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Religion and the Decline of Magic

4.17  ·  Rating Details ·  939 Ratings  ·  70 Reviews
Witchcraft, astrology, divination and every kind of popular magic flourished in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from the belief that a blessed amulet could prevent the assaults of the Devil to the use of the same charms to recover stolen goods. At the same time the Protestant Reformation attempted to take the magic out of religion, and scientists we ...more
Paperback, 880 pages
Published January 30th 2003 by Penguin Books Ltd (first published January 1st 1971)
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Warwick
Now my Charmes are all ore-throwne,
And what strength I haue's mine owne.
Which is most faint…

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest

You might think from the title of Religion and the Decline of Magic that there is going to be some causal relationship between the two noun phrases: that this is a story of how religion grew as magic diminished.

But that is not at all the story being told in this fantastically wide-ranging, compendious study of the beliefs of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Inst
...more
Miriam
Aug 19, 2008 Miriam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history students, those researching paganism/popular religion/superstitions
Recommended to Miriam by: Tom Kselman
Shelves: non-fiction
This is more a collection of topical papers than a continuous book. Some essays are stronger/more interesting/more convincing than others. A couple even contradict one another, leading me to suppose that the author wrote them some years apart. But it is well written and certainly worth picking up if you are interested in this period or subject.

The central question as stated by the author is Why did intelligent people believe in magic? In the category of "magic" Thomas includes "astrology, witch
...more
Jonathan
Jan 14, 2017 Jonathan rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Jonathan by: Kris
Extraordinary. Rightly considered a masterpiece in its field. Packed full to bursting with primary sources that will fascinate and delight and with a thesis that seems pretty solid. Highly recommended.

" If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it."
Jan-Maat
Remembering Nancy Reagan consulting Indian astrologers, Cheri Blair's friend's enthusiasm for crystal therapy or the British Royal Families continued support for Homoeopathy it's hard to feel convinced that the seventeenth century saw a decisive shift in attitudes away from a belief in magic and towards a scientific world view.

That minor point aside the book remains an amazing account of something of the intellectual life of seventeenth century England. The description of the role of astrology i
...more
Eric_W
Nov 15, 2008 Eric_W rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Thomas sets the stage by describing economic and social conditions. During these two centuries, massive poverty and appalling health were the norm. Most children died before age six and the average life-span was only twentyseven so health was a concern. Every religion uses miracles or magic — perhaps a redundancy — to help define its monopoly on the truth. By the time of the Reformation, even though the church did not, as an institution, claim the power to work miracles, it was saddled with a tr ...more
Victoria
Probably every historian of the Reformation (Protestant, Counter-, or Catholic) knows the contents of this book, even if they've never read it. And it says pretty much what everyone thinks it says, in 800 long and sometimes dull, often sexist, usually racist, and almost always paternalist and condescending language. Nonetheless, it is a very important and groundbreaking work on the culture of magic (et al.) in the premodern period, accounting for its widespread appeal, as well as its social and ...more
Chris
Well, I'm glad I bought this year when I was in Montreal. I almost didn't, but then I did. I'm really glad, I did. In fact, Penguin publishing ROCKS! Never doubt them!


Thomas chronicles in easy to read prose the conflict and change among beliefs in magic and religion during the Tudor and Stuart periods in England.


While Thomas believes that the English Reformation had an impact on belief systems, he also looks at the rise of education, newspapers, and science as well. The book is split into sectio
...more
DoctorM
Apr 11, 2011 DoctorM rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the great works of social and religious history of the 20th-c. Thomas looks at religion in England--- both "official" and popular religion ---and how over the course of the 1500s and 1600s "magic" was slowly purged from the body of ritual and popular observances. The medieval English Church was a great accreted mass of beliefs and rituals and superstitions where Oxford theology existed alongside wonder-working local relics and saints,and where the line between prayer and spell-casting was ...more
Anthony Buckley
Dec 31, 2010 Anthony Buckley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, religion
Keith Thomas’s justly acclaimed book tells of the decline of medieval styles of religion and magic and of the rise of secular thought. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, he shows a shift in emphasis between two different ways of dealing with life’s problems. In the earlier period, there was a heavy emphasis upon the use of magic and what Thomas calls the “magical” aspects of religious ritual. To cure illness, to win a lover, to foretell the future, individuals characteristically emp ...more
Brant
Mar 27, 2009 Brant rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Thomas looks at the transition point from a medieval world to the more modern version as it relates to religion and magic in England. He provides some contrasts to information from the continent, but England is the focus. It is remarkably detailed and examines the reasons that religion and magic were once almost inseparable, but became antithetical. That process came from the nature of change in the reform of Christian religion and was manifest in official pronouncements long before there was mu ...more
P.J. Cadavori
Aug 09, 2013 P.J. Cadavori rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a very scholarly book of about 1000 pages, but don’t let that put you off. Granted, it’s not the sort of light entertainment that can justify cover to cover reading, but rather is split into many very enticing chapters which are written in an easy to read style. It is also punctuated by contemporary pictures which help the text along.

