Melissa Dorval History
of American Literature 1
December 14, 2006 Digital Document
Said Sir Bedevere, "What makes you think she's a witch?"
has proven to be an extremely controversial subject; not just in modern times
with Harry Potter and Wicca, but for centuries. As far back as the 1600Ős
witchcraft has been a controversial issue. This rings especially true for the
events that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century. The
infamous Salem Witch Trials lasted from June to September in 1692. In all, 19
men and women were put to death. Hundreds more were accused and thrown into
prison, all because they were accused of witchcraft. An active part in all of
this was played by the Reverend John Hale. Hale was a pastor at the Church of
Christ in the neighboring town of Beverly, Massachusetts and had a hand in
accusing persons of witchcraft. He was also responsible for the book A Modest
Inquiry Into The Nature Of Witchcraft. This work describes the Witch Trials and
also shows a change of heart in Hale, as this work is rather critical of the
trials. Interestingly, this change coincided with his wifeŐs being accused of
A Modest Inquiry Into The Nature Of Witchcraft is a 176 page book which Hale had published in 1702. Hale not only recounts the events of the trials themselves, but also what happened before and after. In addition, according to American Web Books, Hale "was a participant in the trials, attending them and praying with the accused. This eyewitness account is one of the rarest, having been reprinted once in 1771, and again in 1973". Though Hale may be looked upon by some as being unreliable because of his changes, his work still sheds an interesting light on the somber Salem events.
Interestingly, Hale provides a fascinating theory as to why the trials happened. Again, one must not forget that Hale had a large role in accusing people and helping the trials along. He was an avid supporter of the trials, and only saw things differently when his beloved wife, Sarah, was accused. It was this accusation that changed HaleŐs mind, and also prompted him to write A Modest Inquiry Into The Nature Of Witchcraft. In any case, Hale describes the trials, and at the end of his book finishes with his theory. It states that Satan, not the people of Salem themselves, was responsible for the events. Hale tries to convince the reader that the inhabitants were forcibly placed under SatanŐs yoke and therefore turned to witchcraft. Though Hale blames Satan, he also brings God into the matter. He believed that people, though under Satan, were still able to pray to God to get them out of the predicament. Hale said that "by finally answering their prayers in times of difficulty" (176) God pulled Salem and its people out of the Trials.
This piece was of immeasurable interest. It was found by going to a website which the professor recommended. Once there, there are many different headlines to choose from. One heading in particular, 17th Century Colonial New England, seemed the most promising. This proved true. The next step was to find an actual digital document. There was a heading which was called Salem Witchcraft Holdings from Various Archives, which ultimately lead to the discovery of HaleŐs piece. The specific website where the book was found was: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/archives/ModestEnquiry.
ManŐs inhumanity to man is a troubling, yet fascinating subject and ultimately lead to my selection of this document. I knew that I wanted something which dealt with the Witch Trials and this piece provided an interesting look at them. One of the factors that helped me to choose this piece were some of the intriguing quotes. For example, when Hale was explaining a certain type of witch, he said "Namely to the witch at EndorÉthe Greek translators in the Scriptures above quoted, call them, Eggaltrimutbai: persons that speak in or from their belliesÉthey gave answers to the people from their heathen oracles". (100) Though this excerpt is not entirely clear, it is certainly attention grabbing.
Additionally, this piece has appeal because of its modern day connections to literature. John Hale is not only the author of this book, he is a character in Arthur MillerŐs The Crucible. At the beginning of MillerŐs play, Hale is brought in to the Parris household to examine young Betty Parris, to see if she has been bewitched. Hale is declared an expert on matters of witchcraft, and goes through some interesting changes in the play. The Crucible is one of the best American plays, and it was an interesting parallel to see Hale portrayed in it while also reading his personal thoughts on the subject of witches.
