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Women and Society in Carol Harlsen's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman - Book Report/Review Example

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In a detailed documentary study of the 1692 Salem witch trials, Carol Karlsen offers an insightful and challenging interpretation on the role of women and gender in seventeenth century New England. …
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Women and Society in Carol Harlsens The Devil in the Shape of a Woman
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Download file to see previous pages Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial America (1987) centres on the outbreak of witch accusations, which started in the middle of the seventeenth century among settlers in New England, as a result of the anti-witch hysteria, which was already spreading throughout continental Europe. The documentary narrative of the book however is only a framework for more extensive observations on gender and social identity, which the author makes. Most of the conclusions in the book are drawn from a number of original documents, such as court hearings, land dispute settlements, personal memoirs and testimonials. The findings are based on detailed case studies, related not only directly with the trials, but also with the preceding economic and social predispositions of some of the men and women, accused of witch craft, as well as those associated with them. Karlsen draws a line between the traditional and the Puritan beliefs, upon which the social image of women was built (Lindholdt 1988, 563). A similar approach is used by Boyle and Nissenbaum in an older study, which explores the complexity of social and economic factors behind the Salem witch trials (Boyle & Nissenbaum 1974). Karlsen’s book offers a well-researched account of the religious and social conventions, which led to the construction of the collective image of the witch in seventeenth century New England. Karlsen explains that the New England witchcraft beliefs at the time “were transported from the Old World” (Karlsen 1987, 3). In Europe and in New England, witches were perceived as “criminals, who worked in supernatural ways”, and the main manifestation with their connection with the Devil was the harm, they would inflict upon their neighbours (Karlsen 1987, 4). As the author suggests, the combination of the religious traditions of the Old and the New World, is what the “complex and evolving identity of the witch” rests upon (Karlsen 1987, 14). Similarly, Margaret Thickstun discusses the combination of religion and custom as the fundament upon which condemnation of witches became the norm in Europe and in the New World in her study of literature from that period (Thickstun 1988, 20-87). Karlsen however captures the ‘locality’ of the New England image of the witch. It was based on norms, intrinsic to the New England community. Accusations for witchcraft were often made towards people, who did not meet the social norms. One case, which Karlsen investigates, is the trial against John Godfrey, who was known for his “coarse language”, “frequent talk of witches” and “minimal offences” (Karlsen 1987, 60). Similarly, Eunice Cole and Ann Hibbens did not meet the social norms and accusations of witchcraft followed (Karlsen 1987, 5-6). In this sense Karlsen provides an account not only for the reasons which led to witchcraft accusations, but also for the exclusionary character of the New England society, which did not tolerate otherness or deviation from its establishments. The originality of Karlsen’s work is revealed in the chapters, which concentrate on the demographic and economic basis of witchcraft. Perhaps the most ground-breaking of them is her conclusion, that many of the women, who were accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century New England, were not, contrary to the mass deception, poor or deprived. The author asserts that disputes about inheritance were the main basis for the witch accusations. Another challenging discovery is related to the unequal treatment of men and women, who were accused of witchcraft. Both of these findings will be discussed separately. Karlsen uses different case ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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