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re: Religion and the Decline of Magic
2011-07-24

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I can’t analyze the book’s larger arguments or know what claims may have become out-of-date since its publishing ~40 years ago, but I enjoyed the large number of concrete examples (with some statistics where possible) and found it helpful in getting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


Comments, questions, grievances? Email me at jacobaw@gmail.com


Tags: history review

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