Why Hunting Witches was an Economic, not Religious, Affair

By Ülvi Gitaliyev

From a shallow perspective, witch trials in European and early American history were motivated by blind religious devotion and sexism towards women typical for the age. When we begin to analyse more significant social and economic trends in witchcraft accusing societies, though, a different pattern emerges. Instead, we see that witchcraft hunting was used to express class struggles between the upper and (primarily female) lower classes.

Whenever you are analysing any historical event from the invention of agriculture up to today, remember these words: the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Psychologists, theologians and many others in the field of humanities are adept at analysing individuals, their relationship with ideas, books and ideologies and justifying their actions. This skill is also beneficial for historians, but it can only partially explain why a historical event happened. Historians must also analyse the more significant social and economic conditions that have motivated whole classes and societies of people since the earliest states in Mesopotamia.

The tricky part of this kind of research is that while human beings will write at length about religious, political or any other motivations behind their actions, few mention socio-economic motivations because they sound less morally convincing or simply because they are not aware of the larger social rules governing their lives and actions. For an example of this, let us analyse the Salem witch trials, history’s most famous witch trials, from a socio-economic, rather than religious, perspective.

Firstly, the Salem witch trials began not in the town of Salem but in Salem Village (present-day Danvers, Massachusetts). As the town of Salem became dominated by merchants, the farmers of Salem Village were isolated from town politics, and economic prospects suffered with it. As a result, some Salem villagers began clamouring for independence from the town to collect their own taxes and not be subjected to decrees from the merchants. They did so by establishing their own ministry, which immediately became a controversial issue among villagers.

The issue of Salem Village having its own church and minister was merely the terrain on which the actual battle was fought, the economic and political future of Salem Village from Salem Town. Those who lived farther away from Salem Town and owned less acreage of land were most likely to support an independent ministry. Villagers with more land and easier access to Salem Town saw such an endeavour as a threat to their own wealth and so, with the tacit support of Salem Town, sabotaged and obfuscated the ministry at almost every turn. After having exhausted nearly all other options, the Salem villagers who wanted independence began to accuse their opponents of witchcraft and other acts with the devil. Looking at a map of witchcraft accusers and the accused in Salem Village, that economic dividing line is stark and cannot be ignored. So, the lower-class farmers hit back the upper-class merchants and their lackeys by using religion. Whether they did this cynically or due to religious devolution does not matter since the larger socio-economic picture is clear.

Neither side put these economic factors on their list of grievances in court cases or sermons, but that does not lessen their importance in shaping the Salem witch trials. While none of the residents of Salem Village would know or understand the concept of a class struggle, they were, in fact participating in one of its most violent expressions in 17th century New England.

Much of the research for this editorial comes from Boyer and Nisenbaum’s book Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. The book was one of the first analyses of the infamous witchcraft trials from a socio-economic perspective. While it is well written and researched, due to the historical limitations of the 1970s in light of the Cold War and a general mischaracterization of Marxism in western academics, they did follow their own argument into its logical conclusion. Namely, witchcraft trials were manifestations of class struggle historically used by the upper classes to limit women’s wealth and independence. Sometimes, such as the case of the Salem witch trials, accusations of witchcraft were actually made by the lower classes to improve their own socio-economic standing at the expense of the wealthy and landed gentry.

One response to “Why Hunting Witches was an Economic, not Religious, Affair”

Leave a Reply

Skip to content