The Magic is Gone

Were humanist free-thinkers the engineers of magic’s decline?

Three witches in a graveyard, English, c.1790 © akg-images.

Most of the intended readers of Michael Hunter’s provocative and enjoyably readable new study will instantly recognise the allusion in its title. In 1971 – and it is to be hoped that someone is already thinking about ways to mark the almost-imminent 50th anniversary of its publication – Sir Keith Thomas produced one of the 20th century’s most influential books of early modern cultural history. Religion and the Decline of Magic was a sweeping survey and a frequently brilliant analysis of forms and patterns of mentality that had previously attracted little attention from ‘reputable’ academic historians: witchcraft, ghost and fairy beliefs, demonic possession, astrology, magical healing, omens and prophecy. Thomas’ achievement was convincingly to explain the social functions and internal logic of such ‘irrational’ beliefs. Yet in doing so, Hunter suggests, he produced a problem he had not initially anticipated. If these belief systems were vital and coherent, as well as immensely useful, why did they actually dissipate or disappear? Thomas, we are reminded, devoted only 40-odd of his 700-plus pages to the explanation of magic’s ‘decline’ in England, an explanation which, in its broad-brush appeal to changing intellectual and technological environments, Hunter finds ‘disappointingly inconclusive’.

Inconclusiveness is a vice Hunter is determined to avoid, as he sets about the task of explaining why it was that, between about 1650 and 1750, magical ways of thinking lost their purchase in England, at least among the educated. The preface helpfully sets out the key arguments of the book. Magic was not an immediate and inevitable casualty of the so-called Scientific Revolution. Indeed, the Royal Society, whose members’ views were deeply divided, tended to avoid the issue – a silence only retrospectively interpreted as negatively critical. Medical doctors of the Enlightenment did indeed advance naturalistic diagnoses of conditions previously seen as magically induced, but their preferred treatments (such as blood-letting) were scarcely ‘modern’. Claims about magical causation were hard to disprove empirically – accusations of fraud abounded, but were just as often vigorously contested. In fact, it was not really ‘science’ that did for ‘magic’. Rather, the key engineers of magic’s decline were humanist free-thinkers, whose sceptical views circulated not so much in formal printed treatises as in the witty flow of conversation around society dinner tables and in coffee houses and salons. That such men were often sceptical about religion in general, Hunter contends, actually inhibited widespread early acceptance of their ideas. Change came about gradually, ‘through a kind of cultural osmosis’, dependent as much on long-available ideas of classical antiquity as on any apparent breakthroughs in knowledge. In a pithy summation (which will surely be seconded for duty in future undergraduate exam papers), Hunter argues that ‘the Enlightenment did not reject magic for good reasons but for bad ones’.

Hunter’s critique of the whiggish assumptions which, for all the book’s insight and subtlety, underpinned the concluding chapters of Religion and the Decline of Magic is encompassed in his very different approach. Thomas built up his mosaic of interpretation by meticulous accumulation of examples, but Hunter prefers to wield the brush of the miniaturist, drawing wider inferences from the analysis of detailed case studies. Some chapters are, indeed, versions of previously published articles and essays, but these have been reworked for the purposes of the volume.

After an introductory chapter establishing the durability of magic in orthodox thinking, we are treated to a close reading of the content and reception of John Wagstaffe’s Question of Witchcraft Debated (1669) – a moderately sceptical work which, Hunter argues, was disturbing because of its perceived affinities to more extreme views circulating orally in the Restoration period. There is a distinct topicality to Hunter’s reflection that intellectual change does not come about as a result of reasoned argument: ‘People just made up their minds and then grasped at arguments to substantiate their preconceived ideas.’ Confirmation bias is not an invention of the social media age.

Subjects addressed in other chapters include the late 17th-century deists John Toland and John Trenchard, early 18th-century medics and liberal divines and the various contributors to a remarkably long-running controversy about the ‘drummer of Tedworth’ – a poltergeist supposedly haunting a Wiltshire gentry household in the 1660s. Hunter also showcases his unrivalled expertise on the career and attitudes of Robert Boyle, popularly remembered as the ‘father of modern chemistry’, but someone fascinated by accounts from Highland Scotland about prophetic ‘second sight’, a manifestation he believed could be empirically tested and established.

How, then, do we get, in the space of only a few decades, from the open-mindedness (or credulity) of Boyle to an almost universal rejection of magical phenomena in elite circles? It is, Hunter suggests, partly a matter of a more deterministic Newtonian framework of science displacing an open-ended Baconian one, though there is a sense in which this was being invoked to justify attitudes already changing for other, more ineffably cultural, reasons. Hunter observes the increasing perception on the part of orthodox Christians that scepticism about the supernatural did not necessarily threaten religion itself. But some mystery remains. If many of the arguments against magic were not new, what made them suddenly compelling, producing what some other scholars have called ‘the tipping point’ in cultural attitudes to the occult? The political divisions in and after the Civil Wars have sometimes been invoked in this context, but Hunter is sharply critical – arguably too critical – of the view that witchcraft beliefs became discredited through entwinement with party politics. This fascinating book offers a stimulating, indeed scintillating, analysis of sceptical opinion in the age of the English Enlightenment. But further work undoubtedly remains to be done on the underlying causes of this paradigm shift in how our ancestors understood the world.

The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment
Michael Hunter
Yale 288pp £25


Peter Marshall is Professor of History at the University of Warwick.