Confronting the Cosmic Drama: Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic

Version 2
Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Weidenfeld and Nelson, 1971. Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin 1973.

I started a very leisurely progress through this book early last fall. A friend lent it to me with the suggestion, “Don’t read it all at once.” I took her advice but am still not sure whether I was right to do so. Because I read a section and then paused, I’m not sure whether I have a truly coherent sense of Thomas’ thesis in this book. But then I’m also not totally sure that Thomas has a single thesis. The work is panoramic in scope, covering, as its title suggests, two centuries of English social history, and this breadth is at times somewhat challenging as Thomas shifts between examples from the mid 1500s to those from the late 1600s.

Version 3If we think about it, life in 1699 must have been rather different from life in 1500. The period begins pre-reformation and ends in the Enlightenment. Taking a rather simplistic view, I suppose one could argue that Thomas is examining the transition from alchemy to chemistry, from a theological world view to a more philosophical outlook, from absolutist monarchy to the beginning of constitutional monarchy in 1689’s Bill of Rights.1

Version 6In his Forward, Thomas tells us that he is “attempt[ing] to make sense of some of the systems of belief which were current in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, but which no longer enjoy much recognition today.” He goes on to say that he has “been much helped by the studies made by modern social anthropologists of similar beliefs held in Africa and elsewhere” (ix). Despite Thomas’ remarks about “unhistorically minded sociologists” (205), his work at least to someone whose training is in literary studies not history seems distinctly to draw on the practices of the social sciences, and there were moments when one felt he was looking at the past rather as a biologist looks at specimens under a microscope, and for some reason, this point of view made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Version 4Perhaps it has something to do with particular turns of phrase. When discussing, for example, the development of witchcraft in Europe, he comments how what “was to distinguish it from the witch-beliefs of other primitive [my emphasis] peoples” was the witch’s “pact with the devil” (521). I’m not sure how comfortable we are today with designating any peoples or cultures as “primitive,” and I am not at all sure that we see past Tudor and Stuart societies as “primitive.” Far from it. True, Thomas does emphasise that his examination covers the “popular” beliefs of the period. But to what extent are today’s “popular” beliefs actually grounded in a firm understanding of contemporary science or philosophy?

Version 8Thomas’ somewhat paternalistic tones may perhaps grate somewhat, but the book was, we must remember, published in the early seventies. However, it is still a highly useful and informative resource, heavily researched and copiously annotated. Sometimes the footnotes will take more page space than the main text. There are times when one wants Thomas just to move on towards his conclusion. It was his section entitled “Conclusion” that I found the easiest to deal with. Unsurprisingly, here is where he draws all his research together and summarizes the previous chapters. If one were interested only in having the overview, this section would suffice. I would also have like a detailed Bibliography. Chasing down sources from footnotes only can be not a little irritating.

thomas-magic-1When published, Religion and the Decline of Magic received many accolades, deservedly so. It remains, I believe—my research into the matter I must admit has been scanty and superficial—one of the most detailed books on the subject. It remains available in several formats. If you are interested in the topic, you will find the book interesting.

Version 5If I were to try and abstract what I took from Thomas’s book, his thesis, if you like, I would note it something like this:

  1. Protestantism removes much of the magical from religion.
  2. Despite Neoplatonic influences, the development of the empirical scientific method is demystifying the practice of natural sciences


  1. The decline of rural village communal economies and the rise of the individual capitalist destroys communal ties and leads to a “conflict between neighbourliness and a growing sense of private property” (663).
  2. Such conflict leads to anxiety.

Version 2Thomas concludes, “If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it” (800). I suspect not. Just what techniques allay our societal anxieties? How many of us consult our horoscopes every day? Buy crystals? Avoid walking under ladders? Take various chemical nostrums not necessarily listed in the Pharmacopoeia? In the sixties and early seventies there may well have been a certain consensus that the influence of religion was waning. I’m not sure that we can claim that to be true now. All in all, I’m not sure that anyone studying contemporary society would find anything that different in terms of people’s responses to social instability and change from what Thomas observes about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a somewhat sobering thought.


Version 9
It’s  just about impossible to imagine Henry VIII or Elizabeth I even contemplating the possibility of such a Bill. William III had little choice but to accept and also had his Dutch experience of having to be appointed Stadtholder by the Dutch states. Despite these changes, however, at some levels, some things had not changed. Some people still consulted astrologers, for example. Of course, some people consult astrologers today. You can if you want access your daily horoscope on line. I’m not sure, however, how many medical doctors today would want to see your astrological charts as well as your x-ray reports and blood tests.







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