Important Lessons in History

In some ways, being a historian is like being a detective. Yet, where Sherlock Holmes (and his real-life counterparts) could look at many disparate clues and say “this is what must have happened!” This is not how history works. A murderer or robber will probably have one motive, but historical events are the result of many different factors, each important in their own way. I still remember the day I really learned that this is so.

First semester sophomore year. I was a freshly declared history major, taking “Colonial America, 1500-1750,” taught by the department chair. That day in class we were set to talk about the Salem Witch Trials, and I was so excited because over the summer I had seen an episode of Secrets of the Dead which that explained the strange behavior of the animals and humans were likely the symptoms of ergot poisoning. The professor gave a short lecture on the basic facts, and opened up the discussion.

With all the enthusiasm and pride of a college student with newly acquired information, I explained the ergot theory. The professor listened, and acknowledged that he had heard the theory and it did explain some of the odd physical behaviors. But, he said, it did not explain why certain people were accused of witchcraft.

The discussion went on as I sat there, my ego a little bruised but rightly so. By the time class was over, I had begun to get what he was saying, and I definitely understood it by the end of the semester. People are complex; society, being made up of people, is also complex.

Ergot poisoning may have led to behavior in animals and humans which was perceived as witchcraft. Established social relationships in the community contributed to who was suspected of being a witch. Legal systems which gave a succesfull identifier of a witch monetary gain motivated accusations.

Each aspect of the history of Salem, Mass., at the time of the trials is important, but individually, they’re just a thread. It is not until you start to put them all together that you get the woven piece, the portion of the tapestry of history which tells the whole story. There are many threads in the tapestry of history, and the good historian tries to see them all.

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