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A work out of time: Religion and the decline of magic at 50

Machielsen, Jan ORCID: and Pfeffer, Michelle 2023. A work out of time: Religion and the decline of magic at 50. Past & Present: A Journal of Historical Studies 261 (1) , pp. 259-296. 10.1093/pastj/gtad012

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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 a half century of historiographical development, it has managed to achieve a kind of ahistorical permanence. We trace 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 Thomas’s methods as a historian and to its status as ethnography, allowing generations of new readers to gain fresh insights from a work out of time.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: History, Archaeology and Religion
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISSN: 0031-2746
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 15 December 2022
Date of Acceptance: 5 December 2022
Last Modified: 17 Jan 2024 11:38

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