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).

The intermediary who controlled the actions of these magical forces was the wise man, the cunning man, the white witch. “The most horrid and detestable monster is the good witch,” wrote the well-known Puritan preacher William Perkins, a view he adopted partly because the former ascribed to his own invention what should be attributed to God alone, and partly because of the threat he posed to the clergy as a professional rival. In spite of this widespread clerical hostility, there was little enough that the Church could do about the white witch because of favorable public opinion. It is now clear that the persecutions of white witches in the Church courts were almost entirely ineffective.

There is good reason to believe that the counterculture of magic was stronger and more widely diffused than the official culture of Protestant Christianity. The official explanation of the nature of the universe was that it was under the sovereignty of a capricious deity, who for some reason or other allowed a good deal of latitude to an equally capricious devil. The unofficial one was that all inexplicable events were caused by impersonal supernatural forces of unspecified origin or nature, which could be appeased, encouraged, or thwarted by ritual actions of certain human beings endowed with special powers.

A third system of belief held that the experience of the individual in the world was predetermined by the movement of the stars. The precise timing both of birth and of subsequent important actions was crucially important. Astrology promised to foretell the future and to reveal the unknown by a judicious combination of scientific astronomical observations and a complex structure of magical assumptions about causation. Like the “wise men,” the astrologers also came into sharp conflict with the clergy, partly because they offered a rival form of predestination to that of God’s grace, and partly because they conducted a large and lucrative consulting practice which threatened the hold of the clergy over their flocks.

Here again clerical hostility had little or no effect, for astrologers were patronized by the highest in the land, as well as by such credulous creatures as servant girls and sailors. The Leveller William Overton consulted an astrologer whether or not to launch a popular revolution in April, 1648; King Charles II consulted another about precisely when to address parliament in 1673. Even John Locke believed that medicinal herbs were best picked at astrologically determined times.

In spite of the efforts of the early reformers, magic ritual slowly contrived to seep back into the Protestant churches. The Anglican settlement of 1558 had preserved much of the visual apparatus of the medieval Church, including vestments, the use of the Cross in baptism, and other practices which the Puritan preachers denounced as popish and superstitious. By the 1630s Archbishop Laud’s drive for the “beauty of holiness” had put the communion table back at the east end of the church and had railed it off from the public, while increasing emphasis was laid on such things as organ music and stained glass windows.

On the other flank of the Church, the Puritans popularized the public fast in which the population temporarily gave up food, work, sex, and sleep. They also became fanatical in their enforcement of the rigid taboo of the Sabbath, a movement which was undoubtedly encouraged by the widespread belief in the magical properties of time, to which astrology also was addicted. Thus by 1640 magic ritual had re-entered the services of all the contending factions in the Church, while some of the more radical Puritan sects were once more laying claim to miracle-working powers.


Until the last few years the study of witchcraft has been almost entirely left either to unscholarly cranks or to indignant rationalists, the latter more concerned to castigate the witch-baiters for their credulity and cruelty than to understand what the phenomonen was all about. Mr. MacFarlane’s study of witchcraft in Essex, illuminated by detailed knowledge of the findings of modern anthropology, the reassessment of the witchcraft outbreak of 1692 in Salem by Professor Hansen, drawing on the findings of abnormal psychology, the examination of the change in attitude of the French magistrates by Professor Mandrou, and Mr. Thomas’s major survey of the climate of opinion in England on all kinds of magical beliefs—these books at last make it possible to answer some of the basic questions. Moreover by a happy chance they complement one another, since each approaches the problem from a different angle. From the findings of all four, a composite picture can be drawn which has the appearance of plausibility.

Belief in witchcraft reached a higher level of consciousness in the sixteenth century than it had in the Middle Ages. The first reason for this was the enormous increase in belief in the powers of the Devil brought about by the Reformation. The early Protestants indignantly rejected all claims that God could be persuaded or cajoled into interfering for the good in the workings of nature, but at the same time they strengthened claims that the Devil was responsible for all the forces of evil in the world. Thus they rejected white magic for the Church, while offering an official explanation for black magic. This paradoxical development arose since an immanent Devil was the necessary and logical complement to an immanent God. While the latter ruled in heaven, the former became, in John Knox’s words, “the Prince and God of the World.” Belief in the supernatural forces of evil abroad in the world was thus reinforced by Protestant doctrine, which soon also spilled over into Counter-Reformation beliefs.

