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Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) Paperback – January 1, 2003

4.3 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Monumental. . . with a living treasure on each page, and probably the book that, in my whole life, I've pressed on other people most energetically. (Selected people, of course. They have to care for history, and they need a sense of wonder and a sense of fun.)  — Hilary Mantel, New York Times

About the Author

Keith Thomas is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He was formerly President of Corpus Christi College and, before that, Professor of Modern History and Fellow of St John's College. He was knighted in 1988 for services to the study of history.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin History
  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin UK; New edition (January 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140137440
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140137446
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #69,746 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Thirty-five years ago Keith Thomas made a considerable contribution to the historical literature on religion and magic in England from the medieval period to around 1700. Whether or not one agrees with all of his conclusions, historians today can no longer treat these topics without reference to Thomas. Thomas's central argument revolves around the shifting interactions between religion and magic and the emergent rationalism that displaced magic and tempered religious belief. However, no authority or sectarian group completely purged magic from English religious or popular beliefs.

The vast majority of the book focuses on the epic battle waged between religion and magic. Thomas recounts attempts by the medieval Church in England to control the blurred line between religion and magic. The medieval Church's accommodation with magic gave it the image of possessing "a vast reservoir of magical power." (p. 51) He argues with persuasion that Church officials fought against magic with one hand, while accommodating--perhaps exploiting--magic with the other.

Thomas details with vigor Protestant attempts to stamp out magic. The Reformers' opposition to magic was proportional to their degree of antagonism toward the medieval Church. The Anglicans' affinity for Catholic ritual left room for magic. Conversely, Protestants attacked Catholicism just as ardently as they assaulted magic. They relegated sacraments, demystified clerical powers, and eliminated popular festivals. Protestant efforts not only chipped away at magic's appeal; they also created a new concept of religion: one centered on faith rather than practices (p.88)--a feat whose significance was not lost on Thomas.
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Note: Some immature Mormon has been slamming my reviews because I wrote some negative reviews of books attempting to defend the Book of Mormon.

So your "helpful" votes are greatly appreciated. A short review is not necessarily a bad review if it leads you to a fascinating book. In this review, I have just noted the general theme. Thanks

"Religion and the Decline of Magic" is full of insights that help us understand the appeal of magic and our intellectual heritage. Why isn't magic as popular today as religion? What happened?

In his massive study, Keith Thomas says of the occult beliefs in astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts, and fairies that:

"In offering an explanation for misfortune, and a means of redress at times of adversity, they seemed to be discharging a role very close to that of the established Church and its rivals. Sometimes they were parasitic upon Christian teaching; sometimes they were in sharp rivalry to it."

I won't attempt a detailed review, but this book is highly recommended as background for the emergence of Mormonism (not the subject of Thomas' book, however). But Joseph Smith's claims clearly had a genealogy going back to 16th century Europe.

Paul Slack in "History Today" (1981) said: "Few historians have that ability to surprise and convince with unfailing regularity, to say something absolutely original and make it seem self-evident. That is why "Religion and the Decline of Magic" remains a commanding work, one of the three or four outstanding pieces of historical writing to have appeared in the last thirty years."

For a detailed review, read the other reviewer's excellent posting. I would only add that Thomas' book should have been given five stars. What a praiseworthy work of scholarship!
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Format: Paperback
RELIGION AND THE DECLINE OF MAGIC is one of the greatest works of history that I have ever read. It is one of those books that is both highly entertaining and massively informative. It is also infuriating, because it is a book that is so full of detail, that it doesn't seem as if one person could have produced it. It makes me feel as if I have been wasting my life.
Thomas's subject is--as the title proclaims--the prevalence of and subsequent decline in magical beliefs in the Great Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. He surveys magic in a myriad of forms: magical elements within religious practice, village wizards and cunning men, astrology, prophecies, and--in the most famous and frequently referred to section--witches. My favorite sections were those dealing with astrology and witchcraft, as well as the beginning chapter dealing with "nasty, brutish, and short" quality of life at the time in England. The book is filled to the brim with fascinating bits of information, such as the fact that most of the caloric intake of men, women, and even children at the time came from beer, and that at sea an allotment of a gallon of beer a day was made! The inescapable conclusion was that Britain was a nation of alcoholics.

I find it difficult to overpraise this book. Since reading it during the summer, I have found dozens of references to it in various works, and always with the highest praise attached. One of the blurbs on the back of the beautiful new paperback edition recently put out by Oxford University Press claims that it is one of the two or three greatest works of history in the past thirty years, and I have no reason to doubt it.
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