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Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in 16th and 17th Century England (Peregrine Books) Paperback – Dec 1978


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--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New ed. edition (Dec. 1978)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140551506
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140551501
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 101,548 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

Monumental ... with a living treasure on each page, and probably the book that, in my whole life, I've pressed on other people most energetically. (Selected people, of course. They have to care for history, and they need a sense of wonder and a sense of fun.) (Hilary Mantel New York Times) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Keith Thomas is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He was formerly President of Corpus Christi College and, before that, Professor of Modern History and Fellow of St John's College. RELIGION AND DECLINE OF MAGIC, his first book, won one of the two Wolfson Literary Awards for History in 1972. He was knighted in 1988 for services to the study of history. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Danielle Laverty on 29 Nov. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
this book arrived in good time, but it is a little difficult to read. I study history at university so I am used to academic texts but I thought that this one came across as very dry and the footnoting was excessive, to the point that there is sometimes only one paragraph of actual text on the page. That being said, it is very informative and good if you have time and an interest in this subject. I would recommend you buy Andrew Sneddon's Possessed By The Devil book instead.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 12 reviews
96 of 97 people found the following review helpful
A Remarkable Achievement 4 Jan. 2000
By P. A. Agnew - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Originally published in 1971, Keith Thomas's landmark book has lost none of its impact over the last 30 years. This book almost singlehadedly founded an entirely new school of historiography in the fields of astrology, magic, religion, and witchcraft. Before 1970, these subjects were largely the domain of storytellers and "new age" authors, who, making little claim to objectivity, would embellish their "histories" with fanciful and/or romantic myths. With this book, Keith Thomas rescued astrology and witchcraft from their terrible predicaments and elevated them into serious issues capable of being studied as history. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every major text published in this field after 1971 was profoundly influenced by Thomas's work. If you are planning to seriously investigate the topics of religion and magic, then this book is indispensable. Even if your investigative scope does not include England, this book is still required background reading.
The first chapter (The Environment) alone is worth the price of admission. In this astonishing piece, Thomas highlights the miserable condition of early modern life. After setting this background, Thomas goes on to discuss the "magic" of the Medieval Church, the various belief systems surrounding it, and the impact that the Reformation had upon the long standing "rituals" of the Catholic church. Becuase the Calvinists placed little trust in the Catholic rituals, many people "felt disarmed in the face of the devil." As a result, much of England and Europe began to fear the impact of astrology and witchcraft on everyday life. But as the quality of early-modern life was so bleak, many English men and women resorted to magical healing and astrology in order to seek refuge from their plight. So, on one hand, many feared astrology and magic, but those same people often sought solace in it as well.
After discussing in detail the significance and practice of astrology in early-modern England, Thomas then goes on to outline the history of the crime of witchcraft. The discussion of witchcraft is probably the highlight of the book. Never had any previous historian (and few since) so clearly outlined the form and function of witchcraft in English society. After a brief chapter on Ghosts and Fairies, Thomas finishes up by drawing connections between the various issues he discusses.
The book includes a comprehensive index as well as excellent bibliographical essays at the beginning of each chapter should anyone want to pursue any topic further. Simply put, this book is a masterpiece that has received few (if any) notable detractors. This book is required reading for anyone interested in this field, and highly recommended to everyone else.
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating Book! 7 Dec. 2000
By Constant Librarian - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I first read this book as a history graduate student many years ago, and it still remains one of my favorite books of all time. Thomas set himself a daunting task--ascertaining the effect the change in religion from Catholicism with its beliefs in miracles, saints, transubstantiation to Protestantism with its adversion to miraculous beliefs had on the popular imagination.
Thomas tapped little used sources, the Church court records which included trials for witchcraft or magic to see if he could trace a decline in belief in magic. Thomas concluded that magical belief did decline from the 15th-17th centuries. In my opinion, he proved his case.
Anyone who has done historical research will stand in awe of Thomas' command of sources and his ability to synthesize. Anyone who is more than a little fed up with ahistorical screeds on witchcraft prosecutions a la Margaret Murray, will applaud Thomas's reasoned and credible explaination of the reasons behind witchcraft prosecutions. Basically, witchcraft prosecution in 16th century England filled the same function as it does in contemporary Africa--an attempt to control the uncontrollable.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
An astonishing book in every way 7 Mar. 1998
By Robert Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
RELIGION AND THE DECLINE OF MAGIC is one of the greatest works of history that I have ever read. It is one of those books that is both highly entertaining and massively informative. It is also infuriating, because it is a book that is so full of detail, that it doesn't seem as if one person could have produced it. It makes me feel as if I have been wasting my life.
Thomas's subject is--as the title proclaims--the prevalence of and subsequent decline in magical beliefs in the Great Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. He surveys magic in a myriad of forms: magical elements within religious practice, village wizards and cunning men, astrology, prophecies, and--in the most famous and frequently referred to section--witches. My favorite sections were those dealing with astrology and witchcraft, as well as the beginning chapter dealing with "nasty, brutish, and short" quality of life at the time in England. The book is filled to the brim with fascinating bits of information, such as the fact that most of the caloric intake of men, women, and even children at the time came from beer, and that at sea an allotment of a gallon of beer a day was made! The inescapable conclusion was that Britain was a nation of alcoholics.

