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Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)

de Keith Thomas

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1,1751512,327 (4.12)64
Witchcraft, astrology, divination, and every kind of popular magic flourished in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, from the belief that a blessed amulet could prevent the assaults of the Devil to the use of the same charms to recover stolen goods. At the same time the Protestant Reformation attempted to take the magic out of religion, and scientists were developing new explanations of the universe. Keith Thomas's classic analysis of beliefs held on every level of English society begins with the collapse of the medieval Church and ends with the changing intellectual atmosphere around 1700, when science and rationalism began to challenge the older systems of belief.… (mais)
Adicionado recentemente porAlexander55, robert_goss, biblioteca privada, ejmw, ImaginarySpace, kikuume, justinx101, tkleeman, wellsjlt
Bibliotecas HistóricasGillian Rose, Iris Murdoch, Tim Spalding
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2014
I have several posts on LibraryThing written as I made my way through. They are linked below

- on religion and magic here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/160515#4398139

- on astrology here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/160515#4416027

- on witches here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/163456#4478465

- briefer notes on faires, Time and on Omens and Prohibitions here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/163456#4483852

My final brief comments on completing here
http://www.librarything.com/topic/163456#4536320
  dchaikin | Sep 21, 2020 |
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.
1 vote paradoxosalpha | Jul 31, 2020 |
There is much interesting history here, but strangely enough considering his topic he seems to understand neither magic nor religion. ( )
1 vote mcduck68 | Apr 23, 2018 |
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. ( )
1 vote kukulaj | Feb 22, 2018 |
"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.
  neilgodfrey | May 14, 2015 |
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For this is man's nature, that where he is persuaded that there is the power to bring prosperity and adversity, there will he worship.

George Gifford, A Discourse on the Subtill Practices of Devilles by Witches and Sorcerers (1587), sigs.B4v-C1
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In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England was still a pre-industrial society, and many of its features closely resembled those of the 'under-developed areas' of today.
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Indeed 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.
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Full title (1971): Religion and the decline of magic: studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England.
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Witchcraft, astrology, divination, and every kind of popular magic flourished in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, from the belief that a blessed amulet could prevent the assaults of the Devil to the use of the same charms to recover stolen goods. At the same time the Protestant Reformation attempted to take the magic out of religion, and scientists were developing new explanations of the universe. Keith Thomas's classic analysis of beliefs held on every level of English society begins with the collapse of the medieval Church and ends with the changing intellectual atmosphere around 1700, when science and rationalism began to challenge the older systems of belief.

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