Secondly the Reformation theologians abandoned the only approved remedies against the machinations of the Devil, namely exorcism, holy relics, and the sprinkling of holy water, thus removing the official means of cure at a time when the disease was officially said to be spreading.

Third, the pressure of social and economic change was breaking down the old values of the intimate, “face-to-face” peasant communities and creating great tension in the villages. In particular, poverty was becoming too widespread to be handled on a voluntary basis, and the moral duty of the rich to give alms to the poor and the moral right of the poor to demand them were both being called into question. As a result of this breakdown there was constant friction between increasingly reluctant alms givers and increasingly exigent poor old women. The former had residual feelings of guilt at the decline of their charitable impulses and felt resentful toward those who badgered them. If the guilty refuser of charity then suffered a misfortune, he immediately suspected that the rejected alms seeker had bewitched him. This transferred his guilt back to the alms seeker and diverted the frustrations felt against the whole system of poor relief on to the persecution of an individual. The psychological mechanism of witch persecution is now clear enough.

Fourth, continental Europe, although to a much lesser extent than England or New England, saw the acceptance among the educated of a comprehensive conspiracy theory, an invention of obsessed priests and intellectuals. This was the notion of a widespread secret society of witches, assembling in covens, making pacts with the Devil, and copulating with him at Sabbats, to which they traveled on broomsticks. Evidence for this extraordinary farrago of nonsense was soon provided by a flood of confessions, either the product of autosuggestion in hysterics or extracted by the use of the most terrible torture, the increased use of which was the last contributory cause. As we have found out again in the twentieth century, the torturer can obtain detailed evidence of the most absurd conspiracies and the most unlikely conspirators, provided he is told what and whom to find, for in their torment the subjects will freely confess to anything and will accuse any or everyone they know.

It is to the credit of the English that the common law legal system greatly inhibited, if it did not altogether prevent, the use of “the unEnglish method of torture.” As a result, the destructive potentialities of the witch hunting craze were never allowed to develop to the degree that they did on the continent and in Scotland. Although prosecution was extremely common in England, the death penalty was relatively rare, owing to the care with which the magistrates and clergy normally approached the problem of obtaining satisfactory evidence.

Fear of evil spirits manipulated by witchcraft thus spread in the sixteenth century in a society which believed implicitly that any inexplicable event was caused by magic, in which the Church had abandoned its old miracle-working weapons, and in which the powers of the Devil were thought to have greatly increased. It was also a society undergoing great social stress, in which the moral duty of the rich toward the poor was no longer clear, and in which the only resort of the poor against injustice was the invocation of black magic. It is clear that village communities must have spent an enormous amount of time discussing suspicions of witchcraft and ways of dealing with it. The prosecutions were only the top of the iceberg, and below the surface there was a constant warfare in progress between white and black magic. Only if black magic seemed to be unstoppable by other means was there recourse to the courts.

So far, we have treated witchcraft exclusively as part of a system of beliefs whose function was to alleviate anxiety caused by ignorance of causation and incapacity to control the environment. It may also have served a latent function as well, as a restraint upon social conflict. Everything we know about village life, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, suggests that it was bad-tempered, quarrelsome, and riddled with hatreds, jealousies, and feelings of guilt. Fear of being bewitched must have acted as a powerful incentive to the financially secure in the prime of life to be kind and generous to the old, the sick, and the poor. Conversely, fear of being accused of witchcraft must have been a powerful incentive to the latter to be amiable and courteous to the former.

On the other hand witchcraft allegations deflected aggressive impulses and social tensions away from the mal-adjusted institutions and conventions that lay at the root of the trouble. In this particular case the root was the economic system which made the poor so demanding and burdensome and the rich so guilty and resentful, and the status system which left women without a meaningful social position. Witchcraft beliefs therefore postponed the necessary institutional and intellectual changes by allowing society to deflect its rage onto the persecution of a scapegoat. As a result these dysfunctional institutions were allowed to struggle on instead of being rapidly transformed.

Those who launched accusations of witchcraft can be seen to fall into three categories. The first, and by far the most common, were simple village peasants who had committed some breach of the social conventions in their behavior toward the accused—usually it was the refusal to give alms or lend money. The accused had consequently let fall some expression of malice—usually a curse—and the accuser had subsequently been struck by misfortune. The sufferer first made application to a “cunning man,” who helped him to confirm his suspicions of the identity of the witch who was the cause of his troubles. Because of this relationship between the accuser and the accused, the former almost always enjoyed a higher social and economic status than the latter.

