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Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England

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Astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts, and fairies were taken very seriously by people at all social and economic levels in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Helplessness in the face of disease and human disaster helped to perpetuate this
belief in magic and the supernatural. As Keith Thomas shows, England during these years resembled in many ways today's "underdeveloped areas." The English population was exceedingly liable to pain, sickness, and premature death; many were illiterate; epidemics such as the bubonic plague plowed
through English towns, at times cutting the number of London's inhabitants by a sixth; fire was a constant threat; the food supply was precarious; and for most diseases there was no effective medical remedy.
In this fascinating and detailed book, Keith Thomas shows how magic, like the medieval Church, offered an explanation for misfortune and a means of redress in times of adversity. The supernatural thus had its own practical utility in daily life. Some forms of magic were challenged by the
Protestant Reformation, but only with the increased search for scientific explanation of the universe did the English people begin to abandon their recourse to the supernatural.
Science and technology have made us less vulnerable to some of the hazards which confronted the people of the past. Yet Religion and the Decline of Magic concludes that "if magic is defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then
we must recognize that no society will ever be free from it."

736 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1971

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About the author

Keith Thomas

59 books38 followers
Sir Keith Thomas was born in 1933 and educated at Barry County Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. He has spent all his academic career in Oxford, as a senior scholar of St. Antony's (1955), a Prize Fellow of All Souls (1955-57), Fellow and Tutor of St John's (1957-85), Reader (1978-85), ad hominem Professor (1986) and President of Corpus Christi (1986-2000). He returned to All Souls as a Distinguished Fellow (2001-15). He is now an Honorary Fellow of All Souls, Balliol, Corpus Christi and St John's. Elected FBA in 1979, he was President of the British Academy (1993-97). He is a member of the Academia Europaea, a Founding Member of the Learned Society of Wales, a Foreign Hon. Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an Hon. Member of the Japan Academy. He has held visiting appointments at Princeton, Stanford, Columbia and Louisiana State Universities. He has published essays on many different aspects of the social and cultural history of early modern England.

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