Notes from Religion and the Decline of Magic (1976) by Keith Thomas

Chapter 1: The Environment: 16th and 17th c. England (1-25)

A Snapshot of Society in Tudor and Stuart England:

A huge variation in the standard of living, educational level, and intellectual sensibility:

  • England had a pre-industrial economy (similar to many under developed countries in the world today)
  • Population rise from 2.5 million (1500) to 5.5 million (1700)
    • 80% of the people lived in the country
    • 20% lived in 5-6 towns (over 10,000)
    • London was an exception. It's population would rise from 150,000 (1500) to 1.5 million (1700). At some point in their lives, one in every six people in England lived in London.
  • 33-50% survived at a subsistence level: cottagers, freeholders, laborers, farmers, paupers, and tradesmen.
  • 5% of the population owned 50% of the wealth: lawyers, clergy, merchants, officials, landed gentry, nobility.
  • Only the social elite was highly educated. (2.5% of the population)
  • 50-67% of the population was illiterate.

Social Conditions which contributed to belief in magic:

1. Low life expectancy due to pain, sickness and premature death: 29.6 years

  • 1/3rd of aristocratic infants died before they were age 5
  • In London in 1662, for every 100 births, 36 were dead by age 6 and another 24 were dead by age 16. (60% mortality rate)

2. Chronic Illness

  • Poor diet (The yield of corn doubled from 1500-1600, but so did the population.)
  • One harvest in six was a failure. During famines the mortality rate soared.
  • Deficiencies in Vitamin A (butter, green veggies) led to sore eyes.
  • Deficiencies in Vitamin D (milk and eggs) led to rickets.
  • Lack of iron caused 'green sickness' in women (chlorosis, anemia)
  • The poor and undernourished suffered from chronic gastric upsets due to rotten food.
  • Epidemics swept through the population. 30% of deaths in London were caused by influenza, typhus, dysentery and small pox.
  • Worst of all was the bubonic plague: Plague years in London: 1563 (20,000 dead); 1593 (15,000 dead); 1603 (36,000 dead); 1625 (41,000 dead); 1636 (10,000 dead); 1665 (68,000 dead)

3. No effective medical profession:

  • Medical 'science' was still dominated by the ideas of Galens, Aristotle and Hippocrates who argued that disease was the result of imbalances of the four humours in the bloodstream (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile).
  • The only 'therapies' know to medicine were bloodletting, purges and emetics, plasters, ointments and potions.
  • Surgery was still in its barbaric early evolution. Surgeons (often the local barber who possessed the sharpest razor) would cut out tumors, ulcers, and abcesses. They treated fractures and venereal diseases without antiseptics or anesthetics. They performed amputations, trepanned skulls, cut for kidney or gall stones, and set bones. Visiting a surgeon was a terrifying experience with a high mortality rate.
  • No one had the slightest idea what caused plague, nor had they developed the scientific method needed to discover its cause.
  • In London there was a severely limited number of physicians: one for every 5,000 people. Consulting a physician was far too expensive for 50% of the population. So about half of the mortalities in a given year came from causes that could have been treated.
  • Apothecaries outnumbered physicians 5 to 1.
  • Medicine began at home: home remedies. Physicians were never employed for child birth. (Forceps were not in use until the end of the 17th century.)
  • Only two hospitals for the physically ill existed in London by the end of the 17th century. Entering one meant increasing your chances of catching a fatal infection.
  • The mentally ill were locked up. Less dramatic cases of mental illness were treated with purges and bloodletting. Hysteria in women was thought to be a uterine malady until the late 17th century. (Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam) was a pioneering experiment in treating the mentally ill begun in the late 16th century by the first neurologist, Thomas Willis.)

4. Conclusions:

  • Unorthodox methods of healing predominated during Shakespeare's time. The nauseous remedies of physicians, the fear of surgery, and the general contempt for medicine in this era (even among the educated) drove sick people to find other cures.
  • Helplessness in the face of disease was an essential element in magical beliefs.
  • Poor people consulted 'wise women', empiric herbalists, when they fell ill.

5. Other kinds of misfortune could attack suddenly:

  • Fire! Towns were particularly vulnerable because houses were built closely together and the community owned no equipment with which to fight fire beyond hooks, ladders, and leather buckets. The only effective method to fight a fire was to blow up the buildings around the burning building.
  • There was no fire insurance. The unfortunate could only beg the church to authorize a collection for them.
  • In 1666 the great fire of London destroyed 13,000 houses and left 100,000 people homeless (1/10th of the population).
  • No occurrence so graphically symbolized the instability of human fortune. You could descend from wealth to utter penury in a matter of hours.

