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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
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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.
Despite clerical efforts to eradicate it, magic persisted as people continued to seek answers to existential questions, such as sickness and prosperity, beyond Providence. After the Anglicans rejected Catholic paraphernalia for exorcisms and the Protestants eliminated the mechanical efficacy of rituals , only prayer remained as a viable remedy. According to Thomas, "it is no small wonder that the sorcerer's claim...proved more attractive than stern clerical insistence that all must be left" to God. (p. 314) He notes that the absence of protective ecclesiastical magic led to an increase in the number of witch prosecutions. (p. 594, 595) He also suggests that as societal tensions increased between communal generosity and individualism, witchcraft "helped to uphold the traditional obligations of charity and neighborliness." (p. 674)
In the final analysis, however, Thomas concludes that "it was the general social importance of religion [not any tangible spiritual value] which enabled it to outlive magic." (p. 766) The battles between the two "practices" left them both bloodied, with rationalism as the real winner. Or as Thomas puts it, "when the Devil was banished to Hell, God himself was confined to working through natural causes." (p. 765) Neither religion nor magic has held primacy in shaping thought since the advent of mechanical philosophy. An alternate title for the book could be Religion, the Decline of Magic, and the Rise of Rationalism.
Thomas advances the current understanding of the interaction of religion, magic, and socio-economic changes through the combination of documentary research and social scientific analysis. He marshals a wealth of primary sources. However, he leans at times on Protestant clergy like Hugh Latimer (p. 51) for medieval Church descriptions and he drafts the magical sections using dismissive sceptic writers like Reginald Scot (p. 624). Thomas's method and detachment falter in certain areas. The extent to which religion reduced magic's hold on the English population remains elusive after 853 pages. Comparing medieval and post-Reformation practitioners and clients of religion and magic could have provided benchmarks by which to assess magic's decline. The lack of some quantitative measure diminished the work's evaluative value. Despite his caveat that it would "be a gross travesty to suggest that the medieval Church deliberately held out to the laity an organized system of magic" (p. 52), Thomas proposed that Church leaders did not "discourage attitudes which might foster popular devotion. If a belief in the magical efficacy of the Host served to make the laity more regular church-goers, then why should it not be tacitly tolerated?" (p. 56) He dismissed Christian prayer as thief-magic, a psychological process that "helped the client know his own mind and gave him the resolution to act accordingly." (p. 138) By the end of the book it is difficult to understand if phrases as "primitive beliefs" (p. 774) refer to magic, religion, or both. Nevertheless, Religion and the Decline of Magic is so well crafted and its ambition so admirable that the limitations of its method and sourcing do not reduce its utility.
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. As testament to how highly I esteem this book, I plan on buying a new copy, since the old Scribner's paperback I read barely managed to hold together til the end.
Keith Thomas's other book, MAN AND THE NATURAL WORLD, is also a work of the highest order. My one complaint with Thomas is that he has not written enough books. My hope is that he is working on another.
Since writing that review Keith Thomas has come out with another work that I just found out about and just ordered. Due to a very heavy reading/writing schedule I'm not going to be able to read it for a while, but I look forward to doing so with enthusiasm. The title is THE ENDS OF LIFE: ROADS TO FULFILLMENT IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND.