DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtad012 ISSN:

A Work Out of Time: Religion and the Decline of Magic at Fifty

Jan Machielsen, Michelle Pfeffer
  • History
  • Cultural Studies


The year 2021 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), a book that set the agenda for decades of scholarship on the history of popular religion and supernatural beliefs. The book brought to life a lost world of early modern English magic, its success ultimately confirming popular beliefs and practices as respectable objects of historical study. This review essay, emerging out of a conference celebrating the book’s legacy, explores why Religion and the Decline of Magic came to have such a lasting hold on the historical imagination and why, despite half a century of historiographical development, it has managed to achieve a kind of ahistorical permanence. The essay traces this apparent timelessness, in part, to the book’s contested origins. Religion and the Decline of Magic was an unusual and unexpected work to emerge out of the Oxford History Faculty and the maelstrom of social history in the 1960s. While much attention has been paid to its engagement with anthropological theory, we argue that the book’s longevity owes more to its status as ethnography and to Thomas’s methods as a historian, allowing generations of new readers to gain fresh insights from a work out of time.

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