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The Disenchantment of the World

Religion and the Decline of Magic

by Keith Thomas
Scribner’s, 716 pp., $17.50

Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England

by Alan MacFarlane
Harper & Row, 334 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Witchcraft at Salem

by Chadwick Hansen
Signet, 252 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Magistrats et Sorciers en France au 17e Siècle

by Robert Mandrou
Plon, 583 pp., 45 frs.

The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

by H.R. Trevor-Roper
Harper & Row, 246 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Antichrist in Seventeenth Century England

by Christopher Hill
Oxford University Press, 201 pp., $5.50


In 1938, the great French historian Lucien Febvre issued a call for a reorientation of historical studies, with much greater attention paid to what he called “L’histoire des mentalités collectives,” defined as an inventory of the mental baggage of past generations and a sympathetic effort to understand their beliefs and modes of reasoning. Over thirty years have now gone by, but it is only during the last decade that there have been signs that Febvre’s advice is beginning to produce results.

In 1961, Robert Mandrou published Introduction à la France Moderne: Essai de psychologie historique 1500-1640, in which he discussed not only the physical and social environment of the average man, but also his psychic attitudes, his “outillage mental,” his fundamental beliefs, his ideas about morality and capitalism, his sports and pastimes. At the end Mandrou inserted a long section on “Evasions,” classified as nomadism, imaginary worlds, satanism, and suicide. Nothing could be further from the traditional emphasis in historical writing on the deeds of the elite as statesmen, bureaucrats, diplomats, soldiers, priests, and thinkers.

Meanwhile, Edward Thompson and others were subjecting popular culture to sensitive and sympathetic analysis in an endeavor to reveal what the laboring classes were really like and what they believed, as opposed to what their betters thought they were like and assumed they believed. The Enlightenment is now being turned on its head, and the squalid lives and half-baked ideas of Grub Street scribblers are being given as much attention as the grandiose intellectual constructs and the rich and elegant careers of the great philosophes. In England, America, and France, the three countries where most serious history is conducted, much rethinking is taking place about the history of science and its relationship to rational thought.

Most of the basic assumptions of the science of earlier ages have turned out to be wrong, and many of the more distinguished scientists have been found to be full of absurd or irrational notions. Boyle was a great believer in the medicinal properties of stewed earthworms and human urine (the latter taken both internally and externally), and was anxious to interview miners to obtain details of the “subterraneous demons” they had met with. Even Newton spent a vast amount of time on the elucidation of the Book of Revelation and on complex calculations of the measurements of the Temple of Solomon.

The last important development that is relevant here is the attempt to bring history into closer contact with the social sciences. For some years now historians have been conducting successful raiding parties into sociology, and have brought back valuable loot from Weber and Durkheim, and have even found a few nuggets among the dross piled up by more recent sociological schools. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising young historians would lead a search party into anthropological territory to see what men like Malinowsky and Evans-Pritchard might be made to contribute.

These three trends—an awakening interest in “mentalités collectives,” popular literature, and working-class culture; the growing realization that rationality and irrationality, science and nonsense, are not opposite poles but rather points on a spectrum, or even interacting and interconnecting systems of thought; and a feeling that a revitalization of history may have to come from greater awareness of the theoretical models, the research designs, and the empirical findings of the social sciences—have all now come together in a big book about magic in England by Keith Thomas. Because it represents so many different tendencies in recent historiography, because the subject of the decline of the belief in magic is so central to the development of modern technocratic society, because its conclusions are so original and so interesting, because it is built on the solid foundations of vast erudition and primary research and is illuminated by the attitudes and discoveries of anthropology, this book is clearly a major work of modern historical scholarship.

Unfortunately, its enormous bulk and still more formidable cost are likely to frighten off many potential readers. Mr. Thomas has indulged in a good deal of intellectual overkill, with a baroque display of examples for every point, supported by a barrage of recondite references. A very strong case can be made for the publication of an abbreviated paperback edition, so that a larger public may be able to appreciate the message he conveys. Mr. Thomas has written a fascinating book which deserves to be widely read.

It is now generally admitted that the life of pre-modern man was the very opposite of the life of security and stability depicted by nostalgic romantics. Both groups and individuals were under constant threat, at the mercy of the hazards of weather, fire, and disease, a prey to famines, pandemics, wars, and other wholly unpredictable calamities. This insecurity produced a condition of acute anxiety, bordering at times on hysteria, and a desperate yearning for relief and reassurance.

