Journal of World History 24.2 (2003) 261-264
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Witches of the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook. Edited by Elaine G. Breslaw. New York and London: New York University Press, 2000. xiv + 550 pp. $65.00 (cloth); $25.00 paper.
The proliferation of literature on the subject of witchcraft has encouraged the publication of numerous anthologies of scholarly articles. This edition by Elaine G. Breslaw is distinctive in two respects. First, it combines primary and secondary sources, a somewhat unusual [End Page 261] editorial approach first used in this field by William Monter in European Witchcraft (New York, 1969). The advantage of including both types of sources is mainly pedagogical: it gives students a sampling of original documents and treatises while at the same time offering them examples of how scholars have used those materials in their work. The challenge for the editor who arranges an anthology like this is to coordinate the two very different types of sources. Breslaw is attentive to this need, although some of her primary source documents, most notably Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), receive only passing references in the selections by scholars.
The second distinctive feature of Breslaw's anthology, which should be of particular interest to the readers of this journal, is its geographical scope. By identifying her subject as the witches of the Atlantic world, Breslaw proposes that witchcraft should be considered in a transregional, global perspective. Such a claim goes far beyond the argument, advanced mainly by anthropologists, that European, colonial American, African, and Native American witchcraft beliefs share common elements. Atlantic world studies proceed on the assumption that those lands bordering on the Atlantic Ocean were involved in commercial, political, and cultural exchanges during the period of European westward expansion. The most productive studies of the Atlantic world have focused on the Atlantic economy, especially the slave trade, and the development of political and religious ideas. Breslaw begins her study of witchcraft in the Atlantic world with selections of documents and articles on Christian and non-Christian beliefs in Europe, Africa, and the New World. She follows this with sections on diabolical possession and gender. Her main objective is to demonstrate that witchcraft beliefs in the New World were the product of these complex and often unconscious cultural exchanges.
Although the book claims to be study of witchcraft in the Atlantic world, nearly two-thirds of the sixty-five selections focus on New England, while four of the eight sections of the book are devoted to the witch-hunt at Salem in 1692. The selections on Salem include legal documents, a variety of commentaries by historians, and some controversial medical and psychological interpretations of the girls who accused their alleged tormentors of witchcraft. Breslaw justifies this case study on the grounds that the Salem episode represented the culmination of a process of "cultural convergence" between African, European, and American Indian concepts of evil, sorcery, and witchcraft. Few of the selections, however, demonstrate that type of convergence. Articles by Alfred Cave and Richard Slotkin explore English colonists' demonization of American Indians but say little about cultural [End Page 262] exchanges. Selections from Philip D. Morgan's book on black culture in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake reveal how African-American sorcery drew on African traditions, but they do not tell us very much about witchcraft during the period of prosecution. Excerpts from William D. Piersen's book, Black Yankees (Amherst, 1988) argues that African American folk beliefs blended with those of white New England to create a "complex, intercontinental alloy" (p. 186), but presents only fragmentary evidence on witchcraft and conjuring. The main argument for a genuine cultural convergence of African, European, and Native American witchcraft in the seventeenth century comes from the editor's earlier work on Tituba, the Indian servant of Samuel Parris in Salem whose confession triggered the first round of trials. Breslaw's claim that Tituba blended English, African, and American Indian notions of the occult in her confession is based on a strained interpretation of Tituba's...