The second class of accuser was the hysteric, usually a woman, who went into severe fits and spoke with voices, accusing all and sundry of bewitching her. In some of the most sensational cases, it is clear that the predominant role was played by a local epidemic of hysteria, superimposed on a general belief in magic. Hysteria is extremely catching, and as a result from time to time, as in Salem in 1692, or in some French nunneries, whole communities would be shattered by an epidemic of witchcraft hysteria which could well engulf the accused as well as the accusers, and could temporarily blind the authorities to the flimsy nature of the evidence.

The literature of abnormal psychology, notably the writings of Charcot and Janet, Breuer and Freud, provide examples of behavior, speech, and physical contortions which exactly parallel those of the afflicted girls at Salem. Totally different experiences can produce similar frustrations with similar visible symptoms. In the Salem case, as Professor Hansen shows, all the accusers and some of the accused were clearly victims of an epidemic of hysteria. In these cases, none of the normal rules applied. Children accused parents and parents children, and some of the accused were citizens of high social and economic standing.

The third and rarest class of accuser was the dedicated ideological witch-finder, armed with the Malleus Male-ficarum or some similar inquisitorial handbook, who roamed about the countryside terrorizing whole neighborhoods. A fearful example of the havoc wrought in a suggestible population by these men was the mass prosecution of fifty witches in the Manningtree area of Essex in 1645, which was launched by two witch-finders. Because of the presence on the scene of these professionals, this is one of the rare cases in England in which the confessions made mention of those stock European practices of assembling in covens, copulating with the Devil, kissing his arse, etc.

On the other hand it is clear that these professional witch-finders with their obvious anal-erotic obsessions were only exploiting and encouraging pre-existing fears and hatreds and delusions within the village community. Indeed, the whole history of witchcraft has been distorted by concentration upon these rare but highly sensational cases, heavily spiced with sex and sadism, which were launched by hysterical women or by professional witch-finders. What has been ignored is the regular flow of complaints and prosecutions from ordinary persons who had suffered inexplicable misfortune.

Those accused of witchcraft can also be fitted into three categories, although the distinctions are by no means as sharp as they are between the types of accuser, and the risk of over-schematization is greater. The first group are the genuine witches, resentful persons of low social status and economic level, who tried to take revenge upon their neighbors, usually for some real injury. By the use of spells, rituals, potions, the sticking of pins into waxen dolls, etc., they seriously tried to induce sickness or death in human beings or cattle. Witchcraft was the weapon of the weak against the strong for, apart from scolding and arson, it was the only weapon they had.

Magic, of which witchcraft is a part, only works to the extent that people think it works, for its effects are dependent on the psychosomatic power of belief and not on physical properties. Since society believed in witchcraft, the victims were often suggestible enough to be severely affected by it. There is therefore a good deal to be said for the view of skeptics like Hobbes, who denied the capacity of witchcraft to do any concrete harm but thought that witches should be punished for the malice of their intentions.

The second category of the accused was the innocent, who undoubtedly formed the great majority. Some of them denied their guilt to the end, but very many were browbeaten, tortured, or confused by the strength of popular opinion among their neighbors and by the pressure of prolonged interrogation into confessing crimes of which they were not guilty. The third category were the hysterics, often women or pubescent children, who gave free rein in their voluntary confessions to auto-suggestive fantasies about affectionate dealings with animal familiars or loveless copulations with the Devil.

It is very noticeable that during the peak period of witchcraft activity and persecution in the West, most of the black witches were women, and most of the white witches and the accusers were men. Unfortunately, anthropologists have so far been unable satisfactorily to identify and isolate the causes why in some African societies today the black witches are nearly all women, in others they are nearly all men, and in others again they are mixed. Theories about the economic predominance of women in Ghana or about generational conflict in Massachusetts simply do not apply to other societies.

In this vacuum of scientific theory, the historian can only speculate in the void. Is it possible that the practice of witchcraft was one of the very few ways in which a woman could impress herself on a male chauvinist world, at a time when economic opportunities were limited, the structure of the family was changing only very slowly, and when feminine eroticism was strongly condemned? Is it possible that the decline of witchcraft was brought about to some extent by a partial adaptation of the family in order to give women a greater share of respect, authority, and sexual satisfaction? Is it more than coincidence that witches vanish just at the time when Fanny Hill appears?

