Learn more Shop now Learn more Shop now Shop now Shop now Learn More Shop now Shop now Learn more Shop Fire Shop Kindle Learn More Fitbit



There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.

on 22 June 2017
Stupendous, lofty read, not a jot boring, quite the opposite, it's lively, full of anecdote, just the way a scholarly piece of work needs to be. It's not only informative but is filled with example of various events such as the local yokel on being questioned by an officer of the church in the fifteenth century sometime in some rural outpost of England, if he knew who were The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost, leaned on his stick, thought for a moment and replied that well, he knew who the father and the son were, they lived in the manor and he looked after their sheep for them, but who this other fellow was, he didn't know, there was no-one in the village by that name.
It's a brilliant read, full of that sort of thing.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 19 March 2017
For anyone interested in the history of ideas, and how human societies perceive the world, this book is required reading. Its insights will stay with you and colour your thinking long after you've read it.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 8 March 2017
Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.  

One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my tale ‘The Cleft Owl.’ 

Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century. 

Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.  

To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.
0Comment| 2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 2 October 2014
Thomas' classic provides an excellent directory for the period sources. As a compendium of the evidence available by c.1970, it is unparalleled, and the ambition required to assemble such a corpus deserves very high praise.

Its ambition is also largely its undoing. The chief flaws are:

(i) It is epic. Slogging through it in one sitting is deeply inadvisable - this is a book which rewards regular visiting rather than a single extended tour.

(ii) Thomas' categorisation of the evidence is entirely artificial. He imposes a taxonomy of types of magical practice - medicine / astrology / divination / geomancy / witchcraft / folk religion - that originates almost entirely in the mid 20th Century. There was absolutely no consensus at the time on where the dividing lines between different types of practice were drawn, and indeed many practitioners wouldn't have drawn many lines at all.

(iii) The argumentation has big holes in it. The most glaring is the direct contradiction between his position on popular understanding of Christian theology (i.e. that the majority of the population had little or no grasp of Christian doctrine) and his position on folk religion and magic (that there were no widespread folk religions and that most people derived their understanding of magic through the lens of Christian theology - a position hard to maintain if you've already demonstrated people had little grasp of Christian theology). But there are numerous others: his out-of-hand rejection of "top-down" central impetus behind witch trials and their role in establishing social conformity (something of a nonsense given the central law-making and instructions to JPs, the role of the Star Chamber court which he largely glosses over, and the later importance of the judiciary in discontinuing legal action against witchcraft); his willingness to cite examples widely dispersed in time and space as if they illustrate consistent themes rather than particular local circumstances; his treatment of Anglican religion as if it were independent of the state rather than an organ thereof; his over-reliance on certain mid 17th Century sources (which, while fascinating, have to be understood within the very particular and rather peculiar circumstances of the world turned upside down).

(iv) Thomas' analysis is as much a historical artifact as the sources he considers - this is a work grounded in the mentality of mid 20th Century social theory.

Nonetheless, if you want an illustration of the kinds of beliefs held through the period, Thomas' work is still the go-to volume.
0Comment| 10 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
VINE VOICEon 19 February 2014
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 Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.' 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.
11 Comment| 2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 22 August 2013
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!
0Comment| 10 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 30 November 2005
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.
0Comment| 62 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 15 October 2014
This is the best and most in-depth work I have ever read on witchcraft and I was able to use it for a well-received presentation on witchcraft in the 17th century. A noted academic told me that this is a world renowned book and the author is a highly respected historian. The book itself arrived on time, well packaged and in pristine condition.
0Comment| 2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 12 February 2013
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`.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 23 June 2009
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.
0Comment| 10 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse

Sponsored Links

  (What is this?)