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The Devil In The Shape Of A Woman Essay, Research Paper

Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman. New

York: Vintage Books, 1987.

Carol Karlsen was born in 1940. She is currently a professor in the history department a the University of Michigan. A graduate of Yale University (Ph.D, 1980), she has taught history and women?s study courses at Union College and Bard College.

In this book Carol Karlsen reveals the social construction of witchcraft in 17th century New England, and brings forth the portrait of gender in the New England Society.

The books thesis is based on why a person was accused of being a witch and the relative circumstances thereof. Marital status, sex, community standing, wealth, and relationships with others all play an important part of a person chances of being accused of being a witch. Karlsen?s words make for a richly detailed portrait of the women who were prosecuted as witches. The witch hunting hysteria seized New England in the late seventeenth century. Why were those and other women likely witches? Why were certain people vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft and possession? These are the questions answered in this book.

The book focuses mainly on the time period between 1620-1725, give or take a few years. Colonial New England is the setting. The author puts great emphasis on towns where witch trials were predominate. In these towns religion, social status and wealth seemed to be important to most people. The courts in these towns relied on religion as much as the law to run their trials.

Colonial New England in the early 1600?s was in a state of decision. A lot of the beliefs about witchcraft came from the policy?s of England, the mother country. During the early years of settlement, puritans in Massachusetts Bay were uncertain about how to translate their sexual beliefs into public policy. As early as 1651, Massachusetts passed their first adultery law. In the ensuing years ahead the Massachusetts magistrates articulate more precisely the form of punishment appropriate for different crimes. Even though these laws were written to be fair to all, the magistrates and clergy delegated punishment by who was being punished. This type of reasoning was typical in New England, and set the stage for the witch trials.

The content of The Devil in the Shape of a Woman is broken down into sections, by time and place. There are several charts in the book showing the relationship of gender, age, wealth and place on how an accused witch was treated. Most show that women were targeted at a greater extent than anybody.

Most observers now agree that witches in the villages and towns of the late Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century New England tended to be poor. They were usually not the poorest women in the community, but the moderately poor. Karlsen tries to show that a woman who was vulnerable was most likely to be accused of being a witch. Even women who had gained wealth because of the death of a husband were prime candidates.

Promiscuity was also known to be a reason for being accused accused of witchery. Marital problems often led to a disgruntled husband screaming witch. A woman who could not conceive a child, or one who would not give into her husband?s wishes could easily be accused.

Karlsen touches on the events leading up to the witch trials of Salem in almost every chapter. The events which led to the witch trial actually occurred in what is now the town of Danvers, then a parish of Salem Town, know as Salem Village. Launching the hysteria was the bizarre, seemingly inexplicable behavior of two young girls; the daughter, Betty, and the niece, Abigail Williams, of the Salem Village minister, Reverend Samuel Parris. These girls were experimenting with magic. They used an improvised crystal ball to try to see their futures. A few days later they began to have fits and exhibited other manifestations of possession, which spread to other females in the village. By the time the hysteria had spent itself, twenty four persons had died. Nineteen were hanged on Gallows Hills in Salem Town. The rest died in prison.

The references for Karlsen?s work are lengthy. Several documents still exist showing land transfers of accused witches land to villages. She also uses journals and diaries of the people who lived during these times. The largest amount of reference comes from the Peabody Museum where 522 original court documents pertaining to witch trial have been preserved.

Did Karlsen prove her thesis? She did show that women in general were accused more than men. Sexuality seemed to play an important part in the witch hysteria. I feel that more important was the social, marital, and economic state of a woman was the deciding factor of the accusation of witchcraft. Her references are excellent since they are preserved documents of the time.

Did I enjoy this book? I thought the book was hard to follow. It is written more like reference material as opposed to a story. The title would lead one to believe the book is about the use of witchcraft, but it never touches on the practice. The book does have a purpose, showing who, why and where people were accused of witchcraft.


This is a book report on The Devil In The Shape of a Woman…The book is about Witch Trials

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