When I was in the sixth grade, I became somewhat obsessed with the Salem Witch Trials. I don’t remember what got me started, but I know that I worked my way through the books in my school library, and then used my dad’s alumni library card at (what is now) Binghamton University* so I could get better books — the ones with transcripts of primary source documents. Because as an 11 year old I thought I could understand 17th century trial records?
I’m sure I thought I could (and did), but in hindsight… well, I think it’s kind of adorably nerdy that I tried.
Salem was the first, but certainly not the last, of my historical fixations. There was the Tudor England phase in high school (which still resurfaces periodically), the decade or so of digging into the Civil War, the very intense year of reading every Holocuast memoir I could get my hands on…
But anyway, enough about my life as a history nerd — tonight is about the witches, because I got to spark up the old obsession at an author talk for The Witches, Salem 1692. After listening to Stacy Schiff discuss her book for the better part of an hour, I could not be more exited to dig in.
There’s a lot I’d like to say here, but I am nodding off at my computer and really, really need to get to bed, so I’ll focus on the thing that stood out the most:
Towards the end of the Q&A, while talking about connecting the dots from 1692 to our modern world, she said “an oral culture bears a remarkable similarity to an Internet one” — that is, being up in other people’s business was commonplace in Salem, public shaming was a tactic of social control, and the way the panic of bewitching spread resembled what we now call virality. I love the idea that, for all that we think every problem in our modern world is our own special creation, there’s something in our past that says, “Nope, sorry. Been here before.”
It might be time to understand things a little more deeply than I did 30-some years ago…
* When I was using Dad’s library card, it was SUNY Binghamton. And when he got the card, it was Harpur College.