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Discussing Magic

Jeremy Black reviews The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment, by Michael Hunter

An important book, acclaimed on its front cover with ‘Deserves to become another classic’ and ‘Important and remarkable…. Completely overhauls our view,’ this is at once an instructive work and, because it is likely to be much applauded, deserves a critical scrutiny. With pardon for the analogy, I will play ‘the Devil’s Advocate’ in much of this review, probing what I see as a few of the more problematic issues, but let me begin by offering the praise this book deserves. Throughout it is interesting, perceptive, and well-written, there is a good deployment of primary and secondary material, a skilful interweaving of the main analysis with particular case studies that have been well-mined, and the work is handsomely produced by Yale who repeatedly offer works that are more attractive as well as important than those coming from Cambridge or Oxford. The book also contains handsomely-reproduced and varied illustrations.

The Decline of Magic. Britain in the Enlightenment, by Michael Hunter 
London: Yale University Press, 2020

Hunter, Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London, and a distinguished scholar who has produced particularly significant work on Robert Boyle, the Royal Society, and the Scientific Revolution, re-examines the change in educated attitudes towards magical beliefs in Britain between about 1650 and 1750 and argues that this was not so much because of work by scientists, but rather due to humanist freethinkers. In addition, in a valuable methodological thesis, he proposes that their arguments were more often expressed orally than in printed form. The package, however, proved difficult, because an overlap with scepticism about religion encouraged hostility to their views and delayed acceptance. The scholarly move away from an emphasis on science leads to the observation that assertion, rather than proof, was important to the dismantling of belief in magic. Particular case- studies take up much of the relatively short text (there are valuable notes and interesting appendices), before the conclusion, which offers a pulling together of the case-studies and themes, including a review of other literature.

This work is likely to attract considerable favourable attention, so may I start with the last as I find the combination of thesis and review problematic. With reference to the work of Ian Bostridge – Witchcraft and its Transformations c.1650-c.1750 (1997) – and Peter Elmer – Witchcraft, Witch- Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England (2016), Hunter rejects a political location for the decline of belief in witchcraft. His argument, however, is insufficient. He notes scepticism by Thomas 

Rawlinson, a Jacobite, alongside Francis Hutchinson, a Whig, continuing that this illustrates how: 

‘Scepticism about witchcraft had escaped from its dangerous affiliations with freethinking to become an acceptable viewpoint for orthodox thinkers of various houses. The truth is that party politics were tangential to the major attitudinal change towards magic that was now coming about: one is here reminded of the rather fruitless debate over the party-political affiliations of Newtonianism in the same period that occurred some years ago, which ended in almost total stalemate.’ (174) 

Maybe so, but this is really not good enough. It is readily possible to find people of different political persuasions supporting specific views but this did not (nor does today) mean that there is not a degree, sometimes very marked, degree of congruence, and frequently causal congruence between politics and such views. Thus, to take a movement of the period that Hunter, somehow overlooks, Freemasonry, there were Tory Freemasons, but the early organisation was predominantly Whig. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was very much a Whig project and opposed principally by those we might conceive as Tories. At the same time, there were Tories and Whigs (and in theological terms High and Low Churchmen) who believed in witches and magic. Hunter goes on to show more assurance in his treatment of politics: 

‘Insofar as there was a political dimension to this, it was arguably not in the struggles of Whigs and Tories but in the inexorable growth of the state and the establishment in this period of what J.H. Plumb aptly described as “political stability.” And this went with an increasing emphasis on the pursuit of an essentially civil religion which Deists like John Toland had pioneered.’ (175). 

Well, again, this is a crucial point that is supported by references to published books (by Plumb, Brewer, Sullivan), none published incidentally since 1989. Without entering into the contentious debate over the strength of Jacobitism (but at least, unlike Hunter, I mention it), there were crises over the real or supposed threat of French invasion and/or Jacobitism, as in 1744, 1745-6, 1756 and 1759, and a sense of profound political, military, economic and ideological problems in mid-century.1 These issues then look forward to a sense of foreboding, notably in the late 1770s, the 1790s, and the 1800s.

