for Conchetta’s presentation, due to the way it explains just why witchcraft was so dangerous to the Puritan mindset, and how any kind of female revelation could be equally upsetting.

A Series of Notes Taken From a First Reading of Elizabeth Reis's "Revelation, Witchcraft, and the Danger of Knowing God's Secrets," Using the Sentence Method as a Means of Finding the Core Points of a Very Complex Paper with a Broad Scope and Considerable Detail

Pg 2. – Thesis: knowledge of the supernatural often contested, especially women’s knowledge. Celestial guidance desired, but absolute knowledge considered damnable, demonically guided offence.
Pg. 3 – Witchcraft dangerous because it manipulated the divine plan, and because it raised the question of what was acceptable or desirable knowledge of that plan. To know a witch is to know here damnation, which means knowing God’s plan, which is sinful knowledge.
Pg 4. – Puritans often looked for signs from God of their salvation or the imminence of Judgment Day.
Pg. 5 – Puritan omens rarely pointed to God’s pleasure, though the effects of European diseases on Native Americans are an exception.
Pg 6 – Signs trusted, revelations distrusted, especially women’s revelations.
Pg 6-7 – Example of Dorothy Talbot, who murdered her daughter due to what she perceived as divine revelations.
Pg. 7 – Laypeople who alleged revelation were alleging privileged information from God.
Pg. 8 – Ann Hutchinson expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony because revelations came directly to her, not through a minister.
Pgs. 9-10 – Mary Dyer, follower of Hutchinson, Quaker and frequent consumer/experiencer of revelations, had a malformed child which was seen by ministers as a sign from God of her errors.
Pg. 11 – The link between female revelation and monstrous births was consistent.
Pg. 12 – Relationship between God and humanity uneven, as God knows and can reveal all and his followers do not and can not.
Pg. 13 – Secret sins considered most dangerous, as they disallow repentance. Secret sin compared to child in womb, which will inevitably get out.
Pg. 14 – This includes witchcraft, and the professed piety of several witches became evidence against them.
Pg. 15 – This led to a situation where accusations against especially righteous or upstanding women gained credibility, since they were seen as courageous actions.
Pgs. 15-16 – Some of the accused felt that the accusations were justified in that they were punishment for real, hidden sins.
Pg. 16 – Considerable blurring in the minds of the accused of their actual sins and accused sins.
Pg. 17 – Great emphasis on confession as only path to repentance and towards identifying the  damned.
Pg. 18 – Confession meant the possibility of salvation, hence the decision not to execute confessed witches in 1692. Those who denied the accusations were hanged.
Pg. 20 – Judges had no problem with this kind of private knowledge of the accused witches’ fates.
Pg. 21 – Fortune-telling especially dangerous, as it causes inappropriate levels of knowledge that the elite, who had their own methods of divination, considered their prerogative.
Pg. 22 – This wasn’t simply for classist reasons – the knowledge offered by witchcraft and revelation was certain, and therefore heretical.
Pg. 23 – Angel sightings rare, any seen by Puritans as generally demonic, especially sightings by women.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Beginnings of a Bibliography, Accompanied by the Formation of a Hypothesis, for the Contemplation of the Learned.

The more I read, the more I notice the heavy apocalyptic undertones (and overtones) in Puritan writing, which has led me to suspect that participation in witchcraft trials gave women a way to participate directly in the violent, and perhaps ultimate struggle against evil which dominated Puritan narrative identity. I've focused my bibliography around this possibility, and on determining just how big a role apocalypticism played in Puritan pop culture.

Preliminary Bibliography
Callis, Mark. “The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 33(2). Oct 2005: 187-213
Doty, Kathleen. “Formulaic Discourse and Speech Acts in the Witchcraft Trial Records of Salem, 1692.” Journal of Pragmatics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language Studies 41 (3). 2009 Mar: 458-469.
---. “'I Will Tell, I Will Tell': Confessional Patterns in the Salem Witchcraft Trials, 1692.” Journal of Historical Pragmatics 3 (2). 2002: 299-335.
---. “(Un)Becoming Conduct: Cotton Mather's Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion and the Salem Witchcraft Crisis.” Instructional Writing in English. Eds. Matti Peikola and Janne Skaffari. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins, 2009.
Gildrie, Richard P. “The Salem Witchcraft Trials as a Crisis of Popular Imagination.” Essex Institute Historical Collections 128(4). 1992: 270-285.
Kittredge, George Lyman. “Notes on Witchcraft.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 18. Apr 1907: 148-212.
Kusunoki, Akiko. “'Their Testament at Their Apron-Strings': The Representation or Puritan Women in Early-Seventeenth-Century England.” Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance. Eds. S. P. Cerasano and Mario Wynne-Davies. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992.
Maclear, J. F.. “New England and the Fifth Monarchy: The Quest for the Millenium in Early American Puritanism.” William & Mary Quarterly 23(2). Apr 1975: 223-260.
---. "’With Bodilie Eyes’: Eschatological Themes in Puritan Literature and Gravestone Art.” William & Mary Quarterly 40(3).  Jul 1983: 469-471.
Ray, Benjamin. “Satan’s War Against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692.” New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters 80 (1). 2007 Mar: 69-95.
Silva, Cristobal. “Miraculous Plagues.” Early American Literature 43(2). Jun 2008: 249-275.
Tracy, Allison. “Uncanny Afflictions: Spectral Evidence and the Puritan Crisis of Subjectivity.” Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination. Ed. Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. Madison, WI: Popular, 2004.