Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Puritans and Ice Cream

One of the classes I'm forced to take in order to appease my community college that yes, I did pay attention when I took these same classes over the four year period I earned my BA in Idaho, is American history. Although now it is called Core Humanities, which makes no sense to me, but then I try to stay away from administrative politics and financial planning.

It's hard to take this class seriously, as I'm not that unfamiliar with American and World History, even if I tend to focus on the more mythological aspects of a culture's history. I'm one of those students who got a bigger kick out of the textbook when we read about actual people stabbing each other. College was great for that, not so much high school. I also had to read a lot of American literature for my prior degree, which until the 1800s stuck to realistic fiction that was similar enough to reading history textbooks unless you got to read the folk stories about ghosts and fairy people who like to stab mortals in the face for mucking up nature. History channel documentaries are also good, as they explain why people were stabbing other people. In fact, here's a blog that's all about the badass people in history!

Anyways, right now in my class we're on the early years of the American colonies, specifically the Puritans and the Salem witch trials. I've never understood why someone would want to believe something as restrictive as Puritanism, but their ideology lives on in conservative Americans today. Just check out the Republican standings on current issues, it is eerily similar to early American Christian beliefs. I've even written a paper about the struggles of being Puritan; actually it was about Anne Bradstreet, the first published American writer, ironically a Puritan woman. Her poetry is rather fun once you understand the societal backdrop she lived in. So yes, I'm familiar with the Puritans and their impact on American history.

The bumper sticker version of Puritanism is, "the fear that somewhere, someone is happy." It is a constant striving for very uncertain reward - you were predestined from before birth for salvation or damnation. Yet no one could possibly know whether they were on the good list or the bad list! But wait, it gets more crazy and messed up. Doing good works didn't guarantee a spot on the salvation list, but it did get one a high standing in the community. The Bible is the only authority for Christian doctrine; if it's not in the Bible, it is heresy. There was also an inherent misogyny - the ideal wife was submissive, silent, and a good mother to their children. But in this time period, it was thought that a woman's very nature made them more susceptible to giving in to the devil. This idea was built off medieval thinking of Eve, who brought about the fall of humanity by wanting knowledge like God. Women were also thought to be inherently more lustful than men.

As if this religious craziness weren't enough, life in the early colonies was extremely difficult. Imagine a home life so bad that the only viable alternative is to take a 3-4 month voyage in cramped, dirty conditions with other people in order to build a new life in an unknown land. Even bringing tools and livestock, the Puritans were incredibly unprepared for the climate of North America. The winters were hard, and the soil was rocky and poor. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Native Americans were a constant threat, seeing as they believed they had first dibs on a land they had lived in for centuries before Europeans came along. It didn't help that the diseases Europeans brought devastated the native populations and further interactions completely disrupted their traditional ways of life. Governance was also an issue, as the monarchies of Europe tried very hard to maintain control across several miles of ocean, and land grants could be revoked at a moment's notice. Even though the early colonies were largely farm based, by the late 17th century urban centers could be found along waterways in order to facilitate trade. All these factors could be seen in the atmosphere of Salem village in 1692. Another thing, Salem village conservative farmers also clashed with the more liberal merchants of Salem Town, whom were seen as decidedly lacking the moral convictions of the Puritans. The heaviest sin one could commit socially was to not attend church. Because day-to-day living was so difficult, there was little leisure time.  Having fun was frowned upon, and could even get you arrested. Which makes me wonder how the trial would go for someone eating ice cream. Maybe if the accused tried to prove how they couldn't possibly enjoy such a treat. If you ever are forced to read Nathanial Hawthorne's fictional works on Puritan society, namely The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown, you not only have my sincerest sympathies for trying to read it, but I hope you take the message of those stories to heart. Puritans are sticks in the mud and love to make people miserable. By the way, the recent film Easy A is a badly done teen comedy attempting to revive the plot of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It doesn't work as well in the modern age since not having sex as a teenager is more of a social stigma than being a slut, at least according to Hollywood.

Back to the Puritans, a lot of factors went into the hysteria of the witch trials in 1692. Witches, by the way, are a very bizarre fantasy of the Christian mind in the 17th century. Borne out of the religious intolerances of Catholic Europe, a witch was someone who made a contract with the Devil, allowing evil spirits to assume their shape and do wicked deeds. More often than not, witch hunts were used to cleanse the community and sniff out heretics. It was a crime against Christianity, and also a crime against the ruling authorities (the Church of England's authority was the ruling monarch. This is why the founding fathers very much wanted separation of church and state, as they noticed the historical pattern of bad things happening when the physical ruler also ruled the state religion). Witches could perform impossible feats of strength, fly, and had something called a "witch's mark." The mark was a growth on the accused witch's body, thought to be an extra teat for evil spirits to suck out the power the witch gained from harming others (seriously, like mammal babies drinking mommy's milk). Also, if people started having hallucinations or epileptic fits, it was assumed witchcraft was at work. Torture was an acceptable method of collecting evidence and extracting a confession, one of the more popular methods being to dunk the accused in water to see if they floated. Apparently innocent people sink, to which I have to wonder how they were to be retrieved; I mean, it says in the Bible not to murder people, and you'd think being able to breathe underwater would also be grounds for being a witch.

According to my books, over 150 people were accused, a large percentage of them older women who owned property. Fifty-five confessed to being witches, 21 were hanged, including two dogs, and one man was pressed to death. Being convicted criminals at death, they didn't get proper burial services or grave markers until the 1970s. The most famous fictional work on the subject is Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, which is also thought to be an allegory of Senator McCarthy's "Red scare" in the 1950s. Here is a quaint summary of the play. The film wasn't too horrible either, if you don't mind watching people who obviously bathe in mud enact dramatic tension.

I do not look down on someone of strong conviction. I myself have strong beliefs about the world. What I often find irritating to deal with is those people unwilling to be flexible enough to realize other people do not share their strong conviction, or continue to spout their beliefs in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. As Albert Einstein was quoted, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." The current American atmosphere shows me that we haven't changed much in the past 200 years. Yesterday it was witches and communists. Today is terrorists, religious fanatics and liberals. Tomorrow, it'll be people who like peppermint ice cream. Because that stuff is clearly evil ;P