Day 162: Religion and the Decline of Magic

Cover for Religion and the Decline of MagicKeith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, first published in 1971, is not for the faint-hearted. Thomas is a British historian, and this book is considered an important work because of its then revolutionary combination of research in the fields of history and anthropology.

With that kind of background, you might expect the book to be academic in writing style. It is not, but in fact is actually very accessible and well written. I say it is not for the faint-hearted because of its length and the numerous examples of every point, expected for an academic text but a little rough on the casual reader. These examples are mostly interesting; it is the number of them illustrating every point that threatens to become tedious. The book is 800-900 pages long, depending upon the edition, and nearly half of it is devoted to notes, additional explanations, and references. And truth be told, I was reading the electronic version so could not judge my progress, but it felt like I was reading a lot more than, say, 500 pages. (I did not read the back matter.)

Thomas concentrates upon the history of magic in England from roughly 1500 to 1700, tracing the changes in how the different types of “magic” are viewed and treated by the common people, the judicial and governmental authorities, and the religious ones. His definition of magic is rather broad, including alchemy–which at the time was considered a science and is now generally regarded as the forerunner to modern science–and astrology–which again was considered a science at the time. I believe his inclusion of these disciplines was because at some time they were also considered magic, at least by the church.

Thomas shows that the Catholic church actually encouraged a belief in magic in some ways–linking the connection between prayer and incantations, for example, and fostering a belief in the efficacy of exorcism–consciously building on pagan beliefs to encourage conversion just as it did when it adopted a slew of pagan holidays and modified them to its own purposes.

The ways in which religious leaders and common folk viewed magic, then, changed radically with the Protestant Reformation. Protestant clerics were actually less likely to, for example, attempt to prosecute witches even though the laws defining witchcraft and the penalties against it were prone to fluctuate between more strict or more lenient over time. On the other hand, prosecutions of witches that originated with demands by the common people–who initially were not inclined to fear witchcraft but had to be taught to do it–became more common and more hysterical as the Protestants increased their preaching against it.

Thomas’s premise is that the ultimate decline in witchcraft as a concern of the public and the powers of justice was a result of the Enlightenment–the increasing number of truly scientific studies and the assumption that everything can be understood in terms of science–and ultimately the increase in technology that eventually became the industrial revolution.

This book can be an absorbing study for those who are interested in the subject. I made a good-faith effort to finish it but found that I eventually was unable to cope with the myriad of examples of every point. I skipped maybe 50-100 pages to the conclusions, but when I found the same technique employed there too, I finally gave myself permission to quit. I found the writing style interesting and even dryly witty, but overall the intent of the work was too scholarly for my total enjoyment as a more casual reader.

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