In those periods, there are days of prayer, and widespread concerns focused on millenarianism and apocalyptic thought. In Augustinian terms, there are worlds in collision, and providentialism is intended to counter sin and the real presence of evil, in which such varied luminaries as George III and Jane Austen, both of course devout Anglican Tories, believed. That provides a very different feel for what Hunter, alongside a willingness to allow for diversity (140, 142), terms, with a misleading reification, ‘Enlightenment thought as a whole’ (23).

If the politics is problematic, so also is the account of religion. Hunter may be happy to refer to ‘progressive clerics’ (138), and ‘orthodox clerics’ (eg. 143), but there really is a need for more caution here, as well as for a feel for the complexity depicted in much of the recent discussion of both the Church and theology in the mid-eighteenth century. It is unclear how far magic should be separated from phenomena such as prophecy and millenarianism: these were clearly on the rise in the eighteenth century and in the seventeenth were regarded as walking hand in hand with magic and witchcraft. In evangelical circles, the issue of dreams as a source of religious inspiration, but also as prey to demonic invasion, was also very strong. It is possible to distinguish a belief in magic from one in prophecy and portents, but they were mixed together in particular cases. Religion and the churches could themselves work in various ways, sometimes supporting beliefs which could include magic, but in other times wanting to distance ‘true’ beliefs from it. 

Clearly, there is change. The seventeenth-century account of Oliver Cromwell as having made a pact with the Devil was reiterated in the early-eighteenth, as in the anonymous pamphlet A True and Faithful Narrative of Oliver Cromwell’s Compact with the Devil (1710) and in the second volume of Laurence Echard’s History of England (1718: 712-13); but this then becomes a less common theme. John Wesley’s very popular History of England does not provide an account of any formal bargain by John, Duke of Marlborough with the Devil, but the religious/Tory theme was clear, with the Duke’s riches discussed as ‘Poor gain, if he lost his own soul!’ (IV, 91). More generally, there is the sense here of an expert on the late seventeenth century increasingly adrift in the eighteenth, notably by the mid-century, but even earlier. This of course follows the pattern of other work and reminds us all of the extent (seen with journalism as well as history) to which the complexity we understand for our own subject is apt to be underplayed by others. There is one particular relevant point here in Hunter’s book, namely his willingness to propound a ‘polarisation between popular and educated belief’ (178) that does not match the complexity of the period (or others, including our own) and that is linked to a misleading failure to address sufficiently the overlaps and interactions of the so-called Enlightenment. It is not clear what Hunter and indeed many others mean by the term Enlightenment, whether a label for the period as a whole, or for a more focused set of opinions, but in either case ,the diversity and complexity of the period and of its forms of thought should be noted. Indeed, as Bill Gibson has demonstrated with his work on Samuel Wesley, the more educated could be more inclined to believe in witchcraft: a scientific education could be accommodated with a firm belief in spirits. Moreover, in a number of works, Owen Davies has shown the persistence and vitality of beliefs in magic and witchcraft through the nineteenth century, indicating that the ‘Decline of Magic’ was neither absolute or universal. The cutting-edge for this period in scholarly terms is that of questioning previously axiomatic interpretations which are being qualified or discarded, as with the work of Alan Downie on the public sphere, of Kate Davison on politeness, and of many scholars on religion and also on the Enlightenment. It is time that ‘Religion and the decline of Magic’ was treated similarly.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating and rich book, with lots covered in a short space. The case-studies are fascinating, but the overall judgments are overly clear-cut and a more nuanced and evidence-driven account that matches the complexity of the eighteenth century and, more particularly of the Church, of theology, of society and of politics, would be welcome. Hopefully Hunter, a major scholar, will go on to offer this.

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