Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England
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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The refugees themselves were liable to receive rough treatment from country folk,
frightened they were bringing the disease with them. Further violence
accompanied popular resistance to the quarantine regulations and restrictions on
or dysentery - rather than the disease itself. The patient's urine was taken to be
the best guide to his condition, and there were some practitioners who even
thought it enough to see the urine without the patient, though the Royal College
They never learned to associate the disease with the black rat, and the plague's
disappearance in the later seventeenth century owed little to human agency,
save in so far as it may have been helped by an improvement in living conditions.
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"The real question at issue here is what enables us to read a source ‘against the grain’, and here theory does indeed come in. Theory of whatever kind, whether it is a general set of theses about how ... Read full review
The Magic of the Medieval Church
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