Book Review: Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England by John Putnam Demos
John Demos’ work Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England encompasses a substantial interdisciplinary examination of witchcraft persecutions in the New England colonies, and presents an expansive analysis of the culture surrounding these instances. Demos breaks his work into four, generally easy to follow sections entitled “biography,” (constructing a profile and background for the accused witches), “psychology,” (reconstructing the mental state of accusers and accused through psychoanalysis), “sociology” (examining intra-village structures and culture) and “history.” Within these sections, Demos seeks to further analyze the materials of witch trials in early New England, hoping to not only explain why particular individuals were accused, but to examine their back stories, their relationships within village society, and the psychological workings of the accused and the accusers. All the while, Demos has situated his analysis within a society in which “magic of all sorts was a lively presence.”
In his preface, Demos makes very clear that he had two specific goals in mind when beginning this research: one was to contradict former witchcraft historians who failed to recognize the predominance (and general normality) of witchcraft and magic in the everyday lives of 17th century New Englanders, and the other was to apply a new and fashionable interdisciplinary approach to the study. Although his writing style sometimes borders on the unreasonably-technological, and his interdisciplinary approach works in some sections better than in others, Demos’ work as a whole presents an interesting, multi-methodological approach to understanding the culture of witchcraft in seventeenth century New England society.
Demos’ usage of psychoanalytic theory is problematic, however. Any analysis which attempts to articulate the mentalities and psychologies of past populations should be taken with relative apprehension, as this form of examination has the potential to generalize great swathes of people’s experience and individual psychological experiences. In his psychology section, Demos states “Distinctions among persons are henceforth put out of view; the argument turns on a general psychology of witchcraft, assumed to embrace (in varying degrees) the entire population of seventeenth-century New England.” It would seem that the creation of a ‘general psychology’ of any entire population is far too generalized for a historian (or even a psychologist) to take on. There is also the issue of applying contemporary understandings of psychology and psychoanalysis to past psychologies. Historians that try to use psychoanalysis have the tendency to apply contemporary psychological teachings onto their subjects, and this sort of biased analysis risks inaccurate conclusions.
Also problematic is Demos’ avoidance of gender (especially as it pertains to the female witches and accusers), and his application of Freudian theory as a methodology of explaining why women predominated the accused. In his chapter entitled “Accusers, Victims, Bystanders: The Innerlife Dimension,” Demos attempts to create psychological profiles of the main groups involved in New England witch trials. Not only are psychological profiles of groups edging towards generalizations, but his analysis of female psychology is quite outdated and at times debasing. In describing the psychological state of women in seventeenth-century New England as being entirely formulated by their associated with child bearing, Demos reduces the agency of these women to next to nothing. He lumps all women into the groups of those who succeeded at mothering and those who failed, and attempts to build a grand theory of female psychology as it pertains to witch accusations from there. Not to mention, he fails to incorporate any feminist theory into this discussion (likely because it would have staunchly counteracted his Freudian argument). Particularly offensive was Demos’ statement, “Given all these circumstances, New England women of middle age might as well cast themselves as sufferers, as victims – even as targets of witchcraft.” Demos’ discussions of the infant/mother psychological relationship are equally dangerous. Not only does he practically blame women for the accusations against them as a result of particular cultural practices in child rearing, but on the flip side he takes away all male agency within the realm of raising/influencing children.
Whereas Demos makes several very interesting arguments regarding the culture of seventeenth-century New England, and the aspects of said culture that allowed for an overt acceptance of witchcraft and magic as viable enterprises, he falls short in his discussion of women as witches and accusers. Whereas the inclusion of gender history or feminist theory could have aided his discussion of why primarily women in their middle-ages were targeted as witches, Demos sticks to psychoanalytic analysis and therefore misses out on the most important aspects of the female experience. At points, he applies a contemporary understanding of both male and female psychology to the inhabitants of seventeenth-century New England, taking away from any the possibility of cultural comparisons to be made.