HSTAA 402 A: Witchcraft in Colonial New England

Winter 2022
MW 12:30pm - 2:20pm / HRC 155
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):


Course Description and Organization

HSTAA 402 is organized as a three-part in-depth exploration of the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692 set within the context of seventeenth-century colonial New England.  In part one of the course, we will look at the broad contours of the Salem crisis as it unfolded between January of 1692 and May of 1693.  You will be introduced to some of the key participants in the crisis and to three contemporary accounts, each offering a slightly different explanation for what happened in the earliest days of the crisis and for who/what was to blame.

In part two, we will step back from the Salem crisis to study the history of seventeenth-century colonial New England, because while it is possible to understand colonial New England apart from the Salem witchcraft crisis, it is not possible to understand the Salem witchcraft crisis separate from its historical context in seventeenth-century puritan New England.  In contextualizing the Salem crisis, we will explore, for example, the colonization of New England by English puritans; the changing relationship between Native Americans and Europeans over the course of the seventeenth-century; the orthodox and popular religious beliefs of the New England puritans; and importantly, the status of women within this decidedly patriarchal society. 

In part three, we will zoom back in to study the Salem crisis in depth.  We will define what constitutes an afflicted accuser and discuss who was most likely to be accused. We will debate various theories proposed to explain the behavior of the afflicted accusers, theories ranging from group hysteria to PTSD.  We will walk through the legal system as experienced by an accused individual.  We will consider the racial dimensions of the crisis, especially as it pertained to Tituba‚Äôs confession, and we will revisit the role played by Native wars and English politics in contributing to the outbreak of witchcraft accusations. 

Woven throughout all three parts of the quarter, we will also consider the historiography of the Salem crisis.  We will read about and discuss the five most prominent scholarly theories about why the crisis occurred when and where it did, and we will consider how these theories have changed over time.  Was the Salem crisis due to community conflict?  Was it a case of economics and gender?  Can the crisis be explained as a consequence of frontier warfare with Native peoples?  Did it come about because of a doctrinal dispute between an unpopular minister and his critics?  Or, did the crisis occur because of political decisions made by the English king.  By the end of the quarter, students will be expected to weigh these various theories and form their own conclusions about why the crisis happened when and where it did.

Writing Credit: Successful completion of this course will satisfy the (W) Writing Credit

Learning Goals

  • To gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the history of colonial New England, specifically as it pertains to the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692
  • To develop the habit of historical thinking by identifying and evaluating an argument for its persuasiveness and validity, in both primary and secondary sources
  • To gain an understanding of the historiography surrounding the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692
  • To develop an awareness of the complexity, contingency, ambiguity, and foreignness of events and people in the past
  • To formulate your own arguments about events in the past
  • To improve writing skills through the production of a critical book review, a research paper, and through a midterm and final exam
  • To apply historical knowledge and thinking to contemporary issues

Course Structure

This is a lecture-based course, although we will set aside time each week so that you can write about, and we can discuss, the week's assigned reading(s).  

Assignments and Grading

Grading in this class will be based on four elements: Class participation (15%), Exams (40%), Critical Book Review (20%), and a Witch Trials Analysis Essay (25%)

Required Texts

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft

            (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974)

Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England

            (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998)

HSTAA 402 Course Pack

For a Complete Course Syllabus see: Files, then Course Syllabus

Catalog Description:
Provides an in-depth look at the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692 as part of a larger examination of seventeenth century New England history. Themes include: settlement, the intellectual and religious foundations of New England society, the role of politics, economics, and Indian wars, witchcraft trials, and why most of the accused were women.
GE Requirements Met:
Social Sciences (SSc)
Writing (W)
Last updated:
April 16, 2024 - 9:21 pm