If so, then the rise and fall of witchcraft in the West has to be associated with different stages of a revolution of rising female expectations, generated in turn by the growth of literacy and the rise of individualism that were accidental by-products of the Reformation. All this is very fanciful, but the sexual element in witchcraft in the West is too obvious to be ignored.

A measure of how far our understanding of the true dimensions of witchcraft has been enlarged by recent work is afforded by comparing the current picture with that offered by Professor Trevor-Roper in 1967. The latter work is written with the author’s usual brilliant style and panache, and displays to the full his capacity for bold intellectual synthesis. He is learned, witty, and wide-ranging. He presents a vivid picture of the weirder manifestations of intellectual demonology on the continent, and describes in gruesome detail the horrifying consequences. He is inspired by a saeva indignatio at the cruelty and folly of mankind, which is worthy of his models, Gibbon and Voltaire. He offers a seemingly plausible explanation of the rise and fall of the witch craze in Europe. He is “relevant” in that he specifically draws an analogy with McCarthyism and other modern movements of persecution inspired by fear and directed toward scapegoats and dissidents. His essay has all the virtues, and it has rightly been widely praised as a model of historical essay writing. But today it looks both old-fashioned in its approach and wrong or at best overassertive in all of its main conclusions.

Trevor-Roper’s study is based on no new source materials or primary research, and it concentrates on the old question of who was to blame for the persecutions, instead of trying to see how witchcraft operated in a concrete social setting and what functions it served. It substitutes fine writing and fine sentiments for a patient investigation of the mental climate, the social relationships, and the physical conditions in which these strange beliefs flourished. It proposes grand general theories about the relation of persecution to geography or religion which can either be shown to be untrue by the most superficial digging into the anthropological literature, or else are wholly incapable of verification. And finally it shows a tendency to stretch the evidence as ammunition to support the author’s well-known anticlerical and anti-religious opinions.

The new work which has just been published suggests that almost all of Professor Trevor-Roper’s overconfident assertions are either false or unproven. There is little sign, at any rate in England and America, that the clergy were the prime instigators of the persecution. Professor Hansen successfully vindicates the reputation of the much maligned Cotton Mather, and shows that in Salem the clergy were on the side of caution and restraint, and were overruled by public opinion. Indeed in England and France it was the educated classes, the clergy and the gentry, who first became skeptical and eventually set up strict legal rules of evidence which prevented further convictions.

Secondly, although far-fetched continental intellectual theories about pacts with the Devil may have been influential in governing the details of the confessions, they were not of prime importance in explaining the rise of witch persecutions, since most prosecutions were launched not by learned professional witch-finders but by ignorant neighbors in the village. No evidence can be found for a connection between a local conflict of religious beliefs on the one hand, and the persecution of witches on the other. As for the alleged association of mountainous country with witch persecution, the less said about it the better.

It is of some general interest to ask why such a dazzling display of talent should have resulted in such egregious error. All historians possessed of true intellectual distinction—of whom there are not many—from time to time indulge in bold synthetic re-interpretations of problems with which they are only acquainted at second hand, through reading the secondary literature and through perusing some of the primary sources easily available in print. Because they are so intelligent, they sometimes come up with ideas which set the experts and the graduate students off on a wholly new tack. Often their ideas are sooner or later proved to be wrong, but the very effort to prove them wrong enormously enriches the field and leads to the development of a new and better synthesis through the workings of the Hegelian dialectic.

But they sometimes fall flat on their faces, their work appearing merely out-of-date and ill-informed. Trevor-Roper’s most valuable writings have hitherto consisted of brilliant interpretative essays, most of which have been so suggestive that they have fully justified themselves. The essay on witchcraft, however, is less helpful. It is not merely often wrong, it is very limited in its approach, and as a result is either tacitly ignored or curtly dismissed by the current generation of witchcraft scholars working from new anthropological and psychological perspectives.


Why did the persecution of witches decline in the seventeenth century? What is absolutely certain is that the lead was taken by the lay and clerical elite, who were the first to lose faith in the system of beliefs upon which the persecutions were founded. Belief in the efficacy of magic, and therefore of the reality of black witchcraft, survived in the general population until recent times. Indeed there are sound reasons for doubting whether belief in magic has ever died out in the West.

