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  • The Path of the Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts
  • Soma Chaudhuri (bio)
Jensen, Gary . The Path of the Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. 283 pp.

Witch hunts in early modern Europe and Colonial America have been a favorite research topic among historians, psychologists, feminist scholars, and some deviant behavior scholars. The bulk of the research has concentrated on what led to these panics in fourteenth-century Europe. Scholars have provided an array of explanations, from gender conflicts, to the effects of spreading disease, to outbreaks of war, to perceived threats to the church and the medical profession. What is frustrating about these analyses is that most tend to focus on a single cause rather than to provide a complex analysis.

In The Path of the Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts, sociologist and criminologist Gary Jensen conducts exactly this kind of more nuanced approach. Jensen provides a rich analytical account of witch hunts in the West and expertly manages to combine various interdisciplinary approaches to the study of witch hunts, ranging from studies of collective behavior, to gender, criminology, and deviance, all in a single book. In the chapters on the various interdisciplinary approaches to witch hunts, Jensen discusses how early modern witch trials are routinely explained as instances of scapegoating, persecution, or social conflict. These theories and most historical research on witch hunts focus on the "demand" for suitable targets during periods of social change or crisis as a strategy to deflect blame, especially when the source of the crisis is unknown. Women are considered appropriate scapegoats during periods of crisis, and witches are "discovered" in times of war, epidemics, and gender conflicts.

Using quantitative and multivariate analysis on historical data, The Path of the Devil manages to deconstruct many stereotypes relating to witch hunts, such as syphilitic shock or the myth of the midwives. Jensen provides a rigorous and systematic analysis of what explanations fit (plague, tree ring, and war models) and what explanations do not fit (syphilis, midwife) arguments on the witch craze.

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions in the research on witch hunts is presented in chapter six, "The Selection of [End Page 240] Targets: Scapegoating, Collective Conflict, and Victimology." The chapter focuses on "who" are suitable targets rather than on "why" witches are targeted for displacement of blame, thus filling a gap in the literature. The bulk of the chapter is focused on explanations of how the image of women as enemies of God or servants of Satan emerged, and why "certain" types of women got selected as credible targets. Having a history of conflicts involving accusers, having a scalding tongue, or possessing other indicators of a difficult personality that does not fit into the "accepted" gender norms of one's society made some women prone to accusations of witchcraft.

Gender violence is one of the widely discussed topics in the gender studies classroom. Witch hunts fall under the rubric of historical violence against women and are often used by scholars as metaphors for how women with power were persecuted by the patriarchal Church and the medical profession. Although the explanation linking midwives to witch crazes is much debated, feminist scholars still tend to depict witch trials as strategic persecution to undermine the power of midwives and women healers. As previously stated, The Path of the Devil convincingly rejects the many myths of the witch in early modern times and gives the reader a thought-provoking account of what characteristics made a woman a suitable target for witch accusations. Instructors in the classroom can use this research to stimulate students into thinking what makes women prone to becoming victims of a spectrum of gendered violence, from honor killing to caste rape and stigma. Is it because gender violence is a response by society towards individuals who do not adequately follow the "gendered" roles and norms outlined by the society? How does one explain gender violence on women by women? And why do women support attacks on women as witches? Jensen notes that prior conflict between women played a role in witch accusations. In societies where there are limited opportunities for women, do women support witch hunts as...


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pp. 240-241
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2020
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