Religion and the decline of magic

by Keith Thomas

Hardcover, 1971




New York, Scribner [1971]

User reviews

LibraryThing member dmsteyn
The concept of magic is a fascinating one, no doubt. The amount of fiction that contains some or other kind of magic is astonishing, but what is even more astonishing is the beliefs that people have had (or continue to have) about “actual” magic. In Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas takes a look at these beliefs as they were manifested in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. This is a fascinating study which reveals Thomas’s rigorous delving in the records and archives, and his deep insight into the beliefs of his ancestors.

I received this Folio edition as a present. It has a wonderful introduction by Hilary Mantel in which she expresses her admiration for Thomas’s erudition. What is even more remarkable about Thomas’s exhaustive research is that the book came out in the 1970s. Of course, there has also been more recent research into this field, and Mantel acknowledges that some of Thomas’s conclusions might require emendation. But on the whole she seems genuinely impressed with the book’s approach and judgements.

Thomas begins by considering the role of religion in people’s magical beliefs during the period. He first considers the quasi-magical practices of the traditional Catholic clergy, including exorcism, transubstantiation, saints, indulgences, and so forth. Thomas then considers the impact of the Reformation on people’s beliefs, which, despite the efforts of the Puritans, did not bring an end to beliefs in magic, witches, ghosts, fairies, etc. There are excellent subsections on the role of Providence in people’s beliefs, and how prayer and biblical prophecy influenced popular ideas about magic.

The next main section concerns magic itself, with Thomas investigating the idea of magical healing (which included healing by touch, as appropriated by the royalty, who claimed to be able to cure scrofula, or the “King’s evil”), and the role of “cunning men” and “wise women” in village life. Most of these “charmers” were concerned with finding lost property and with divination, and had little or no knowledge of theoretical magical learning, like that of Paracelsus, Agrippa, or Jakob Boehme. He then considers how these beliefs were attacked by the religious authorities, and yet were often instigated and supported by religious beliefs in concepts like the soul and the afterlife.

Thomas has an excellent section on astrology, in which he considers its practice and extent, its social and intellectual role, and the similarities and differences between it and religious practices. He then considers how ancient prophecies (which probably were not that ancient) influenced people during this time.

Probably the most interesting and thorough section is the one on witchcraft in England. Thomas considers how witchcraft became a crime and its history in England. Interestingly, he shows how most prosecutions were based on the belief in maleficent actions (those that caused harm to others), and not usually on the claim that witches were devil-worshipers. In his subsection on witchcraft and religion, Thomas considers contemporary beliefs concerning the Devil, as well as those concerning possession by demons. He has much to say about the Malleus Maleficarum (a Catholic treatise on witches) and how it influenced beliefs concerning witches. He has a wonderful section on “The Making of a Witch”, in which he considers cursing and the supposed temptation to devil-worship. Thomas shows that the idea of “covens” of witches and “black Sabbaths” are nearly completely unsupported by the evidence for the era. The idea of a far-ranging “witch-cult” in Western Europe is also dismissed. Despite this, Thomas does consider what might have tempted people (mostly women) into becoming witches, even though they did not have any real powers. He then investigates the social environment that led to witch-beliefs, and finally considers the reasons for the decline of belief in witchcraft.

The thinnest section is termed “Allied Beliefs”, in which Thomas considers the contemporary beliefs in ghosts and fairies, as well as omens. I say “thinnest”, but this is really only in comparison to the previous section, as Thomas still does an excellent job in delineating the popular beliefs concerning spirits and signs.

The whole book is a magisterial attempt to synthesise research on occult beliefs during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England. Thomas accomplishes this with wit and excellent writing. The only real criticism I could level at the book is his use of examples from Africa to substantiate his conclusions. This might merely reflect views prominent in the 1970s, but “Africa” is hardly a homogenous continent to which one can blithely refer without specifying countries and peoples. Thomas does admittedly make this clearer in his notes, but it was a small irritation. On the whole, however, I found the book to be a wonderful compendium with rich insights into the beliefs of early modern England.
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LibraryThing member Widsith
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. Instead we are given something much more subtle – an examination of the magical thinking that pervaded all of society, religion included, and of what happened to religion and society when that magical thinking became untenable.

