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51 of 53 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 Daniel Adamson

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33 of 51 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...
Published on 5 Jan 2005 by S. Timmis


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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Controversial Masterpiece., 30 Nov 2005
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.
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46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More then History., 8 Sep 2001
By 
T. Mazerolle "terrymaz" (Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada) - See all my reviews
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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
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, fascinating and the must-read book for this topic, 22 Aug 2013
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This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Paperback)
I bought this book because I was studying it as part of my History degree at university. I felt a little daunted to start reading it as it's a massively long text, but it turned out to be written in a fluent, engaging style that's really easy to just dip in and out of at different sittings and you don't have to slave through the whole thing to benefit from it. The book focuses on the dramatic rise in popularity of magical practices in the 15th and 16th centuries, and its subsequent decline towards the end of the 17th century. Keith Thomas has been commended for taking a new social approach and bringing a new argument to religion and the decline of magic that has become widely accepted by most historians and anthropologists. The book covers a wide range of types of magic, giving extremely detailed accounts on each, and is full of interesting and amusing anecdotes, making it just as much for the lay reader as the scholar. It is considered a must-read for anyone who is interested in or is studying this topic and I would personally recommend it as a fascinating and enjoyable read. The only reason I gave it 4 stars and not 5 is because it's so long!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Questions Still Unanswered, 19 Feb 2014
By 
Neutral "Phil" (UK) - See all my reviews
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Human intelligence is a fickle thing and too often confused with popularity. The cultural norms of one society when expressed in similar terms may appear the same. Hence 'astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts and fairies' were believed to play a major part in the human condition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while Marxism presented secular myth to nineteenth and twentieth century audiences. Thomas's book is a serious attempt to write history but often falls victim to the myths of social anthropology which litter his text and lacks the 'exact statistical data upon which the precise analysis of historical change must so often depend'. In the end we are left with interpretation from too little evidence.

This is not to disparage the book which has rightly been described as a classic but it does result in over-simplification in suggesting there 'was a preoccupation with the explanation and relief of human misfortune'. Since the dawn of human observation mankind has been concerned with 'the human condition'. That humans had not learned the importance of diet, the causes of disease and relied on the ideas of Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, was simply the importation of cultural norms from previous cultures which were not necessarily religious in origin but were explained in religious terms. Medical treatment was beyond the pockets of many and remained so until the NHS was founded in 1948. In the absence of official medical advice some chose to consult non-qualified practitioners which Thomas cavalierly dismisses as doing patients 'severe or even fatal damage' without mentioning those which worked and are now patented.

Tudor and Stuart society was like modern times with alcohol providing the lubrication for business and pleasure. Tobacco was widely abused and gambling widespread. Their practitioners were not noted for their religiosity. People were brought into the Catholic Church's miracle culture, although some of the 'saints', including Becket, were far from holy men. Holding a monopoly of religious belief the medieval Church became a by-word for corruption which was not helped by its condemnation of non-Orthodox beliefs as heresy. The adoption of superstitions by the Church was widely recognised as pecuniary in origin and practice. The doctrine of transubstantiation introduced, not an element of magic, but one of power. Even after the Reformation the antics of Charles 11's court and the poetry of Rochester showed the superficiality of religious belief in Stuart England. The change of church did not result in a change of human behaviour.

Thomas correctly draws a distinction 'between the prayers of a churchman and the spells of a magician' with the latter claiming to work whereas the former was a form of supplication which may or may not be answered. While 'the medieval church thus appeared as a vast reservoir of magical power, capable of being deployed for a variety of secular purposes' belief systems were matters of choice. Thomas asserts there was a process of assimilation from paganism but does not provide concrete evidence. He depicts the Church as encouraging superstition in order to foster popular devotion. Yet he admits 'The line between magic and religion is one which it is impossible to draw in many primitive societies; it is equally difficult to recognise in medieval England'.

The impact of the Reformation identified sacraments of the Catholic Church regarded as unscriptural, including the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Lollards provided substantial criticism in their twelve conclusions published in 1395. These followed the Waldensian critique of the Church by attacking Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, preferring to base doctrine on scripture and denying many of the claims of the Church to act as God's intermediary. Wycliffe's translation of the Bible resulted in a ban on the publication of scripture in the vernacular and Church and State both attempted to suppress the Lollards when the latter were thought to be a threat to the political power of each. The Church of England rejected many Catholic doctrines regarding them as magical rather than Christian and therefore irrelevant to 'justification by faith'. Daniel Defoe wrote that Popery was 'one entire system of anti-Christian magic'.

