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re: Religion and the Decline of Magic

Tidbits about 16th/17th century England, from Religion and the Decline of Magic (Keith Thomas):

  • There was a rash of self-proclaimed Christs, like William Hacket - “a fierce man, who was said to have bitten off and eaten an antagonist’s nose”
  • Witchcraft accusations were “normally only levied when the accuser felt, not merely that the witch bore a grudge against him, but that the grudge was a justifiable one.” A man flouting tradition by refusing to aid a begging widow, might declare her a witch when he next encounters some hardship.
  • Searching for treasure was a common reason to consult magicians and astrologers - “in the absence of an alternative system of deposit banking the possibility of coming across hidden treasure was by no means a chimera”. Astrology, which “was recognizably the same subject as that expounded … in the second century A.D.”, held significant intellectual prestige for a time.
  • Fairy mythology was sometimes taken seriously; “a reputed wizard, had told a woman whose four-year-old child could neither walk nor talk that the brat was a changeling, and that the only hope of redress was to put him on a chair on a dunghill for an hour on a sunny day, in the hope that the fairies would come back and replace him by the child they had stolen”
  • Sweeping conspiracy theories were invented regarding Catholics - “started the Civil War by infiltrating themselves in disguise … were behind many of the outbreaks of fire … could also attack individuals.”

I can’t analyze the book’s larger arguments or know what claims may have become out-of-date since its publishing ~40 years ago, but I enjoyed the large number of concrete examples (with some statistics where possible) and found it helpful in getting an idea of the mental climate at the time.

Tags: review

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