This isn't a didactic book, and most of the conclusions are held back until the end. Instead of sustained argument, what you get is a vast treasure-house of examples, anecdotes, quotations and calmly measured assessments demonstrating how people in the 1500s and 1600s thought about god, the devil, sorcery, ghosts, astrology, ancient prophecies, fairies, witchcraft, and much more besides.


What is the difference between religion and magic, anyway? It's not easy, even for believers, to give a satisfying answer. Theologians liked to say that prayers and religious ceremonies, unlike spells, were ‘propitiatory, not constraining’ – one asked god for help, one did not compel him to act in a certain way. But this was a distinction made by the educated thinkers at the top: for ordinary people (much of the clergy not excluded) it just didn't exist.

Many wizards and conjurers called on God for their enchantments, and many religious rites and prayers were assumed to work purely mechanically as charms. Priests would routinely ring church bells during a thunderstorm to drive off evil spirits; women were ‘churched’ after childbirth to re-fit them for Christian society. The whole structure of the medieval Church ‘appeared as a vast reservoir of magical power, capable of being deployed for a variety of secular purposes’.

Though the Reformation deliberately tried to get rid of a lot of the hocus-pocus, even afterwards there were ‘magical elements surviving in religion, and there were religious facets to the practice of magic’.

The point is not just that religion and science were often seen as magical – it's that many of the practices we'd now dismiss as nonsense were in those days considered genuine scientific paths to knowledge. The great example of this is astrology, which Thomas respectfully describes as ‘probably the most ambitious attempt ever made to reduce the baffling diversity of human affairs to some sort of intelligible order’. Its pedigree was unimpeachable, and even the most sceptical rationalists were unwilling, until well into the seventeenth century, to dismiss the basic principle that heavenly bodies had some effect on men's lives.

Being an astrologer back then must have been a bit like being a private investigator now – sure, it sounds quite exciting, but most of the time you're dealing with boring requests concerning inheritance fraud or whether someone's husband is likely to remain faithful. One typical client sent the following letter:

Ser my desier is you would be pleased to anser me thes queareyes I am indetted and am in danger of aresting. My desier is to know wether the setey or the conterey will be best for me, if the setey whatt part thearof if the contery what partt therof, and whatt tim will be most dangeros unto me, and when best to agree with my creditores I pray doe youer best.


It's true that the educated metropolitan classes could sometimes be sceptical about magic – but this was a tiny proportion of society. The vast majority of people still lived rural lives in small villages, and religion to them was just another brand of the supernatural.

You can get an inkling of what many people understood about religious doctrine from the interview carried out with one sixty-year-old on his deathbed, after a lifetime of attending church several times a week: ‘demanded what he thought of God, he answers that he was a good old man; and what of Christ, that he was a towardly young youth; and of his soul, that it was a great bone in his body’. One shepherd, when asked if he knew who the Father, Son and Holy Ghost were, replied, ‘The father and son I know well for I tend their sheep, but I know not that third fellow; there is none of that name in our village.’ This was admittedly somewhat earlier than the main period under discussion here, but the general attitude lasted through to the seventeenth century and beyond:

The Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded in his diary how the vicar of Fordington, Dorset, found total ignorance in his rural parish when he arrived there in the early nineteenth century. At one church in the area there were only two male communicants. When the cup was given to the first he touched his forelock and said, ‘Here's your good health, sir.’ The second, better informed, said, ‘Here's the good health of our Lord Jesus Christ.’


In fact the socioeconomic factor in all this becomes increasingly obvious. The Church had the power and it had the money, which meant ultimately the difference between magic and religion was what the Church said it was: ‘the ceremonies of which it disapproved were “superstitious”; those which it accepted were not.’