There was a fatalistic attitude to life. In the words of Job 'the Lordgave, and theLordhath taken away; blessed be the name of theLord.' Chance did not exist, the hand of God could be seen in everything. Protestant reformers prayed but did not deny God could of his own volition intervene in earthly affairs to help his people. Thomas understates the superficiality of religion in many people's lives. The English liked their religion but not too much of it. One observer noted, ' It was never merry England since we were impressed to come to the church'. For many the Church did not exist. The Christian gospel had fallen on the stony ground of ignorance and indifference. Scepticism was widespread and, as Thomas acknowledges, 'the hold of organised religion upon the people was never so complete as to leave no room for rival systems of belief'. The strength of organised religion lay in its political power.

Cunning men and wise women were practitioners of the black arts and under-pinned the persecution of witches. The Christian Church had long campaigned against the resort of the laity to magic. For radical Protestants ecclesiastical magic was a fraud and the practice of visitations to sorcerers collapsed after 1660. Thomas wrongly suggests the abandonment of ecclesiastical counter-magic was a matter of protecting pastoral status. It was a question of theological definition. Witchcraft prosecutions had no social roots but were directed from above, often motivated by financial incentives. Witchcraft prosecution was facilitated by the law of the land and ended when judges and juries refused to convict. The similarities between the denunciations of witches and those of traitors under Communist rule emphasises the continuity of human nature. Malinowski claimed magic explained the inexplicable and declined when science and technology provided alternative explanations. Nazi science proved him wrong. Five stars.
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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., 23 Jun 2009
A Kid's Review
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' classic and controversial work provides a grounded and informed survey of the spectrum of magical and mantic practise in England from the Tudor period into the 17th century, focussing upon astrologers and other pratitioners of traditional magical and divinatory arts: the period during the Civil War when censorship broke down and a flood of alchemical and hermetic works from Agrippa to Paracelsus became available in the vernacular is especially fascinating. Thomas' deals intelligently with witchcraft and those accused of it and while never shying away from the ubiquitous reality of Magic and magical practises in the pre-Enlightenment world he makes short shrift of those who would uncritically assert the historical reality of furtive, organised 'witch-cults' persisting through the centuries or who would desperately try to conflate these fantasies with the figures of the Cunning-Folk whose vocation was essentially Christian in conviction. WB Yeats asserted that scholarship is not iself the Sibyl but is sometimes capable of clearing away the rubbish obstructing the Sibyl's cave - this controversial classic by Keith Thomas proves the truth of that adage. An invaluable, highly detailed resource which will be prized by those studying the astrologers of 17th century England such as William Lilly and the reality of the magical arts in that period.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incisive, enlightening and well before it's time., 3 Sep 2008
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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.
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6 of 8 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, 28 Oct 2011
By 
F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Paperback)
The people of the 16th and 17th Century England lived in a demon-haunted world, where witches, spirits, ghosts and fairies were real entities, a world that held all the greater terror for having so few means of exerting any control over it. People were at the mercy not just of these imagined malevolent forces but the very real hazards of disease, fire and crop failure. Unsurprisingly then, the supernatural was evoked to explain and control the natural. The orthodox Christian narrative of other-worldly redemption provided little solace: people resorted to magic and astrology to control the world in the here and now.

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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4.0 out of 5 stars Educational - Read it!, 12 Feb 2013
This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Paperback)
Firstly, I would like to say that one reason that I like to write reviews of books is that it helps me to summarise what I have read and thereby clarify in my own mind what I have learned.
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`.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magic, 13 Jun 2013
By 
Didier (Ghent, Belgium) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Paperback)
I do apologize for the sorry pun in the title of my review, but I was very impressed by this book (old as it may be as history books go, having been first published in 1971). I like to read both more traditional histories (kings and queens, battles, you know what I mean) and social history, and this is one of the very best in the latter category that I've ever read. Keith Thomas must have perused thousands of pages of primary sources, and it seems - to use another well-worn phrase - that what he doesn't know about 'popular beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth England' isn't worth knowing.

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).
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33 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Book that is good on what it covers, 5 Jan 2005
By 
S. Timmis "stevetimmis" (Oxfordshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History) (Paperback)
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 17th century medicine, and the apothecaries that offered a cheaper, and no less effective service to the poor.
After a general overview of the historical trend there is an in depth study of Astrology, as practised at the time.
Where the book fails, and it fails badly, is that it gives the impression that magic was for the ignorant only. Very little space, about two pages, are devoted to the work of Frances Yates, work I do not think Thomas was keen to understand, but keen to dismiss. The overall result is that I feel Thomas wishes to dismiss magic as old-fashioned mumbo-jumbo, indulged in by the poor and the ignorant in desperate times, and so tells the story of superstition rather than magic.
It is a book that provides a great overview of the social climate of the time, but works with a deliberately narrow definition of magic, a definition that is never properly expounded or discussed, and deals very poorly with hermetic, gnostic and masonic trends, and so does not deal with what the average modern lay-thinker is interested in at all.
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