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.