In 1971, Keith Thomas published one of those books that change the landscape of historical writing. Nearly four decades on, Religion and the Decline of Magic proves to have belonged to a career-long quest. Rejecting the customary preoccupation of historians with the description and explanation of events, he has striven to recover as much as a single scholar could of the everyday social and mental assumptions that he takes to have underlain or transcended them. His field is the England of what has become known, under his influence, as the early modern period: the era that begins in the early 16th century with the Renaissance and Reformation, takes us through the civil wars and scientific advances of the 17th century and ends in the late 18th with the Industrial Revolution and Romanticism. His new book, which derives from a lecture series, selects for study six “concerns which contemporaries regarded as central to a life well lived: military prowess, work, wealth, reputation, personal relationships and the afterlife”.
For Thomas, the early modern period is one of transition. While recognising that there is nothing “self-contained” about his time-span – for some of the developments that he charts began in the middle ages, while few of them were complete by 1800 – he detects within it a shift towards what the modern world calls individualism. The Renaissance inherited from the classical world some standard ideals of virtuous or pleasurable living. “The good life” was good for everyone – actually, for those with the leisure to pursue it. The modern world, by contrast, supposes that people fulfil themselves in different ways, according to their various talents and inclinations.
Accompanying that transition were a growth of respect for private experience and feeling and a decline of the forces that fettered the discovery and pursuit of individual preferences and tastes. “An ideology legitimising the quest for personal advancement” – earlier historians would have called it a bourgeois ideology – “can be seen taking shape”. Economics played their part, through the growing variety and abundance of worldly goods. Personal wishes and appetites – getting rich or finding happiness in individual relationships – increasingly defied conventional theories that subordinated them to ideals of social hierarchy or collective public good, or which glorified warfare at the expense of long and stable life, or which warned of eternal damnation for social deviance. And, Thomas’s enjoyable moments of Gibbonian irony allow us to understand, a good thing too.
As always, he presents his case with dazzling erudition. “It is difficult to think of any surviving evidence from the period”, he cheerfully acknowledges, “which has no relevance to my theme.” There cannot have been a more widely read historian or one with his capacity to impose order on so formidable a range of material. His technique, which he inherits from his tutor Christopher Hill, is to pile quotation upon quotation – printbites, we might call them – from books and pamphlets where beliefs or values or prejudices are wittingly or unwittingly disclosed. The method, he admits, can be “bad for the reader’s digestion”. Hill sustained the reader’s attention by Marxist polemical eloquence. Thomas, a more dispassionate writer, holds it by urbanity and wit and by suppleness of language.
Even so, his approach has its difficulties. In The Ends of Life he portrays himself as at least as much an anthologist as a historian, as much a “collector” of material as an “author”. Perhaps the pressure of self-effacement helps to explain a certain tentativeness, even at times (it seems to me) a want of clarity, in the argument. Or perhaps he senses the interpretative limitations of his method. There is a familiar objection to the mass democracy of Thomas’s quotations. He separates the statements of past writers from their contexts and overlooks differences of literary genre. He has two reasonable answers. The first is that if he were to reconstruct the setting of every remark he quotes we would be here for ever. The second is that, if we find enough people saying the same thing over a period of time, the varieties of context in which they said them are of secondary importance. But when, seeking evidence of a modern tendency to equate our sense of self with our material possessions, he recalls a speech that Henry James has “one of his characters” deliver in The Portrait of a Lady, he does not have space to remind us that the speaker is the odious Madame Merle, whose opinion James’s heroine rejects.
Admittedly, the literature of the imagination, which poses special problems for an historian of opinion, is a minority presence among Thomas’s sources, most of which can be interpreted more straightforwardly. Yet the very volume of his evidence may create illusions. It is the product of the rise of print in the Renaissance. To support his claim that the early modern period produced a novel insistence on the enhancing qualities of friendship, Thomas points to a “torrent of printed literature – sermons, essays, poems, plays, novels – on the theme, for which there was no precedent. Here as elsewhere we may have too little evidence about the everyday assumptions of the middle ages to decide what the early modern period changed.
Even when medieval society has given way to the world of print, can Thomas’s technique take us below the surface of thought and feeling? His snippets of quotation line writers up on one side or other of an issue. At one moment, John Milton appears as an advocate of immortal fame, at another as the enemy of its pursuit. How did he square those positions? Thomas does not examine the tussles in writers’ minds between values that he shows to have been in conflict. We do not watch authors weighing the precepts of classical antiquity against the teachings of Christianity, or learn what happened when, say, an injunction to martial achievement clashed with the requirement to turn the other cheek. An approach which paused on the intellectual or emotional sojourns of individuals would leave room for a smaller range of voices than Thomas’s, but it might better enable us to hear occupants of the past thinking and feeling. In our world, people will state opinions about adultery or abortion and then infringe them when confronted by practical choices. The early modern period knew parallel dilemmas. Thomas’s readers will learn much more about what people said than about what they were like.