Noonday Devils

Marina Warner

  • Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies by Elaine Breslaw
    New York, 237 pp, $24.95, February 1996, ISBN 0 8147 1227 4

The French historian Arlette Farge has described coming across a letter, written on linen in a fine strong hand, in which a prisoner, long incarcerated in the Bastille, writes to his wife, affectionately, imploringly; he adds a message, to the laundry woman who will find it among his washing, asking her to embroider a blue cross on one of his socks to tell him she has managed to pass it on. But the document’s continued melancholy presence in the Bastille archive attests to the failure of his ruse.

Then, in another bundle of letters, Arlette Farge finds a sachet pinned to a request from a country doctor to the Société de médecine. He writes that a young girl he knows exudes handfuls of corn from her breasts every month: could the learned gentlemen in Paris please comment. She is ‘sincere and virtuous’, he assures them.

The historian unpins the sachet; the corn is still there, ‘as golden as on the first day; it scatters in a rain on the yellowing archive,’ writes Farge. ‘A brief sunburst What if it were indeed a bit of that young girl in flower whose doctor believed in her.’ She notes ‘the surprising power of these intact grains ... deemed to be the fruit of a body and a scientific explanation of menstruation’. This letter was sent in 1785: a material missive from the Enlightenment about the willingness of men (and women) to be gulled by wonders, about the role of young women as suppliers to the appetite for the fantastic

Farge’s evocative book, Le Goût de l’archive (1989), is the only study I know that expresses the frisson of that moment of encounter with the past when the edges of the data seem to catch alight: the moment of recognition. She writes:

The archive is a rent in the fabric of days, a tense glimpse of an unexpected happening. There, everything is focused on a few instants in the lives of ordinary people rarely visited by History ... Archives do not write pages of History. They describe in everyday language and on the same note the trifle and the tragedy, where what matters for the administration is to know,

Tituba is one of those ordinary people who would not have visited with history, and whose trifled-with life would have passed unremarked if she had not been bought in Barbados as a slave by Samuel Parris, who then left for America and became pastor at Salem in 1692 – the man at the centre of the witch trials. Elaine Breslaw, the author of this biography, must have experienced one of those epiphanies Farge describes so well when she found, in the Barbados archives, an entry in the inventory of property from an estate being sold on the island, made in a notary’s careful copperplate: in the third column of the register of slaves – a long list – under the heading ‘Boys and Girls’, came the name, spelt ‘Tattuba’.

This was 1676-7. In 1692, on 1 March, after Tituba had been in America with Parris her master for 12 years, she was interrogated in Salem by the two justices of the peace appointed by the court. Betty Parris, aged nine, whom Tituba looked after, had fallen ill with mysterious pains and was also suffering from hallucinations; two other girls soon began to complain of ailments too. Samuel Parris alerted the authorities to the possibility of witchcraft. Tituba first denied that she was a witch and was hurting them. But soon, in response to the men’s artlessly leading questions (‘What evil spirit have you familiarity with?’), she poured out a vivid tale of hogs and cats and rats and ‘upright hairy things’, of a tall man in black with a yellow bird, of a woman in a hood. Animals and humans kept turning into one another; in another transcription of her testimony the details conform even more closely to European witchcraft lore: Tituba says she flies on a broomstick to Boston, for example.

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