46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Controversial Masterpiece.
This is unquestionably one of the great works of history written in Englsh in the 20th century. It is hard, over thirty years later, to conceive of just how radical and imaginative this book appeared when it was first published. It not only transformed our understanding of English religious history, but also helped to permanently change our approach to the past. I would...
Published on 30 Nov 2005 by silas sondanson
32 of 49 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Book that is good on what it covers
This book is a classic. It should be read by all serious students of the esoteric and all with a genuine interest in the spiritual history of Western Europe.
The book provides a great deal of detail on the superstitions and quack medicine of the 16th and 17th centuries in Britain. It gives wonderful detail, and some lovely anecdotes, concerning the horrors of 16th and...
Published on 5 Jan 2005 by S. Timmis
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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Controversial Masterpiece.,
This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Paperback)This is unquestionably one of the great works of history written in Englsh in the 20th century. It is hard, over thirty years later, to conceive of just how radical and imaginative this book appeared when it was first published. It not only transformed our understanding of English religious history, but also helped to permanently change our approach to the past. I would encourage prospective buyers not to pay too much attention to the negative comments in some of other reviews: the fact that this book still inspires controversy and debate a whole generation after its first printing is testimony to its greatness.
44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More then History.,
This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (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
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incisive, enlightening and well before it's time.,
This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Paperback)This was one of my sources for an essay I wrote on how witchcraft, wise men and divination etc were tolerated more in Britain - even more so in Wales - after the Reformation, while in Catholic Europe, thousands were executed for practicing the so-called "dark arts."
When Catholicism disappeared in Britain, so did all its 'magic' (the rites, ceremonies and blessings that had replaced old pagan charms and offerings). Overnight, people lost their protection from those evil spirits out there, and turned to witches' and wise men's charms and spells. You could say it was a mini boom time for wise men and witches! And these gifted people were no fakes either. Being excellent herbalists and healers, they're magic was trusted, and people had faith in their spells - which made them work too. It was no wonder that people began to believe they could also protect crops from bad spirits that caused storms and drought. Their whole livelihoods depended on this magic.
A masterly work, this book is incisive, enlightening, and well before its time.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magic,
Indeed, so many are this book's qualities that it's near impossible to do it justice in the space of just a short review. In a fluent and easily readable style Thomas treats religion, magic, astrology, 'the appeal to the past' (prophecies), witchcraft and 'allied beliefs' (ghosts and fairies, times and omens) before coming to his conclusion about the decline of magic. Every chapter is illustrated with dozens of examples taken from diaries, court records, pamphlets, and so on which makes this grand story all the more captivating and bewitching (there I go again).
800 pages and never a dull moment! The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England was just as breath-taking, so I can't wait to begin Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Penguin Press History).
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a grounded, informed survey of magical practise in England from the Tudor period into the 17th c.,
A Kid's Review
4.0 out of 5 stars Some startling things about superstition,
The book is long (850 pages) but some sections can be skipped without detracing from the essential message. It a valuable addition to our knowledge of the period.
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, fascinating and the must-read book for this topic,
5.0 out of 5 stars Historically fascinating,
This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Kindle Edition)This book could well revise the way you look at your own perceptions of life, the universe, and everything. It is a common fault to look at the past from your own viewpoint, to judge the acts of a society by your perspective. This book takes you a step away from any such reactionary stance. It collates the boundaries between blind faith and obedience to myths. It reveals strong links between religion and magic. If you let it do so it can help you break away from the prejudices you grow as life continues. Belief - in religion, myth, magic, or even politics - is so often handed down to us, and too often it takes us over. We inherit views which despite their absurdity we find hard to break away from. The gradual emergence of rational thought, based on evidence and not on prejudice, is the most positive way out of the blind alleyways we find ourselves in.
4.0 out of 5 stars Educational - Read it!,
I was drawn to Religion and the Decline of Magic as it was mentioned in the bibliography of a work on 18th century British society and crime and grabbed my attention. The main headings are Religion, Magic, Astrology, Prophecies, Witchcraft and Allied beliefs - ie Ghosts, Fairies and Superstitions; and the book attempts to analyse these areas in 16th and 17th century England.
Well, my verdict is generally positive. I feel that the time I have invested in reading this book has been well spent and that I am in some ways better equipped to understand the sometimes enigmatic aspects of our society. After all, there is no better way of trying to make sense of the human condition than to go back and examine our behaviour in the past. So if you are the investigative type and are interested in researching our social history, then this is in my opinion a book worth reading. I will refrain from commenting on the substance of this work. Personally I feel that matters of religion and superstition are essentially subjective and that everyone will draw his or her own conclusions. This book serves to highlight the evolution of religion and other beliefs/superstitions as far as the historical record will allow. One thread which runs throughout is that `Religion, astrology and magic all purported to help men with their daily problems by teaching them how to avoid misfortune and how to account for it when it struck.` And this of course persists to this day albeit more for the former than for astrology or magic. However, it would be perhaps premature to dismiss the latter two as extinct. Perhaps those intellectuals who began to drop astrology in the latter stages of the 17th century would be surprised at its persisting popular appeal into the 21st.
