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Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England Paperback – August 14, 1997

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Editorial Reviews


"One of the three or four outstanding pieces of historical writing to have appeared in the last thirty years."--Paul Slack, History Today

"Thomas's book, so formidable in its scope and so brilliant in its insights, is a major historical achievement as a result of which the period will never look quite the same again."--Economic History Review

About the Author

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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (August 14, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195213602
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195213607
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #984,152 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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97 of 98 people found the following review helpful By P. A. Agnew on January 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
Originally published in 1971, Keith Thomas's landmark book has lost none of its impact over the last 30 years. This book almost singlehadedly founded an entirely new school of historiography in the fields of astrology, magic, religion, and witchcraft. Before 1970, these subjects were largely the domain of storytellers and "new age" authors, who, making little claim to objectivity, would embellish their "histories" with fanciful and/or romantic myths. With this book, Keith Thomas rescued astrology and witchcraft from their terrible predicaments and elevated them into serious issues capable of being studied as history. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every major text published in this field after 1971 was profoundly influenced by Thomas's work. If you are planning to seriously investigate the topics of religion and magic, then this book is indispensable. Even if your investigative scope does not include England, this book is still required background reading.
The first chapter (The Environment) alone is worth the price of admission. In this astonishing piece, Thomas highlights the miserable condition of early modern life. After setting this background, Thomas goes on to discuss the "magic" of the Medieval Church, the various belief systems surrounding it, and the impact that the Reformation had upon the long standing "rituals" of the Catholic church. Becuase the Calvinists placed little trust in the Catholic rituals, many people "felt disarmed in the face of the devil." As a result, much of England and Europe began to fear the impact of astrology and witchcraft on everyday life.
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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Constant Librarian on December 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
I first read this book as a history graduate student many years ago, and it still remains one of my favorite books of all time. Thomas set himself a daunting task--ascertaining the effect the change in religion from Catholicism with its beliefs in miracles, saints, transubstantiation to Protestantism with its adversion to miraculous beliefs had on the popular imagination.
Thomas tapped little used sources, the Church court records which included trials for witchcraft or magic to see if he could trace a decline in belief in magic. Thomas concluded that magical belief did decline from the 15th-17th centuries. In my opinion, he proved his case.
Anyone who has done historical research will stand in awe of Thomas' command of sources and his ability to synthesize. Anyone who is more than a little fed up with ahistorical screeds on witchcraft prosecutions a la Margaret Murray, will applaud Thomas's reasoned and credible explaination of the reasons behind witchcraft prosecutions. Basically, witchcraft prosecution in 16th century England filled the same function as it does in contemporary Africa--an attempt to control the uncontrollable.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 7, 1998
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By T. Mazerolle on June 9, 2000
Format: Paperback
Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic was the first of my books for summer reading, and I doubt that any novel that I choose will be half as entertaining or any text as informative. By the conclusion I felt that I was completing an odessey throughout the early modern era with a sympathy and understanding of a world far different then ours in some respects, yet, as Thomas succinctly points out in the conclusion, profoundly similar. No other history book has granted me a deeper sense of understanding about human drives for stability and for explaination in all things. This is a book that grants insight and understanding far beyond its proclaimed subject matter, with positive and sweeping consequences for the objective thinker.
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