Book Review: ‘Damned Women’ by Elizabeth Reis

In Damned Women, author Elizabeth Reis tackles the issue of women’s experiences in the 17th century witch trials in New England.  In a fairly short work, Reis discusses how Puritan women’s views of their souls affected their experiences in the tragic hysteria of the time.  According to Reis women in Salem, Massachusetts and the surrounding region were targeted more than men by accusers trying to convict witches.  This was largely because women had a particular view of themselves that defined their souls and very being as evil, and that sins were just an extension of this.  In contrast, men felt that their sins were what corrupted their souls and were therefore able to resist the temptations of Satan to a much great degree, at least in the eyes of the Magistrates trying to find witches in Satan’s service.  While making this argument Reis also includes astute observations about changes in how the devil was perceived by both clergy and lay congregations over time.  By doing so she successfully puts the Salem trials in their proper context as an important turning point in Christian theology.  She also includes explanations for why women so often confessed or were convicted for being witches.

Reis’s work is a compelling narrative of the struggles of average church-goers in Puritan New England.  The subject could easily get bogged down in the minutiae and her message could easily have been lost, but Reis maintains a steady focus throughout the book and presents a clear narrative that relies heavily on first-hand accounts by those who lived through the century of witch-hunting.  The book is organized in such a way as to allow readers to understand the context of the things she discusses.  The reader can stay focused easily and not lose track of the purpose of her work, a trait every good historian should develop.

Damned Women centers entirely on the late 17th century witch trials, with a brief journey into the early 18th century to show how views of witches and Satan had changed since the trials.  The scope of her work narrows further onto the role of women in the trials, using their own words and the words of their supporters and opponents to paint a picture of the religious fervor that unfairly attacked the souls of women.  Reis writes a spiritual history, attempting to explain the actions of women during the trials.  Some confessed, some denied, but virtually all felt their souls were inherently evil according to Reis.  She ignores economic reasons for the trial (the desire for land possessed by widows), and does not give any space to political history.  This is a very narrow work, aimed like a laser beam at the women of Salem and its immediate surroundings during the witch hysteria.

Reis walks a fine line, never outright condemning the witch trials, and she admirably tries to stay above the fray and bring to the reader an accurate history.  But her bias is clear from her choice of subject and sources.  While there have been many reasons advanced for the existence of the witch trials, Reis ignores all of them except for the spiritual.  To Reis, the witch trials were purely spiritual.  She restored the devil’s role to the trials, something that has been missing from works on the Salem trials according to comments Reis makes throughout her book.  Her choices of sources also indicate a bias in her work.  There are hardly comments from the magistrates conducting the trials.  The primary sources stem almost entirely from confessions and denials, with occasional comments from the Mathers and other clergy in Boston condemning the trials.  In the view of the author, the trials unfairly targeted women who were filled with self-loathing.  Through the words of those who suffered we can feel sympathy for their troubles.  Reis uses their own words to tell us how miserable the women felt about themselves and how easily they could be made to feel worthless and even evil.

 

The Inherent Evil of a Woman’s Soul

The primary focus of Damned Women is that women were targeted more than men because of their belief in the inherit evilness of their soul in contrast to the male focus on actual sinful activity.  In her introduction, Reis writes that Puritan women were damned and that “many women believed they were and. . . New England culture as a whole regarded women as more likely to be damned than men.” Religious preaching about the dangers of cooperating with a devil that could appear in the physical realm struck home with women who considering themselves “depraved” and “rebellious.”[1] It is a tragic thing that one half of society was filled with enough self-loathing to feel so sure of their own damnation, but Reis makes a strong case for this argument.

For women of the Puritan era it was not enough to renounce their sins or lead good lives.  They were inherently corrupt and wicked and essentially on the fast track to hell.  While both genders were capable of feeling this way, Reis argues that the feeling was much more prevalent among women, who at the time were becoming much more deeply involved in their religion.  She noted how a man named George Willows confessed that he saw himself as doomed because he had broken the Sabbath, yet a woman named Jane Winship “was convinced simply that her own passivity and inherent evil would sentence her to an eternity in hell.”[2]

Seen as the inferior gender, society simply felt that women were prime targets for the devil’s temptations.  But why did society feel that they were inferior?  What exactly made women such obvious targets for witch accusers?  Reis argues that women were seen as unfulfilled and insatiable, traits that the devil could play on when recruiting his army of witches and minions.

