Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

30 October 2007

I thought my review of this was longer, but I think it says pretty much all of what I wanted to say about this very good book.

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas’s book is a classic study of the effect that the social and religious upheavals of the Reformation had on traditional folk beliefs in England — the ‘magic’ of which he speaks. Magic, in this sense, was not necessarily the magic of evil witchcraft — maleficium, as it tended to be known in those days — but rather the span of the occult and esoteric that ranges from astrology and horoscopes to Christian prayers for the sick. Any serious attempt to change or determine the course of one’s life through supernatural means would fall under Thomas’s definition of magic. This mundane kind of magic was often an integral part of daily life in pre-Reformation England, and the changes in English society that took place between 1550 and 1688 soon meant that magic, in the traditional sense, would fade into little more than the folk sayings and superstition that remain with familiar today.

Religion and the Decline of Magic is a footnote lover’s dream, with copious citations of period sources and later commentaries woven into the text. Thomas provides fascinating insights into the origins of folk sayings and prevalent myths, as well as the prominence of horoscopes and star-gazing, which were used to learn the most auspicious day to do anything from setting out on a journey to having one’s tooth pulled. As a book about the history of the English Reformation and its effects on society — leading into Oliver Cromwell’s time — Religion and the Decline of Magic presents a particularly useful sociological study. It’s a lengthy work, but worth looking into if you have any interest in the origins of folk history and the deep and abiding connections between the sacred and profane worlds.


One comment

  1. […] Thomas wrote, among other things, Religion and the Decline of Magic, which, like all his books, is a monstrous, almost Robert Burton-ish, tome of obscure facts […]

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