In praise of Sir Keith Thomas

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My favourite historian is Sir Keith Thomas. He has made a great contribution to our understanding of English thinking between 1500 and 1800.

His most famous book is Religion and the Decline of Magic. It is a survey of popular English beliefs about magic, witchcraft, and Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries. Anyone interested in witchcraft in the English tradition ought to read it.

It’s only recently that I’ve discovered Man and the Natural World: Changing attitudes in England 1500-1800. A prodigious achievement on Thomas’s part, it charts the evolution in thinking about plants and animals.

Writing a coherent book about the history of popular attitudes and beliefs is not easy. Thomas has an amazing ability to see the shared patterns of thinking in letters, diaries, court records, and other documents. I hope that future generations will continue to enjoy his work.

I’ve been reading Man and the Natural World as research for an article on changing attitudes to the environment. The way we think about plants and animals is not fixed in stone. Popular thinking was different in the past and will be again in the future. That should be good news for the planet.

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