Salem witchcraft is probably the most fascinating and most talked about subject in the history of the world. How people were accused of being witches and wizards, the trials that ensued, the baseless charges that were made and the hysteria that had gripped Salem in the 17th century have fascinated historians around the globe and most prominently in the United States and Europe and endless researches have been conducted so far. These researches focus on the one troubling question: what gave rise to the witchcraft hysteria and paranoia? Some people it was the simply the invasion of new changes in social values and beliefs that resulted in these tragic events where many were hanged and numerous others were sent to prison. Some believe that the fact that most women in those days were confined to their houses where depressive conditions had had a negative impact on their psyches and teenage girls began accusing older women of witchcraft. However it appears that this debate will never end, at least not in the near future since new books are still coming out with unique perspectives on the issue.
Carol Karlsen and Mary Beth Norton have offered truly fascinating accounts of Salem Witchcraft trials and incidents in their books, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1987) and "In the Devil's Snare" (2002) respectively. Karlsen's book is widely read for it offers to explain how and why women became the most significant target of this witch-hunt in 17th century. She believes that despite the numerous theories on the issue, very few have actually been able to see that women were accused in greater number and they suffered the most as the result of this hysteria. In the preface f her book, she makes it absolutely clear that her purpose of writing the book is to explore witchcraft hysteria as a possible attacks against women. Some believe that Karlsen is a feminist and thus research is more sympathetic to women, however this is rather absurd since Karlsen has given us numerous concrete statistics in form of tables to show that women were indeed more vehemently targeted during this Salem witch hunt than men.
In the preface, she writes: "The story of witchcraft is primarily the story of women, and this I suspect accounts for much of the fascination and the elusiveness attending the subject. Especially in its Western incarnation, witchcraft confronts us with ideas about women, with fears about women, with the place of women in society, and with women themselves. It confronts us too with systematic violence against women. Though some men were executed as witches during the period of massive witch hunting, mainly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witches were generally thought of as women and most of those who died in the name of witchcraft were women." (Preface xii)
The book opens with clear thesis. The author is not only interested in proving that more women than men suffered during this witchcraft hysteria in Salem, but also focuses on the social and economic characteristics of the victims. Karlsen explains that most women who were accused of being witches belonged to lower stratum of the society. They were "moderately poor" and women with inherited wealth were usually the most common victims. In many cases, marital problems often resulted in husband accusing his wife of being a witch and in some other cases women who were involved in promiscuous affairs became easy targets of witchcraft. This reflects a society that was absolutely narrow-minded and couldn't accept change. Anyone who tried to break the established social order suffered serious consequences. Men in some cases accused women of witchcraft simply because they did not reciprocate their advances and didn't succumb to their lusty designs.
Karlsen maintains that the main reason a woman was targeted was because a strong or wealthy woman could pose a threat to the established Puritan beliefs. In England and in New England, Puritanism had taken its roots in the social and cultural institutions and it was therefore not easy to see women in a different light. They were expected to remain subservient to their husbands and their economic worth was never recognized. In such strict social conditions, if a woman appeared promiscuous or even financially independent due to the death of her husband, she could become an easy victim. In those days, "A symbol used to describe the model wife was the snail: "that little creature, that goes no further than it can carry its house on its head." Woman served economic ends but was not an economic creature. Ministers insisted that woman's work itself had little or no remunerative value; at best "the Pennyes that she saves do add unto the heaps of the Pounds that are Got by him." His work was to provide, hers to serve and preserve. That was the nature of their covenant." (171)
The author uses countless sources to back her arguments and to prove how credible her research is. Almost every page comes with at least3-4 additional sources. This says a great deal about the amount of research that went into writing this book. The book almost gives us details of some important witchcraft trials where women were accused or executed for allegedly being witches. One such trial was that of Eunice Cole, an innocent woman who was repeatedly accused of being a witch and was sent to prison despite the fact that there had never been any solid evidence against her. Author explains that in those days it was not uncommon to see a woman facing trial and possible execution and dispels the notion that witchcraft hysteria started in late 17th century. Karlsen shows with concrete evidence that witchcraft accusations and trials had begun long before the fateful incidents of 1692 when 19 persons were hanged and one pressed to death.
Unlike Norton, whose book deals primarily with the crisis of 1692, Karlsen's research is broader in scope and covers the events that preceded this crisis. Talking about Hibben's case of 1656, the author argues that in "1656, few New Englanders would have been surprised to see a woman prosecuted -- or even executed -- for witchcraft. No fewer than sixteen trials had taken place within the previous decade; at least eight and probably nine women, as well as one man, had already suffered Hibbens's fates. In England, moreover, from which most of the colonists had emigrated, witchcraft trials and executions had been regular features of the social landscape since 1542, when Parliament first made witchcraft a capital crime. Just a few years before Hibbens's trial, between 1645 and 1647, several hundred people had been hanged in the wake of England's most serious witchcraft outbreak. More than 90% of these English witches were women." (1-2)
Karlsen breaks her book into various important sections. Each section deals with a certain aspect of witchcraft hysteria in 17th century New England. The author offers a unique insight into the characteristics of women who were accused of being witches. She contends that most of these women were middle-aged females who could possibly inherit wealth from their families, "Most witches in New England were middle-aged or old women eligible for inheritances because they had no brothers or sons" (117). She further adds that they were mostly moderately poor women "witches in the villages and towns of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England tended to be poor. They were not usually the poorest women in their communities, one historian has argued; they were the "moderately poor." Rarely were relief recipients suspect; rather it was those just above them on the economic ladder, "like the woman who felt she ought to get poor relief, but was denied it." This example brings to mind New England's Eunice Cole, who once berated Hampton selectmen for refusing her aid when, she insisted, a man no worse off then she was receiving it." (77)
The author closes her book with the argument that had those women in the 17th century been witches because of their sexual awareness, economic or social status then many women in nineteenth and later should also have been accused of being women. "By the nineteenth century, black women and poor white women were viewed as embodying many of the characteristics of the witch: they were increasingly portrayed as seductive, sexually uncontrolled, and threatening to the social and moral order. To be a "woman" was to eschew the powers once identified with the witch and to use one's newly celebrated "influence" in defense of domesticity. Acceptance of the ideology's explicit and implicit truths assured white women of the middle and upper classes that the evil was not in them." (257)
Mary Beth Norton came up with a different explanation for this witchcraft hysteria in her book The Devil's Snare. She maintains that individuality or lack of conformity wasn't the main reason why New England was gripped by witchcraft hysteria. Norton rejects the earlier explanations given by historians and researchers and maintains that: "The dramatic events of…