Today, at the apogee of our scientific, rationalist, technological civilization, magical beliefs are spreading once more. Millions of lucky charms hang in cars to ward off traffic accidents; astrological advice is regularly published in the popular newspapers, and courses on the subject are just beginning to appear at the universities in response to student demand; the casting of horoscopes, often assisted by computers, is a booming growth industry; every year huge crowds of the sick pour into Lourdes in the hope of a miraculous cure.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the current faddish revival of interest in witchcraft, evidence for which is provided by the spate of new historical works, reprints of inquisitorial handbooks and of reports of notorious witch trials, imaginative re-creations of historical events by talented novelists like François Mallet-Joris and fashionable film directors like Ken Russell, and the beginning of semiserious organized witch cults in California.

The problem, therefore, is how to explain a change in attitude in the seventeenth century not so much among the peasantry who launched the prosecutions as among the elite who controlled the legal process, the clergy and the magistrates. The great strength of Mr. Thomas’s book is his insistence that the change cannot be considered in isolation, as hitherto it has been, but must be looked at in the light of magical beliefs of all kinds. There is a basic intellectual and practical unity between magic, astrology, and witchcraft. William Lilly, for example, practiced astrology, medicine, spirit-raising, treasure hunting, and the conjuration of fairies. Astrologers and their rivals, the cunning men, were often called in to diagnose cases of witchcraft.

The question must therefore be broadened, and we must ask not what was the cause of the decline in the belief in witchcraft in the seventeenth century, but what was the cause of the decline in the belief in magic. One possibility is the growth of mechanical philosophy. The trouble with this explanation is that skepticism about magic and witchcraft was growing among clergy, lawyers, doctors, and lay magistrates in the early seventeenth century, before the new natural science had made any real impact. In any case, magical overtones pervaded early seven-teenth-century science. Hermetic thought was a stimulus to heliocentric theories, belief in the magical properties of numbers to mathematics, astrology to astronomy. The discovery of magnetism actually increased belief in spirits, since it seemed to prove that physical objects could influence one another from a distance.

More important than any scientific discoveries was the change in scientific attitudes, namely the new Baconian demand for experimental proof. The idea that “there is no certain knowledge without demonstration” slowly eroded belief in all kinds of magical explanations for events, just at the time when the lawyers were tightening up their rules of evidence in a parallel demand for more rigorous proof. But this rational approach to evidence could not develop in a world of arbitrary magic. A prior condition for the emergence of the spirit of scientific inquiry was therefore the development of religious belief in an orderly universe in which God’s providence operates according to natural laws.

Organized and established religion must be seen as a system of explanation and recourse parallel to and rivaling those of magic and astrology. Hobbes rightly pointed out that the distinction between superstition and religion is in the eye of the beholder. “This fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which everyone in himself calleth Religion; and in them that worship or fear that power otherwise than they do, superstition.” Although religion deals with fundamentals, and magic with particulars, ministers and witch doctors were clearly rival practitioners in the application of supernatural powers to the problems and miseries of this world. Both tended to blame individuals—the former the sufferer for his sin, the latter the malicious manipulator of spirits.

Presbyterians and astrologers offered alternative systems of predestination. Professor Evans-Pritchard has recently suggested that “when religious beliefs, whether those of spiritual cults or ancestor cults, are strong, witchcraft beliefs are relatively weak.” As we have seen, the distinction between religion and magic was hopelessly blurred in the Middle Ages, and the first stage in making a separation occurred when the Protestant reformers rejected all claims to miracle-working powers for their churches. The second important step, however, was taken at the end of the seventeenth century, when religion became more rational and God’s providence was at last regarded as working in strict conformity to natural laws. It was the natural theology of the eighteenth century which finally broke the habit of ascribing misfortune to moral delinquency or malevolent agency.

Another of Hobbes’s theories was that “in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion to what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consisteth the natural seed of religion, which by reason of the different fancies, judgements, and passions of several men, hath grown up into ceremonies so different, that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another.” It is undoubtedly true that both magic and the various Christian churches and sects all offer explanations to fill the gaps caused by human ignorance of causation, but their scope is not purely determined by that ignorance. If this were so, neither would have shrunk until technological control of nature had increased, but the chronology, as we have seen, is wrong.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Bacon had defined the aims of the new science:

The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret motion of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.

This was indeed the goal, but during the critical period when magic was in decline and the magical properties of religion also in retreat in the face of natural theology, there was really no great technological breakthrough. Doctors were just about as powerless to cure disease or to prolong life in 1700 as they were in 1500, the means of recovery of stolen property were as inadequate as ever, forecasting the future was as unreliable as ever.