This is a fairly long book but I did not really find any of the content misplaced and in a way the volume had a more pervasive effect on me than I might have expected. And a little humour...`A puritan minister was said in 1618 to have hurled curses from the pulpit at those who walked out of his lengthy sermons`.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Classic Work of History - Vital to Understanding the Differences Between Science, Religion and Magic,
Thomas' celebrated discussion of witchcraft showcases how existing mentalities interacted with a change in the intellectual climate to produce an unprecedented wave of convictions and executions for witchcraft in 16th and first half of the 17th Century, which rapidly fell away in the latter part of the 17th Centuries through to the 18th.
But why? After all, people had believed in things like curses, the power of words to inflict physical harm, the reality of Satan and so on for centuries. The key, for Thomas, was the reformation's overthrow of Catholic ecclesiastical magic, which left ordinary folk feeling unprotected from the supposed power of witches.
Those who were likely to fall foul of witchcraft accusations were overwhelmingly poor and female. It was assumed that the motive for these women to sell their souls to Satan was a ticket out of poverty. Such beliefs seem absurd to us of course. But it made sense against the background of what sorts of things people believed about the world at the time.
Village life during this period would have been habitually suspicious of the outsider: those who didn't conform, those who lived at the margins of village life, those who fell outside of the snooping and surveillance of village life. They were assumed to bear malice against the rest of the community because they didn't fit in. The tendency to attribute any misfortune to malign powers and personify it in the figure of a witch was reinforced by the contemporary state of ignorance regarding natural causes: doctors themselves resorted to witchcraft to diagnose maladies that couldn't otherwise be explained.
Rationalism of both the materialist and Protestant reformed kind changed the intellectual context. Thomas Hobbes claimed that although demons might exist, these were in all likelihood `phantasms' of the brain. Some Protestant figures argued that the idea of witchcraft had no biblical foundation. Ironically then certain Protestant biblical fundamentalist interpretations may have actually contributed to this change in cultural and intellectual climate for the better. The growth of the assumption of an orderly, regular universe, allied with an assumption that so called unnatural events were in fact natural ones, left no room for the capricious intervention of God or the Devil. The idea of witchcraft presupposed a magical, irrational view of the natural world that came to be seen as absurd.
As we moved into the 18th Century, magic became fell out of vogue among the educated but religion itself persisted. Why was this? The reformation adapted religion so it could incorporate the insights of materialist science. Protestant theologians stressed that the doctrine of providence meant that God's purposes were unknown to anyone except himself. Prayer was petitionary - you were pleaded with God to alter his purposes. But it presupposed that the power to do so was his alone. He could not be goaded or manipulated to intervene mechanically using magic. This distinction was neither obvious nor evident in practice. Contemporary magicians could rightly point to the Bible whereby the likes of Moses possessed magic ability. But Protestantism enabled Christianity to survive the onslaught of the rise of mechanistic science and philosophy in the 17th and 18th Centuries by casting God as working through natural laws that could not be bent irrationally by mere mortals using trickery. The insights of the Darwin and Mendel still lay in the future but initially religion weathered the scientific revolution.
The initial losers were alternative claimants to scientific knowledge, like astrology. The growth of scientific knowledge - namely, the discovery of new planets, moons, nebulae and stars - overthrew astrology's assumption that the heavens were immutable. The Earth was just one world among many others; the heavens were not a picture of celestial perfection. Comets were found to be so far away that could not be attributed powers to scorch the Earth and cause drought. So why did astrology last so long before the rise of rationalist philosophy? The reason was individual practitioners could always attribute mistakes to faulty calculations. Confirmation bias on the part of users registered correct predictions but discounted false ones. In the absence of systems to exchange information, `consumers' were unable to compare and swap notes. The growth of literacy, media and urbanisation, which allowed the exchange of ideas, changed all this.
The book is suitable for both generalists with an interest in religion, the history of ideas, social history, and specialists with a particular interest in 16th and 17th Century English history. It is at times a dense text, and one can feel somewhat overwhelmed by the stacking up of examples of beliefs in which we no longer believe. Bu this is a comprehensive evocation of a mental world of our ancestors, vestiges of which persist to this day (think of the popularity of horoscopes). And of course such thinking persists in all deadly seriousness in some parts of the developing world. This book doubtless will still be consulted in another 40 years' hence, for the rich insights it yields into both human particulars and universals.
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Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) by Keith Thomas (Paperback - 30 Jan 2003)