Religion and the Decline of Magic

by Keith Thomas

My researches into the development of rationalism have of late been concentrating on the period between the Reformation and the Enlightenment — roughly speaking, 1550 to 1700. This was the period when rationalism penetrated Western culture. During the Middle Ages, rationalism was reserved to the academics. First they rediscovered the rationalism of the Greeks. Then they refined it and added quantification. This set the stage for the appearance of science, which took place during the period I’m studying. But my concern with this book is how the spirit of rationalism spread out of the ivory towers and into the population. 

This book presents, in excruciating detail, the story of how superstition declined in England during the period from about 1550 to 1750. The title is misleading; it is not primarily about religion nor is it primarily about magic. A better title would be “The Decline of Superstition in England from 1550 to 1750”. It addresses many forms of superstition: witches, wizards, fairies, and all manner of other superstitious beliefs.

Let’s dispense with the role of the English church in all this. In general, it opposed most superstition because such superstition competed with the “solutions” that the church offered. In the early days of the Christian church, it had learned to co-opt folk superstitions by incorporating them into its liturgy. But as the centuries rolled by, the church slowly stamped out the most deviant of the superstitions. The church was not fighting for rationalism; it saw the contest as faith versus superstition.

Combatting superstition was difficult because it was part of normal life. Remember, in those days, people lived in small villages and seldom traveled far. Thus, their entire lives were encompassed in a small social group of perhaps a hundred people. When you got sick, there was no doctor to help; doctors only lived in big cities and treated only wealthy clients. Instead, you went to the local old lady who knew all the medicinal lore: what herbs helped what maladies, how to concoct potions, and so forth. Every village had some of these old people — usually women but sometimes men — who could provide the best possible help. And sometimes it even worked.

The most commonly used term for such people was “cunning man” or “cunning woman”. They provided many services: finding lost items; helping attract a desirable mate; protecting against accidents, fire, or disease; exposing a thief; or assisting at birth. In many ways this was just an extension of the age-old custom of consulting “wise old people” for dealing with rare problems. By the sixteenth century these people had a huge array of lore to work with and were expected to be able to solve almost any problem.

But they ran into trouble when people started believing too much in their powers. If they could solve any problem, they could just as easily be the cause of any problem. The “cunning woman” with a bad reputation was transformed into a witch. 

Ironically, many of the accusations against witches were motivated by feelings of guilt. The standard scenario ran something like this: Old Woman shows up at Joe’s door, asking for food or the use of some tool. Joe refuses her request, even though in English village life there was a strong expectation for sharing with poor people, especially poor old people who had lived a productive life. So now Joe feels guilty for turning her away. A short while later, Joe’s cow dies. His guilt transforms into suspicion: Old Woman must have bewitched his cow! That sequence of events was usually enough to send her to the gallows as a witch. (Most witches in England were hanged, not burned.)

You might wonder how frauds like these could get away with their useless potions for centuries. It’s simple: in the insular life of most villagers, the “cunning people” were usually fairly good at treating simple ailments like fever or small injuries. Their failures were usually in dealing with rare calamities, in which the failure of their solution could be written off as a fluke or just bad luck. Without mass communications to share cumulative knowledge of the failure rate of such people, people had no basis for withholding credence.

The transition to rationalism was a top-down process. Educated people absorbed rationalism in their schooling. It was the educated people who derided superstition and put an end to the witch trials. Because they occupied high positions in society, they were able to slowly erode the hold that superstition held on the uneducated classes. It was a slow process: even in the nineteenth century many English villagers clung to some of their superstitions.  The process is still ongoing; how many people still believe in astrology, tarot cards, or holistic healing?

The author offers some speculation as to what led to the educated classes to embrace rationalism. His speculations aren’t very convincing. He suggests that urban living promoted rationalism because it was, well, cosmopolitan. That’s almost tautological. He suggests that the rise of science promoted rationalism, and there’s certainly a lot of truth in that.  He also intimates that the decline of religious fervor played a role in the rise of rationalism, but I see little causal relationship there. 

The key point that Mr. Thomas missed, I think, lies in the rise of mercantilism. The key to the rise of Greek rationalism was its dependence upon trade, with merchants becoming leading citizens. The marketplace is brutal with irrationalism; if you’re not thoroughly rationalist in your approach, you lose your shirt. In the sixteenth century, England had begun the shift from a society dominated by landlords to a society dominated by merchants. By the seventeenth century, merchants were important members of society, and the mercantile weltangschaung was penetrating deep into the English cultural consciousness — bringing rationalism along with it. That, in my opinion, was the driving factor behind the decline of superstition.