The difference between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effects they claimed to achieve than in their social position, and in the authority on which their respective claims rested.

Indeed the debate over magic was often a class issue. This is especially true of witchcraft (as Reginald Scot put it, the Pope ‘canonizeth the rich for saints and banneth the poor for witches’). When it came to accusations of witchcraft, Thomas makes the intriguing observation that, paradoxically, ‘it tended to be the witch who was morally in the right and the victim who was in the wrong’. Victims of witchcraft, in other words, often lodged formal complaints in situations where they were feeling guilty about something and considered that in some sense they'd had it coming.

A destitute old woman comes to your door to ask for some butter; you turn her away; you happen to break your ankle later on; and your own feelings of guilt connect the dots. Witches were rarely accused of responsibility for plagues or big fires – it was always personal disasters, individual calamities.

So this is really about poverty. It is both amusing and heartbreaking to read about how little the Devil supposedly had to tempt many of these women with in order to entice them over to Satanism: Elizabeth Pratt claimed to have been promised in 1677 that ‘she should live as well as the best woman in the town of Dunstable’, while Elizabeth Southern in 1645 said she agreed to sell her soul for 2s. 6d.

‘Witch’ (like ‘chav’ today) is a term flung at the very poor by the slightly less poor; what we are looking at in many witchcraft trials (this book suggests) is a society trying to resolve its ‘conflict between resentment and a sense of obligation’.


The legal system in England was, happily, less willing to accept witch-hunts against defenceless old women than were courts on the continent: indeed one judge in 1712 is said to have responded to some of the more outlandish testimony against one ‘witch’ by remarking cheerfully that there was no law against flying, and promptly dismissing the case.

As mechanical science started to show its value, magic lost its cachet – though magical beliefs of some kind have lingered on well into modern times, as the vogue for horoscopes and new-age mumbo-jumbo demonstrates. It's easy to be snide about it, but what this book really shows is that such ideas do help people deal with things for which medicine or science have no helpful answers: they allow people to feel that they are taking matters into their own hands, they activate the placebo effect, they provide psychological release and reassurance.

The prose is clear and no-nonsense and chock-full of astonishing incidents and examples drawn from pamphlets, court records, diaries, letters and literature. Thomas is also anxious to take on board the latest (for 1971) findings in anthropology, and he looks, perhaps too hard, for parallels between Tudor England and traditional ‘African’ cultures: this analysis seems rather unsophisticated nowadays (although charges of ‘racism’, thrown around in a few other reviews here, are absurd). Perhaps too the sheer wealth of material leads him to drift slightly and repeat himself a couple of times. Still, it's hard to overstate the amount of pleasure on offer here, or the number of fascinating sidelights this book throws on the history of human society and ideas. As Hilary Mantel says, the book is so rewarding that it's not just about magic – it is a little slice of magic in itself.… (more)
LibraryThing member heidilove
this is a thought-provoking book, but i'm not convinced that thomas makes the point he claims in the title. if magic has declined, or our sense of it, then i shudder to think of what it once was.
LibraryThing member kukulaj
This is a mighty big book! I don't remember when I started it... probably a couple years ago. I would generally read one chapter at a time, then read another book or two before reading the next chapter. It's pretty easy to do that with this book - each chapter is decently self contained.

This is practically an encyclopedia. There is so much material gathered from primary sources. There are copious footnotes to guide scholars to deeper digging. This is like a treasure trove of beliefs. It is focused on England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It's a study of society. It definitely takes a modern point of view. Thomas dismisses notions that witches really had black sabbath bacchanals etc. - the evidence makes it plenty clear that they didn't. Thomas focuses on the social function of these beliefs and practices.

