Welcome to the 1450-1750 era: Witchcraft

    The real meaning of witchcraft is not the first thing that may come to your mind when you know nothing about the history of it. You may think that witchcraft is full of actual witches that you may have dressed up as for Halloween as a child, with your broomsticks and pink pointy sparkly hats. Witchcraft must mean that there has to be an oozing green cauldron involved too, right? Reading The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: The Economic Basis of Witchcraft by Carol F. Karlsen has some insight on the questions I am about to answer for you, that may clear your understanding on the term “Witchcraft”.

Why did neighbors or acquaintances launch accusations of witchcraft against particular persons?

     Anthropologists have defined witches as people whose behavior enacts the things the community most fears. What is the community fearing? Women, indefinitely, were the most prominent of the accused. These women that are being labeled as witches are in the “moderately poor” economic status, and depend on the men in their households financially. Welcome to the 1450-1750 era.

Why are women of this poor financial status so feared? Poor women, both the destitute and those with access to some resources, were surely represented, and probably over-represented, among the New England accused. Karlsen states in her text that perhaps twenty percent of accused women whom were accused of witchcraft, were either impoverished or living at a level of bare subsistence when they were accused. The familiar stereotype of the witch as an indigent woman who resorted to begging for her survival, such as women selling family land to support themselves and submitting claims against their children. Wives, daughters, and widows of “middling” farmers, artisans, and mariners were accused on the daily. Women from all levels of society were easy targets, and vulnerable to accusations. (Karlson 54, 55).

What do you think this tells us about gender and about this time in American history?

     Women had to basically rely on men for their survival. Without a husband to act on behalf of the accused, wealth alone rarely provided women with protection against prosecution. Even during the Salem outbreak, when several women married to wealthy men were arrested, most managed to escape to the safety of other colonies through their husbands’ influence. It was dangerous for women to even remotely try to become independent. Independence had no positive impact on the lives of these women in this time period, for they were in more danger trying to obtain it. Women needed to obtain protection from prosecution from their husbands financial status (Karlson 55). Imagine today, in the 21st century, women needing to rely on their husbands financially to get them out of being prosecuted, or to even survive. These witches are real women, and their witchcraft is striving for the day they receive their independence peacefully.




Citations: Karlson, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: The Economic Basis of Witchcraft. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Kerber, L. K., Sherron, D. H., Dayton, C. H., & Wu, J. T. (2016). Womens America: Refocusing the Past. New York (N.Y.): Oxford University Press.


18 thoughts on “Welcome to the 1450-1750 era: Witchcraft

    1. The difference that I would especially notice between how witches are portrayed in the media and how they were actually treated was that witches in media, although normally cast in a downtrodden way, always end up with more power or in a better situation than their antagonists. Whereas historically, people accused of witchcraft almost always ended up poorer, run out of town, or dead. Media, at least with the movies/tv shows I’ve seen, often paint a much happier and quirkier picture of witchcraft than it was in reality.

  1. I enjoyed that you mentioned the difference in treatment between the socioeconomic classes of the women who were accused of witchcraft. I definitely think that mentality still ties into modern times- as all women still strive for true equality, poorer women and women of color are often underrepresented or portrayed in an even more negative way than white women (which is a major issue with “white feminism.”)

    1. I really thought about that as well that still happens today like if you have a ton of money and are well known you can get out of a lot of things which is completely wrong should be punished just like everyone else. I didn’t realize that happened back then to its amazing how things can come full circle. Really enjoyed the blog.

  2. Hannah, I loved reading your response to this week’s blog post and I loved how you emphasized at the end of your post that these witches are just real women and how their “witchcraft” was just simply striving to gain full independence and to hold the same respect, dignity, and wealth that men in their communities and lives had been able to have without being belittled or feared upon.

    It breaks my heart that these women HAD to have husbands and wealth in order to be protected from accusations and from being prosecuted, as well as just simply needing one to survive in life. It’s crazy how much our history has adapted and changed to the old ways of thinking, learning from past mistakes, and how much women are becoming more accepted as high figures in society. But even though it’s something that is still an issue to some people (Women’s Rights), a lot of progress has been made for the better throughout the centuries.

  3. I loved reading your take on this discussion. The essay brings insight of how Puritan society viewed witchcraft and I think it really allows us to take a moment to think about those beliefs in comparison to modern day. Your blog takes it even further by addressing the misogyny found in these beliefs.

    It’s interesting to think about the hows and whys of the treatment of women during this era. Since moderately poor women were the most prominent of the accused, it is evident that one of the fears that lies within the community is, overall, the fear of women. With that, is the fear of change itself, as you have clearly illustrated in your post. If women gained independence, they could easily overthrow men, right?

