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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 pith of folklore is a reputed natural human tendency in dealing with daily life amid double jeopardy of whimsical nature and more capricious mankind that results in finding pain relief in the form of supernatural elements. Keith illustrates the social and cultural climates of 16th and 17th century England where the efficacy of magic was reputed to overwhelm the consolation of the Gospel in the recourse to the powerful being that could supposedly give the supplicants the immediate panacea to their existential malaise. This popular attitude toward the magical measure of putative healing betokens the reason why there was no active mass active involvement in radical social reform or political radicalism; it was their way of mitigating the rigor of their daily duties that life imposed. The concept of chance was a welcome method of diverting the rules of merit and reward in prosperous life that only a select few would and could achieve to the game of luck played by goddess Fortuna’s Wheel of Fortune. By trusting the work of pure luck, people would not jeopardize their self-esteem because fortune was beyond their measures no matter how hard they worked hard to obtain it.
How the folk belief in magic influenced the established Christianity, particularly Catholicism, is the sine qua non of mesmerism of popular psychology and its portent efficacy of evangelization with a promise of magical healing. The church incorporated the magical elements of pagan belief to its rituals and doctrines of the catechism, such as transubstantiation and holy relics by reconciling the esoteric pagan knowledge with the orthodox Christian teaching. The investment of supernatural power through religious ceremony propitiated the minds of the low and high alike non-discriminately via syncretism until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the English Reformation that necessitated the emerging of new natural science and mechanical philosophy and the accordant mode of thinking ultimately debilitating the supreme power of magic and the magical elements used in the church.
Keith is excellent in disabusing readers what might seem to be a trifle and pettifogging subject to advanced minds with his wealth of knowledge on the subject and human psychology narrated in plain language so that readers of all strata can access the secret garden of knowledge that he kindly invites us to visit and wallow ourselves in. This is my second time reading his work, and I am always amazed by his depth of erudition fabulously conflated with his witty remarks on events and vivacious descriptions of the period, all gleaned from his extensive research on the subject and keen scholarly observations thereon. This book is not a book of magical incantations, but about the power of the populace that made magic popular and unpopular as the seasons of mankind required new kind of belief system synonymous with the ethos of contemporary life.
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.
Top international reviews
It's a brilliant read, full of that sort of thing.
I hope you find my review helpful.
The book is perfect for academics and non-experts simultaneously as it offers reference points for further research, while clearly explaining his points in context for those who weren't already 'in the know'. An easy read due to its rigid compartmentalisation. Just buy it.