6. How did people cope? Instead of agitating for social reform, people turned to more direct forms of liberation:

  • Because living conditions were no better elsewhere and similar conditions had existed since time immemorial, people did not blame their 'betters' for the perilous conditions in which they lived. The poor would riot during famines, but there was no revolution to overthrow the class system until the French Revolution in 1789.
  • Drinking was built into the fabric of daily life. Every public or private occasion was accompanied by drinking. No business could be done in England without pots of beer. Working men got drunk at least once a week.
  • Beer was cheap. The standard allowance was one gallon per day (at sea and on land). Beer was a basic ingredient in everyone's diet, including children because the water supply was frequently contaminated. The alcohol in beer killed many bacteria. The per capita consumption of alcohol in England was higher than anything known in modern times. Alcohol was an essential narcotic which anesthetized the strains of life. (There was no other stimulant. Tea, for instance, was not affordable until the late 17th century.)
  • Tobacco was the newest narcotic. 140,000 pounds of tobacco were imported from 1614-21. 11,300,000 pounds were imported from 1699-1709: about 2 lbs. per head per year.
  • Gambling also diverted the poor from possibilities of self help and political activism.  Cards, dice, horse and foot races, bear baiting, cock fighting were all very popular.
  • They also protected themselves with magic.

Chapter 2 "The Magic of the Medieval Church" (25-50)

for the Medieval English,  Religion served as:

  • a system of explanation
  • a source of moral injunctions
  • a symbol of social order
  • a route to immortality
  • a supernatural means of controlling the earthly environment

Early conversions to the Church had been achieved in part because people believed they were acquiring a new and more powerful form of magic. The apostles attracted followers by working miracles and performing supernatural cures. In their fight against paganism, missionaries stressed the superiority of the Christian prayers to heathen charms.

Worship of Saints:

  •  The church countenanced (and profited from) prayers for intercession to saints, pilgrimages of the sick and infirm for supernatural cures, holy relics with the power to cure illnesses, and images of saints credited with miraculous efficacy. The worship of saints was integral to medieval society: the region's identity, the tourist economy and a town's corporate existence frequently depended on the popularity of the local saint.


  • Blessings were verbal formulae (incantations) designed to draw down God's practical blessing upon secular activities. Rituals involved the presence of a priest, employment of holy water and the sign of the cross to exorcise a demon from a material object. Exorcisms were frequently performed to make fields fertile and drive away caterpillars, rats and weeds. Church bells were rung to drive away thunderstorms.
  • Holy water was considered a remedy against disease and sterility. It too could also drive away thunder. The host was considered a medicine for the sick and a preservative against the plague. Holy water was drunk, scattered on fields, and sprinkled on domestic animals and baby cradles. The devil was supposedly allergic to holy water.
  • Ecclesiastical talismans and amulets (like rosaries) were believed to possess magical powers. The clergy's properties and costumes, coins in the offertory, the churchyard itself could protect you from evil.


  • The Mass was associated with magical power. The sacrament's meaning had shifted from the communion of the faithful to the special powers of the priest to perform the act of transubstantiation. The laity would receive benefit from their mere presence at the mass even if they could not understand what was being said. The priest's actual pronunciation of the words in a ritual manner could effect a change in the character of material objects. Church services were far more theatrical. The altar enclosed a sanctuary to protect the elements from the gaze of the public. The Church multiplied secular occasions when the Mass was performed as an act of propitiation for sin. Masses were performed for the sick, for women in labor, for good weather and safe journeys. Masses could protect against plague and protect you from sudden death. Performing a special number of masses in quick succession was regarded as a particularly powerful magic.
  • Perversions of the mass for the dead were said to harm living people. The clergy felt anxiety that none of the host be wasted, for communicants would carry the host from the mass and use it in support of many beliefs which the Church disavowed: cures for the blind and feverish, fertilizing gardens, putting out fires, curing swine, encouraging bees to make honey, and as love charms. People believed that the host could be used to test the honesty of a person testifying in court. The speaker would be damned if caught lying.
  • People believed that if you crossed yourself while the priest was reading the St. John's Gospel, then nothing bad could happen to you that day. People believed that unless a child was baptized, then the baby was not fully human. Dogs, cats, sheep and horses were baptized. A woman in Nottingham was confirmed seven times to help her rheumatism. Women could not come to church after childbirth for a time because they were believed to be impure until an appropriate ceremony had been performed. Marriage was only considered successful if a variety of rituals were performed. When buried, a corpse must face east; otherwise the poor person's ghost would return to trouble survivors. Extreme unction was the kiss of death; even if you got better, you could not eat meat, go barefoot or sleep with a woman.


