October 25th, 2013, 10:09 pm

Culinary Context: Puritans and Witches

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Despite the humorous jabs that this comic takes at hunting down witches, which was a common practice up to the early 1700s, Puritans and witchcraft were not laughing matters. People believed that a spiteful neighbor could curse them, and that spirits could visit them on their walks. Schulz got lucky here in that the shackles are too small, and that he did end up on Altar by accident.

Another thing: the Puritans were not just stern witch hunters. They disliked the theater, yes, but they also implemented bright colors and art into their New England life, setting up the work ethic that became part of American life.

I am a woman of science, as I write and draw these fantasy comics. I do not believe in ghosts, in malicious witchcraft, or in so-called spectral evidence. One cannot prove that they have seen a ghost, or the devil; most of the mediums that claimed to converse with spirits were revealed as frauds in the late 19th century. Yet most Christians believed in the 1690s that if a twelve-year old girl suddenly developed a fit and accused a neighbor of bewitching her that said neighbor was guilty. Even more perplexing, two Puritans who wrote books on witchcraft were also men of science, and Harvard professors to boot. These men were the Mathers, Increase and his son Cotton. Increase was president of Harvard, but Cotton did not inherit the position due to his participation in the Salem Witch Trials. He bitterly helped found Yale University.

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Puritans were not the only Christians to persecute witches, although they were the most infamous. The Catholic Church started the trials in the 15th century, after the Black Plague decimated most of Europe. Before the Salem Witch Trials, which claimed at least twenty victims and lasted, the Salzburg trials happened 15 years before and claimed more victims, mostly homeless boys in their early teens.

That is in interesting phenomenon, that children often accused others, and children were believed. With the Salem girls, going into fits drew attention to them, giving them power and credibility. Even better, their parents could influence them to accuse bitter rivals, so as to get neighbors executed or disgraced. Most of these girls grew up, got married and settled down, though Ann Putnam, Jr. had to raise her nine siblings and beg forgiveness from her neighbors. Even as she read her apology to a distrusting church body, she blamed the Devil's influence instead of taking responsibility for her own actions. It's a strange burden to have, however, to know that you sent innocents to the gallows.

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When a child has that much power, are they responsible when it goes wrong? Can they avoid manipulative parents or social pressure, or the temptation that such reputation brings? Ann Putnam was twelve years old when she accused her neighbor Rebecca Nurse of witchcraft; at the age of 21 she had to raise her nine siblings, because sickness killed her parents in 1699. Was that punishment enough for her? Was she truly conscious of what she had done?

Those are the questions I leave with you. Happy early Halloween.

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