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Response to Review of The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment

Author’s response.

I am grateful to Jan Machielsen for his alert and careful reading of my book, with the thrust of which he seems largely to concur—despite various critical asides, often reflecting his absorption in the earlier literature of demonology. However, I feel I should say something about the two ‘more important factors’ which, at the end of his review, he claims that I neglect.

First, I am inclined to agree that I failed to make enough of the fact that Francis Hutchinson so prominently deploys the word ‘Historical’ in the title of his Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft (1718). I entirely take Machielsen’s point that this aligns him with the very telling accommodationist arguments deployed by authors like Conyers Middleton and Arthur Ashley Sykes that I invoke in a subsequent chapter, and I now regret that I did not develop this point further in relation to Hutchinson. I am also sorry that I relegated to an endnote the comparable historical argument concerning the royal touch used by William Becket in his Free and Impartial Enquiry into the Antiquity and Efficacy of Touching for the Cure of the King’s Evil (1722). I therefore agree with Machielsen that this ‘new historicizing wrapper’ is a significant factor in the attack on magic of which I could have made more.

However, I am less happy about his claim that I downplay the attempt to make magical beliefs ‘the preserve of the uneducated, superstitious lower classes’. In fact, I think that Machielsen’s conflation of the attack on magical beliefs as displaying ignorance and folly on the part of educated people (such as the Master of Peterhouse) with the view that such beliefs were ‘the preserve of the common people’ is a slightly lazy one, which is not borne out by the very work that he cites to support it, Thomas Waters’ Cursed Britain (2019). Throughout his book, Waters is at pains to illustrate the extent to which, from the 19th century to the 21st, magical beliefs have been held by educated members of the middle and upper classes. Machielsen also overlooks the point that I was making at the place in my book where, as he notes, this issue arises (pp. 160-1). What I wanted to illustrate was that in the 18th century second sight was initially rejected as implausible on a priori, rationalist grounds; only after that was it associated with the vulgar. By contrast, for men like Robert Boyle a century earlier second sight had seemed all the more convincing because of the high status of many of those who had the gift. This is borne out by the newly-discovered early account of the topic that is appended to my book, in which Joshua Walker stressed how those with second sight were often ‘serious, discreet, credible persons’; he thus echoed what the divine, George Hickes, told Samuel Pepys in response to his enquiries about the phenomenon, that ‘when I was in Scotland I never met with any learned man either among their divines, or lawyers, who doubted of the thing’.[1] In fact, the association of such beliefs with the ‘vulgar’ seems not to have been a causal factor in the educated rejection of them, but a corollary of it.

There is one last point in my book to which Machielsen does not refer at all, but which is worth mentioning because it explains why I am not fazed by the evidence for the survival and renaissance of magical belief surveyed by Waters. This is my invocation, on the penultimate page of the text, of the concept of an ‘equilibrium of antagonisms’, a phrase adopted by Peter Burke from the Brazilian intellectual, Gilberto Freyre, who in turn derived it from the Victorian savant, Thomas Carlyle. This formula (or Carlyle’s original version of it, ‘balance of Antagonisms’) well describes the ability of modern thought to tolerate ‘the coexistence and interaction of contrary or countervailing trends’.[2] It seems to me perfectly to summarise the attitude to magical ideas of British thinkers since the 18th century, in that, while the dominant culture rejects them, minorities vociferously espouse them. 

[1] Michael Hunter, The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (2020), p. 186; Michael Hunter (ed.), The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-century Scotland (2001), p. 173.

[2] Hunter, Decline of Magic, p. 179.

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