It's very scholarly and thorough, but it's actually a great read for someone like myself with very little background in any of this.
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LibraryThing member KarelDhuyvetters
This is my kind of book! Thoroughly researched with all the sources at the bottom of every page, beautyfully written, clearly expressed ideas, a surprising or enlightening fact or remark in almost every paragraph. There is no magic in professor Thomas's method, but it works magic with me: it makes me think and understand. His basic approach to religion is sound: it is the work of men, not of any God. His verdict on the churches is subtly but unmistakingly there: like the witches, the wizards and the cunning men and women, the priests are taking advantage of the need some people have for magic, and exploit them for their own profit. I admired professor Richard Dawkins' effort, but professor Thomas's 'Decline' is more damning for religion than 'The God Delusion'.… (more)
LibraryThing member tole_lege
I would have said that this book is almost required reading for anyone interested in the history of magic in the UK. Yes, it's getting on a bit – and there are bits of it which have been superceded by other research, but still, it's important enough that I've replaced it at least once (lend ye not books to students who move away…).

It takes a good look at exactly what the title says – how magic declined in popularity (perhaps questionable, but in terms of his definition of the term, "magic", a valid premise) – and also how long that decline actually took.
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LibraryThing member mnicol
A demanding read but absolutely worthwhile. We live with more uncertainty today than ever before and the mystery is why we rely less on diviners, magicians and wizards, not why they were abandoned. Although dodgy statistics and intricate computer models play the part of the entrail reader as decision makers today leap into the dark!… (more)
LibraryThing member ablueidol
As I understand it, the decline has more to do with the rupture of beliefs between the upper elites and the masses. Popular culture continued with many of the beliefs long into the 18th century and 19th century but no longer sanctioned as " normal". They went underground and were marginalised by the rise of mass literacy and industrialisation. The mind body and spirit new age surgence according to this approach a sceptical view of the benefits of rationalism and science and of a view of God that jars with our "common" sense view of what is… (more)
LibraryThing member neilgodfrey
"The real question at issue here is what enables us to read a source ‘against the grain’, and here theory does indeed come in. Theory of whatever kind, whether it is a general set of theses about how human societies are structured and human beings behave, or whether it is a limited proposition about, say, the carnivalesque in history, or the nature of human communication within a pre-industrial village, derives from the historian’s present, not from the historian’s sources. It is vital for the historian to use it. Without anthropological theory developed in the study of African rural society in the twentieth century, for example, the history of European witchcraft in the seventeenth century would not have made the huge leaps in understanding it has achieved in the last twenty-five years, gains which have only come about because theory enabled Keith Thomas (for instance) to read the sources in a new and original way.

Evans, Richard J. (2012-11-01). In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 1581-1588). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

"This brings us to Keith Thomas and Religion and the Decline of Magic. Contrary to what Purkiss claims, I do not accept Thomas’s interpretation of early modern English witchcraft in my book, nor do I say anywhere that Religion and the Decline of Magic is the ‘last word’ on the topic (in fact there is now a superb example of an explicitly postmodernist approach to the subject in Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons, a book which does not manage to avoid the inherent contradictions of post-structuralist theory, but nevertheless provides a stunning illustration of how it can be used to breathe new life into an old subject)."

Evans, Richard J. (2012-11-01). In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 5354-5358). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.
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LibraryThing member ecw0647
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 tradition of saints who could, and appeal to them to ward off ill-health was commonplace. St. Wilgerfort (St. Uncumber) " eliminate husbands of those discontented wives who chose to offer her a peck of oats." The mere representation of St. Christopher, " said to offer a day' preservation from illness or death to all those who looked upon it." Saints were, after all, specialists, rather than general practitioners.

The association of magical powers with church ritual was not ostentatiously promoted by medieval church leaders; in fact, it' often through their writings refuting such claims that we know about them. But the imputation of magical powers was a logical result of church actions. In their intense desire to convert the heathens, the church incorporated many pagan rituals into religious practice. Ancient worship of natural phenomena was modified: hence, New Year' Day became the Feast of Circumcision, the Yule log became part of Christmas tradition and May Day was turned into Saints' Days, for example.