  •  Prayers gave access to divine assistance. Prayers were likened to the utterance of a magic spell  which would work automatically unless some tiny detail had been missed or a rival magician was practicing stronger magic.
  • Prayers were supposed to ask for an intercession that was hoped for but not guaranteed, but in practice the distinction between prayer and magic spells was repeatedly blurred in the minds of common folk.


  • Religion was associated with magic in the minds of the believers.
  • This belief was a legacy of the original conversion which had been inspired in times long past by the miracle working powers of a saint and the superiority of this magic over pagan witchcraft.
  • Church authorities readily incorporated elements of old paganism into local religious practices (planting flowers and performing baptisms at holy wells; making pagan festivals into church festivals; leading ploughs before fires; bonfires on May Day, etc.)
  • Their own propaganda taught that superstition was only defined as practices that did not have church approval.

Chapter 3, "The Impact of the Reformation" (51-71)

Distinctions between magic and religion had been blurred by the Medieval Church. During the Reformation Protestant propagandists strongly reasserted the blasphemy of any such associations.

The ultra-Protestant position was expressed in the "The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards" (1395). The Lollards issued a sweeping denial of the Church's claim to manipulate any aspect of God's supernatural power. Any human claim to miraculous powers was condemned as blasphemy.

During the Tudor Reformation in the mid-16th century, Protestant leaders eliminated the Catholic rituals of consecration and exorcism. Signs of the cross, relics of saints, Holy water, consecrated bread, church bells, wearing words of scripture, and other like practices were condemned as necromancy.

During the reign of Edward IV, an onslaught against the central Catholic Doctrine of the Mass ensued. The concept of transubstantiation as a magical force independent of faith was condemned. The Communion became a simple commemorative rite.

In 1584 Reginald Scot published his Discoverie of Witchcraft which summarized the Protestant condemnation of the magical elements in Medieval Catholicism. All the sacraments were scrutinized for any magical affiliations. Of the seven sacraments, only baptism and the communion were retained in the new Anglican religion. By the end of the 16th century, the church had accepted the view that no religious ceremony possessed material efficacy. Divine grace could not be conjured.

  • The notion of consecrated ground was attacked, and the magic of the whole structure of the church building was rejected. Walls were whitewashed, stained glass broken, and images of saints removed.
  • The distinction between prayer and magical spells was hammered out. All prayers that were repeated without understanding were removed from the service, and the language of the service was translated to the English vernacular from Latin.
  • Most Catholic holidays were regarded as thinly concealed mutations of earlier pagan ceremonies. Rush bearing processions, lords of misrule, and summer lords and ladies were all banned. The Puritans wanted may games, morris dances, whitsun ales, and maypoles banned as well. The Puritans even argued that saying "Bless you" after a sneeze was blasphemous.


  • The deliberate effort of Protestants to remove magical elements from all church ceremony diminished the institutional role of the church as the dispenser of divine grace. Protestants believed that the individual's direct relation to God could not be helped by the mediation of clergy or the worship of saints. The priesthood's status was depreciated.
  • For the common people, the Reformation disrupted the traditional decorum of the essential events of life: birth, death, and marriage. These occasions had all been solemnized by church ritual. Now, the innumerable problems of life remained, and access to divine grace, it seemed, had been denied.
  • Were the common people prepared to face such a situation without recourse to other kinds of magical control?

Chapter 14, "Witchcraft in England: The Crime and Its History"

Witchcraft had always been considered harmful and anti-social, but the problem of distinguishing exactly which behaviors should be considered witchcraft was caused when Protestant reformers asserted the belief that any kind of magical activity must be considered harmful. Note that Protestants did not deny the existence of magic, but they considered any form of magic to be demonic.

Maleficium was the legal term for damage caused by any occult human agency. Maleficium was blamed for human injury and death, the killing or injury of farm animals, and interference with natural processes like cows giving milk or making butter, cheese or beer. People believed that witchcraft could interfere with weather and frustrate sexual relations.

The power of witchcraft was exercised through "touch" or the "evil eye" which "fascinated" and made one 'rapt', through a curse "forespoken". Technical aids were less common:  wax images with pins, writing names on paper and then burning them, or burying pieces of clothing.