What had changed, however, was man’s aspirations and expectations. There was now a belief abroad that the human condition could be improved, partly by social action such as founding hospitals or legislating poor relief, and partly by making technological discoveries. There was also a new willingness to tolerate ignorance, instead of filling the hitherto intolerable void with assumptions about the intervention of demons or angels, or the direct providence of God.

What undermined educated belief in magic, and with it educated belief in witchcraft, was thus not the success of technology in reducing the area of ignorance. It was rather a new religious attitude of self-help, an acceptance of the doctrine that God helps those who help themselves, and that supernatural intervention in the workings of nature was now so rare as to be negligible for all practical purposes. Such are the broad conclusions of Mr. Thomas’s important book, parts of which are supported by the works of Professors MacFarlane, Mandrou, and Hansen.

There are three important points in which Mr. Thomas’s model is itself open to question. In the first place it is not altogether certain how far the Reformation in fact reduced the magical content of religion, and thus left the way open for the rise of the cunning man, the wise woman, and the witch. The change may have been a real one, but until we have a comparable study of belief in magic over two centuries in a predominantly Catholic country at roughly the same level of economic and social development, say in France, we cannot be sure that the theory holds good. This is a case in which the only research strategy is a comparative one which examines two cultures, while holding all factors steady except that one was Catholic and the other Protestant. We are at present wholly ignorant about the effect of the Counter-Reformation on belief in magic.

Secondly the stress laid by Mr. Thomas on rising tensions in the alms-giver/alms-seeker relationship as the factor in stimulating recourse to witchcraft in the village community seems doubtful. Although this certainly seems to be true for England, it does not apply in cases such as that at Salem in Massachusetts or at Loudon in France, where the key ingredient was clearly an epidemic of hysteria generated by other causes. Institutionalized poor relief never spread to the countryside in France as it did in England, so that in the former case the decline of witchcraft cannot be ascribed to a rise of more impersonal relationships between the rich and the poor in the village.

Moreover, it is clear that intellectual demonology based on the writings of paranoid inquisitors with a conspiracy complex and sado-masochistic sexual hang-ups, and supported by confessions extracted by torture or autosuggestion, played a far larger part in the continental witch craze than it did in England. In this sense, the examples of England and New England are not typical of the West as a whole. In all areas, on the other hand, most cases of witchcraft were brought to the attention of the magistrates by popular protest from the villagers, rather than as a result of investigations by a professional witch-hunter or inquisitor. Mr. Thomas’s main finding is therefore unaffected, that witchcraft is merely one aspect of a diffused belief in the constant, daily operation of magic in individual human affairs. This is how witchcraft appears to every anthropologist who has investigated it in a modern tribal setting, and this is how historians must certainly treat it in the future.

Thirdly, there is the intractable problem of how to quantify belief. Mr. Thomas has shown conclusively that in Elizabethan England there was a magical counterculture more widely diffused and more deeply believed in than the theories advanced by the official religion. What he cannot prove is whether this counterculture had increased or diminished by comparison with the Middle Ages. Even his evidence for the decline in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is none too secure, being based largely on the change of attitude of the elite toward witchcraft and on the decline of complaints by the clergy about competition from their ancient rivals, the wise men and the astrologers.

This is not ideal evidence, but it is probably as good as we are likely to get. There can be no doubt that in the course of the seventeenth century, the English propertied classes became less fearful and insecure, and less willing to go to extreme lengths to maintain orthodoxy and order. The last heretic was burned in England in 1612, the last political subject was tortured in 1639, the last witch was hanged in 1685, in each case a century or so ahead of similar changes on the continent. It is less certain how long it took for this skeptical attitude to seep down to the public at large, but in the late seventeenth century we certainly hear less than we do in the late sixteenth about witches, cunning men, and astrologers, about familiars, fairies, and horoscopes.


An interesting parallel to the rise and fall of belief in a world torn between God and the angels on the one hand and the Devil and the witches on the other was the rise and fall in the belief in Antichrist. This is the subject of a book by Christopher Hill in which he demonstrates once again his extraordinary mastery of the pamphlet and sermon literature of the age and his unerring eye for once important but now forgotten aspects of the intellectual history of the past. “Next to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, there is nothing so necessary as the true and solid knowledge of Anti-christ,” wrote Oliver Cromwell’s best-selling schoolmaster.

