Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol F. Karlsen~★★★★

Author: Carol F. Karlsen
Title: The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
Release Date: First released in 1987; this edition released April 17, 1998
Publisher: This paperback edition published by W.W. Norton & Co.
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Cover: "Confessing to 'familiarity with devils,' Mary Johnson, a servant, was executed by Connecticut officials in 1648. A wealthy Boston widow, Ann Hibbens was hanged in 1656 for casting spells on her neighbors. The case of Ann Cole, who was 'taken with very strange Fits,' fueled an outbreak of witchcraft accusations in Hartford, a generation before the notorious events at Salem.
More than three hundred years later, the question 'Why?' still haunts us. Why were these and other women likely witches vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft and possession? In this work Carol F. Karlsen reveals the social construction of witchcraft in seventeenth-century New England and illuminates the larger contours of gender relations in that society."

Taryn's Review: It seems that today everyone knows there were witches in Salem at some point, but few people know anything beyond that. Often when I tell people I have done some reading on the Salem witch trials, someone inevitably mentions the burning of witches at Salem. No witches were burned to death at Salem and most were hanged or died in jail, although one was suffocated to death by having stones stacked upon him. 

A majority of accused witches were women and Karlsen asked the question of why women? Her book was broken down in chapters to explore New England's history of belief in witchcraft; she included lengthy discussions of the demographic, economic, religious, and sexual characteristics of the accused. The study also depicted what colonial life was like for an Anglo-American woman living in New England in the seventeenth-century, what was expected of her, and the influences that shaped the society she lived in.

Karlsen's book was written in response to other historians who had worked on the topic. She pointedly replied to historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum and their work, Salem Possessed. The men had argued that outbreak of witchcraft accusations in Salem had stemmed from a class conflict between the mercantile class and the people tied to the land (like farmers). They also argued that economic, political, and ecclesiastical elements were the primary causes and that the strife between the two groups had been going on for two generations. Boyer and Nissenbaum claimed the accusers were persons with a stake in maintaining the traditional social order of a farming community, while the accused were people who had values and material benefits with the mercantile class. The two men also relied on psychoanalysis to discuss the power struggle within the communities. Karlsen felt that this explanation did not provide answers as to why women were the targets of the accusations. On page 216 Karlsen wrote, "My research does not support the idea (as Boyer and Nissenbaum's argument about Salem suggests) that these women were beneficiaries of the new economic order. Some witches clearly were, but most were not. And in a more fundamental way, all witches stood symbolically opposed to---and were therefore subversive of---that order, in that they did not accept their assigned place within it."

Karlsen used some interesting primary sources that easily captured my attention. The book's review of witchcraft in New England began in the early seventeenth-century and ended in 1692. The time frame was useful in helping the reader understand the complexities that created the society which allowed witchcraft accusations to come to fruition. I don't think you have to be well-versed in history to enjoy this book. Karlsen explained other historians' arguments clearly and she outlined her thesis and evidence in a straightforward manner, too. If you have an interest in witchcraft accusations in New England, definitely give this book a read.

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