Friday, 2 August 2019


Keith Thomas' book Religion and the Decline of Magic is a long and very detailed history of magic in England from about 1500 to 1700. It leaves the reader with a number of interesting perspectives - for example the essentially derivative nature of magic.

The rural magicians of Tudor England did not invent their own charms: they inherited them from the medieval Church, and their formulae and rituals were largely derivative products of centuries of Catholic teaching.

Yet magic, divination and astrology were not irrational within the conceptual frameworks of the time. Given an Aristotelian and Ptolemaic outlook, magical thinking could be internally consistent, especially as it had its professional practitioners.

It would be tempting to explain this long survival of magical practices by pointing out that they helped to provide many professional wizards with a respectable livelihood. The example of the legal profession is a reminder that it is always possible for a substantial social group to support itself by proffering solutions to problems which they themselves have helped to manufacture.

Magical thinking was not ousted by science; but was slowly rendered untenable by perspectives which had changed. Inventions such as the compass, the telescope and the microscope helped usher in perspectives where magical ideas were out of date, unfashionable and ultimately risible. Over time it became apparent that there were better solutions.

After the Fire of London many towns banned or re-banned thatched roofs and wooden buildings, and there was a steady increase in the use of brick. None of these measures eliminated the risk of fire or made it very much easier to control. But they represented an advance on the meagre fire-fighting equipment of most Tudor municipalities, and they reflected faith in the ultimate possibility of a technical solution.

Magic filled conceptual gaps but was not always superseded merely because those gaps had been filled with more plausible thinking. As Thomas says, William Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood did not immediately lead to new or more effective medical treatments. They came later. Yet even without understanding the root cause of a disease it became possible to adopt certain practical precautions.

Few of the innumerable writers who regarded plague as a punishment for sin took a completely fatalist position. They all began by urging their readers to repent, but most of them ended by advising them to practise better hygiene, to employ suitable medicine, and, failing all else, to run away.

It is an interesting book and well worth reading as a background to something we may think we have discarded.

Have we discarded magic? What about our own times? It seems fairly obvious that we still have our magical modes of thought and are still presented with magical perspectives. The cinema is full of magic where natural law and even logic are crudely suspended. Spiderman does not use a version of the spiders’ web, he uses magic. What he does is physically and biologically impossible.

One might even suggest that modern political life often seems to rely on a naive faith in arcane knowledge and magical charms such as equality and sustainability. Magical spells such as racism are used against those who lack faith in the wizards and witches of political correctness. Slightly tongue in cheek perhaps but we still fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding with magical leaps of faith.


James Higham said...

As someone who knows some astrologers, alchemists and necromancers, it certainly hasn’t died.

A K Haart said...

James - I wouldn't be astonished if these and similar ideas become more common.