Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England

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Oxford University Press, 1971 - Social Science - 716 pages
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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This is legendary book; widely quoted, hugely influential, seen by many to be a classic in its field. Its author has been honoured and recognised ever since in Oxford which has been his academic home since the book's completion in 1971. It is an edifice which seems immune to criticism.
Yet, even at this late stage, there are a number of reasons to have serious doubts about it. It was, of course, published long before the revisionist histories of the pre-Reformation church which came out nearly two decades later. Their attempted vindication of the liveliness of the medieval church is actually in agreement with some of Sir Keith's remarks for instance about the detail of penitential practice by Catholic priests. They detail a sunnier view of medieval religion and make it seem, to some, good sense. Detail, in Sir Keith's book there is is huge amount. One is almost battered into submission by the accumulation page by page of descriptions of magical beliefs, heterodox practices, activities of conjuring, scepticism and denial of the faith page by footnoted page, some 800 pages in the Penguin edition, making the general point that while magic and religion were uneasy bedfellows and the church attempted to put down what it regarded as sorcery, it was first the advent of Puritan scepticism and then scientific explanation which did for belief in magic and eventually led to the triumph of religious scepticism.
It is a simple thesis and one's first doubt is occasioned by the question as to why so much detail was necessary. It is, after all, relentless. Then a second doubt occurs. It was Lord Justice Hewetson who noted the danger of the accumulation of counts on a criminal indictment not one of which contained all the elements necessary for a conviction giving the impression of guilt by the sheer number which one count would not.
How can Sir Keith, distinguished historian, be guilty of such a charge? He is careful; he is courteous; his citations run to hundred. It will be a hard charge to make stick. The first concern is about dates. To begin with one notices that the examples, in consecutive sentences even, may be drawn from different decades if not from different centuries. Examples of scepticism may be drawn from the time just after the change from Latin to English in the liturgy and then from the Interregnum when churches were closed, ransacked and left without clergy and the long persecution of dissent was at a more acute stage. Rarely are the examples given a local or temporal context and where they are, as in the reference to the Commonwealth, it is said that there was greater freedom of belief so that scepticism was allowed its voice. One could answer that it much depended who you were! The truth is undeniable that there were sceptics in every age; there were those who sought by mechanical means to cajole God, the devil or any spirit to cure this person or harm that person; there were those who believed that God's punishment had been visited on people for their actions: in short there is always a market, small or great for any opinion. That is not to say that the market has been been stable; no market ever is. Belief systems change. Superstition changes. And this piece is not the place to mount a defence of any sociological analysis of this or any other age. The trouble with the book is that is does not actually make its case. The conditions of life of pre-Enlightenment English people cannot be telescoped or parcelled together in the way that the book does. The world of 1500 was very different from the world of 1534, that again different from 1547 and so on. And London is not Norwich nor Norwich the Norfolk coast. Nor the Norfolk coast the same as Krakow, where churches now are full of people, more having to stand than can sit in many cases. We hear the voices, plucked from here and there but while they amount to dozens even hundreds, they are often one person in one village in one year. The claims of church absenteeism are different but again, one needs a context. (Much more to say)

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A hugely important book which I have just started reading again after a gap of 10 years not just for its oft cited historical and social importance in filling in what had hitherto been gaps in the study of early modern English history, but because, possibly more than any other book I have ever read in any area of the humanities, it shows how, as Blake once wrote, 'man must and will have religion'. It shows how the human mind, especially if untempered by any kind of scientific objectivity, will seek to create reality from what little it can work out.
Numerous dark corners and shibboleths are exposed: we have the petty vendettas and realpolitik which informed much of the motivation behind the witch-hunting period; the civil war solution of 'weapon salve', where the victim of a gunshot wound can be cured of their wound if the weapon is located and balm applied to it. (This was at a time when West Europeans were conquering the 'savages' of the New World, incidentally).
So whilst this book is considered a classic in its field and has earned numerous awards through the years, I believe it is actually a far more important book than it has been given credit for. One of the most important books I have ever read, like the works of Joyce, of Henry Chadwick and Erich Auerbach, even of Dante, it stays with you once you have read it. It colours everything after because it shows you, with copious documentary evidence, the magic-inclined workings of the untutored human mind. And that, unfortunately, we are increasingly seeing around us again, are we not?


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The Magic of the Medieval Church

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About the author (1971)

Sir Keith Thomas is President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and President of the British Academy. His works include Man and the Natural World, and other writings on the social and cultural history of early modern England. He is also the editor of the Past Masters and Oxford Studies in Social History series.

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