I find it difficult to overpraise this book. Since reading it during the summer, I have found dozens of references to it in various works, and always with the highest praise attached. One of the blurbs on the back of the beautiful new paperback edition recently put out by Oxford University Press claims that it is one of the two or three greatest works of history in the past thirty years, and I have no reason to doubt it. As testament to how highly I esteem this book, I plan on buying a new copy, since the old Scribner's paperback I read barely managed to hold together til the end.

Keith Thomas's other book, MAN AND THE NATURAL WORLD, is also a work of the highest order. My one complaint with Thomas is that he has not written enough books. My hope is that he is working on another.

Note:

Since writing that review Keith Thomas has come out with another work that I just found out about and just ordered. Due to a very heavy reading/writing schedule I'm not going to be able to read it for a while, but I look forward to doing so with enthusiasm. The title is THE ENDS OF LIFE: ROADS TO FULFILLMENT IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Impossible to resist! 9 Jun. 2000
By T. Mazerolle - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic was the first of my books for summer reading, and I doubt that any novel that I choose will be half as entertaining or any text as informative. By the conclusion I felt that I was completing an odessey throughout the early modern era with a sympathy and understanding of a world far different then ours in some respects, yet, as Thomas succinctly points out in the conclusion, profoundly similar. No other history book has granted me a deeper sense of understanding about human drives for stability and for explaination in all things. This is a book that grants insight and understanding far beyond its proclaimed subject matter, with positive and sweeping consequences for the objective thinker.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
One of the greatest books that I have ever read 28 Jan. 2010
By Robert Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
RELIGION AND THE DECLINE OF MAGIC is one of the greatest works of history that I have ever read. It is one of those books that is both highly entertaining and massively informative. It is also infuriating, because it is a book that is so full of detail, that it doesn't seem as if one person could have produced it. It makes me feel as if I have been wasting my life.
Thomas's subject is--as the title proclaims--the prevalence of and subsequent decline in magical beliefs in the Great Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. He surveys magic in a myriad of forms: magical elements within religious practice, village wizards and cunning men, astrology, prophecies, and--in the most famous and frequently referred to section--witches. My favorite sections were those dealing with astrology and witchcraft, as well as the beginning chapter dealing with "nasty, brutish, and short" quality of life at the time in England. The book is filled to the brim with fascinating bits of information, such as the fact that most of the caloric intake of men, women, and even children at the time came from beer, and that at sea an allotment of a gallon of beer a day was made! The inescapable conclusion was that Britain was a nation of alcoholics.

I find it difficult to overpraise this book. Since reading it during the summer, I have found dozens of references to it in various works, and always with the highest praise attached. One of the blurbs on the back of the beautiful new paperback edition recently put out by Oxford University Press claims that it is one of the two or three greatest works of history in the past thirty years, and I have no reason to doubt it. As testament to how highly I esteem this book, I plan on buying a new copy, since the old Scribner's paperback I read barely managed to hold together til the end.

Keith Thomas's other book, MAN AND THE NATURAL WORLD, is also a work of the highest order. My one complaint with Thomas is that he has not written enough books. My hope is that he is working on another.

Note:

Since writing that review Keith Thomas has come out with another work that I just found out about and just ordered. Due to a very heavy reading/writing schedule I'm not going to be able to read it for a while, but I look forward to doing so with enthusiasm. The title is THE ENDS OF LIFE: ROADS TO FULFILLMENT IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND.
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