The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe by Stephen Wilson - review by Roy Porter

Roy Porter

An Enchanted World

The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe


Hambledon 546pp £25 order from our bookshop

The march of mind discredited magic, and even the study of its history was long thought rather infra dig. The grand systematising works produced by Victorian polymaths — notably Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which first appeared in 1890 — became embarrassing dinosaurs. They were exposed by modern anthropologists as naively over-ambitious, bent on reducing complex cultural phenomena to simplistic universals — the fertility cult, for instance. Moreover, they came to look quaint, the outpourings of doddery old antiquarians obsessed with mandrakes, maypoles and mistletoe. Suspicions also lurked that such aficionados were liable to be adepts themselves. Evidently magic had become a dubious, if not disreputable field: how could it meet the exacting standards demanded by professional scholarship?

All changed in this country with the publication, in 1971, of Keith Thomas’s magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, and with comparable studies of witchcraft by Alan Macfarlane and others. Formidably erudite, Thomas approached magic with a bracing rigour, scrutinising its intricate and tortuous fate over a period when militant Protestants were berating popery precisely on the grounds that the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, saturated as they were in magic, were not Christian at all but heathen.

In a study both lively and learned, Stephen Wilson takes us back one stage further, surveying that enchanted world whose decline Thomas addressed. Not merely erudite, his is a commendably ambitious undertaking, ranging as it does over the length and breadth of Europe and covering more than a millennium.

In desperate

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

East of the Wardrobe

Follow Literary Review on Twitter