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Review: Carol Karlsen’s “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman.”

Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, was first published in 1987 and reissued as a paperback by W.W Norton from New York, NY in 1998 with a new afterword.  The Devil in the Shape of a Women focuses its attention on Massachusetts and Connecticut during an eighty-year period of history from 1630 to the early eighteenth century. Karlsen pays special attention to the outbreaks of witch hysteria that brought fear to New Englanders from the mid to late seventeenth century. Using the tools of the social historian and the anthropologist, Karlsen painstakingly reconstructs the demography of witchcraft in colonial New England to answer the question of why women were seen as witches in New England Puritan society, a question that Karlsen accuses previous scholars of the period such as John Boyer, Stephen Nissinbaum and John Demos of leaving unasked.[1]

Karlsen’s thesis argues that independent, older women who were the sole heirs of an estate, had acquired their estates through non-traditional means, or who were in a precarious social and/or economic situation were most likely to be accused of witchcraft because of the challenges to the economic, social and gender hierarchy these woman presented; challenges that threatened the precarious order of Puritan society.

Karlsen breaks the work into three main sections.  The first examines religious beliefs of the Puritans and early New Englanders arguing that belief in witchcraft was not an anomaly but an integral part of the ever-changing doxa and praxis of Puritan religion.  The second section delves into the demography of witchcraft, analyzing what seems to be the entire extant records of the period to discover the common social and economic characteristics of accuses witches.  The final third of Karlsen’s work uses the same set of primary sources and demographic data to explore the gender relationships that were predominant during the time-period and why the accused represented a challenge to the established order.

Karlsen’s work is thoroughly researched using what seems to be the entire body of extant records from the period to draw her conclusions.  These conclusions themselves are well-supported by the evidence presented to the reader.  The numerous tables and lists showing ages, economic status, inheritance patterns and other social and economic data conclusively support her claims as to the ages, social position and familial relationships of the accused witches. However, the latter third of the book relies more on anthropological analysis and inference than previous sections, making this part of the text most likely to be challenged by future historians.

The Devil in the Shape of a Women is an essential read for any who wish to understand witchcraft its relationship to the prevailing social and gender patterns of early colonial society and provides a wealth of information for the scholar of early American history and could be used as a starting point for understanding the ever-changing gender roles in US history.  Karlsen’s book could also serve as the starting point for an analysis of the few male witches brought to trial during the seventeenth century, to see if any of the same concerns apply to this overlooked demographic


[1] Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 212f.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction

 

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