Tag Archives: Cotton Mather

“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as…”

My student felt the need to assure us that Cotton Mather’s position on witchcraft, although not spelled out, is clear enough to those who take the time to think about it.

For some reason I am immediately reminded of the story of Calvin Coolidge, “Silent Cal,” asked by his wife what the minister’s sermon one particular Sunday had been about. “Sin,” replied Coolidge. “What did he have to say about sin?” pressed Mrs. C. “He was against it,” replied Coolidge. (Coolidge claimed this story wasn’t true, but it’s still wonderful.)

Some positions don’t really need to be specifically expressed, and Cotton Mather’s (nay, the whole Puritan society’s) position on witchcraft was one of them. In short, he was against it. Reading Mather’s copious accounts of witchly visitations, laden as they are with vivid and judgmental language, one cannot miss his condemnation of such activities.

My student presents this idea in a rather distracted way, though:

“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as though he is against witchcraft and is strongly against it.”

We can find many grounds for distress in this one little complex sentence, but they are not equally distressing. “States” is always an unfortunate choice anywhere but in an objective news story; we have so very very many good verbs that offer information, energy, conceptual relationship, and judgment, not just the fact of uttering. “Stance” is okay, but aurally odd after “states” (in fact, it sets me up to expect a third term: “he never states his stance on stunts,” for example). The passive voice of the main clause saps the energy further while exempting the writer from any complicity in the judgment that will follow. “As though” should be “as that”: otherwise, the student has destabilized the sentence’s syntax.

Any of these weaknesses could legitimately be pointed out to the writer, but I generally try to give priority to the lapses that actually undermine the meaning and overall effectiveness of the sentence.

And here the highlight is the interpreted stance itself, presented (by means of the “and”) as two positions but most likely only one: against it, and strongly against it.

Now, we might entertain the possibility that the writer is trying to create emphasis here: Mather is not merely “against” witchcraft; he is strongly against it. Perhaps the repugnance in the general population is a given, and Mather’s goes beyond it.

Well, perhaps. But I really think this is just one more sentence where the writer got lost…and to which he never returned with a proof-reading eye. Just as he typed “and,” did the phone ring, or a dinner date arrive, or a sudden brief coma descend? Then, on returning to task, to room, or to consciousness, did he simply pick up where he had left off, going forward from “and” without looking back to see what had already been said?

In any case, he offers this as an interpretation of Mather’s unstated stance. Here’s what I hear: “Mather never really tells us how he feels about witchcraft, but I can make a good guess: he was against it. And I interpret ‘against’ to mean ‘against’—in fact, ‘strongly against.'”

If I’m right about this student, then he wouldn’t be the first who, asked to “interpret” something, merely rephrased it. Or restated it.


Himself, looking for witchcraft (which, by the way, he’s against). Image: widely available; here, Wikimedia Commons.

“If the accused pleaded innocence…”

This is a good weekend to talk about unjust trials, scapegoating, and persecution of “outsiders.”

Yesterday was, after all, Good Friday. And the investigation of the killing of Trayvon Martin goes on (still with no arrest).

It’s also a good time to celebrate Connecticut’s decision to abolish the death penalty (the Senate has voted, and the House and Governor have already announced their intentions to concur). Certainly the residents of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-3 would have been better off without it.

And here is my student, writing about the fear of witches in New England, including the Salem Witch Trials (in history and in Cotton Mather’s accounts).

Here’s the whole thing, a remarkable piece of what may have begun as reasonable thought but staggered through some misunderstandings and partial information and finally turned into garbled prose:

“If the accused pleaded innocence they would be ruled with an iron fist and sentenced to death or trial. If they were sentenced to trial they would either be drowned or crushed by boulders because in theory a witch was able to both breathe underwater and withstand the weight.”

We begin with his impression that “trial” is a kind of ordeal, which in some contexts of course it is but not when we’re talking about legal proceedings. He means “trial by ordeal”; the alternative is not a death sentence (at least not right away), but trial by process of court—evidence, testimony, judgment. The Salem trials did not include trial by ordeal; all the accused faced their accusers, or at least faced the “evidence,” in court; no one was thrown into the horse pond to see if the devil would enable her (or him) to float. (The court did admit “spectral evidence,” though—witches’ power could be “proved” via observable phenomena.)

I’m not really sure where the “iron fist” comes into the picture. The cases seem to have been pretty much decided in advance, and the judges meted out the death penalty with inexorable virtue (there had, after all, to be some way of stopping the devil from bringing the godly down). Perhaps the fist that piled rocks on the chest of Giles Corey could be called “iron.” The pressing of Corey was not, however, a trial by ordeal: it was torture plain and simple, intended to “persuade” him to enter a plea of either Guilty or Not Guilty of Witchcraft. If he pleaded Guilty, he would be executed and his lands and goods would be confiscated, but his soul would have a chance at God’s forgiveness; if he pleaded Not Guilty and was found guilty (pretty strong odds), he would be executed and his goods would be confiscated, and his soul would probably go to hell. BUT if he refused to plead, he could not be tried and so the government could not take his property; and that was what he was fighting for, for his descendants’ sake. Anyway, my student seems to think that the “boulders” were a test to see if Corey was a witch; my student is wrong. And certainly nobody, including the devil, helped Corey “withstand the weight”: he was crushed to death, still refusing to plead.

My student’s confusion of “trial” (which in ordinary parlance can of course mean “ordeal”) with “trial by ordeal” gives his statement a nice irony that he didn’t intend, since he seems to think that someone who claimed to be innocent would automatically face one of two fates: summary execution by that iron fist, or death in water or under boulders. In his version, there is no chance at a hearing in court: sentence follows plea. I would like to think he presented the situation in this way because he realized the actual trials were, to our modern eyes, farcical exercises in “proving” foregone conclusions; but his statement doesn’t make room for or hint at any possibly tacit commentary, and the confusion in the actual statement suggests that he had a hard enough time trying to say what he meant, without grappling with subtle implications.

Well, the arc of the universe bends SLOWLY towards justice. Seeing clearly what has been done in the name of justice in the past, we should be inspired to try to bend the arc more quickly. It’s not there quite yet.