Religious society believed that the body was the guardian of the soul.  The stronger the body, the safer the soul, so it went.  Men were the physically stronger of the two sexes, and so Reis argues that men were seen as less easily corrupted by Satan.  Women were more prone to the temptations of the devil because their bodies were too weak to resist.  “The representation of the soul in terms of worldly notions of gender and the understanding of women in terms of the characteristics of the feminine soul, led by circular reasoning to the conclusion that women were more likely than men to submit to Satan.”[3] The belief that women were perpetually “unfulfilled” naturally made them “primed for the devil’s intrusion.”[4] Reis makes a clear argument here, though she runs the danger of overgeneralizing the views of society.  It seems reasonable to agree that society viewed women as the weaker sex, but certainly not all women felt unfulfilled.  And since so many women felt their souls enslaved to Satan, it would follow that most women would also feel unfulfilled which simply can’t be proven.  Her argument here meanders into the realm of speculation but she can probably be forgiven since the argument plays a mere supporting role in her general point that society viewed women as more susceptible to Satan.  She quotes Reverend Samuel Willard as saying “It is the Souls destruction the Devil mainly aims at: it is the precious Soul that he hunts for.”[5]

Reis argues that both men and women had what is referred to as “feminine souls.”  Men could differentiate between their soul and their actions whereas women had a harder time doing so.  Men maintained their outward masculinity while only submitting to Jesus as a spiritual spouse internally.  Though she admits there are exceptions Reis makes the case that women felt mankind’s original sin on a very personal level.  In their confessions, they would often deny the charge of witchcraft but admit to being corrupt beings.  In some cases this was enough for the Magistrates to justify execution.  But if some women denied being witches, what exactly did they confess to?

Whereas men could defiantly declare “You my judge your pleasure, my soul is clear” and live, women were often “damned regardless of her response.”[6] Reis makes the point that that Magistrates, already inclined towards viewing women as witches more so than men, simply took whatever a woman said to be a sign of witchcraft.  A flat out refusal would be seen as a deceitful sign of a pact with the devil, and admitting to living a less than saintly life would also be viewed as proof.  It was an unfortunate place for a women to be in, and Reis has a talent for making us feel the pain they must have felt, often using their own words to carry the story.

 

The Conflict Between Boston Clergy and the Salem Justices

Another point Reis makes is that the religious establishment was divided over the issue of witchcraft, especially in the 1690s.  While the justices in Salem vigorously tried women and a few men for witchcraft, the clergy consisting of men like Increase and Cotton Mather increasingly had doubts about the good the court was doing.  The Mathers felt innocent people were being convicted and killed, and made their opinions known.  The opinion of the clergy was essentially that it would be better to let one witch free than to kill innocents.  They also condemned the court for using spectral evidence to obtain convictions.

According to Reis, the clergy argued that Satan could possess completely innocent people without their permission.  No pact with the devil was necessary.  The justices of Salem naturally disagreed and had been using the fact that some people felt possessed by the devil to convict.  To the justices, to feel the presence of Satan was to have signed his book, a symbolic bonding of Satan and his slaves.   For example, when an accuser said they had been confronted by a shadow in the shape of an accused witch, the justices saw it as proof the accused had made a pact with the devil.  The clergy denied the legitimacy of this kind of evidence and eventually shut the Salem proceedings down.  Many of the people involved would later regret their participation in the trials, although Cotton Mather would reverse his previous opposition to become somewhat of an apologist for the trials.

 

Putting the Witch Trials in Context

Though not her main point, one of the more interesting aspects of Damned Women is how Reis places the witch trials and hysteria in the context of American religious experience.  Whatever the body of literature on the topic has already established, to a reader new to studying the witch trials, their place as the turning point in how the colonies viewed the devil is probably a revelation.  Comparing first-hand accounts of temptation and sin we can see how the devil transformed from a very real, very physical creature capable of enslaving people to his will to a more ethereal idea.  He became a tempter who could lead people to sin, but no longer a shape carrying around a book to be signed with the blood of his victims.  Fear of witches declined and the devil became the more abstract idea many Christians hold to this day.  Almost immediately after the witch trials of the 1690s, people rejected the idea that Satan stalked their woods and held witch meetings and built an army.  During the witch hysteria it was even believed that Satan was stockpiling weapons to assault Salem.  After the turn of the 17th and the dawn of the 18th century Satan’s weapon became simple temptation and internal doubt. Reis’s chapter “Satan Dispossessed” is probably the most interesting part of the book.

