Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, Elizabeth Reis (1997)
In Damned Women, Elizabeth Reis asks why women were more likely to confess to being a witch than men were, given that Puritans believed women and men were almost equal in their ability to reach heaven. Reis explores in great detail the ways which fear of damnation and sin were internalized by members of Puritan society from an early age, “New England Puritans more typically focused on what seemed all too likely: their merited descent into the terrors of hell” (19). It is important to understand the level of internalization of this fear, because it gives a glimpse into the psyche of those who would eventually confess to the crime of being a witch when modern society considers this a ridiculous accusation. Reis is successful in emphasizing just how real and tangible the threat of the devil was to men and women within puritan society, through his ability to literally posses a person’s body through shear strength of will, by seducing them through promises of happiness or wealth, or simply through existing close to a weak person (weak of body as Reis points out would make an individual more likely to be corrupted) (75). Reis states that “Satan appeared not as a metaphorical character but as an embodiment of world and spiritual attractions…the genuine, living creature of folklore, capable of entering people’s homes as well as their minds” (65) leaving every person within that society vulnerable to his predations whether physical, mental, or spiritual. The argument that Reis relies on for her analysis is that men were equally as vulnerable to the devil as women; but Reis continues to argue that women were viewed as inherently more vulnerable because of their physical weakness compared to men, in addition to their greater original sin. In the chapter entitled “Devil, Body, and Feminine Soul” Reis implies that every woman would have been considered a witch until proved otherwise or as she writes “A woman was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t” (94). I struggled a great deal with this concept, particularly given the evidence which Reis provided that men were nearly as likely to be seduced by the devil as women were.
Additionally, I found myself struggling to follow Reis’s logic with the use of primary sources. Most of the evidence which Reis provided was in the form of trial documents or sermons given during the time period, which makes sense. However, Reis fails to provided sufficient context (for me at least) to allow these sources to carry us through the historical narrative. What could have been an engaging examination of the pervasiveness of religious beliefs about damnation and gender became a repetitive and discordant trek through sermons and random court hearings. Perhaps most frustrating to me was the repeated reference to folk culture throughout the book; which Reis never defines or expounds upon. There is a lack of clarity here which makes the book difficult to follow at times. Perhaps Reis would have been better served by beginning her argument by defining what was understood as witchcraft in the “folk” meaning, and the clerical meanings to provide her readership with a stronger framework in which to place her evidence.
I do appreciate the approach that Reis took to accusation of witchcraft within Puritan New England, focusing on the role of religion in convincing women of their inherent sinfulness. I think that a little more historiography on the other influences on women within Puritan society would have helped me to grasp the argument which Reis makes a little better. By couching her argument within the larger historical frame, Reis could have spent more time on creating a narrative within her work to carry us through each of her points. I would have enjoyed following two or three women (or men) who confessed to witchcraft through her thesis, rather than bouncing through sermons and disconnected court cases. I do realize that this may be overly harsh criticism given that the sources available for this project must be incredibly limited, so I hope that I am not overly criticized for my criticism, but Reis demonstrates her mastery of the source material throughout, leaving me to think that she could have made the work more accessible in this way.