Damned or Damning: Women and the Salem Witch Trials

Elizabeth Reis’s book, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, she makes the claim that “why the witch hunt [in 17th century New England] happened becomes a less urgent issue than how it happened (10). She breaks the book up into four chapters. The first chapter deals with the issue of how men and women saw their sins in relation to their eternal salvation or damnation. The second is about how the Puritans were viewed the manifestations of Satan, whether as a ethereal being or holding a corporeal form. In the third chapter Reis explains the Puritan view that women were weaker than men and that, as a society, they tended to view the soul as a feminine form, even in men. The fourth chapter attempts to show why those accused of witchcraft would sometimes confess.

While I found this book a very interesting and intriguing read, I find many faults with Reis’s argument. The first issue I take is in her intended audience. Whether she is writing for other historians or for the general public, she with the assumption that her audience is familiar with the concepts of Christianity and comfortable enough with them to allow her some leniency in making rational inferences without solid fact. As someone who is, myself, a religious person and comfortable with the concepts of God, Satan, temptation, salvation, redemption, and damnation, I was able to follow her reasoning through to her conclusion that women were more likely to be accused and convicted of witchcraft because of their religious beliefs and the gender roles of the Puritan community. However, I have to question whether an atheist or someone from another religion would come to the same conclusion.

The real problem lies in the fact that she relies to heavily on human reasoning to reach her conclusion and does not include enough solid evidence to support a logical argument. The entire premise of the book, particularly chapter four, rests on the assumption that she is able to prove her claim in chapter one that women view themselves and their sins more severely and personally than men do. Unfortunately, she does not offer up more than four or five sentences in forty-five pages so support this claim. She spends most of the chapter, and indeed the remained of the book, reciting sermons from Puritan ministers or quoting men who were accused of sinning. Without the proof that women thought differently about sin, there is no evidence to support the claim that women were confessing to witchcraft because they truly believed they were condemned for their sins and therefore must have joined themselves with Satan.

While the lack of evidence is disheartening and the quoting of sermons is excessive, in my opinion, Reis’s book raises a really good point – “By focusing on sociological or economic reasons for witchcraft outbreaks, or on psychological ones…these historians and others may underestimate the religious context.” Anyone who understands the Puritans or seeks to study them knows that their lives revolved around their religion. Everything they did was in response to their religious beliefs. I believe that Reis is right that the Puritan religion played an important role in both the why and how of the witch trials. We just need to find the evidence to co-oberate her claims.

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One thought on “Damned or Damning: Women and the Salem Witch Trials

  1. Excellent discussion today, and I think you are right on target that the historiographical contribution is in her analysis of religion vs social, economic, or psychological reasons. I’m especially intrigued by your view of lack of evidence from the women themselves. As we discussed, it could be because it isn’t available. But I also wonder if it is the type of history. Is her goal to write a social, intellectual, or cultural history of the Salem witch trials, and does that partially determine the type of sources?

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