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Devil in the shape of a woman

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Published: Tue, 25 Apr 2017

Among the numerous publications on early modern witchcraft accusations, Carol F Karlsen’s interpretations in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman must not be ignored. Karlsen professor of history at the University of Michigan, based her research on a more feminist approach by answering the question: “Why were women more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft?(xiii)”. Largely, her book focused on the accusations in New England from 1620 to 1725.

In order to draw a conclusion, Karlsen combined the perspectives or ‘insider look’ of seventeen century peoples together with her twentieth century or ‘outsider’ interpretations. Consequently the question arises: to what extent can one create a new interpretation with the help of these two perspectives?.

Firstly, New Englanders did not easily accuse people of witchcraft. The people who accused women of witchcraft were often part of the authority. Ministerial writings repeatedly discussed the harm witches caused to others. Nonetheless, ministerial accusations were not enough to brand someone a witch. Only if one was also formally accused by neighbors or the community of supernatural activity, then a formal trial can be held. With regard to identity, most accusers were witch’s neighbors or people who stood close to them i.e who knew her on a daily basis. Furthermore, New Englanders made a distinction between possessed accusers and non-possessed accusers. Possessed accusers were persons were the witch had taken control over the persons body. These ‘possessed’ were usually women, because of their willingness to a covenant with Satan. Non-possessed were usually married men, who accused women of challenging the social hierarchy. Although how can one challenge the social hierarchy? In other words, what were the New England beliefs on witchcraft?

The accusations of witchcraft were heavily influenced by religion, because it was one of the pillars of colonial life in New England. Not all beliefs were the same, but the main point around which accusations were based was the confirming or denying of particular accusations (xiv). The New England witchcraft was based on the cultural assumptions from villages and towns that the settlers brought with them from England. These beliefs centered around the ideas of “what kinds of people witches were, what practices they engaged in, and where and how they obtained their supernatural power”. Generally, accused women were from the lower ranks of social order prior to 1656. However, change was under way due to the special conditions that the colonists faced in the New World. To summarize, the New England witch was someone with supernatural powers, which they obtained with the help of a covenant with Satan, who in return promised that he will satisfy their worldly desires. Consequently, this covenant was a reason for the religiously influenced argument that witches ‘rebelled against God and worshipped the Devil’. Furthermore, because of the role of Satan, special attention was given to maleficium and the Devil’s mark. Conversely, the question arises as in why the New Englanders had such strong beliefs in the identification of a witch.

First of all, there was the hesitant assessment of women within New England’s culture. On the one hand, seventeen century New England was the land of Puritan beliefs. They were not based on long-established and orally transmitted knowledge, but on ‘recently’ written sources who were expressed by ministers and other literate leaders of New England. Those leaders spread the Puritan insistence that women were godly wives, mothers and maids. On the other hand, one could also find the medieval misogynist tradition that was present in the thought and conduct of the settlers. This view partly explains how the sex drive of females made them more prone to evil than men. For example, one of the most influential documents promoting this assumption was Malleus Maleficarum, written by Heinrich Institoris and Jakob Sprenger in 1486. Essentially, this document spread the idea that the archetypical witch was Eve:

“His name was Death. For though the devil tempted Eve to sin, yet Eve seduced Adam. And as the sin of Eve would not have brought death to our soul and body unless the sin had afterwards passed on to Adam, to which he was tempted by Eve, not by the devil, therefore she is more bitter than death More bitter than death, again, because that is natural and destroys only the body; but the sin which arose from woman destroys the soul by depriving it of grace, and delivers the body up to the punishment of sin (Institoris, Sprenger Question VI)”.

Consequently the root of heavily religious Puritan ‘godly wives’ beliefs was mixed with the European assumption that ‘women threatened the sexual order’.

To conclude, New England accusers based their witchcraft beliefs on deeply rooted assumptions in religious traditions. Additionally, these numerous traditions contributed to the complex and evolving identity of the witch; an identity were Karlsen shone new light on by using statistics and primary sources.

As mentioned in the introduction, Karlsen’s interpretation was mostly centered around gender issues in colonial society. In other words, by relating religious traditions to primary sources Karlsen discovered that witches symbolized the ‘exposed fear of independent women’. Therefore she re-interpreted the Puritan beliefs to being afraid of women, because they can shake up the strict class hierarchies. In other words, Puritans were not afraid of ‘evil women’ or the covenant of Satan, but they were afraid of female independence.

Furthermore, she combined the traditional beliefs with the Puritan beliefs and centers them around economic arguments. In particular, “anxieties about inheritance lay at the heart of most witchcraft accusations’. One can argue that the Puritans themselves did not catch up on the economic aspect of their accusations mostly because it was not part of their reality. After all, their reality was based on religious identities. Consequently, Karlsen concluded that witchcraft accusations were part of a larger social and ideological problem.

This social problem can be examined by focusing on Karlsen’s demographics tables. Amongst her tables are those grouping the female witches of New England by age (largest number were in their forties), by presence or absence of brothers or sons, and by marital status (most were married). Therefore, she upheld the hypothesis that witches were seen as old women. In Puritan perspective, age was probably not considered to be an issue. Every woman who did not comply to their beliefs can be a witch; hence no age distinctions: ‘all ages were susceptible to witchcraft allegations, from four-year-old Dorcas Good of Salem to seventy-five-year-old Margaret Scott of Rowley”. Nevertheless, ‘women under forty were unlikely witches in Puritan society”.

The ideological problem found its roots in the combination of beliefs. For example, the underlying power struggle between the possessed women and the authorities. The authorities were bound to their culture in order to produce ideology approved arguments against the possessed. Karlsen therefore opened up a whole new interpretation of how one can be ‘too stuck’ in cultural customs and assumptions. Once again this can be related back to Karlsen’s ‘outsider’ look in comparison to the Puritan’s ‘insider’ look. However, Karlsen’s outsider look can also generate problems for detailed interpretation.

A problem one can have with her approach is that it too heavily relies on social science research methods. Undoubtedly, Karlsen’s use of tables is explanatory and supports here hypothesis convincingly. Accordingly, it may not be easily accessible to all, especially Humanities majors who mostly do not have a background in methods and statistics. Her tables sometimes lack the amount of detail in order to consider all perspectives of a particular hypothesis. For example, the table on page 67 thoughtfully shows the age categories of Salem vs Non-Salem cases. Unfortunately, Karlsen does not make a distinction between the cases that appeared at the height of the trials, when there were no acquittals and the ones that occurred in early 1693 when there were almost collective acquittals (Rosental 471), as Karlsen’s stated about early 1693 “All of the witches were acquitted, or their cases dismissed without trial”.

To conclude, witchcraft accusations cannot be interpreted easily. The difference between ‘insider’ look and ‘outsider’ look is significant. For the colonists it might have been straightforward who is a witch and who is not, but behind this basic notion lies newly interpret gender relations. However, based on these gender relations, one can transfer the seventeen century beliefs to the twenty first century to create a whole new interpretation: accused witches were the first group of independent women, second and third gulf being respectively in the 19th and 20th century, who wanted to shake up class hierarchy and common notions in society. If they succeeded or not is a different research project, but they definitely left their mark on Western culture. After all, the Puritan religious aspect might be transferred to the background, but witchcraft is still associated with gender. As visible in the television show Charmed and numerous horror movies ie The Grudge, The Ring, and The Exorcist.


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