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  • The Devil's Book at Salem
  • Christopher Trigg (bio)

For its witnesses, the Salem witch crisis confirmed the reality, and proximity, of the invisible world of spirits. From the late winter of 1692 onward, this other realm was made manifest in a variety of ways. Witches assaulted victims with hidden blades, inflicting real wounds with ghostly weapons. Their own bodies were found to harbor intimate "preternaturall Excresence[s]" for the suckling of familiars (Rosenthal et al. 362). Satan stalked New England as a dog, a horse, and a black-skinned man. Despite his obvious concern at this "shake" that the devil was giving the province, Cotton Mather celebrated the fact that he and his people now had "a thousand preternatural Things every day before our eyes" (Wonders xiv). The invisible world, he preached, was "becoming Incarnate" (48): the legions of hell had always troubled the children of God, but here and now they were going about their business "more sensibly and visibly" (28). As a result, the existence of spirits was no longer a matter for conjecture or debate; if the "Testimony of Scripture" should seem insufficient, the empirical "Experience of Mankind" could now be added to it (7). Even those who cast doubt on the truthfulness of Salem's accusers and confessors typically accepted that the episode had a diabolic origin. Thomas Brattle asserted that talk of witches' Sabbaths, satanic sacraments, and "the Devill's book" was "mere fancye" (189). The great adversary, nevertheless, was the source of these delusions, which he had deceitfully "impose[d] upon [the] brains" of the afflicted (188). John Hale, the minister for Beverly, ascribed some of their experiences to Satanic impressions upon the imagination, but added that it was also possible that they had actually seen something supernatural: the devil assuming the "bodily likeness" of a human tormentor (43).

If most observers concurred that the devil had a hand in the events at Salem and Andover, they evidently disagreed about the manner in which he made his presence felt. Were his manipulations restricted to the thoughts and perceptions of the people involved? Or could he directly influence the physical world? The spectral books of Salem provide an index for measuring [End Page 37] attitudes to this issue. Having signed their own name in the devil's volume, the accused witches were supposedly desperate that others should join them in damnation. They would visit their peers in spiritual form, tempting, cajoling, and torturing them into making their marks on the books that they carried. Unsurprisingly, none of these texts have ever been recovered. As if noting a weakness in her story, one confessor speculated that the devil must keep the witches' signatures because he "Carried [hers] away wth him" (Rosenthal et al. 575). More skeptical commentators tended to draw attention to the supposed materiality of these volumes, in order to underline the impossibility of that which the accusers and confessors claimed to have witnessed. The Salem Quaker Thomas Maule suggested that the troubled spiritual state of these people had "permitted" Satan to delude them into believing that "a thing, which but only is in shew" had a real "substance" (187). This, for him, was the only way someone could come to accept the improbable idea "that the Devil hath a visible Book of natural paper, and with the natural Blood of mens natural Bodies, they subscribe to this natural Book." Archskeptic Robert Calef mentioned the physicality of the spectral book as one more feature of the witch's covenant with the devil for which he could find no biblical evidence (67-68). For the supporters of the trials, the book was a powerful, if potentially troubling, symbol. Although Cotton Mather admitted that "the Delusions of Satan" may have been "Interwoven into some Circumstances of the Confessions" at Salem, he determined that his readers ought to "Believe the main strokes wherein those Confessions all agree" (Wonders xiii-xiv). He therefore took the devil's volume as one of the central themes of his writings on the crisis, without ever directly addressing its material reality.

During the legal proceedings themselves, by contrast, the issue of the materiality of the codex was repeatedly raised by both questioners...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-147X
Print ISSN
0012-8163
Pages
pp. 37-65
Launched on MUSE
2014-03-09
Open Access
No
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