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Keith Thomas

Religion and the Decline of Magic

Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Keith Thomas tells us that this book began as an attempt to make sense of why some now outmoded belief systems, which he terms collectively magical, were current in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. As he wrote he found that there was a close relationship between these beliefs and the religious ideas of the period; sometimes the two seemed to be closely connected, at others they were in conflict. He therefore enlarged the scope of his study to include an examination of these interactions. Inevitably the result was a very long book, even though he deliberately confined the discussion to England, with only brief glances at Wales; he made no attempt to include Scotland or Ireland, let alone continental Europe.

This is probably the most comprehensive and widely cited study of these subjects to have appeared in the last half-century. Although it is a scholarly work, it scores highly for readability.

The historical period spanned by the book includes the Reformation and this marks a boundary in how religious people viewed magical beliefs. In the pre-Reformation period the medieval Church 'acted as a repository of supernatural power which could be dispensed to the faithful to help them in their daily problems.' The priests, set aside from the rest of the population by their celibacy and consecration, and acting as mediators between man and God, were naturally seen as possessing special powers. Religious objects and rituals, especially the sacraments, came to assume magical properties in the eyes of the people. The result was inevitably a blurring of the line separating religion from superstition.

After the Reformation the Protestants tried to separate religion from its unwanted associates. Their success was only partial, but Thomas finds that the Reformation helped to introduce a new concept of what religion actually is.

Today we think of religion as a belief, rather than a practice, as definable in terms of creeds rather than in modes of behaviour. But such a description would have fitted popular Catholicism of the Middle Ages little better than it fits other primitive religions.
This seems to me a most illuminating comment.

A central feature of post-Reformation theology was its rejection of chance. Everything that happened, without exception, did so because it was permitted by God. Hence we get the idea of Providence—the notion that God will provide for the virtuous in this life.

Every Christian thus had the consolation of knowing that life was not a lottery, but reflected the working out of God's purposes. If things went wrong he did not have to blame his luck but could be assured that God's hand was at work; the events of this world were not random but ordered. … The correct reaction of a believer stricken by ill-fortune was therefore to search himself in order to discover the moral defect which had provoked God's wrath, or to eliminate the complacency which had led the Almighty to try him.
(Although Thomas does not make the point, this way of thinking is basic to the Old Testament, adherence to which was a prominent post-Reformation characteristic.)

We tend to think of our predecessors as having been strongly religious, yet complete ignorance of religious doctrine was surprisingly common both before and after the Reformation. This persisted as late as the early nineteenth century, when a new vicar at a Dorset church found only two male communicants. 'When the cup was given to the first he touched his forelock and said, "Here's your good health, sir." The second, better informed, said, "Here's the good health of our Lord Jesus Christ." At Chippenham a poor man took the chalice from the vicar and wished him a Happy New Year.

There is also a surprising number of reports of frank irreligion and scepticism about all aspects of Christianity, among both aristocrats and the lower orders. This is particularly remarkable in view of the harsh penalties, including burning at the stake, that awaited deniers, so there must have been many doubters who preferred to keep quiet about their views. We hear a lot about the decline of religious faith in modern times, but this may be an illusion.

We do not know enough about the religious beliefs and practices of our remote ancestors to be certain of the extend to which religious faith and practice have actually declined.
It may seem surprising that Thomas has three chapters on astrology, but this reflects the fact that this belief system achieved an astonishing level of prestige and intellectual credence in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Most Tudor monarchs, including Henry VIII, patronised astrologers, and Cardinal Wolsey was himself a practitioner. In fact, what needs explanation is how and why astrology eventually was discredited; Thomas discusses this in some detail.

Other sections look at ancient prophecies, witchcraft, ghosts and fairies, lucky and unlucky days, and omens. All the subjects are illustrated with an abundance of quotations, which are referenced in footnotes to the pages rather than in end notes, which makes them easier to consult.

Witchcraft, like astrology, is treated at length. Like most modern academics, Thomas finds little evidence to support the idea that the accused witches were Devil-worshippers or members of a pagan fertility cult. Most supposed witches were impoverished unhappy women who often disliked their neighbours and wished them ill, and may have pronounced curses on them. A number of sceptical contemporaries recognised that the curses had no objective validity but nevertheless thought that the accused deserved to be executed because they wished to commit murder even though the means they chose were ineffective. The poet John Donne was one of those who held this view.

Thomas concludes his study by saying, 'What is certain about the various beliefs discussed in this book is that today they have either disappeared or at least greatly decayed in prestige.' But he also says that 'If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques that allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free of it.' Almost half a century has passed since this was written, and events have proved it prophetic. Magical healing, in the form of many kinds of alternative medicine, has increased enormously in popularity, and astrology is by no means extinct. Religion, on the other hand is declining. Perhaps there is now a place for a book called 'Magic and the Decline of Religion'.


%T Religion and the Decline of Magic
%S Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%C London
%D 1971
%G ISBN 297 00220 1
%P xviii+pp
%K history, religion

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