The book, “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England,” is a must read considering the huge amount of recent work on early witch lore that is being published. This book takes a critical look at the history in New England between 1620 and 1725 during the Puritan period. It is a feminist perspective and the insight into early New England society during a very troubling period in American history.
It differs from many history books including our text on the standard accounts by showing that many of those persecuted were women who for many different types of reasons, threatened the male-dominant social order. The author goes into details with evidence that shows that persecuted and accused witches were usually older married women who had violated the religious or economic Puritan social hierarchy.
Many of these women that were called witches were past their childbearing years and sometimes they were the recipients of inheritances, these women threatened the male-dominance social order that got resentment from their middle-aged accusers. Karlsen shows that the accused witches were women whose family lives were touched in many ways financially by claiming that most, “stood to inherit, did inherit or were denied their apparent right to inherit” larger portions than women of families with male heirs (Karlsen, p.
101). This was definitely problematic for males of the time and caused problems in families and with relatives within the communities especially if these women were openly demanding or defending their rights. These inheritance conflicts are what Karlsen sees as symptomatic of the larger social and ideological problems, “for they expose the fear of independent women that lay at the heart of New England’s nightmare” (Karlsen, p. 213).
There were also two really good points that give this book very good insight into what happened during that time period in New England. It was that they showed first an analysis of women’s culture in New England during those colonial times. Puritan women were to be good wives, good mothers and helpers to their mates. It showed the popular hatred and discrimination of women as a very common and accepted condition and tradition of that time. This was shown through thoughts and conduct of the settlers.
This view shows just how complex relationships between Puritanism and traditional English popular culture really were. These kinds of attitudes when looked at as a whole, show how it was used to suppress the individualistic action among women, and that suppression could have taken the form of witchcraft accusation. The other point made that should be noted is that “the possessed and their ministers were engaged in a fierce negotiation, initiated by the possessed, about the legitimacy of female discontent, resentment and anger” (Karlsen, p.
246). This kind of thought for this statement, I found rather weak, because it’s only source of the information came from one extremely well documented case but most was based on hearsay. Overall, I found the book to be very well documented with excellent sources. In my opinion the book was an excellent example on how modern theory can be applied in a useful way to show the character of Puritan thought, changes in the role of women through the ages, and the ultimate end of witchcraft persecution in New England.
The description and analyses the author uses help to give the reader an understanding of witch lore and status women had in Early New England. It would be a good book for undergraduate study as well as the general reader of history. It induces the reader to see a different perspective of their views and what was commonly taught on the New England witch hunts. The textbook, “America Past and Present Volume I, 7th Ed. ” By Robert A. Divine (et al. ), really only talked of the standard historical context of what took place during this turbulent time.
Accusations of witchcraft were not uncommon in seventeenth century New England. Puritans believed that many individuals would make a compact with the devil, but during the first decades of settlement, authorities executed only about fifteen alleged witches. Sometimes villagers simply left suspected witches alone. Karlsen would argue that the only women who would fight for their rights were accused and probably there weren’t very many women at that time that would stand up against the standards that were set for women or norms for women of that society.
Witchcraft was believed to originate in a bargain between man or woman and the Devil by which they agreed to sell their soul to the Devil. The terror in Salem Village began in late 1691, when several young girls began behaving strangely such as crying out for no reason and falling to the ground twitching. When asked what the problem was, they replied that they were victims of witches that were living in the community. Even with the arrest of several women accused and prayer did not give relief to these girls.
It was even reported that one of the accused confessed, no doubt after interrogation that was sometimes very brutal. The textbook notes that “No one knows exactly what sparked the terror in Salem Village” (Divine, p. 85). But with Karlsen book it helps in giving a possible reason. The text gave the reason to the end of this persecution to a group of Congregational ministers that urged leniency and restraint and something that was especially troubling to the clergymen was the court’s decision to accept dreams and visions in which the accused appeared as the devil’s agent.
They worried those individuals that were being convicted on this type of testimony and they stated, “It were better than ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned” (Divine, p. 85). The colonial government accepted the minister’s advice and convened a new court, which promptly acquitted, pardoned, or released the remaining suspects. From this point, witchcraft ceased to be a capital offense. The book cites that the terror of the witchcraft scare was probably due to angry factions over the choice of a minister.
Another possible reason suggested is that socio-economic conflict, the colony had recently experienced, and a lack of enlightenment contributed to the hysteria. This would follow closely to what Carol F. Karlsen expressed in her book. In my opinion, history textbooks tend to give us just one view, and usually the commonly accepted view of what took place historically. There is so much history to be analyzed and studied that textbooks can only include the fundamentals of all these events.
It is up to the authors of books such as Carol F. Karlsen, to help give the true detective of history a broader look at how historical events shaped and created the society of then and today. If we don’t know where we came from, then how do we know where we should go? The book gave a very excellent twist to the sociological perspective to witchcraft in the New England Colonies and to me gave a more plausible reason as to just why these witch hunts might have happened.
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