The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment

October 30, 2020
The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment

A new history which overturns the received wisdom thatscience displaced magic in Enlightenment BritainIn early modern Britain, belief in prophecies, omens, ghosts,apparitions and fairies was commonplace. Among both educated andordinary people the absolute existence of a spiritual world wastaken for granted. Yet in the eighteenth century such certaintieswere swept away. Credit for this great change is usually given toscience – and in particular to the scientists of the Royal Society.But is this justified?Michael Hunter argues that those pioneering the change inattitude were not scientists but freethinkers. While somescientists defended the reality of supernatural phenomena, thesesceptical humanists drew on ancient authors to mount a critiqueboth of orthodox religion and, by extension, of magic and otherforms of superstition. Even if the religious heterodoxy of such mentarnished their reputation and postponed the general acceptance ofanti-magical views, slowly change did come about. When it did, thisowed less to the testing of magic than to the growth of confidencein a stable world in which magic no longer had a place.