Everyone from John Pym to Isaac Newton speculated about the identity of Antichrist as recorded in the Scriptures, and the timing of his overthrow. Luther and Calvin were positive who he was: he was the Pope, the Great Whore of Babylon. The most advanced mathematical skills of the day were harnessed in the search, for the Number of the Beast was known to be 666 and his overthrow in “a time, times, and half a time.” John Napier particularly valued his invention of logarithms, since it enabled him to speed up his calculations on this subject, while Newton devoted much of his stupendous talents to the same futile problem.

In this latter half of the twentieth century we know all too well what happens when otherwise sober and prudent statesmen and rational and clearheaded intellectuals become obsessed with a Devil-theory: it blows their minds, and the result is bloodshed, torture, and repression on a scale which seems hardly credible to a posterity which has freed itself from this particular mythology. The reason why Devil-theories are so destructive of human happiness is that two or more can, and usually do, play at the identification game, label one another as Antichrist, and embark on a holy war of mutual extermination. Thus it was not long before some English Protestants were identifying all bishops—even Anglican bishops—as Antichrist. To escape from them many fled 3,000 miles to the wilderness of Massachusetts.

The next mutation came during the intellectual and political disintegration of Civil War and Interregnum, when the Parliamentarian leaders and preachers whipped up enthusiasm by identifying first Archbishop Laud and King Charles, and then all royalists as agents of Antichrist. Finally the radical sects in their turn identified all holders of religious or secular authority, including the Parliamentary leadership, as Antichrist, thus bringing down on themselves a persecution as ferocious as that of the witches themselves.

This was the end of the road. The great search for Antichrist, whose elimination would purify the world and open the way for the reign of Jesus Christ, had finally turned out to be a blind alley leading nowhere. Out of the disillusionment emerged a more rational view of the world, and a greater tolerance of men with differing opinions. It is not a mere coincidence that concern with both Antichrist and those agents of the Devil, the witches, decline sharply after 1660. The English were intellectually and emotionally drained by the experience of a century of feverish activity to seek out and destroy Antichrist the Beast and the Devil and his servants.

We can now see, perhaps for the first time, the complex chronological interaction of magic, religion, and science as rival explanatory systems. The early Reformation renounced the magical powers of religion, and unofficial magic presumably poured in to fill the void. In its official doctrine, however, the reformers greatly stimulated belief in the Devil as the instigator of all misfortune and evil, and of Antichrist as the embodiment of evil on earth, who had to be destroyed before the reign of Jesus could begin. It was only much later on, after a century of turmoil and bloody persecution, that the profounder aspects of the new religion came to the fore. By the late seventeenth century Protestantism’s more rational and coherent view of nature and its relationship to God’s providence had at last produced a state of mind to which magical or miraculous explanations of events were unacceptable. Later still, this religious-inspired rationalism began to undermine religion itself.

The relation of magic and science went through the same two stages of symbiosis and antagonism. For a century, magic went hand in hand with science, but eventually science broke away and destroyed its partner’s credibility, at any rate among the educated classes. Much later still, in the nineteenth century, it also broke with religion, which it began to destroy too.

This is not a simple story of neroes and devils, of reason battling unreason, nor is it enough to treat it as one of the more bizarre aspects of human folly. The most deeply held beliefs of the past seem wholly irrational to us, as no doubt many of our own will seem to posterity. When all is said, however, the abiding distinction of the West has been that in the last three hundred years it has gone further than any other society the world has ever known to rid itself of these ancient fears and superstitions. The process is perhaps the most important intellectual change since man emerged from caves. But in the light of the current revival of belief in magic and the irrational, neither arrogance nor complacency is in order when one views the long, messy, continuing struggle which has slowly led to what Max Weber described as “the disenchantment of the world.”

As a result of this struggle modern man now walks upon a knife edge. On the one side is a “technetronic” society, smooth, impersonal, rational, and scientific, a kind of universal IBM company ruled over by the computer. While it can be supremely efficient, it is also drab and sterile, leaving no place either for the emotions, including the finer ones of love and compassion, or for the sense of aesthetic mystery and wonder which is at the root of all great literature, art, and music. On the other side is a society at the mercy of prejudice and passion, driven forward by wholly irrational beliefs which stunt the mind and prevent effective action for human betterment. While it may be warm and vibrant, it is also full of cruelty, hate, and fear. The naked ape had better watch his step.

This Issue

December 2, 1971