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One of the most intriguing history books of the past 50 years, Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic describes the relationship between the occult and Christianity in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the period between the collapse of the medieval Church's absolute power and the ascendency of scientific rationalism at the turn of the 18th century, across all levels of British society, the split between faith and belief in the power of magic was not always clear. From the wise women of a village called upon to provide cures, to the personal astrologer of Charles II, magic was integral to most people’s lives. The book is structured thematically – with chapters on everything from the impact of the Reformation to the practice and extent of astrology – to explain why traditional beliefs ultimately declined. This superb history is now published in its first illustrated edition, introduced by Man Booker Prize-winning writer, Hilary Mantel.
In England in the 16th and 17th centuries, life was hard and uncertain. Average life expectancy was low, disease was widespread and medicine almost non-existent. The Church provided the only remedy against sickness and other troubles. Pilgrims flocked to seek cures at the shrines of saints, and holy water was used against everything from evil spirits to sore throats. To most people, the distinction between prayer and magic remedy was unclear: in 1499 Agnes Clerk, whose daughter was apparently given a holly stick by fairies, took it to be blessed by the curate of Ashfield in Suffolk in the hopes that it would lead her to treasure.
After the Reformation, almost all the holy objects and protective rites previously associated with religion were banned. Yet sickness, fire and flood and the fear of evil spirits remained, and Protestants devised their own forms of magic to combat them. The 17th century saw the rise of sects – including Familists, Ranters and Dissenters – which practised faith-healing and believed in miracle-working and prophecies. In 1586 John White of Rayleigh, Essex, claimed to be John the Baptist; in 1657 Susanna Pearson attempted to raise a man from the dead. They were punished; but similar beliefs were widespread throughout the population. Indeed, while the Church prohibited healing practices – one treatment for headaches involved boiling a lock of the victim’s hair in his urine and throwing the mixture into the fire – cure by ‘royal touch’ was sanctioned by a special religious ceremony, conducted by leading Anglican clergy.
The 16th and 17th centuries saw an explosion of witchcraft trials in England. The Lord Chief Justice Anderson declared in 1602: ‘The land is full of witches.’ Thomas shows why these witch-hunts suddenly came about. Evidence for ‘actual’ witchcraft – the deliberate practice of magic – is extremely scant. The pathetic confessions extracted suggest that most of the accused lived in grinding poverty. Elizabeth Southern confessed to selling her soul to the Devil for ‘two and sixpence’ (the Devil then refused to pay, pleading lack of funds and hard times). Thomas’s examination of the phenomenon is both thorough and revealing. He suggests that action against witchcraft became so widespread because of the dissolving of old social bonds in small communities. Rather than giving alms to vulnerable neighbours, the better-off, in their guilt, castigated them as witches instead. With the exception of notorious figures like Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, witchhunting in England was not supported by clerics and lawyers. Most judges were lenient: asked to condemn a witch, Mr Justice Powell in 1712 said that there was no law against flying.
The eventual decline of magical beliefs towards the end of the 17th century can be attributed to several factors. The ‘new science’ that came into being at the time emphasised reason and experiment. Equally, better living standards and education, improvements in communications and even the growth of insurance and fire-fighting provided more reassurance than a magic charm.
However, despite the age of reason and modern religious orthodoxies taking hold, the old ways lingered on. Beliefs in healing wells, divination, omens and ghosts were still widespread in rural areas in the 19th century. Indeed, as Thomas points out, magic has not altogether vanished from modern society – and probably never will. ‘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 of it.’
This edition, the first to be illustrated, contains 40 pages of images that reveal all the strangeness and variety of these years. They include ampullae for collecting holy water; magical springs; gold talismans that were thought to carry the King’s power; books of magic; and almanacs. Keith Thomas has been closely involved in the sourcing and selection of the images. The covers are blocked in buckram with an illustration based on 16th- and 17th-century woodcuts.
Born in 1933 in Glamorgan, Wales, Keith Thomas attended a local grammar school and Balliol College, Oxford. After a long and illustrious career as Reader and later Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, he was re-elected a Fellow of All Souls in 2001. He was made a Knight Bachelor in 1988, and is a Fellow of the British Academy and an honorary doctor of many universities. First published in 1971, Religion and the Decline of Magic is Thomas's most acclaimed work, praised in particular for successfully bringing the practices of history and anthropology together after decades of separation. It is an achievement that places him in the grand tradition of 18th- and 19th-century historians, sociologists and political thinkers. His most recent book, The Ends of Life, was published in 2009 by Oxford University Press to wide praise.
Hilary Mantel is one of Britain’s leading writers, whose works have explored both 16th-century England (the Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall) and the occult (Beyond Black). Religion and the Decline of Magic is a book that has brought her great pleasure and instruction over the years. In a specially commissioned introduction for this edition, she describes Keith Thomas's achievement in plunging readers into an unfamiliar world. She praises his drawing together of history and anthropology, but most importantly, his wit and broad humanity.
'There are many works of history that are revered, but few that are loved as this book is: for its generosity, for its humour, for the rewards on every page... It may be that in the light of later research, certain lines of argument in the book can be challenged or amplified. But its richness and freshness are undiminished, and as a source of insight it is unlikely to be superseded. It is a treasure house, stuffed from cellar to attic with the quotable and the remarkable: one of those books that seldom stays on the shelf for long, because it is always asking to be reread, always offering something fresh: a book always in transit, because its admirers are keen to press it on those who have yet to have the pleasure of discovering it. It is not just about magic, but also, in its mercurial agility, a magical work in itself.’ HILARY MANTEL