Saturday, October 15, 2016

Keith Thomas

A recent trip abroad prompted me to reread sections of Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas's famous analysis of religious belief in Europe between the late Middle Ages and the seventeenth century. 

I should say from the start that this is history as it should be written: smart, perceptive, and eloquent. Thomas is both a masterful stylist and an attuned scholar. Religion and Magic represents the workings of a superior mind. 

Part of what I appreciate most about about Religion and Magic is the clarity of Thomas's thesis. The medieval church, he argues, dealt in "supernatural remedies to earthly problems." The sacraments manifest this dynamic, and "worked automatically," he writes, "regardless of the moral worth of the officiating priest." The church's superstructure did a considerable amount to "weaken the fundamental distinction between prayer and charm, and to encourage the idea that there was virtue in the mere repetition of holy words." 

In effect, the church functioned as both a devotional and magical institution. This, explains Thomas, reflected three conditions: first, the need to fully assimilate pagan sites and traditions, and to replace them with Christian belief (however magical that might be); second, the need for the church to assert its authority as the arbiter of divine intersession; and third, the need for religious leaders to highlight the "counter-magic" at the church's disposal. What emerged, however, was less dogmatic and more superstitious: this was a system in which the church increasingly "endowed religious objects with a magical power to which theologians themselves had never laid claim." It was a world, in short, defined by necromancy: the tendency to attribute virtue and power to the mere "enunciation of words."

It was against this world of candles, holy water, and trinkets that the Lollards, and later the Protestants, declared war. Here, Thomas is at his best. In a chapter dedicated to the English Reformation, Thomas narrates the cataclysmic events of the sixteenth century, paying particular attention to the religious change initiated from Edward VI forward. Exorcism, pilgrimage, and consecration were but three facets of traditional belief targeted by Tudor reformers. Their goal was clear: to "take the magical elements out of religion...and to eliminate the idea that the rituals of the church had about them a mechanical efficacy." 

It's toward the end of his treatment of the Reformation that Thomas makes what is for me one of his most compelling points. He argues that a religion defined by "practice" had been replaced by a religion characterized by "belief." The magical effects assigned by the medieval church to each of life's milestones had been replaced by a formalized, if at times opaque, creed. And while this transition was a protracted one, stretching well into the seventeenth century, its arrival was critical, setting the stage - as it did - for later developments in intellectual thought. The "theatricality, ritual, and decoration" of Catholicism were gone: what came next was nothing short of the radical reimagining of humanity's role in the world. 

Cue the eighteenth century...

1 comment:

  1. The topic is one that interest me (not to mention I'm going over this period for homeschool this year) and Thomas sounds like he provides an insightful read. Because of your notes, I was able to grab this at a used bookstore this week...otherwise I probably would have passed right over it. Thanks!