Review of Michael Hunter's The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment
Yale University Press, 2020
“There never was a merry world since the fairies left off dancing and the Parson left conjuring.” —John Selden
What will the future make of us? Exactly which aspects of our present-day lives will come to seem strange, endearing, absurd, or astonishingly wrong-headed to our descendants? How and in what ways will the intervening years between our time and theirs serve to reconfigure, distort, or overgeneralise our lived experience in their eyes? Perhaps these are all ultimately unresolvable questions, but they do, in turn, raise another question: to what extent can we ourselves make contact with preceding generations, whom we perceive (at best) through a glass darkly —particularly when it comes to gaining insight into their psychological make-up and thought processes?
In The Decline of Magic Michael Hunter provides a route-map of sorts with which to negotiate this sometimes precarious cognitive terrain, focusing on that particularly febrile era of Western European transformation known as the early modern period, roughly spanning the end of the Middle Ages till the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. More specifically still, Hunter is interested in the way that belief in magic and associated supernatural phenomena changed during this time. Such an enterprise might bring to mind Keith Thomas’s classic work from 1971, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, and whilst Hunter readily acknowledges his debt to this earlier work, he also seeks to critically re-evaluate its scope and conclusions. Additionally, he endeavours to situate his enquiries within the context of the Scientific Revolution, that series of developments from the mid-sixteenth century onwards out of which emerged a new understanding of the natural world. However, rather than make an over-familiar case for how the increasing consolidation of scientific knowledge effectively dispelled the fog of irrationality, Hunter endeavours to show that a much more problematic interaction between spiritual beliefs and so-called rational thought took place.
Some of the most notable exponents of scientific enquiry, rather than seeing it as as a swingeing axe with which to cut through centuries of dense superstition, were fundamentally averse to denouncing the extramundane as nothing more than superannuated fantasy: René Descartes held a dualistic belief in the essential compatibility of the numinous and material realms, while others were concerned about the impious anarchy that would prevail once a socially cohesive belief in divine intervention was deemed obsolete. Key to this mindset was the term Sadducism, “a word used to describe scepticism about the reality of spiritual beings, derived from the Sadducees of the New Testament.” Joseph Glanville, in his 1668 book entitled A Blow at Modern Sadducism, claimed that those who fashionably dabbled in such irreligious dubiety were nothing more than “quibblers and buffoons with some little scraps of learning matched with a great proportion of confidence.” However, not all sceptics could be summarily dismissed as alehouse scoffers mocking the beliefs of their more credulous neighbours. John Wagstaffe’s The Question of Witchcraft Debated from 1669 is a learned treatise in which the author recommends his work to “any sober unbiased person; especially if he be of such ingenuity as to have freed himself from a slavish subjection unto those prejudicial opinions which custom and education do with too much tyranny impose.” As to witchcraft itself, Wagstaffe claimed that belief in it was attributable to “the folly of some or the knavery of others” and derived from “the errors or ridiculous mistakes of vulgar rumours,” as well as “melancholy, especially if it hath been heightened by poverty, or want of good diet, by ignorance, solitariness and old age.”
Gradually, however, by the early years of the eighteenth century, fears of Sadducism’s potential to undermine a due respect for God’s mysterious ways became less concerning, as more and more learned commentators began to adopt a broadly Deist attitude towards spiritual matters. In simple terms, such an approach sought to separate a rationalistic religious belief in a Supreme Being who kept only a watching brief on his creation from the credulous acceptance of ghosts, hobgoblins, witches and fairies commonly fuelled by superstition and ‘priestcraft.’ Author John Trenchard, in his 1709 Natural History of Superstition, proclaimed that “it requires less pains to believe in a miracle than to discover it to be an imposture,” thus giving “opportunity to men of fraudulent intention to impose upon the ignorance and credulity of others.” Furthermore, “vulgar absurdities about ghosts and witches are believed in exact proportion to the ignorance of the people and the integrity of the clergy and the influence which they have over their flocks.” It remained, however, a tricky process for some commentators to negotiate a path between excesses of superstition and scepticism, or, as Francis Hutchinson, author of A Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718) put it, “an atheistical Sadducism on one hand and a timorous ecclesiastical credulity on the other.”
