Religion and the Decline of Magic (review)

by Jenny Gibbons

_Religion and the Decline of Magic_ by Keith Thomas


That's the most common adjective historians use for Keith Thomas' classic study of 16th-17th century English magic. Almost 30 years after its publication, RatDoM is still the standard text on the subject.

This isn't the sort of book you can just sit down and read from cover to cover. RatDoM is 700 pages long and dense. It's easy to become confused or overwhelmed by the thousands of different cases, by the dozens of types of magic Thomas discusses. My advice is: take it slow. RatDoM repays close study, a thousand-fold. But it's much easier to handle in small chunks, say a chapter a week or so. I found that I frequently had to stop and digest what I was reading.

Some of the various types of magick discussed are: Christian magick, the magick embedded in the rites and rituals of the Church; healing; Witch- finding and the rituals of the cunning folk; astrology; Hermetics; ancient prophecies; Witchcraft; ghost and fairy lore; fortuitous times, lucky and unlucky days; omens; weapon salves; and the King's Evil (scrofula, a disease that supposedly could only by cured by the touch of a rightful king or queen).

Besides being a splendid survey of the various kinds of popular magick of the Burning Times, RatDoM offers a wealth of information on the lives of Witches who *weren't* accused of Witchcraft. Thomas presents the other side of the story, what life was like for Witches who weren't accused of diabolism and maleficia. His book compliments the one-sided view you get from texts on Witchcraft, which focus almost exclusively on Witches who were accused of belonging to a Satanic conspiracy, rather than on the "average" Witch.