One on 1 with Malcolm Gaskill

One on 1 with Malcolm Gaskill

“There should be reason and rationality in religion as well as in society more generally.”

In this One on 1 interview (Halloween edition!), we are joined by historian Malcolm Gaskill. Gaskill is an Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia, specializing in the social and cultural history of seventeenth-century trans-Atlantic culture, particularly the history of witchcraft. Gaskill discusses his new book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, the story of a witch-panic in a New England frontier community.


Malcolm Gaskill: There should be reasoning and rationality in religion as well as in society more generally.

Max Nosbisch: I’m Max Nosbisch the manager of visitor experiences here at the First Amendment Museum located in Augusta, Maine. Today I’m joined by our very special guest Malcolm Gaskill. Malcolm, thank you for joining us. Do you want to introduce yourself? 

Malcolm Gaskill: Hi, Max Gaskill. I’m a historian of witchcraft and 17th-century transatlantic culture and an emeritus professor of early medical history at the University of East Anglia in the UK. 

Max Nosbisch: Excellent. Thank you. for joining us.

So you’re the author of the Ruin of all Witches: Life and Death in the New World. What is this book, and what’s it about? 

Malcolm Gaskill: So this is a microhistory, a little case study of a small Massachusetts community right out on the western frontier in the middle of the 17th century. So this is like 50 years before Salem. And what happens there this moment is that they have a little witch hunt. Now what happens in this, this town Springfield really focuses on a married couple Joseph and Mary Parsons. And they are kind of misfits, but they also become objects for projection of conflicted emotions among their neighbors. It’s also a kind of folktale, a kind of real-life folktale, even a fairy tale thing because it’s got all those kinds of elements of fairytale, including, you know, not just a sort of remote community, with all people living cheek by jowl with all sorts of dangers and tensions, but this is also a world of enchantment, of, of sort of mini miracles and disasters and demons and devils so it really does kind of operate I think rather than like a traditional fairytale except for the fact that it happens to be true.

Max Nosbisch: And what inspired you to write this book?

Malcolm Gaskill: So I’ve got a background in the social and cultural history of 17th century, and I’ve written a book about England’s worst witch hunt, which takes place between 1645 and 1647 called Witch Finders. This is during the period of the English Civil War when the world’s turned upside down. And then I also wrote a book about 17th century migrations from England to America. So that was a kind of a big overview. So in some ways, the Ruin of All Witches is a kind of bridge between the two books, following on the story of the East Anglia witch hunt in England, right into the way that these ideas are sort of transplanted to America. So this is a story that even delves into people’s emotions and their dreams, right down to those kinds of secret areas of existence that are familiar to us all. But assumptions are quite difficult to capture in history, but there are very good sources for this, and actually, we’re fortunate that when people do make witchcraft accusations, they do tell us how they felt. So, you know, I hope that some people will find that this reads a bit like a novel, but I’m not making anything up. I’m kind of really relying on the way that people at the time said how they felt, and the way that they felt was often very afraid, even terrified, and also very angry as well.

Max Nosbisch: When we think of witchcraft here in the US, especially in the context of American history, we think of the Salem witch trials. What makes the historical episode chronicled in the Ruin of all Witches different than Salem and important in its own right?

Malcolm Gaskill: There was something about Salem Witch Trials kind of, you know, it stands in for all witch hunting, not just in America, but actually global witch hunting is such a famous episode, particularly because of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible where that the Salem Witch Trials become a political allegory, a parable of persecution and paranoia. So it’s extremely well known iconic, in fact, but this is not just the high watermark of witch hunting. This is kind of the end. Because after Salem, really, the whole idea of actually hunting, which is not so much just belief in witches, but actually witch hunting, pretty much implodes. The story of Springfield does have many similarities to it, but it’s really much earlier on. It’s really at the start of the period when witch hunt accusations are starting to take hold in, in colonial America, so some of the similarities are tensions between neighbors, the competition over resources and land, the tensions over political authority, some uncertainty about legal authority in the town, and also the evidence of children the evidence of dreams. And famously from Salem spectral evidence, the idea that witches can somehow manifest themselves in a spectrum form and terrify their victims in that way. So you get all those elements together. It’s, of course, also a very intensely introspectively religious society too, where people are constantly experiencing religion, very, very internally, as that battle between God and the devil between right and wrong, good and evil, is going on in their hearts not just something that’s going on, outside in the community. There’s something about if you look at any witchcraft story, they’re always common denominators that are similar, but there’s a very tight focus in Springfield, much more so than in Salem, I think, between these key characters of William Pynchon, who is the landlord or the magistrate, does have everything really. And the Minister George Moxon, and this type of human Mary Parsons, and the story really takes place in a triangle between those three characters whereas at Salem it’s, it’s actually a much more dispersed story, although you do get tensions between factions in the community and the minister and the magistrates and so on.

Max Nosbisch: So I have this notion in my head of Puritan New England as essentially a theocracy, a place where religion and government are infused–Is that true? How did the Puritans view the government’s relationship with religion?

Malcolm Gaskill: Well, I think that they, these Puritans, wouldn’t necessarily have recognized the term theocracy because, for them, that wasn’t really a choice. I think that they took it for granted that God was acting through them or rather that they would try to live up to what they thought was God’s, was the mission that God had set for them in New England. So that, they, they felt very strongly that God had brought them within a covenant and that they had to live up to this. But of course, this actually meant that they really fell short of this a lot of the time, and this caused all sorts of other troubling emotions like a sense of guilt, really, I suppose, and shame. And that, I think, in the end, that’s something which they can’t shake off. And that’s really that image of that Stern, intolerant, inflexible Puritan that has come down to us through The Crucible and Nathaniel Hawthorne and, and from The Scarlet Letter and that particular kind of 19th-century American literature.

Max Nosbisch: Did these witch trials and other witchy sort of episodes like it in New England’s early history impact the thinking of the founding fathers or other Enlightenment thinkers around the world, did it impact their view of the separation of church and state religious freedom, etc., if at all?

Malcolm Gaskill: I don’t think it did directly. But on both sides of the Atlantic, the era of the witch hunt, the history of the witch hunts would start pretty much even before the witch hunts end, that history of the witch hunt does contribute to a sense that there should be reason and rationality in religion as well as in society more generally. And so I think that the memory of the witch trials is very useful in the modern age into the 18th or the 19th, even in the 20th centuries, because I think that it’s a shortcut to teaching them about inhumanity, the lack of charity between neighbors, and I think that the witch trials also work to illustrate the need to have rigorous proofs of law to have what we would today call the Law of evidence, and not to admit hearsay. And I think also witch hunting becomes just that sort of flipside of the ideal of enlightenment, reason, and civility, which 18th and 19th-century states and societies like to pride themselves on.

Max Nosbisch: Do you have any final thoughts or ways people get in touch to order your book, learn more getting on to anything that you want to share–this is sort of your open mic moment?

Malcolm Gaskill: Okay, well, um, thanks. Well, I think that one of the things I would just say about this about my book, The road of all witches, which is actually in the UK, at the moment, it comes out in states with Knopf on the first of November. So, yeah, so obviously, I’m please buy the book, and if anybody wants to follow me on Twitter, I’m @MalcolmGaskill. And I’m always putting little bits and pieces there about witchcraft and other things on there, too. So great.

Max Nosbisch: Excellent. Thank you so much, Malcolm. 

Malcolm Gaskill: Well, it’s an absolute pleasure. Thanks so much for inviting me on.