There are three basic ways by which man has tried to remedy his condition. He has tried to relieve the symptoms of his anxiety by recourse to magic or by placing his confidence in the providence of God as revealed by religion; and he has tried to remove the causes of his anxiety by expanding his control over his environment through scientific and technological invention. These three remedies are not mutually exclusive; all act and react one upon the other. If struck down by disease, a man may resort to magic ritual, the identification and persecution of a witch, prayers to God, bloodletting, acupuncture, or the consumption of pills (most of which are freely admitted by the more honest among the medical profession to have little or no prophylactic value). Which of these remedies a man happens to believe in depends more on the nature of his culture than on the clarity of his logic or the degree to which his behavior is rationally determined.

In the Middle Ages magic and religion were inextricably confused. The late medieval Church boasted of a panoply of magical powers and divinities, miracle-working rituals like exorcism or the application of holy water or the sacraments to ward off evil. Whatever the theologians may have thought and taught, in the minds of the people late medieval Christianity was to a very large extent a polytheistic religion in which the omnipotence of the High God was obscured by miracle-working saints, each specializing in the protection of some geographical or occupational group, or in the care of some specific disorder. The local priest often strongly encouraged this development, so that the main difference between him and the sorcerer or wizard was that the former held an official position and the latter did not.

This magical baggage came under violent attack from the early Protestant Reformers in England. They denounced the Mass as “nothing better to be esteemed than the verses of the sorcerer or enchanter,” and their ferocious iconoclasm toward images of the saints and the Virgin Mary was inspired by a passionate desire to purge the Church of all hints of magical powers. When William Lambarde identified the Pope as “the witch of the world,” he was saying something which means nothing to us, but which was of profound significance to his contemporaries.

But the extreme austerity of faith, the disclaimer by the established Church of all miracle-working powers, was more than suffering humanity could bear. To the extent that the Reformation was a drive toward a more rational view of the world, it was partly abortive. Psychological tensions were probably on the increase owing to deteriorating physical conditions, such as rapid demographic growth, severe Malthusian famines, devastating wars, high social mobility, structural unemployment, and galloping inflation. Moreover the new doctrine of God’s omnipotence, and therefore the elimination of chance in the world, merely made things worse, since misfortune was now officially regarded as God’s punishment for guilt—a doctrine more likely to appeal to the successful than to the failures of this world. “A poor man lies under a great temptation to doubt God’s providence and care,” lamented a contemporary. He certainly did, and still does.

A sixteenth-century Englishman was thus faced with greater insecurity—and therefore greater anxiety—than before, but was now deprived of the many-sided consolations of the medieval Church—the confession box and absolution, the miracle-working saints, relics and sacraments, the ritual of exorcism. A logical conclusion from such a situation is that the role of unofficial magic in English society must have increased significantly in order to fill the vacuum. This cannot be proved, but at least Mr. Thomas has now shown beyond doubt that an Elizabethan Englishman lived in a world in which every chance event was thought to be caused by magic, which could be manipulated by wizards, “wise men,” “cunning men,” white witches—and occasionally black witches. “If men have lost anything, if they be in pain or disease, then they presently run to such as they call wise men.”

These “wise men,” or witch doctors as they are called today, seem to have been at least as numerous and as influential as the regular clergy, and indeed some of them served in both capacities. The average Elizabethan was probably less worried about the prospects of torment in Hell in the next world than he was about his current sufferings in this world—sickness, poverty, robbery, or cuckoldry. These were matters about which the parson could do little, except to ascribe them to the sinfulness of the victim or the inscrutable providence of God. They were, on the other hand, precisely the things that the black witch was thought to be able to cause, and the white witch to be able to cure.

The Elizabethan world picture was thus one in which misfortune was the work of spirits, demons, and fairies, who had to be entreated, threatened, or conjured by spells, rituals, and charms. To a Shakespearean audience there was nothing the least bit surprising about Caliban or Macbeth’s three witches or the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Kings and queens of England regularly touched thousands of men and women as a cure for a variety of skin diseases, and cramp rings hallowed by them were thought to be a sovereign cure for epilepsy. Many intellectuals believed in lucky charms, and almost all believed in witches. Elias Ashmole, the founder of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, carried around three spiders as a prophylactic against the plague, while a Nonconformist parson put his faith in moss from a dead man’s skull. In the late seventeenth century a lord of the Admiralty spent long years searching for buried treasure with equipment invented for him by the fairies, with whom he kept in contact through his mistress.

The conjuration of spirits, the casting of astrological horoscopes, the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, the production of love potions, the development of rituals for finding buried treasure were all not uncommon pastimes for enterprising dons and undergraduates. An Elizabethan Master of Balliol got into trouble for making money on the side by selling a spirit guaranteed to ensure success in gambling with dice (it is a measure of the gulf which separates that age from our own that even his severest critics would not suspect the present Master of any such proclivities).

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