The Salem Witch Trials are one of the most interesting events in AmericaŐs early history. In modern eyes, there are many theories circulating as to why the trials began. Some believe that they happened because the girls of Salem were bored. Others think that the Trials can be attributed to the fact that there was an infected grain crop. The grain theory, according to one source, states "a fungus called ergot sometimes infects rye grains. This fungus produces some chemicals which are very similar to LSDÉ" It is also worth noting that "the primary theoryÉ is not necessarily that those who saw witches were under the influence of ergotism, but that those who were called witches were. The theory is that those suffering under the effects of ergotism acted in ways which others blamed on the influence of the devil, therefore calling them witches" HaleŐs argument that the Trials were caused by the Devil did not sound absurd at that time.
John HaleŐs book is important for literary reasons. A Modern Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, besides its historical content, tells a great story. Compared to other pieces included in the cannon of early American literature, HaleŐs is one of the most interesting. Since many pieces written before the 1850Ős were correspondence, it is debatable whether or not they really belong in the American literature cannon. The fact that Hale wrote a book not only makes him unique, but it makes a stronger argument for why this piece can be considered early American literature. This is true not only because it was well written and informative, but also holds true for its intentions. Hale intended this piece to be published and to be read by many different people.
On the other hand, this piece is important for historical reasons. Hale provides one of the only firsthand accounts of the Witch Trials. Additionally, it provides not only a history of the Trials, but an interesting look at them through the eyes of an historical figure. Hale manages to give a history of the tragic events and a personal perspective on them. History itself is important. People can use it to learn from the past and to avoid making horrible mistakes. Because Hale preserved the story of what happened in Salem in that fateful year he preserved knowledge.
The work by John Hale connects to the history of American Literature before 1850 course. Besides the obvious (that the work fits into the time constraint), the piece is highly significant. It is not only historical, but clearly belongs in the cannon of literature. A Modest Inquiry into The Nature Of Witchcraft, is HaleŐs account of what actually happened in the Witch Trials. Also, it states his personal beliefs and opinions regarding the whole ordeal. It serves as an historical writing as well as an opinion piece. It can also be connected with the assigned readings. For example, there is Benjamin FranklinŐs piece called A Trial at Mount Holly. In this piece, though it is fictitious, Franklin mentions the trials. One of his many points was that the trials were a horrible and unjust event. This coincides with HaleŐs opinions, later on in the book.
The website which provided the digital version of HaleŐs piece was very helpful and informative. It took the pages from the book and blew them up to a size that was larger than the original. In doing so, this made the book much easier to read. At the same time, there were some minor obstacles. Whenever the letter "S" appears in the text, being in 1600Ős script, it looked like a strange letter "F". Also, a lowercase letter "c" in the book looks like a uppercase cursive "E". The website never pointed this out, and that made the first few minutes spent with the book a little confusing. However, these were minor problems and overall, it was a good website. They not only provided the text in its entirety, it also made the rare, centuries-old piece accessible.
Working with an antique book was a great experience. Due to modern technology, it was easy and enjoyable. Because of the internet, it was possible to access the document at any time. Also, because of the care taken to preserve the piece, it was never a problem to read the work, with the exception of some of the language being outdated. Additionally, there were many options available. There were many other pieces, besides the work by Hale, which could have been chosen. Just having a general topic such as the Witch Trials in mind, and searching things related to it, opened up many different options. The digital document assignment was new and fun way to explore American literature before the 1850Ős. The piece itself was intriguing, exciting, and informative. It was a very pleasant experience.
Ask Erowid. 6 June 2004. The Vaults of Erowid. 11 Nov. 2006. <http://www.erowid.org/ask/ask.cgi?ID=2167 >
Burr, George Lincoln. A Modest Inquiry Into The Nature Of Witchcraft, By John Hale, 1702 ; from Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases. 11 Nov. 2006. <http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/archives/ModestEnquiry>
John Hale, A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft. 10 Oct. 2006. Applewood. 25 July 2002. < http://www.americanwebbooks.com. >
Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dir. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Pallin, Terry Jones, Eric Idol, and Terry Gilliam. Videocassette, 1975.