- Vexed with Devils: Manhood and Witchcraft in Old and New England by Erika Gasser
The subtitle of Erika Gasser's Vexed with Devils: Manhood and Witchcraft in Old and New England might more appropriately be Gender and Witchcraft-Possession in Old and New England. Gasser uses gender as a category of analysis to examine early modern English and colonial cases of possession between 1564 and 1700. [End Page 283] Using published pamphlets of demonic possession and obsession almost exclusively, Gasser argues that gender, particularly issues of manhood, was integral to how both demoniacs and those accused of causing the possession were treated. Among other things, Gasser identifies the pamphlets written about possession cases as forums for determining who had authority about the meaning and treatment of possession. Her secondary argument is that there was more similarity than difference in concepts of manhood and patriarchy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Historians of early modern England, as well as scholars of witchcraft and magic, will be familiar with the territory Gasser covers. Her sources and case studies are well-known and have been explored extensively by other scholars, but she introduces a new perspective by examining the gendered aspects of the discourse surrounding possession and dispossession, and by interpreting the "gendered cultural meanings" of the pamphlet literature (8). This augments the previous work done by historians on the religious and political motivations of the pamphlet authors, such as Anne Reiber De Windt's "Witchcraft and Conflicting Visions of the Ideal Village Community" (1995), Marion Gibson's Possession, Puritanism and Print (Cambridge, 2006), and Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare (Vintage, 2002). To my knowledge, there is no new archival research. Private correspondence of the pamphlet authors and their readers, if available, would have added a further dimension to her analysis.
For nonspecialist readers, Gasser carefully outlines the characteristics of the possessed, providing many examples and quotations. Detailed explanations, combined with the absence of dense gender theory, make her work equally accessible to undergraduates and the interested public. Typical demoniacs displayed convulsive fits, demonstrated extraordinary strength, spoke in strange voices and in languages unknown to the demoniac, saw apparitions, had aversion to prayer and other religious elements, and vomited bizarre items such as pins and nails. The "possession script" that was developed by the discourse, in turn, affected the performance of possession (9). Gasser points out that the performance of possession was culturally constructed, but without giving the reader any hints as to how that performance evolved. How much was the development of that discourse affected by gender?
The male authors of the pamphlet literature were interested in providing moral instruction at the same time that they were reinforcing their own personal views of Protestantism and politics. Similar to those who wrote pamphlets in conjunction with witchcraft trials, the writers of possession pamphlets [End Page 284] used the events to put forward their own political or religious platforms. That gendered language was employed by the authors, both implicitly and explicitly, is no surprise when one considers that all of the pamphlets were written by educated males who had a strong interest in upholding the patriarchal authority of the era. As Gasser points out, "power, patriarchy, and claims to legitimate authority" were embedded in the narratives surrounding possession. In fact, she seems surprised to see that "where we do not expect to see manhood" we learn "that gender fed the languages of power and authority" (9, 12). But patriarchy, by definition, is gendered. This is even more relevant when one takes into consideration the exclusive male authorship of the literature and the fact that 65 percent of the demoniacs investigated were young females.
Information on what it meant to be a man in the seventeenth century is interwoven into the several case studies. A reader new to the subject of gender might find it more helpful to have some of this information up front to more fully understand what was at stake in the maintenance of...