The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment by Michael Hunter - review by Dmitri Levitin

Dmitri Levitin

The Mage of Reason

The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment


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Even a brief perusal of the bestseller lists (of books for both children and adults) reveals a continuing fascination with magic. There is, of course, a standard explanation for this fascination: magic offers an escape from the dreary, law-governed realities of our everyday lives. But while it is fashionable to point out that we are not as rational as we believe ourselves to be, I think a second explanation stems from what is ultimately a deep-rooted disbelief in magic. Because that disbelief is so ingrained, magic can function as a convenient shorthand for the alien and, especially, for the pre-modern. If the creators of a television programme want to convey the idea that a fictional society exists in some distant, unspecified past, there is no easier way to signify this than to have a character perform a magical ritual or to speak of demons, fairies or witches. Newspapers may still print horoscopes, but not even the most devoted followers of the phases of Venus really believe themselves to be in continuity with ancient astrological traditions.

Magic, in other words, almost invariably comes with historical associations. And so it is surely no coincidence that historians of the pre-modern world have been rather obsessed with it. The locus classicus in this regard is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, which will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary next year. Focusing on 16th- and 17th-century England, Thomas’s book – undoubtedly one of the most important academic monographs written in the last century – pioneered the combination of anthropology and history to demonstrate the prevalence of belief in forces and powers above the course of nature, and the conviction that they might be manipulated. Most impressive was the sheer range and quantity of the material gathered by Thomas, especially concerning non-elite beliefs. Much of the cultural history of early modern England written in the subsequent half-century has consisted of pale emulations of Thomas’s magisterial work.

Thomas was so successful in demonstrating the prevalence of magical beliefs that to some he rendered their decline even more puzzling. It is precisely that element of the story to which the eminent historian of English science Michael Hunter turns in his own The Decline of Magic. Examining elite attitudes to magic in the period between 1650 and 1800, Hunter argues that it wasn’t in fact scientists who did the most to question magic, but rather scholars and, later, freethinkers and deists such as John Toland and Anthony Collins. Specifically, they rewrote the history of popular belief to portray it as one of imposture and credulity, with crafty priests and politicians – first pagan, then Christian – tricking the common people into believing all sorts of superstitions.

Most interestingly, such claims were often made not in writing but in conversation, especially in the burgeoning coffee houses of London, where risqué displays of ‘wit’ were paramount. Only later, in the mid-18th century, were theories of imposture replaced by medical-pathological explanations that diagnosed magical beliefs as a form of self-delusion. It is one of the great merits of Hunter’s book that he is able to tease out so much of this lost oral culture through a careful reading of printed and manuscript sources.

The defence of the reality of supernatural phenomena increasingly fell to clergymen, not because they were particularly concerned about magic per se, but because they felt that mockery of the supernatural could easily bleed into mockery of Christianity. As the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, argued as late as 1768, ‘They well know (whether Christians know it or not) that the giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible.’

But by that point, Wesley was out of touch even with clerical opinion. For the reality was that institutionalised Christianity was largely impervious to attacks on magic. In the first part of the 18th century, theologians like Francis Hutchinson had themselves adopted a sceptical attitude to the supernatural for the simple reason that they thought there were far better proofs of the truth of their faith. Moreover, belief in magic was increasingly associated either with Roman Catholicism or with more extreme forms of Protestantism, all of which were condemned using the umbrella term ‘enthusiasm’.

The scientists of the Royal Society, formed in the aftermath of the Restoration, were consistently ambiguous in their attitude. To be sure, the great Robert Boyle planned to publish a collection devoted to ‘Phænomena, that are, or seem to be, of a Supernatural Kind or Order’, the primary purpose of which was to challenge those who ‘consider it their part to greet a report of supernatural phenomena with contempt and derision’. This would have included stories of supernatural occurrences from Africa and North America as well as instances of ‘second sight’ – a form of premonition – from the Scottish Highlands (Hunter is the great authority on that subject). And another Royal Society apologist, Joseph Glanvill, devoted great energy to proving the existence of the ‘Drummer of Tedworth’, a West Country poltergeist who haunted the house of a local landowner, John Mompesson.

But others were more sceptical. Another fellow of the Royal Society, Christopher Wren, visited Mompesson’s house and noted sardonically that ‘the Devill kept no very unseasonable hours: it seldome knock’t after 12 at night, or before 6 in the morning’. He also remarked that the drumming occurred ‘only when a certain maid-servant was in the next room’. Later, Mompesson supposedly admitted the fraud to Charles II himself, though Glanvill never stopped insisting on the Drummer’s existence. Accordingly, while magic was not directly condemned by the Royal Society, nor was it an ‘official’ topic of its public discussions. This silence, Hunter argues, ‘helped to relegate such investigations to the realm of pseudo-science, and there they have remained ever since’.

The model of intellectual change hinted at in that sentence is, I think, the most stimulating aspect of this very stimulating book. Historians like to make history into a game of Cluedo: to identify a ‘pre-modern’ phenomenon and then ‘discover’ those responsible for killing it (usually some heroic philosopher or group of thinkers). Hunter, by contrast, subtly develops a model of intellectual change in which what he calls ‘a kind of cultural osmosis’ plays a crucial role. Change, he argues, often occurs not because something is unquestionably repudiated, but because it gradually falls off the cultural radar or moves into a completely different cultural domain (Hunter briefly charts the shift of magic into the realms of poetry and fiction in the early 19th century). The history of such change is difficult to write: it is effectively an attempt to write the history of increasing silence. It is to Hunter’s great credit that he has made such a thought-provoking attempt to do just that.

Undoubtedly, some will challenge his model. Hunter goes against several historians by questioning whether political allegiance played a significant causal role in what he calls ‘attitudinal change towards magic’; those historians will no doubt reply that all the deists and freethinkers that he mentions were Whigs. In fact, it would have helped Hunter’s case for the apolitical nature of intellectual change if he had been slightly less Anglocentric in his approach. After all, the scholarly critique of superstition was not developed primarily in England but was appropriated by the deists from Continental writers such as the Dutchman Anton van Dale, about whose influence in England it would have been good to hear more.

For my own part, I think that a developing sense of cultural elitism perhaps played a slightly more important role than Hunter is willing to admit. Again and again, his sceptics seem to mock the credulity of the common people. On one occasion we even find the freethinker Robert Molesworth treating a Scottish advocate of second sight, Martin Martin, with the cruellest snobbery: ‘I knew this poor ignorant Martin, & one day exposed him so much to the ridicule of very good company (whither he was brought to dine) … that he never afterwards durst appear again in that company.’ Such elitism is an element of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ that historians still find somewhat uncomfortable, but scholarship is increasingly revealing that it played an essential role in 17th- and 18th-century intellectual change and the growing contempt for ‘superstition’ and the ‘occult’.

It should be clear that I am deeply excited by this book and the debate it is sure to stimulate. In forcing us all to think more critically about the ways in which intellectual and cultural change happens, Hunter has again made a major contribution to the history of early modern Britain.

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