The Magic of Keith Thomas

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Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
‘The Concert in an Egg’; painting after Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1561
There never was a merry world since the fairies left off dancing and the parson left conjuring.
—John Selden (1584–1654)

The English historian Keith Thomas has revealed modes of thought and ways of life deeply strange to us, and he illustrates them with precise evidence. In his Religion and the Decline of Magic his subject is early modern England, roughly between 1500 and 1700.1 To understand that world, we have to take ourselves back to the beginning of the period, into the mindset of a preindustrial society, when most people were engaged in agriculture, most people could not read, and the ritual year of Roman Catholicism shaped the experience of the ordinary man going about his ordinary days. To keep at bay the misfortunes of the world, he followed the prayers framed for him in Latin, a language he did not understand, attributing a mechanical efficiency to their enunciation, heaping them up as if he could build a staircase to a capricious God, whom he hoped, one day, to see face to face.

Keith Thomas has made a special study of magic and magical thinking. He sees that they were not quaint deviations from mainstream thought; they were not marginal to the early modern world, but intrinsic to it. Closely allied to religious sentiment and ritual expression, magic survived the Reformation, adapting its form. Magic was not just the province of “Hob, Dick and Hick” the simple villagers, but also of the erudite and sophisticated; kings had their astrologers to guide them, and the politically astute could manipulate popular belief in prophecies and miracles so that they had an impact on the affairs of nations. But our ancestors were not emptily credulous. They didn’t believe in just anything. Their worldview was diverse but coherent; it had its own pedigree, and left its own descendants. Their society, which seems to us static, traditional, and hierarchical, proves on closer inspection to be constantly shifting, renewing itself.

When Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic was first published in 1971, it drew together two disciplines, history and anthropology, which early in the twentieth century had grown apart. But the author has no grand thesis to sell us. The joy of his dry and witty book is in its accumulation of fine detail, and also in its broad humanity. Emerging from most studies of the past, the reader feels a leaden ache, a sense of pity and waste and dread. From this book, the reader emerges exhilarated, provoked, amused, with an insight into the ingenuity and potential of human beings and a sense that the past was not a place of insensate ignorance and darkness, but a place we are privileged to revisit through the craft of such an original, painstaking, and erudite historian.

It is important not to exaggerate the grimness of the early modern age. Our ancestors …

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  1. 1

    This essay will appear as the introduction to a two-volume illustrated edition of Religion and the Decline of Magic, to be published in June by the Folio Society.