Book Review from: Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
(Vol.20, no.2, Winter 1999)

Devil in a Blue Dress: Women, Inherent Evil, and the Sin of Witchcraft

by Susan E. Taylor

Elizabeth Reis, DAMNED WOMEN: SINNERS AND WITCHES IN PURITAN NEW ENGLAND. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. 212p. ill. bibl. index. $32.50, ISBN 0-8014-2834-3.

James Sharpe, INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS: WITCHCRAFT IN EARLY NEW ENGLAND. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1997. 365p. bibl. index. pap., $18.50, ISBN 0-8122-1633-4.

Why were women the primary victims of witch trials? What societal and cultural zeitgeist fostered the accusations, the trials, the tortures and in many cases, the deaths of these women? Both Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England, by James Sharpe and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England by Elizabeth Reis explore possible answers to these questions.

In Damned Women, Elizabeth Reis begins with the question," What was it about New England Puritanism that linked women more closely with the devil?" According to Reis, the answer is partially to be found in Puritan understanding of the physical: "The body, for the most part, also entangled women. Puritans believed that Satan attacked the soul by assaulting the body. Because in their view women's bodies were weaker, the devil could reach women's souls more easily and breach these 'weaker vessels' with greater frequency " (p.93). Reis also examines the Puritan understanding of women's souls as more vulnerable to the forces of darkness: "Women were in a double bind during the witchcraft episodes. Their souls, strictly speaking, were no more evil than men's, but the representation of the vulnerable, perpetually unsatisfied, and yearning female soul, passively waiting for Christ but always open to the devil as well, implicated corporeal women themselves. . . . A woman's feminine soul, jeopardized in a woman's feminine body, was frail, submissive, passive. . ." (p.94).

Reis goes on to note that "New Englanders considered women more vulnerable to Satan because their image of the soul and its relation to the body allowed them to associate womanhood with evil and sin" (p.95). Her analysis of how the Puritan mentality created conditions ripe for the accusation, trials, confession, and persecution of witches is thorough, tightly reasoned, and absorbing. She clearly and concisely explicates the Catch-22 situation many accused women found themselves in: the refusal to accept guilt was seen as further proof of that guilt: "It was the women who denied any collusion with Satan...[who] displayed a measure of independence in the face of authority" (p.141). This apparent independence was contrary to Puritan expectations of female behavior: "The sense of the depraved female self which emerges from women's conversion narratives merged with the community's (and each accused woman's own) expectations about the rebellious female witch" (p.137), whereas "a confessing woman was the model of Puritan womanhood, even though she was admitting to the worst of sins, for she confirmed her society's belief in both God and the Devil" (p.136). Like James Sharpe, Elizabeth Reis illustrates her analysis with incidents of accusation and trial; unlike Sharpe, Reis liberally recounts the narratives of the accused, giving readers an opportunity to understand the situation of the accused as they themselves understood it.

In Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England, Sharpe's analysis of the social, economic, and cultural conditions fostering the witch trials is informed by the examination of incidents of accusation and trial, but some of his thinking will undoubtedly not meet with universal agreement. For example, Sharpe takes issue with the idea that the witch trials may have been partially motivated by the male-dominated medical profession's desire to eradicate the use of lay healers - primarily women. He grudgingly notes that "there does seem to be some evidence. . .women accused of witchcraft had been involved in healing, although unfortunately for the usual arguments, they seem to have been most frequently involved in curing animals. . . ." Condescendingly, he adds, "We await with interest attempts to link the witch craze with the rise of a male-dominated veterinary profession" (p.175). However, a case cited by Sharpe himself makes the connection between witchcraft and healing - that of Joan Jurdie, who requested of a neighbor seeking treatment for her sick child that she not disclose Jurdie's treatment of the child, "lest (she) be thought a witch." Another witness in Jurdie's trial stated that she was "induced to suspect that the said Jurdie wife is a witch, because she doth take upon her to helpe such things" (p.175).

Another of Sharpe's ideas that may arouse dissent is that the witch trials were the result of social pressure among women: Incidents of accusations such as the malefic sickening of children or livestock by a supposed witch, he claims, "suggest. . .witchcraft tensions, witchcraft suspicions, and witchcraft accusations were frequently one of the ways in which disputes between women were resolved, existing tensions being brought to a head by that most female of concerns, worry over a child's health" (pp. 177-179). According to Sharpe, the "simplistic connection between witchcraft accusations and male oppression collapses while, conversely, the impression that witchcraft accusations were somehow generated by disputes between women gains support" (p.178) based on the ratio of female to male testimony in witchcraft trials. He does, however, note that "it would be going too far to claim that the presence of women accusers and women witnesses negates the idea that persecution of witches was somehow connected to the fact that early modern England was a male-dominated society" (p.174).

Sharpe's analysis extends to socio-economic factors and social anxieties that may have led to the persecution of some women:

It was the economic marginality of such women that made their neighbors unhappy about them and led to their being accused as witches. . . . Such women, many of them widows or women living outside the conventional hierarchies of family or household, were not only perceived as poor but also as being outside normal patterns of control. . . . Concern over uncontrolled or independent women might have been more intense in this period, irrespective of the phenomenon of witchcraft. (p.175)

Instruments of Darkness is heavily studded with episodes of accusation and trial taken from records of various English counties. Some readers may question the conclusions Sharpe draws from these incidents, as well as his dismissal of theory regarding the descent of contemporary Wiccan and other Pagan religions from ancient religious practices, but the incidents themselves make for absorbing and informative reading. However a reader may feel about Sharpe's own analysis, the information he presents is material for constructing an understanding of the witch trials that may be very different from the one he suggests.

Both Damned Women and Instruments of Darkness are well-considered and well-detailed. The prose style of Instruments of Darkness is somewhat balky, whereas Damned Women is written so smoothly that readers may glide past certain ideas without noticing them. Both books present well-examined data and well-built theories, but it may be that no book will ever succeed in providing the definitive answers to the many questions the trials continue to raise.

[Susan Taylor is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing program at the University of Minnesota. Her interests include feminist studies and historical and contemporary witchcraft.]

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Mounted March 22, 1999.