It looks at sixteenth and seventeenth century England with such delightful chapter headings as magic and the medieval church, magical healing,cunning men an
...more
Charlie
A landmark publication that combines religion, sociology, and history with even more esoteric and occult forces. Thomas' 700-page tome is bursting with information. Diaries, court minutes, private letters, grimoires and more have been scoured to assemble in one place a cornucopia of instances of "magic", which here includes astrology, witchcraft, spirits, and prophecies. This seemingly endless array of facts is given just enough shape by judicious selection, sensible arrangement, and moments of ...more
The Rags of Time
This is a book one should read. It contains eons of information about all things related to magic, astrology and folk beliefs in Tudor and Staurt England. It's awfully long, though, mostly due to the fact that the author doesn't just say something once, in the fifty words strictly necessary, but rather ten times, using 500 words each time. That isn't necessarily bad, but since the prolix is mostly in support of his own pet theories, several of which very much out of date by, since they rely on a ...more
Brian
Nov 05, 2015 Brian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Though erudite and very detailed, this is a good overview of supernatural beliefs in early modern England. Religion and magic weren't opposed to each other, Thomas shows; instead, they worked together as the only effective defense against all the shocks the flesh is heir to. Religion, indeed, filtered and clarified folk beliefs, with natural science lagging far behind until the end of the 18th century. Some of the scholarship is dated now -- it was written in the early 1970s -- but unless you're ...more
G. Lawrence
Feb 17, 2017 G. Lawrence rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A brilliant, in-depth study of religion, magic and belief, mainly focussing on Tudor-Stewart eras. Absolutely fascinating stuff! Don't be put off by the size of the book, lots of footnote references!
Christian
A classic academic text on magic and witchcraft, focused on 15th-17th century england an blending historical research and sociological analysis together. Of course, it's dated, still suffering from implicitly normative positions and the tendency for reductionistic functionalism of sociology which ends up in a bit patronising tone. However, the source material here is excellent, the portrayal of a time long gone lively and colourful and his conclusions still interesting and worth a thought.
Kristin
Dec 31, 2016 Kristin rated it really liked it
I managed to finish this book this year! It's a fascinating read, but slow in places because it is so dense with information. I came out of it with a much better understanding of how magical practices worked in late medieval/early modern England, as well as a better understanding of my own lectures on the subject (because now I can see that the places my information came from ultimately relied on Thomas).
H.E. Bulstrode
Jul 11, 2016 H.E. Bulstrode rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Altho ...more
Andy
This is a reference to keep on your shelf if you are ever writing a research paper, book, or other work that relies on an accurate depiction of the religious life of England between 1500 and 1700. (I was directed here by Hilary Mantel, who presumably used it for books such as the very enjoyable Wolf Hall.) It is very heavily researched and footnoted and compiles an overwhelming quantity of primary-source material, and I'm glad it exists. But I would not recommend reading it casually, out of mere ...more
J.M. Hushour
Jul 20, 2014 J.M. Hushour rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those magisterial works of social history that probably elicits back cover gushings like "Weaves a spell over the reader" or "A bewitching tour de force". These are the sorts of blurbs written by people too affected and stupid to actually read the book and who can't pun for shit.
I'll keep it simple and avoid crass pedagogical simile-izing. If you're looking for a history of magic and you make it a habit to sit around in a floral-print smock rubbing crystals against your genitals,
...more
Mike
Oct 27, 2011 Mike rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A powerful book and in-depth study of what really comes down to the paradigm shift from faith-systems that are inclusive of the layperson and allow him/her to participate in the spiritual experience to a system (Christian thought) that, while claiming to free the soul, binds the individual to a corporate system of worship under a culture of professional clergy. Make no mistake though, this is a work of history—and a fine and comprehensive one at that, expertly researched and well-written—and not ...more
Jrobertus
His is an interesting topic and the book is well researched. He makes some sound points, but has an excess of examples that gets tiresome. He explores the increase in witchcraft trials in the 16th and 17th century. It seems that the Catholic Church, although officially opposed to ideas of magic and witchcraft, still fostered them by its rituals and holy days etc. The Reformation brought protestant view of the matters and eventually it is the rise of science that began to bring rational thought t ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
I really enjoyed this book. It is about a highly superstitious period when people believed in magic, demons, witches, omens, supernatural healing practices, astrology, ghosts and fairies. This is about a period when our ancestors understandably didn't know any better (although their were some even in this ignorant period didn't buy the BS). This book is about the decline of such beliefs during this time. It was written in a time when the author assumes that the course of history seems to imply ...more
Lindsey Ilsley
Oct 06, 2014 Lindsey Ilsley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Keith Thomas collated this book rather than authored it.Years of collecting snippets of information, filed in draws on scraps of paper under relevant headings became clustered into book form.
This makes for a fascinating journey through the history of belief and coercion. Its a cornucopia of factual fascinations that nourish the mind as the wedding buffet fills the belly.
However this style of presentation has its drawbacks. It can be confusing and hard to cross reference. It is disorganised.
...more
Matt
This book will and should challenge how people view the evolution of the current Western idea of science as well as beliefs in magic.