It also depicts how the clergy altered their tactics in preaching to their congregations.  Reis argues that they were largely to blame for women viewing themselves in such poor light and driving society to such extremes as the witch trials.  They instilled such fear in the people that they began to see the devil around every corner and behind every shadow.  They bought into the hype that the devil was assaulting their community in a very real sense.  After the trials and after the clergy in Boston shut down the Magistrates the clergy had to find another way of keeping their flock in line with God’s will.  And so they reigned in their portrayal of Satan as a physical enemy and adopted the idea of Satan as tempter.  He became the ruler of hell and not someone actively stalking for victims.  Cotton Mather called hell a prison where “miserable Prisoners have an uneasy Confinement upon them.”[7]

Puritan life also became less harsh.  No longer were many pre-destined for eternal damnation, but with the focus returning back to actual sins instead of the sinful nature of the soul it was within the power of the individual to clean up their lifestyle and return to God’s favor.  As Reis put it, “the laity seemed more optimistic and assured about their salvation than had seventeenth-century sinners.”[8]

In an interesting epilogue Reis details how by the mid-1700s the fear of Satan and witches had declined so much that they were used in comical political cartoons and used to demean enemies like Great Britain during the colonial crises.  The role of the witch trials in the transformation of the image of the devil is something that has seldom been touched upon in my admittedly limited readings on the 1690s, but Reis again uses first-hand accounts to show just how attitudes toward the devil did indeed change.  Her point in detailing this transformation was to show how gender roles merged a bit.  Men came to embrace the “feminine soul” and women viewed themselves as slightly less inherently evil.  The gap between sexes with regards to witchcraft and sin narrowed considerably by the mid-18th century.

 

The Weaknesses of Damned Women

Damned Women is an intriguing work, but it has one major flaw.  After making compelling arguments for why women were targeted more than men in witch trials—all of which based on religious and social reasons—she omits the most obvious explanation.  That women were targeted because they would inherit valuable land from their husbands upon their death is an argument often given when talking about the witch trials.  Yet Reis completely ignores it.  The focus of her work was the spiritual realm, certainly, but it hurts her thesis that she doesn’t give any space to a more direct cause of the trials.  Presenting half the evidence and calling it an explanation isn’t enough.   It creates a biased and narrow view of the events she was trying to make us understand.

Her argument is also based on a generalization of women at the time of the trials.  Her arguments are certainly well supported by testimonials and primary sources relating to the trials.  But it would be interesting to see how the proceedings were viewed by women outside of the immediate religious community.  The best we can infer is that the outside world didn’t approve of the trials, and this we can gather from the conflict between the clergy in Boston consisting of men like Increase and Cotton Mather, and those Magistrates and Salemites who vigorously convicted innocent people of the crime of witchcraft.  A chapter devoted to reaction from the outside would have helped make Damned Women a more completely analysis of events.

The chief danger a work like Reis’s risks is her reliance on the words of the women who were wrapped up in the witch-hunts.  She takes them at their word, their confessions reflecting their true feelings.  Reis briefly acknowledges the possibility that the confessions were simply what women thought the justices wanted to hear.  But then she continues to build her case on these same words.  If we cannot be sure women felt exactly the way they said they did, there’s no telling if Reis’ argument  is actually based on reality.  It’s always risky when an author tries to see the inner-most thoughts of a historical figure.  Yet her credibility hinges on her capability of explaining those inner-most thoughts.

Her reliance on such primary sources also colors her work.  There’s simply no telling what was twisted by supporters of the trial to prove their point, or if women actually believed the things they said.  But it is clear Reis did the best she could with the primary resources at hand.  The topic of religious fervor is always difficult to write about and overall she does an admirable job of explaining her views of why women were targeted for the witch trials more than men.

 

Conclusion

In short, Damned Women is an interesting read with good arguments.  Though there are inherent weaknesses in the primary sources, Reis does the best she can with her material and presents a compelling case for the role of the spiritual in the witch trials. How women’s views of themselves affected their experience during the trials, the conflict between clergy and justices, and the context of the trials are all things Reis soundly explained.  If the work is a little narrow in scope at the expense of other valid explanations of the trials nothing is stopping the reader from reading more traditional works on the topic.  I cannot recommend this book as a comprehensive study on the trials, but is valuable in helping the reader obtain a well-rounded view of the witch-hunts of the 17th century.


[1] Reis, 1.

[2] Reis, 47.

[3] Reis, p. 94.

[4] Reis, p. 107.

[5] Reis p. 99.

[6] Reis, 105-106.

[7] Reis, 189.

[8] Reis, 191.

Buy this book from Amazon.

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