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Religion and the Decline of Magic : Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (1971)

by Keith Thomas

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,3711913,622 (4.15)75
Witchcraft, astrology, divination, and every kind of popular magic flourished in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, from the belief that a blessed amulet could prevent the assaults of the Devil to the use of the same charms to recover stolen goods. At the same time the Protestant Reformation attempted to take the magic out of religion, and scientists were developing new explanations of the universe. Keith Thomas's classic analysis of beliefs held on every level of English society begins with the collapse of the medieval Church and ends with the changing intellectual atmosphere around 1700, when science and rationalism began to challenge the older systems of belief.… (more)
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An interesting and quite hefty volume dealing with the various magical beliefs during the stated centuries in England - although the author does contrast the situation then with that in the middle ages - describing the tensions between them and the established church, and the change in the strength of those beliefs over time, especially with the effect of the Reformation and later Civil War. He makes a good case that in the middle ages, the church had its own "magic" in the form of rituals, Latin prayers, holy water, etc, which people could have confidence in when these were deployed against negative magic such as that of bad witches. In the later period, with all these swept away, the only remedy the church could offer was fasting and prayer, which led people to look more to alternative means of protection such as the services of cunning/wise men and women, and astrologers.

The book is divided into sections dealing with various topics, with the role of wise/cunning people aka white witches and natural healers etc, astrology and witchcraft forming the largest sections. Smaller ones cover areas such as the belief in old prophecies or fairy folk. A section towards the end discusses how the belief in the various magical systems faded out and were eventually replaced by rationalism and a faith in human progress rather than the previous harking back to the past and to precedent. This charts the development of, among other things, progress in medicine, the development of insurance, better means of fire fighting, and the development of statistical methods which helped to reduce uncertainty about the future which had previously been the province of the various magical systems.

The main weakness of the book is that the author decided against compiling a bibliography. There is an index, but all references to publications are in the form of footnotes, sometimes copious indeed and taking up half a page in places. This makes it pretty impossible to do follow up reading. The other oddity is that the conclusion which brings together the various threads including a discussion of why the belief in magic petered out well ahead of the technological advances that filled the voids left by its disappearance is pretty inconclusive. I suppose the author is honest enough to admit that he doesn't know, but it does make the conclusion fall a bit flat. On the whole would rate this at 4 stars. ( )
  kitsune_reader | Nov 23, 2023 |
Fascinating. ( )
  markm2315 | Jul 1, 2023 |
2014
I have several posts on LibraryThing written as I made my way through. They are linked below

- on religion and magic here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/160515#4398139

- on astrology here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/160515#4416027

- on witches here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/163456#4478465

- briefer notes on faires, Time and on Omens and Prohibitions here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/163456#4483852

My final brief comments on completing here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/163456#4536320
  dchaikin | Sep 21, 2020 |
Although scholarly interest in the topic has only increased in the subsequent decades, Religion and the Decline of Magic has not become obsolete. It is a voluminous history of magic in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, with particular attention to its social and religious context. The style is that of a sort of old-fashioned documentary history, with copious references to primary and near-primary sources.

The first sections of the book establish the context, with an empirical attitude and a lot of careful observation. Author Keith Thomas weighs issues of elite and popular cultures, as well as Catholic, Protestant, and dissenting religion. He notes, "The conventional distinction between a prayer and a spell seems to have been first hammered out, not by the nineteenth-century anthropologists, with whom it is usually associated, but by sixteenth-century Protestant theologians" (69).

General areas of inquiry within "magic" for this book include healing, prophecy, astrology, ghosts, fairies, omens, and witchcraft. A large section towards the end provides a thorough summation of the English witch-craze, how it differed from its Continental counterpart, and how it subsided. Thomas is no fan of Murray-style theories of pagan survival for the witchcraft of this period. His analysis also shows up how accused witches' subaltern status and their justified ressentiment of those they had supposedly hexed were considered culpable in the theory that defined and indicted them.

