Must Be the Season of the Witch

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
Carol F. Karlsen

Although I continue to be baffled by irony as a concept, in practice it’s an unending source of delight. And so, as the Fall semester approaches, I find myself utterly bemused as academia–a business still following a 12th-century model–attempts to reinvent itself on the fly.

A thousand flowers will bloom, no doubt, and each will have fans and foes. But until that inevitable fracas starts to generate some heat, I’ll have to stick to criticizing the current approach. In that service, I offer this look at a study of witchcraft in old New England.

Before I get to the present work, though, I feel compelled to address a question even I recognize as valid: just who am I to render critical judgments? Well, other than a consumer of a substantial amount of printed manner, no one special. I mean, I  like to think I have a functioning intelligence. I have a wide range of source material to draw upon. In a couple of subject areas, I even hold worthwhile credentials. Otherwise, it’s fair to question why I think as I do, which is why I try to lay my arguments out on the page and stress that they represent my thinking about the matter at hand.

We really shouldn’t give equal weight to, say, research physicians and medical practitioners who’ve suggested the origins of certain infections lie in persistent dreams of fornication with incubi. In the humanities and social sciences, though, I think it’s fair game for an educated reader to address a work critically.  Otherwise, we anoint a class of intellectual overlords.

The Salem Witch Trials did have moments of high drama.

Which brings me to witches. A half-decade or so before this book was first published, a prof whose focus was American Studies identified what he considered the quintessential title on the Salem witch trials: The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion Starkey. It attempts to offer a psychological explanation for the events and does not skimp on the primary research.

Despite teaching at a couple of colleges, Ms. Starkey was no more an academician than I, so the subject sort of lay fallow until Dr. Karlsen came upon it and expanded her scope to the entire region. By the time the Norton edition was published in 1998, the category listings on the cover included Women’s Studies.

I get the marketing angle. I even understand the promise that an interdisciplinary approach offers room for fresh insights.  I’m also skeptical enough to consider the idea that such an approach or designation says more about the environment in which the work is published than the work itself does about the subject it covers.

Witch trials often relied on uncertain evidence.

Let’s start with the positives. The scholarship appears sound, with copious notes that add color to the main text while also serving as the bibliography. Professor Karlsen has, in the modern fashion, placed her evidence in the main text. You might conclude, based on the number of tables, that you were reading a study grounded in hard numbers.

She’s taken a straightforward organizational approach, beginning with an overview of the concept of witchcraft in the 17th century and its antecedent beliefs. She explores the demographic and economic status of accused witches. She looks at the relationships witches were said by their contemporaries to have with the devil and with the Lord.

in total, it’s much more than just a retelling of the Salem trials with lesser-known outbreaks added to the mix. You’ll come away knowing that maleficium lurked everywhere and that the righteous townfolk knew it when they saw it. You’ll understand that New England society was under assault from both without (Quakers! not to mention indigenous peoples) and within (Anne Hutchinson). You will not escape the fact that the great majority of witches were women. “And [you’ll see] the social assumptions that prevailed in early New England accurately measure the distribution of power at the time.” (p. 118 )

You say maleficium and I see this guitar God in his robes and period hat.

So, all’s well, right?

Well, no, because for all its strengths the book is an argument rooted in the near-present. Marshaling all this evidence to set the facts in a widespread conspiracy to keep women subordinate and on the brink of impoverishment is to impose a modern sensibility on a pre-modern society. Though Elizabeth sat on the throne during the prior century, hers was hardly a female-dominated period in which men and women interacted as equals economically, socially and sexually. In illustrating that Puritan New England women were repeatedly disadvantaged in these domains, Dr. Karlsen implies that an alternative path existed or was possible.

But it didn’t. Maybe even it couldn’t. But that’s a different history than this one. Which just made the deficiencies starker for me. Take the tabular data. In the economics chapter, we are shown over and over that many accused witches were property owners, a status so threatening to male domination that it serves as a solid explanatory foundation for accusations of witchcraft.

In modern Salem, they know how to turn a Witch House into a tourist attraction.

A hundred pages or so later, though, we’re told: “in Salem…the proportion [of widows inheriting property] dropped, reaching a low of 22 percent by the 1680s.” The first Salem accusations were made in 1692. So which is it? You can’t have the source of female wealth disappearing at the same time independent female wealth represents a threat to an entire society.

That’s just one example. All those tables suggest rigor, but they’re more like illustrations for people unschooled in math. One example: on page 185 our author presents a table that suggests non-demonically possessed accusers were more likely to be male and married. Trouble is, the numbers presented are meaningless. They’re as likely to represent a random occurrence as a concerted plot. No one ever drubbed a historian, though, for not running a chi-square test on a contingency table.

There really is no upside to interdisciplinary approaches if you don’t employ the tools of the discipline. As I read this book I recalled an article by Dan Cohen. In it, he quoted Michael O’Malley, a historian, on the academic research process: “We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use.”

Imagine a history of co-opting mass psychosis for fun and profit.

That certainly seems the case here. For one, though Karlsen’s preferred analytical frame hews to modern definitions of society, she prefers her social science on a smaller scale. She claims anthropological views of witchcraft are especially powerful while ignoring Weber and Durkheim, who had important things to say about religion and economics and their intersection.

Karlsen quotes Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Douglas, referencing quotes from the first 10 pages of both. I’d have thought the game were played at a higher level when one’s Ph.D. bears the name of an Ivy. Such behavior is, to quote O’Malley again, much like a “sous chef gutting a fish.”

All that sounds harsh and maybe it is. I’m more disappointed than disgusted, though. Any number of fixes could have preserved this book’s scholarly value while sidestepping the need to make claims in support of a broader agenda. Instead, the book stands as an early example of a type seen more frequently on ever-larger scales: presenting historical facts in a manner that supports a position in a contemporary argument by helping establish a claim to long-standing victimhood.

I just don’t see how that serves anyone’s best interest.


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