Theologians made a distinction between religion and superstition, but superstition was loosely defined as any practice having magical qualities that were not already designated as religious ritual. The church had the power to define what constituted legitimate and what it denied became heretical. The Protestant Reformation had a significant effect on how the populace regarded miracles and magic. By elevating the individual' faith in God, and denigrating ritual, a new concept of religion was created. The ignorant peasant had had no need for knowledge of the Bible or scripture; the rituals and rites of the church had become the "" of the supernatural and evidence for his/her belief. " was a ritual set of living, not a set of dogmas." The Protestant theologian insisted on a more personal faith, so it became necessary to invent a theology that explained the threat of plague, natural disasters, and the fear of evil spirits. One could no longer call on the " solutions offered by the medieval church." The solution was predestination. Everything that happened was God's will. Evil became a test.

Thus every Christian had the consolation of knowing that life was not a series of random events; there was purpose in everything. This also required scapegoats. There had to be a reason for calamitous events, and the moral degradation of your neighbor must be the cause behind the lack of rain for the past several months. Or it' because of the Jews in town. Get rid of the neighbor and the Jews and all will be well. Or, the calamity could be seen as a test of one' own faith. Righteous personal behavior was out of fear that God would avenge wickedness. Many of Pat Robertson' homilies could have been written in the middle ages. A whole genre of diarist writing arose out of the need for Puritans to document the hand of Providence. His interference could be seen in happy coincidences, accidents to the wicked, and deliverance from personal illness.

These judgments could be used as political weapons also. One party issued a whole list of calamities on land and sea that must surely be a sign from God that the Royalists were evil and should be overthrown (shades of Robertson). Of course, Catholics blamed calamities on the Reformation. Handy. But is was ultimately " observer' point of view which determined whether, and by whom, an event was held as a judgment or deliverance. . . the belief in providence degenerated into a crude justification of any successful policy. . . . The doctrine of providences was a conscientious attempt to impose order on the apparent randomness of human fortunes by proving that, in the long run, virtue was rewarded and vice did not go unpunished."

The Reformation did not put an end to prophecy and the association of miracle working to religious supremacy. The period following Elizabeth and during the Civil War reflected growing unease with social inequities. Women, normally excluded from political debate and discussion, used prophecy and dream interpretation to express political dissatisfaction. A virtual army of pseudo-messiahs appeared, claiming all sorts of personal relationships with God. Mostly they were the targets of humor unless their messages conveyed secular political implications. Punishment for heresy (the last burning for heresy occurred in 1642) could be a useful tool to eliminate political opposition. Common prayer served as a useful mechanism to bring people together for the purpose of harnessing group perceptions and action against a common social ill or malady. It became an act of solidarity.

The danger for the ruling elite comes only if the belief is that God is on the opposition=s side and it foments radical social dynamism. Religious fervor could be tolerated only as long as the voice of the people could never be confused or associated with the voice of God. Today=s efforts by some on the Religious Right to confound religion with politics plays right into the hands of political leaders because then religion can be manipulated to political ends. That is what often happened in Europe.

The Anglican Church, by this time, was in a seemingly impregnable position. It was intricately entwined with the ruling political structure, it was a crime not to attend church, one was born into it and the church service itself helped to maintain the social divisions: the rich sat in front, poor in the rear and even the quality of communion wine varied according to social standing. In 1543, one parson even preached there were three heavens, one for each level of prosperity -- Jerry Falwell would have approved -- and the Church was immensely wealthy, actively participating in making political decisions. From the book: " difference between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effect they claimed to achieve than in their social position and in the authority on which their respective claims rested."
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LibraryThing member AlexTheHunn
This book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in social or cultural history. Thomas explains how religion, magic and their relative importance in the lived of western civilzation affect attitudes underlying a wide range of activites.



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