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:
huge variation in the standard of living, educational level, and intellectual
- 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
- 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
- 5% of the population
owned 50% of the wealth: lawyers, clergy, merchants, officials, landed
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
for the Medieval English, Religion served as:
- a system of
- a source of moral
- a symbol of social
- a route to
- 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:
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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