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A flawed masterpiece
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.