Religion and the Decline of Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England by Keith Thomas.

Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic

Although scholarly interest in the topic has only increased in the subsequent decades, Religion and the Decline of Magic has not become obsolete. It is a voluminous history of magic in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, with particular attention to its social and religious context. The style is that of a sort of old-fashioned documentary history, with copious references to primary and near-primary sources.

The first sections of the book establish the context, with an empirical attitude and a lot of careful observation. Author Keith Thomas weighs issues of elite and popular cultures, as well as Catholic, Protestant, and dissenting religion. He notes, “The conventional distinction between a prayer and a spell seems to have been first hammered out, not by the nineteenth-century anthropologists, with whom it is usually associated, but by sixteenth-century Protestant theologians” (69).

General areas of inquiry within “magic” for this book include healing, prophecy, astrology, ghosts, fairies, omens, and witchcraft. A large section towards the end provides a thorough summation of the English witch-craze, how it differed from its Continental counterpart, and how it subsided. Thomas is no fan of Murray-style theories of pagan survival for the witchcraft of this period. His analysis also shows up how accused witches’ subaltern status and their justified ressentiment of those they had supposedly hexed were considered culpable in the theory that defined and indicted them.

Thomas observes that skepticism about magic was never entirely absent, even while larger cultural trends saw its credit wax and wane. The Elizabethan period seems to have been part of a long peak of magical operation in the early modern era. But “By 1655 Meric Causabon could go so far as to declare that every case of religious ecstasy was no more than ‘a degree and species of epilepsy'” (172). The “decline” that began in the 17th century hit its nadir in the 18th, and the modern occultism of our contemporary world had its practical origins in the 19th, a larger course that Thomas treats briefly in his final chapters.

Those final chapters include an analysis in which he concludes that magic was not, in fact, made obsolete by scientific and technological achievement. On the contrary, there was a shift toward naturalistic explanation and against magic that preceded the significant advances of experimental science, and may have helped to make them possible. The shift in mentality may well have been a byproduct of the religious conflicts of the age. “Many post-Reformation writers busied themselves establishing the criteria by which one might distinguish a divine intimation from a diabolical imposture or the effects of indigestion” (151). Ultimately, systematization of efforts to “test the spirits” may have led to their banishment from intellectual culture.

This book is big–about 800 pages of expository, academic prose–and it took me a long while to read it all the way through, as it had to compete with an assortment of other current reading projects. At many points during my read, though, I was reminded of two works of fiction. The Aegypt cycle of John Crowley (where Thomas is one of several historians credited with influence in a prefatory note) is a tale about the decline of magic that evokes parallels between the 17th century described by Thomas and the demise of the 20th-century counterculture. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a story about a spectacular rebirth of magic immediately following the historical decline outlined by Thomas. Readers who enjoyed either of those could find a lot to engage them in the manifold details of this factual account.