Anyone still looking for Christmas gifts? Of course not, you are all far too well organised, but perhaps you still need something to read in front of the fire until the sun comes back. Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas was first published in 1971, so I know this is cheating, but I only read it this year and if any you, dear readers, haven’t read it yet, may I suggest you do so as soon as possible? It is an absolutely stunning work rich and insightful and makes most other history books seems a little thin by comparison.
Its subtitle is 'Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-century England' and that is as good a summary of the content as anything I could come up with. If you are interested in how people thought and felt four hundred years ago, you will be utterly transported. Every page is filled with the voices of people, anecdotes and story fragments that both intrigue a reader and come together to construct a portrait of the period that is both complex and comprehensible.
It is a wise and human account of a time that I’ve found difficult to come to grips with in the past. The people of the 18th century feel familiar to me in their outlooks and beliefs - not completely perhaps, but I felt I was adapting my own attitudes when writing from over their shoulders as I do in the Westerman and Crowther series, not transforming them. When I read about the Civil War however and the religious maelstrom under the Tudors, I was rather at a loss. There was clearly such a profoundly different way of understanding life there, and I couldn’t get a grip on it. It felt slippery, impossible. Then I read Keith Thomas it was as if someone had broken a window and let the light in. I gained an understanding of how magic and the medieval church were intertwined, and how the unravelling of folk and establishment beliefs were uneasily accommodated within communities.
I think I shall read it again over Christmas, by the fire and with a large glass of wine while the dark presses at the window and the witches and spirits have the lanes to themselves.
Have a wonderful Christmas all.