Friday, August 11, 2017

Erika Gasser's "Vexed with Devils"

Erika Gasser is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Vexed with Devils: Manhood and Witchcraft in Old and New England, and reported the following:
Vexed with Devils analyzes published cases of demonic possession and witchcraft-possession (when those who suffered the spectral torments associated with demonic possession also named a witch as the cause) in England and New England from approximately 1564 to 1700. It examines the role of gender in published accounts about men and women who performed the symptoms of possession, and analyzes particular cases of men who were accused of witchcraft by possessed accusers or who published possession propaganda. Despite the overwhelming association of witchcraft with women, I argue that manhood was a crucial factor in the articulation of judgment upon both the women and men who were implicated in these incidents.

Page 99 features a long quotation by Cotton Mather, the eminent New England Puritan minister, from the introduction to one of his books in which he expresses his determination to publish his own book alongside those of greater men, in an elegant combination of arrogance and humility: “Go then, my little book, as a Lackey to the more elaborate Essayes of those learned men.” That sentence always makes me smile, because I can’t help but be captivated by Mather’s complexities. He believed that he and his family knew how to order New England as a proper godly colony and dared to hope that he was among God’s predestined Saints, but the Puritan denial of assurance meant that he constantly struggled between an overweening pride and an awareness of his unworthiness. Mather wrote that in 1689, just before the well-known Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, and despite his reaching for modesty the tone broadcasts his confidence. I have found it very interesting to observe how his tone changed over the next few years.

The long quotation speaks to a very specific moment, and so in that sense the first half of the page may not represent the book as a whole, but later on in the page I reiterate one of its central tenets, that “Mather drew upon a tradition of English witchcraft-possession writing, from the controversies of the late sixteenth century to the cases that had emerged across the seventeenth century. Despite fluctuations in the volume of printed cases, and the dramatic political, religious, and social turmoil of the period, claims to interpret preternatural phenomena remained closely implicated in claims to patriarchal authority and order.” I go on to explain that at the cultural level, manhood and womanhood continued to matter for all participants in possession cases in ways that show considerable continuity rather than the decline of credulity we expect and associate with the Enlightenment. In the end, I do think that page 99 gives a kind of encapsulation of the book, with the added bonus of a window into Cotton Mather’s particular struggles.
Learn more about Vexed with Devils at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue