Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Book Review: "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman"

Carol Karlsen's 1987 book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England provides a sort of demographic, sociological, and anthropological examination of the witchcraft trends in early New England. By examining the records, Karlsen has created what she suggests was the archetypal 'witch' based on income, age, marital status, &c.

She argues in part that women who had inherited or stood to inherit fairly large amounts of property or land were at particular risk, as they "stood in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to the next" (p. 116). These women (and others), Karlsen suggests, were targeted largely because they refused to accept "their place" in colonial society. How their actions translated into being accused of witchcraft by - usually - other females is left unexamined for the most part, unfortunately.

This is a fairly useful study into some of the various elements of the witchcraft cases. I don't find Karlsen's arguments as compelling as those made more recently by Mary Beth Norton, for example, but this is hardly a bad book just for that reason. Recommended for those interested in the witchcraft phenonmenon.