Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman

"Examination of a Witch", by Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853. Karlsen points out that artists, writers and historians who have been interested in Salem stretch in a continuous genealogy beginning with the events themselves.

Title: The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Norton, originally published in 1987)

Author: Carol F. Karlsen, professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Minimal information available on the departmental website, but Karlsen graduated from Yale history dept. in 1980, and thanks John Demos, Edmund Morgan, Kai Erikson, and Nancy Cott for their help in the process of writing the book. It looks like she's come out with one other book, an edited diary of a colonial woman, and was at one point working on another one about gender relations and the Iroquois, though I don't think it's come out.

My review: For Karlsen, the black hole in the middle of all other explanations of the social meanings of witchcraft has been the gender question. She acknowledges that class-based rationales for the crises have found some kind of pattern, but then seeks to more conclusively situate these class patterns within questions of gender.

By performing a series of parsings of demographic information, Karlsen arrives at the conclusion that an accused witch was likely to be a woman who stood to inherit or had recently inherited property, because of a lack of brothers or sons in her family, thereby exposing the fault lines of a society based on the orderly succession of possession from father to son.

Other demographic characteristics of accused witches were advanced age, in a time during which older women were seen as a burden because of their inability to bear children or do work; contentiousness or dissatisfaction with their lot, which Karlsen compassionately ascribes either to the "eye of the beholder" or to the fundamentally unfair social conditions of the time, instead of to the personalities of the accused, as previous historians had done; or a family relationship to an accused witch or an executed witch. Karlsen goes beyond other analysts in asking not only which persons were accused - a number which would include men, young women, and even children - but which were actually convicted, and given severe punishments. This group most often included women of the older, property-holding persuasion.

Karlsen writes that the social conditions of gender relations in the colonies were set up to foment maximum confusion and upset on the part of male members of the society when it came to their view of women. The sexual double standard meant that, in order to allow for their own sexual freedom, men had to also allow women to occasionally have adulterous affairs, which might disrupt succession of property; the economic dependence of women meant that men had to support women; and the laws of primogeniture meant that they had to live with whatever their fathers decided to do in the matter of property (which might sometimes include making decisions which favored mothers or sisters over brothers, or favored only one older son while slighting younger ones). Meanwhile, older religious views of women held that these Eves were the temptresses who had caused mankind to fall. Although Puritan elders tried to set up a more kind attitude toward women, in order to facilitate harmony between the sexes in the small-scale enterprises of living in the colonies, this fundamental view of female treachery surfaced when females threatened the gender hierarchies of life. "It was," she writes ominously, "a formula which invited the Devil" (218).

"Repentance of Judge Sewall", a painting whose provenance I cannot seem to figure out for the life of me, though it is in the "Examination of a Witch" style (I got it from a site that doesn't cite authors/painters...but has a nifty "Salem Jeopardy" feature, which kind of makes up for it.) Judge Sewall, who publicly apologized for his role in the trials no more than five years after their conclusion, also became an anti-slavery advocate. There are a couple of books about his life, one of which, by Richard Francis, was well-reviewed. Karlsen points out that a remarkable feature of the Salem trials was how definitively they marked the end of an era. She writes that Enlightenment thinking finally began to predominate in the colonies, which made witchcraft obsolete as a concept (some, like Sewall, had already had mixed feelings about the validity of executing people accused of it).

Reviews of others: Paul Boyer, in the Journal of American History, called Karlsen's interpretation "provocative" and lauds it for its subtlety and reach, but says that she does not sufficiently confront the established scholarship on the subject. In the New England Quarterly, Bernard Rosenthal wrote that the book advanced a very valuable argument, but took a couple of pages to quibble with various points of historical interpretation, particularly when it comes to the analysis of the possessed children/women who accused women in Salem (this is a criticism that Karlsen also discusses in her afterword). Rosenthal also pointed out, somewhat weirdly, that any explanation of why witches were mostly women would have to reach back to Europe, and says that Karlsen could solve that problem by either looking at particular conditions of New England, which, Rosenthal says, would "falsify" the issue, or by skirting it. I don't get why incorporating elements of English tradition with local conditions in the analysis (which is what I thought Karlsen did, by the way) would be "falsification".

Leads: Secondary: Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (1975)

Poster from the 1996 version of The Crucible, dir. Nicholas Hytner. (Interestingly enough, this jpg was taken from a site called If this is love, I'll take tomato juice.) Karlsen argues that the vision of Miller's play, in which the sexpot servant Abigail Williams screws everyone over by accusing her master/lover's wife of witchcraft, minimizes the true sexual politics behind the witchcraft scares, which were more based on boring questions of property ownership than on adulterous affairs like this fictional one.

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