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

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  1,206 ratings  ·  88 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 736 pages
Published August 14th 1997 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published January 1st 1971)
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Start your review of Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England
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.
Aug 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: history students, those researching paganism/popular religion/superstitions
Recommended to Mir 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,
Jan 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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."
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
Nov 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
M.L. Rio
I finished the 800-page witch bible and it only took me a week
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
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
Apr 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion, history
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 ...more
DeAnna Knippling
Jul 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
What was magic actually like in England? There are a lot of things we "know," but are they true? Why did people turn to magic? And, almost more importantly, why did they stop?

This is excellent; a long book that I wish were longer!
Nov 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I finally finished this monster of a book, 800 pages packed full with detailed information on the lives of people of England from the 16th and 17th century and their belief systems. It is an incredibly thorough book that I expressly recommend to all those interested in anthropology/sociology and of course the history of religion and magic.
While some chapters were more tedious than others (Thomas is heavy on exemples) as a whole it is brilliant and I will take good care of my copy as I intend to
Todd Stockslager
Jul 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Review title: When magic, science, religion and culture collided

In 1971 Keith Thomas first published this lasting pioneering study that is still in print via the Penguin edition I purchased at Blackwell's in Oxford. He mined primary legal and ecclesiastical sources--court transcripts and verdicts, doctrinal studies and church edicts--as well as popular pamphlets and the rare surviving personal papers and letters on the role of religion and magic in both explaining and controlling the
Mar 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
H.E. Bulstrode
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. ...more
J.M. Hushour
Jul 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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,
P.J. Cadavori
Aug 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Peter (Pete) 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
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
Apr 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Nov 24, 2013 rated it it was ok
According to Thomas the decline of magic is due to science and new technology, but magic was already on the way back (see the medical sector); not the technological progress, but a change of mentality was decisive, namely the new belief in human possibilities (mainly through innovations in science). Seems rather out of date! Contains a nice overview of the material living conditions.
There are books that make you feel like you've really accomplished something when you finish reading them, and Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England by Keith Thomas was one of them. If this wasn't the book that everyone references on the rise of rationalism and the decline of magical thinking in 17th century England, I might not have gotten through it, but I finally finished it this weekend after slogging through it for months, ...more
Ingrid Wassenaar
Sep 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
So I finished Religion and the Decline of Magic today.

I have to say I’m glad I read the whole thing. It’s an incredible piece of scholarship, and deeply thought-provoking about our current civil war.

I think in the end what I most liked is that Keith Thomas resolutely refuses to be *reductive* about what ultimately caused the decline of Magic-belief.

— Religion persevered to our day, because it offered a sensible framework for living and working, time management, really.

— Witchcraft dissolved
Aug 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recent pseudo-historical works have left me feeling somewhat jaded about contemporary historians. Grand theories as would befit the TED stage but not the totality of available evidence, books far too thin for their historical narratives spanning millennia, and breathless wonderment at newly revealed truths somehow found by reinterpreting previous research without contributing any new primary data seem to be in vogue. In a way, I am a sucker for such books; they fit my world of podcasts and ...more
Sep 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018-books
This book starts with a clear question: why did educated people believe in magic during the given time period, and why did magic then fall out of fashion? The answer isn't as clear, but in delving into the topic, Thomas presents the reader with countless examples of how ordinary people interacted with magic and gives glimpses into how it shaped everyday life in a time of great social, economic, and religious upheaval. This book came on to my radar because I was looking for books about magic in ...more
Blake Pye
Aug 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In this foundational text, Keith Thomas, through a case study of early-modern England, theorizes about the decline of magic as religion went through two major changes: the replacement of paganism with Catholicism and the subsequent Reformation. Guiding us through these events, Thomas shows how the functions behind “pagan” practices transferred over to Catholic practices and how those, in turn, transformed to be acceptable in Post-Reformation England.

Thomas lists several phenomena as magical in
Daniel B-G
Jun 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, favorites
A fascinating detailed review of the magical beliefs of the 16th and 17th Century, their rise, bloom and fall. At times it became a little dense, the barrage of names and examples sometimes felt overdone, but overall the sociological explanations and theory for it's waxing and waning popularity were exceptional.
Cheryl Walsh
Nov 25, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a difficult book to read straight through, but that's what I did. It's an excellent academic study of Christianity, folk religion, and superstition in early modern England. Thomas is great at comparing and contrasting England with Europe, and with non-western cultures for illustrative purposes. I found the discussions of witchcraft especially interesting.
Sep 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
brilliant, bottomless, strikingly funny in places, intellectually thrilling. although he maybe trusts pamphlets a little too much as sources, and his assertion that witch violence wasn't gender based is dunderheaded.
Dec 08, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting but I found it hard going in places.
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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). ...more
“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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