This is a fascinating and detailed account of the changing beliefs regarding magic from 1500 to 1700 in England. One of the main things I learned from this book is that the arguments against the existence of magic in this time period were (A) generally more theological than "scientific" and (B) the arguments didn't really change much over this time period. It seems
...more
Fraser Sherman
Mar 07, 2016 Fraser Sherman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, religion
I'm always fascinated by the structure of belief systems—how people can see a completely false system as being rational, not to mention scientific. Thomas looks at how people in the 1500s and 1600s in England saw their religion, and alternative approaches such as magic, witchcraft and astrology (which by the standards of the time was a rational, realistic science), how they changed over time (the Puritans rejected a lot of the seeming "magic" of the Catholic Church) and what eventually lead to m ...more
Polenth Blake
You may want to side-eye the author for his racism, sexism and other things. However, it does have a lot of information, and is a valuable reference for anyone studying magic and religion in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. As with all sources, just be careful to keep the author's tendencies in mind when judging the conclusion he draws from the information.

A few of the topics covered are the reformation, magic in the church, magical healing and fairies. Much of the magic of this time p
...more
Jean
Jan 09, 2009 Jean rated it really liked it
I was born and raised in a fairly rural community in Southern England; Dorset in fact which the author specifically mentions. This book addressed questions that I had mulled over for years such as, Why are the English in general less inclined towards organized religion than North America. What do superstitions and religion have in common?

The book is a perfect backdrop to early Mormon beliefs. The background of Joseph Smith and most of the new converts was English or perhaps British and I recogni
...more
Damien Seaman
Jan 17, 2012 Damien Seaman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the great milestones in social history, academically rigorous while being not just readable, but actually exciting. A book about changing beliefs and why it was that people could start off believing in magic and witchcraft and end up losing all of that belief in under a hundred years. Not only will you learn a hell of a lot about the period, this book also gives you a vivid impression of what it might have been like to live during these times, just by describing the daily grind th ...more
Alisia
A book to be savored, not devoured. I read this over the past two months, small chunks at a time. An extremely detailed, seminal work of the interaction between religion and magical, superstitious practices during 16th and 17th century England.

The title is somewhat misleading. Instead, the theme is much more subtle; a look at the magical practices that was pervasive in all of English society, including the Church. The only thing that knocked a star off was the chapter on witches, and the underto
...more
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“Among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia, for example, it is said that to find a beehive with honey in the woods is good luck; to find two beehives is very good luck; to find three is witchcraft.” 1 likes
“The technological primacy of Western civilization, it can be argued, owes a sizeable debt to the fact that in Europe recourse to magic was to prove less ineradicable than in other parts of the world.61 For this, intellectual and religious factors have been held primarily responsible. The rationalist tradition of classical antiquity blended with the Christian doctrine of a single all-directing Providence to produce what Weber called ‘the disenchantment of the world’ – the conception of an orderly and rational universe, in which effect follows cause in predictable manner. A religious belief in order was a necessary prior assumption upon which the subsequent work of the natural scientists was to be founded. It was a favourable mental environment which made possible the triumph of technology.” 1 likes
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