Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Belief in the powers and effects of magic was widespread in medieval and early modern Europe. But what eventually led to its decline? Published in 1971, Keith Thomas’ book, Religion and the Decline of Magic, tries to answer that question by examining the complex relationship between magic, religion and science in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thomas draws on numerous sources to assert that magic had a pragmatic function – it was a rationalised response that offered solutions to problems for which the medieval period had no other answers – it helped give meaning to events such as disease or crop failure. For Thomas, magic was intrinsically linked with the accepted world-view of the time – and therefore part of ‘normal’ medieval life. Although we may find it difficult to understand this medieval mind-set, people have – throughout history – always been subject to influences and beliefs that now seem absurd or unusual. So, what modern comparisons can we draw on, to show how a belief might once have been deemed logical – even though it now seems irrational, thanks to advances in knowledge? In the early 20th century, tobacco was still perceived as being an effective stimulant. Tobacco companies even launched advertising campaigns to promote an image of cigarettes as being harmless pleasures – and even helpful in soothing sore throats. But, over time, scientific studies began to unravel the many health issues associated with smoking tobacco. As a result popular consensus began to change – and soon the belief that cigarettes were harmless, was turned on its head. In medieval times, similar shifts in belief began to take place. Thomas argues that this period saw a gradual decline in magic and superstition. He investigates the factors behind this decline – the Protestant Reformation challenged and attacked magical belief and was certainly an important factor. Science was also expanding medieval peoples’ knowledge of the world around them. Evidence that contradicted previous beliefs regarding supernatural powers and beings, slowly led to people abandoning magic, in the light of these new discoveries. The tobacco analogy demonstrates how new evidence overturned a previously accepted ‘norm’. But Thomas explains that the decline of magic was not as straightforward as the tobacco story. Rather than being a linear process, he says, there was actually a substantial overlap between magical, religious and scientific belief – they were not always in opposition with each other. In fact, in the 16th century, magical and scientific practitioners were often one and the same. Keith Thomas’ book helps us to understand the complex interaction of differing belief systems – and shows us how they both competed and complemented each other. He helps us to understand the complex cross currents of thought and belief in the early modern period. A more detailed examination can be found in the MACAT analysis.