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on 15 August 2017
Read this some years ago and my copy was pinched by a friend... For good reason! Great book. Had to get a new copy, as I refer to it a great deal. Highly readable, challenging in parts.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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on 12 June 2013
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.
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 October 2011
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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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.
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