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Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England

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In closing, it is salutary to recall that intellectual history is not just the history of persuasion. It’s been some time since our field was interested only in the propositional content of the books of a handful of elite European men, even if our progress here has admittedly been rather slow. The interests, and opportunities, of intellectual history are today far broader.

The danger for the ruling elite comes only if the belief is that God is on the opposition=s side and it foments radical social dynamism. Religious fervor could be tolerated only as long as the voice of the people could never be confused or associated with the voice of God. Today=s efforts by some on the Religious Right to confound religion with politics plays right into the hands of political leaders because then religion can be manipulated to political ends. That is what often happened in Europe.astrologers to forecast the weather and planting and harvesting times to ensure successful crops, when astrology was the only system claiming scientific rigor that offered seemingly rational forecasts.

The decline of magic thus emerges from an oral culture of sarcasm and wit that flourished in the coffee houses. At first, this was seen as a threat to orthodoxy, in part because it was taken up by free-thinking Deists, but later the position was co-opted by religious, medical, and scientific establishment figures who worked hard to elide its heterodox origins and implications. Hunter is careful to stress the ‘pluralism that has come to be seen as characteristic of Enlightenment thought’, perhaps because in his mind the pendulum has swung too far towards the study of occultism (p. 142). Chapter Six, the second case study, partly fills in this pluralist picture further and provides some reasons behind the orthodox shift in attitude.Witchcraft, astrology, divination and every kind of popular magic flourished in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from the belief that a blessed amulet could prevent the assaults of the Devil to the use of the same charms to recover stolen goods. At the same time the Protestant Reformation attempted to take the magic out of religion, and scientists were developing new explanations of the universe. Keith Thomas's classic analysis of beliefs held on every level of English society begins with the collapse of the medieval Church and ends with the changing intellectual atmosphere around 1700, when science and rationalism began to challenge the older systems of belief. The Decline of Magic does not begin, as one might expect, with the Royal Society but with John Wagstaffe’s The Question of Witchcraft Debated (1669, 2 nd enlarged ed. 1671). The opening lines of Wagstaffe’s preface—‘The zealous affirmers of Witchcraft think it no slander to charge all those who deny it with Atheism’—already make the major theme of late 17th-century demonology crystal clear: spirits were a defence against irreligion. (1) I agree with Hunter that The Question of Witchcraft Debated is remarkable, though like him I find it difficult to articulate why. With perhaps one exception, Wagstaffe offers nothing that cannot already be found in Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) a century earlier. Hunter is right to emphasize the work’s ‘punchy, cynical tone’, its ‘boldness and iconoclasm’, though Scot’s sarcasm—‘He that can be perswaded that these things are true ... may soon be brought to believe that the Moon is made of green Cheese’—was already legendary (pp. 47, 35). (2) Certainly Wagstaffe’s work was not notable, pace Hunter, for his humanist learning. The claim that ‘the influence of antiquity can be argued to have had a crucial “modernising” effect’ is by far the least convincing part of Hunter’s argument (p. 51). Wagstaffe lifted his classical references straight out of Martin Delrio’s Disquisitiones magicae (1599–1600), the most-read demonology of the early modern period. (3) Evidence that this Jesuit had adduced to prove the universality of witchcraft was repurposed to demonstrate its ‘heathenish’ origins. Other arguments put forth by Wagstaffe, for instance, that the Bible, when speaking of witchcraft, had been mistranslated, were also decidedly old hat. A similar process (not, however, discussed here) can be seen in the New Light found in Quakerism and in the Scottish and Ulster Presbyterianism of the later seventeenth century, but which persisted into the nineteenth century. Here God revealed himself centrally in the indwelling “Light” of Conscience and Reason found in the human heart. It was a view that gave its name to the “Enlightenment”. Unfortunately for religion, it became possible to see Reason and Conscience as entirely human faculties, and forget they were supposed to be divine ones.

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