Neo-Platonic intellectual currents in the 16th and 17th centuries encouraged these superstitions. It was accepted belief that harm could be caused by manipulating hair, fingernails, sweat, or excrement because they contained the vital spirits and invisible emanations of the body.

Only in the late Middle Ages did the belief become current that the witch owed his or her power to the Devil who granted his aid in a deliberate pact, but there is little evidence of any organized bands of Devil worshippers who had formed 'covens' in England. Witchcraft was not regarded as heresy by most common people; instead, common folk believed that witchcraft was a means of doing harm by supernatural means.

Three Acts of Parliament condemning witchcraft were passed during the 16th and early 17th centuries, in 1542, 1563, and 1604. No reference to diabolical compacts were made in either of the first two.

  • 1542: It was deemed a felony (a capitol offense) to use witchcraft for unlawful purposes: "to find treasure; to waste or destroy a person's body, limb, or goods; to provoke unlawful love; to declare what had happened to stolen goods; or for any other unlawful purpose." Witchcraft was regarded as an act of hostility not as heresy.
  • 1563: This law was more severe. It made it unlawful to evoke evil spirits for any purpose whatsoever, whether maleficium was involved or not. Witchcraft was considered a capitol crime only if the activity resulted in the death of a human victim. Unsuccessful attempts resulted in prison terms or time in the stocks.
  • 1604: Even more severe. Any invocation of evil spirits was deemed a felony and made punishable by death. It was considered a felony "to take up a dead body for magical purposes, to consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil spirits."

There was an enormous concentration of witch trials during the Elizabethan period, yet witch beliefs had existed long before this time. Why the increase in trials?

The Reformation actually strengthened the belief in the Devil. This character had played a relatively unimportant role in the Old Testament, but had been raised by Christianity to God's grand cosmic antagonist. The Devil also served as the instrument of divine justice: sinners constituted the members of his kingdom in hell. Aided by an army of demons and spirits as numerous as the saints and angels of Christ, the Devil wielded enormous power. He had once been one of God's angels, so he knew all the secrets of the natural world. He had no corporeal existence, but he could borrow or counterfeit human shape. The horns, hail and brimstone of the Medieval stage, the grotesques of cathedral sculpture, all contributed to the immediate and terrifying presence of the Devil in the minds of the 16th century common people.

The Reformation strengthened this concept. Protestantism preached a deep conviction in the sinfulness of man and his powerlessness in the face of evil. Martin Luther believed that the whole of physical reality belonged to Satan. In the long run the Protestant belief in the single sovereignty of God vs. the Catholic concept of a graded hierarchy of spiritual powers helped dissolve the supernatural world. However, in the short run the battle with Satan became a physical reality. God had given Satan free run.

So Protestants believed in the reality of the Devil and his power to tempt and destroy humans, but they discredited and outlawed all of the 'white magic' which had been used by the common people to protect themselves from evil spirits.

Particularly in the cases of demonic possession, the Protestants offered no magical remedy. The 'bewitched' suffered hysterical fits, wild convulsions and distortions, strange vomiting, paralysis, and they spoke in the voices of demons uttering obscene and blasphemous ravings and also talking in unknown languages. The Medieval Church's remedy was exorcism: a ceremony that comprised part of the rite of baptism. The ritual included the sign of the cross, symbolic breathing, holy water, and the command to cast out the demon. Protestant opinion viewed this practice with considerable hostility. Would be exorcists were regarded as wizards. The Devil could not be frightened by water or words. A clergyman could only pray for the spirit to depart.

Many examples of possession took place among the dissenters to Puritan strictures. These cases often originate in a highly repressive religious environment: a hysterical reaction against discipline and a means of expressing forbidden impulses and attracting attention. But the clergy seemed to have abandoned their traditional defense: exorcism had become a Roman Catholic monopoly, so common people turned to wizards and charmers for relief.

Medieval protections from the fiend included holy water, the sign of the cross, holy candles, holy bells, consecrated herbs, sacred words worn next to the body, and folk magic. All of these remedies had been forbidden by the Protestants. So the mechanical protections regarded as providing immunity form witchcraft had been removed. Prayer, penitence and patience were all that the reformed Church offered. Even so, the reality of the Devil and the extent of his earthly dominion were emphasized by the Protestants. The reality of witchcraft was acknowledged, yet any effective or legitimate form of protection was denied. They recommended passive endurance in the face of maleficium.

Defenselessness led people to the final remedy: execution of the witch. From the late 16th century until the dawn of the Enlightenment a century later, an unprecedented number of witch trials and executions took place.