The Identification of the Malefic Witch
Before 1692, it was from the communities rather than from official directives by the state that the impetus for legal action against witchcraft arose. Here, as already observed, the culpability of the witch consisted neither in complicity with Satan nor in conspiracy against the state but in the willingness to make use of malefic magic. Thus, in the pre-Salem litigations, it was in the form of testimony alleging specific damage or injury that the courts of New England received evidence of witchcraft from the villages of New England.
Yet, if the initial identification of the witch came from below, the response of officials was nonetheless crucial in establishing this identification as a legal fact, for while the accusation embodied the popular emphasis upon the witch as doer of harm, the prosecution provided the vehicle for the expression of theological concerns. In the actual production of witches, the conflict between popular and theological audiences over the definition of witchcraft resolved itself into a dispute between the terms of accusation and the terms of prosecution.
For purposes of analysis, then, it is useful to conceive of the production of witches in pre-SalemNew England as an outcome of the articulation of two distinct sequences of imputation. The first of these sequences consisted in the stages by which members of the community organized their perceptions of malefic harm into formal accusations against particular persons. The second sequence entailed the validation or invalidation of popular testimony according to criteria that carriedthe authority of the state. In this chapter, it is the first of these sequences leading to the identification of the malefic witch that will constitute the focus for discussion.
In the following sections, an attempt is made to demonstrate that the selection of witches constituted both a response and a creative adaptation to a specific social and political context. Recent contributions to the investigation of European witchcraft beliefs have established that