The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England - Carol F. Karlsen In the book, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Carol F. Karlsen discusses the role and position of women in Puritan society during the witchcraft trials of New England. Karlsen pulled together research from several different sources, most notably the Essex court records and various histories of the New England colonies. She uses first hand accounts of witch trials, Cotton Mather’s personal writings, and court records. These sources showed in detail court proceedings, testimonies, and judgments against the accused. This book was well received among historians and stands a close second to the later works on the subject.Karlsen examines witchcraft on a social, demographic, and anthropological level that brings new insight into the role of the female witch during the persecutions. She narrows down the accused by age, income and marital status. Many of these women were victims of a world in which women were expected to serve men and bear heirs to the family inheritance. These women were vulnerable socially to the male-dominated society in which they lived. The Puritan ideals surrounding women boxed them into the role of the virtuous helper to their male benefactor.Karlsen paints a richly detailed portrait of the accused and states that most of the witchcraft suspicions in colonial New England originated as a result of conflicts between people who knew one another. Accusers singled out women who they felt were a threat to the social order in Puritan society. Accusations were made against women who, by inheriting property and status, took for the male populous that which he deserved. Wives, mothers, and children were not immune to these communial struggle against the restrains of society.Karlsen exposes the economic and social undertones beneath the accusations. Karlsen states that the single most salient characteristic of witches was their sex. “At least 344 persons were accused of witchcraft in New England between 1620 and 1725. Of the 342 who can be identified by sex, 267 (78 percent) were female.” (47) Women were expected to be subservient to their husband, yet women who actually succeeded in running their husband’s business were liable to accusations of witchcraft because they stepped beyond their gender role.Karlsen narrows down the accused by age, income, and marital status. Many of the women accused were married. Often quarrels among the husbands boiled over into accusations of the wives. Katherine Harrison was the wife of John Harrison, who was a wealthy landowner. Karlsen states that it is unclear what event lead to Harrison’s accusation of being a witch. It is believed that she was first accused as a witch in 1668, but the jury was unable to come to a decision on her guilt. Somehow she was released from prison and returned home. Then “several of the town’s most prominent citizens” (85) signed a petition attesting to her guilt. One of the petitioners, John Chester, was “involved in a legal controversy with Harrison concerning a parcel of land.” (85) Her husband had died in 1666 and left Harrison with a considerable amount of wealth. Her neighbors testified that she was a witch and under the pressure of losing her life she dispensed her holdings to others.Karlsen states that “most witches in New England were middle aged or old women eligible for inheritance because they had no brothers or sons.” (117) In the witch stereotype the presence of the traditional female gender role is evident. Women accused of witchcraft were described as “disagreeable women, at best aggressive and abrasive, at worst ill-tempered, quarrelsome, and spiteful.” (118) These women bucked the norms of society and failed to adhere to the standards of their class. To the Puritans “gender issues were religious issues” (119) and women who deviated from their prescribed role were seen as being opponents of God’s command.This stereotype of the witch stemmed from the widely distributed Malleus Maleficarum and Tratado de las Supersticiones y Hechicherias. Both works note that “women were by nature more evil than men” (155) and that because they were “subject to deeper affections and passions, harbored more uncontrollable appetites, and were more susceptible to deception” (155) they switched their allegiance from God to Satan to “fulfill their needs and to provide them with the power to avenge themselves.” (155) But why would women need avenging unless they were being encroached upon by unrighteous practices? The answer to this question was unimportant to the patriarchal society of Europe and New England. But there is no doubt that this question resided in the mind of every accused witch.Karlsen fulfills her purpose in Devil in the Shape of a Woman. By providing accounts of individual women and the extent to which they were accused, Karlsen provides a detail look into the underlying reasons behind the witch accusations. She exhibits to the reader a hidden agenda that reaches far beyond the scope of good versus evil. The agenda she reveals is a campaign against women who were perched precariously on a difficult balance between their idealized social and economic positions.