What of official pronouncements on such contentious subject matter? Turning to the Royal Society, that august body founded in 1660 with the aim of furthering and promoting experimental science, Hunter finds that despite the interest shown by some of its most distinguished luminaries in the authenticity or otherwise of putative magicians, the society as a corporate body rarely involved itself in these matters. When it did deign to acknowledge such subjects as witchcraft, demonic possession, and astrology, it did so with disdainful reticence. The society’s aversive stance did much to institutionalise a concept of proper scientific subject matter as opposed to wilful claptrap, thereby —it might be said— unnecessarily delimiting its sphere of investigation.
Moving on from the theoretical niceties of how spirituality, superstition and folk beliefs were conceptualised and debated during the early modern period, Hunter, by way of providing an actual example of encounters with and belief in such phenomena in practice, devotes a chapter to one of the most renowned instances of poltergeist activity in the annals of ghost lore. The Drummer of Tedworth case concerned a Wiltshire landowner, John Mompesson, who in March 1662 brought a lawsuit against William Drury, described as not only a “vagrant drummer” but also as someone who "went up and down the country to show hocus-pocus, feats of activity, dancing through hoops and such like devices." Mompesson, who regarded Drury as a public nuisance making his living under false pretences, had him arrested and confiscated his drum. Once the drum was in Mompesson’s house, however, several inexplicable events began to disturb the household. These included noises such (perhaps unsurprisingly) drumming, sawing, and the shoeing of a horse. Over time, inanimate objects sailing through the air, the appearance of strange lights, and the smell of sulphur were added to the list of spooky phenomena. The case was assiduously documented by Mompesson himself in a series of letters to various respectable acquaintances, who offered him advice on how best to deal with the situation. One recommendation was that he should take his gun outside and “shoot suddenly and at random in the air,” presumably in case the invisible demon causing all the bother was hovering above his house at the time. By late 1662 the occurrences had attracted a great deal of interest, causing Mompesson to grumble about “the great concourse of people that break in upon me and almost devour me to see this.” Whilst this beleaguered chap seems to have unquestioningly accepted that the Devil and his minions were responsible for the disturbances, several visitors proved rather more sceptical and took great delight in hunting a more mundane source of the mischief by “searching the room for crannies where someone might hide” and requesting that their host lift up his floorboards – which he quite naturally refused to do. As to what was made of the case in popular discourse, scepticism seems to have prevailed in plays like Joseph Addison’s The Drummer, or the Haunted House of 1716, and Hogarth’s pictorial references to it in his print Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism; A Medley from 1762. However, as Hunter points out, whether people believed in the reality of the Tedworth Drummer case or dismissed it as charlatanry often depended on their entrenched predispositions vis-a-vis inexplicable phenomena, rather than on any hard evidence which proved their inclinations justified.
Hunter shows that the decline of magic from its position in mid-seventeenth century Britain as an aspect of anti-Sadducism to its late eighteenth century derogation, in a world now dominated by the Enlightenment and the Newtonian Paradigm, should not be seen as following a simple descending trajectory. There were still arguments to be had as to whether unfathomable happenings manifested a supernatural realm which only the spiritually initiated few might access, or whether nature’s mysteries were such that science’s explanatory reach should be further extended. Recent studies have also posited an eighteenth century party-political dimension to this dichotomy, associating belief in witchcraft and suchlike with a Tory traditionalist outlook, compared to a progressive Whiggish emphasis on eradicating popular credulity. Notwithstanding this hypothesis, Hunt contends that an important reason why the forces of orthodoxy eventually felt able to abandon a belief in magic and associated spiritual concepts as important correctives in the battle against atheism is that they eventually realised that to do so would not damage the essential “fabric of Christianity.” In an ever more politically stable and religiously civil society, magic had increasingly lost its conceptual relevance and potency. Although interest in it has never wholly disappeared, by the beginning of the nineteenth century belief in magic had become inextricably linked with Romanticism’s realm of fantasy and gothic horror. For most people it had ceased to be the beneficial or malevolent fact of life that had confronted our early modern ancestors on a daily basis. --Mark Jones