    However, I wonder why impoverished women were the most prominent of the accused compared to prosperous women. Perhaps it was due to some sort of bias society held towards the impoverished. In society, class has always been a huge component. Even today, you can be looked at with a different gaze if you are poor, or even moderately so. If we think about it like this, moderately poor women could have been targeted the most to be made into “lessons”. The community essentially bullied them for not doing better and fulfilling their societal roles. Of course, that only answers the question of why these women were the most targeted. Clearly, they weren’t the only women who were targeted by these unfair accusations.

    The very last sentence of your post is immensely powerful. Personally, I think that it ties together your entire post. People have been looking at witchcraft the wrong way the entire time.

  4. Woman’s Rights may still be an issue to some, but look at how far it has come. We almost elected a woman, Hilary Clinton, to become our president in our recent election. Women are not known today as “witches”, women are known as people, equals. Opportunity is available to all who strive for it.

    1. It really puts into perspective how far we have come. While society has come a long way from trying women for witchcraft, there is still a lot of inequality left to overcome. However, living in today’s world I could never imagine the fear and persecution those poor women faced.

    2. I agree with the fact that opportunity is available to all who strive for it, stereotypes will not determine an individual’s success, but rather how hard an individual can fight through all types of adversity. Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of this.

  5. Reading this post made me think back to when I dressed as a witch for Halloween. Obviously I was a child and didn’t know the sincere history of witches. Now that I know I am truly dishonored to have worn that costume. This is not because I think that witch craft is bad. It is because once upon a time women were accused of witch craft and executed. I now think that it is offensive to dress in such attire and try to appear as scary and evil. By doing so you are encouraging a bad rep to those who actually practice witch craft. This is just as bad as the men who accused woman as devil worshipers in the 1450-1750 era.

    1. I like the connection you made to how witches are viewed now in pop culture. It interesting where the term came from in our history. It makes me think, did the problem ever get fixed? If it did, would we still have the character of the “witch” in Halloween? Also what terms or ideas of women now are going to change in the next 100 years? Our country was built in the ideologies of man’s religion. If this was during the countries infancy, can we ever get away from it? It’s scary that some traditions and laws, especially coverture ones, are still around today.

  6. I think it is interesting that you point out women’s dependence on men during these times. Men were the only ones respected by the community, so without a husband, or respected male family member to defend them most women accused would have no hope of being proven innocent. The fear and lack of respect for woman during this era is saddening.

  7. I think the thing that really sticks out to me is that all these women were accused of being witches, but no one was looking at or talking about the men. I find it hard to believe that all these women were up to all this “evil”, but the men had nothing to do with it. Today we have a false image about this time period and it sad that all these women had to go through all this and we aren’t even taught all the truths and facts about this Era.

    1. This is a good point Shelby, it got me thinking about men during this time. Do you think that some women were accused because of a man’s mistake? I’m guessing that men used women as “scapegoats,” adding to the hatred and fear even more.
      Were these accusations also used to keep the poor, poorer? I believe so, which is extremely sad because this is still a problem in todays society. Do we have similar social problems, the context is just different?

  8. My favorite part of your blog is the ending when you ask a question in a scenario form. It really got me thinking what if we did have to rely on the men in our life, their financials and financial standing to protect us and keep us from being executed? It would be a whole different environment we would be living in. I also enjoyed how you said everyone thinks witches are broomsticks and pointy hats because one of my favorite movies is Hocus Pocus and it wasn’t until middle school or maybe high school when I learned that’s not how witches should be perceived at all. Very insightful post!

  9. Your blog post was full of thought-provoking, profound points, Hannah! I am so glad that we live in an era where women don’t need men’s financial support to survive – many women lost their lives due to the absence of a husband. Also, because of the fact that not only women were the majority who were targeted, but poor women, I believe poor women need just as much, if not more, support when discussing feminism. Poor women were the most vulnerable members of society back then, and one could argue that they are among the most vulnerable nowadays.

  10. Now it has me thinking about the number of executions in this time. What was the men to women death rates? I just can’t wrap my brain around the idea of watching all these people getting put to death all because people are accusing women. I am so grateful this isn’t still a thing now days because there would be no one left if the judges judged by a few accusations.

    1. Hi Shelby. Good question! Although a man was occasionally tried and executed for suspected witchcraft, they were fewer. There is no consensus between gender scholars, but looking at both Europe and the U.S. from 1400-1700 anywhere from 80-95% of those persecuted were women. Prof French

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s