Keith Thomas is a very old school academic but this is a carefully observed account of the historical clash between religion and magic – not as a way of entertaining the validity of either belief system, but as a lens through which to read and comment on cultural developments contained therein as well as elsewhere.  Thomas has revealed modes of thought and ways of life deeply strange to us, and he illustrates them with precise evidence. In Religion and the Decline of Magic his subject is early modern England, between roughly 1500 -1700. During this magic was not quaint a deviation from mainstream thought in the way it is understood to be now – it was not marginal to the early modern world, it was intrinsic to it.  Popular ‘magic’ flourished in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just as the Protestant Reformation was simultaneously attempting to remove magic and its associations from formal religious practice and doctrine. Thomas’ analysis of the 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, and science was gradually redefining the popular understanding and conception of the universe. No central argument is levelled at the readership here; the joy of his dry and witty thesis is in its accumulation of fine detail, and also in its broad humanity. 

Non fiction
Keith Thomas

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