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  • 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 Thomasbook, 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 functionit

  • was a rationalised response that offered solutions to problems for which the medieval period

  • had no other answersit helped give meaning to events such as disease or crop failure.

  • For Thomas, magic was intrinsically linked with the accepted world-view of the timeand

  • therefore part ofnormalmedieval life.

  • Although we may find it difficult to understand this medieval mind-set, people havethroughout

  • historyalways 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 logicaleven 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 pleasuresand 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 changeand 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 declinethe Protestant Reformation challenged

  • and attacked magical belief and was certainly an important factor.

  • Science was also expanding medieval peoplesknowledge 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 acceptednorm’.

  • 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 beliefthey 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 Thomasbook helps us to understand the complex interaction of differing belief

  • systemsand 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.

Belief in the powers and effects of magic was widespread in medieval and early modern

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