Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts

Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts

Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts

Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts

Excerpt

I began this project about a decade ago in order to address the issue of why collective action against witchcraft had ended so abruptly in Europe and its colonial derivatives in the seventeenth century. My initial plan was to approach this puzzle through what seemed to be an unusually strategic point of entry into the history of witchcraft. Apart from their dramatic and literary possibilities, the Salem witchcraft prosecutions were among the very few recorded occasions in which the same officials who had participated in the conviction and execution of persons for witchcraft endeavored to posthumously invalidate and reverse their own findings. I anticipated that a community undergoing so drastic a shift between acceptance and rejection of witchcraft beliefs would make visible to itself and to future generations the various interests and assumptions that had sustained those beliefs. Hence, my seventeenth-century subjects would write their own sociology, albeit with some editorial assistance.

But as I probed more deeply into the legal, theological, and narrative records that had survived into the twentieth century, my hopes for rapid enlightenment began to fade. For one thing, the Salem prosecutions seemed historically out of place in terms of my earlier calculations. The colonists had been comparatively inactive in their pursuit of witches prior to the Salem trials. Why did the decline of witchcraft prosecutions occur just after the most dramatic increase in such prosecutions? I was not at all satisfied with explanations that spoke of these events as instances of collective hysteria or mass delusion, and I vowed that I would resort to such diagnostic tools only if my sociological imagination failed me completely.

For another, I found my seventeenth-century sources not only singularly disinclined to think about witchcraft as protosociologists but often unhelpful and even evasive in their pronouncements on the subject. Not until much later in the project did I learn that silences about . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.