Thomas observes that skepticism about magic was never entirely absent, even while larger cultural trends saw its credit wax and wane. The Elizabethan period seems to have been part of a long peak of magical operation in the early modern era. But "By 1655 Meric Causabon could go so far as to declare that every case of religious ecstasy was no more than 'a degree and species of epilepsy'" (172). The "decline" that began in the 17th century hit its nadir in the 18th, and the modern occultism of our contemporary world had its practical origins in the 19th, a larger course that Thomas treats briefly in his final chapters.

Those final chapters include an analysis in which he concludes that magic was not, in fact, made obsolete by scientific and technological achievement. On the contrary, there was a shift toward naturalistic explanation and against magic that preceded the significant advances of experimental science, and may have helped to make them possible. The shift in mentality may well have been a byproduct of the religious conflicts of the age. "Many post-Reformation writers busied themselves establishing the criteria by which one might distinguish a divine intimation from a diabolical imposture or the effects of indigestion" (151). Ultimately, systematization of efforts to "test the spirits" may have led to their banishment from intellectual culture.

This book is big--about 800 pages of expository, academic prose--and it took me a long while to read it all the way through, as it had to compete with an assortment of other current reading projects. At many points during my read, though, I was reminded of two works of fiction. The Aegypt cycle of John Crowley (where Thomas is one of several historians credited with influence in a prefatory note) is a tale about the decline of magic that evokes parallels between the 17th century described by Thomas and the demise of the 20th-century counterculture. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a story about a spectacular rebirth of magic immediately following the historical decline outlined by Thomas. Readers who enjoyed either of those could find a lot to engage them in the manifold details of this factual account.
1 vote paradoxosalpha | Jul 31, 2020 |
There is much interesting history here, but strangely enough considering his topic he seems to understand neither magic nor religion. ( )
1 vote mcduck68 | Apr 23, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Keith Thomasprimary authorall editionscalculated
Mantel, HilaryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McFerrin, GradyCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
For this is man's nature, that where he is persuaded that there is the power to bring prosperity and adversity, there will he worship.

George Gifford, A Discourse on the Subtill Practices of Devilles by Witches and Sorcerers (1587), sigs.B4v-C1
Dedication
To my parents
First words
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England was still a pre-industrial society, and many of its features closely resembled those of the 'under-developed areas' of today.
Quotations
Indeed the conventional distinction between a prayer and a spell seems to have been first hammered out, not by the nineteenth-century anthropologists, with whom it is usually associated, but by sixteenth-century Protestant theologians.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Full title (1971): Religion and the decline of magic: studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England.
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Witchcraft, astrology, divination, and every kind of popular magic flourished in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, from the belief that a blessed amulet could prevent the assaults of the Devil to the use of the same charms to recover stolen goods. At the same time the Protestant Reformation attempted to take the magic out of religion, and scientists were developing new explanations of the universe. Keith Thomas's classic analysis of beliefs held on every level of English society begins with the collapse of the medieval Church and ends with the changing intellectual atmosphere around 1700, when science and rationalism began to challenge the older systems of belief.

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Astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts, and fairies were taken very seriously by people at all social and economic levels in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Helplessness in the face of disease and human disaster helped to perpetuate this belief in magic and the supernatural. As Keith Thomas shows, England during these years resembled in many ways today's "underdeveloped areas." The English population was exceedingly liable to pain, sickness, and premature death; many were illiterate; epidemics such as the bubonic plague plowed through English towns, at times cutting the number of London's inhabitants by a sixth; fire was a constant threat; the food supply was precarious; and for most diseases there was no effective medical remedy.
In this fascinating and detailed book, Keith Thomas shows how magic, like the medieval Church, offered an explanation for misfortune and a means of redress in times of adversity. The supernatural thus had its own practical utility in daily life. Some forms of magic were challenged by the Protestant Reformation, but only with the increased search for scientific explanation of the universe did the English people begin to abandon their recourse to the supernatural.
Science and technology have made us less vulnerable to some of the hazards which confronted the people of the past. Yet Religion and the Decline of Magic concludes that "if magic is defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognize that no society will ever be free from it."
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