Newnham Conversations: ‘A healthy society needs to understand its past’  

Fellow Emerita Dr Gill Sutherland and Honorary Fellow Mary-Beth Norton make the case for History 

Newnham Honorary Fellow Mary Beth Norton shared her own ground-breaking research on the context for the Salem witch trials, in a talk this weekend, to demonstrate the importance of historical enquiry to better understand the past. 

At the Newnham Conversations: History and its uses event, Professor Norton explained how she chose to study the Salem trials as they were a rare historical event in which women were key players. But she turned her attention away from the trials and women who are accused, and instead looked at the accusers and judges.  

“I was astonished to find the same names of the judges and the accusers were in reports of attacks by Native Americans on northern frontier settlements. It seemed having seen families and comrades wiped out and been forced to flee, these people were traumatised. Along with feeling defensive at the failure to protect their people this, what we might now think of as PTSD, might well have helped create the crisis. I was struck by the similarities between what the refugees had witnessed and what the witchcraft ‘victims’ described and blamed on the Devil,” she said. 

Revealing the essential background to the Salem trials helped her to shed new light on what was a perplexing period of history, Professor Norton, of Cornell University, showed in her award-winning book, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. 

Newnham Fellow Emerita and former Director of Studies in History, Dr Gill Sutherland, was equally passionate about the importance of history at the event, which was part of Cambridge University Alumni Festival. “A healthy society needs to know about its past,” she said.  

Both were concerned about cuts to university history departments and attempts to censor history: citing Russia where Putin has recently rewritten key texts and the removal of some books from study in the US, after student complaints they found them ‘uncomfortable’. 

Dr Sutherland pointed to the paradox that there was a growth in interest in history shown by demand for history podcasts, dramas such as Game of Thrones, films and fiction; all while history research is being cut and certain topics are the subject of culture wars. “Around the world history has become a battleground for the present,” she said. 

The speakers concurred that history also offered students transferable skills in weighing evidence, reading critically and more, which were important particularly for public service. 

During questions there was a lively discussion about the history of enslavement and its legacy. Dr Sutherland was clear that “no one in this room should feel guilty about slavery but it is important to understand what happened. Without that information how could one decide what to feel?” 

  • The Fitzwilliam Museum has a powerful exhibition exploring Cambridge’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and revealing hidden stories from the past. Black Atlantic is open now until January and features historic artefacts and contemporary art, which together make an exhibition that the FT described as “unmissable…it deserves to be seen and reflected upon”. 
  • You can find out more about Newnham research into the College’s Legacies of Enslavement here.    

(Photo above by Dasha Tenditna)