Since in this view, societal “needs” are mediated by individual agents – responding, holding attitudes, and acting – such a need fulfillment theory reduces to a psychological one. Every important custom has its pragmatic or emotional value for some members of the society, or else it falls into disuse and is forgotten. ” To reduce all actions to satisfying needs seems slightly simplistic. Many customs are observed today despite their original function now being long obsolete: no doubt many convinced atheists still throw spilt salt over their left shoulder, but in no way believe that this is because Beelzebub himself is standing behind them.
Furthermore, conclusions based upon the psychological makeup of people in the distant past are problematical because it is very hard to make the jump from what the sources tell us to what assumptions about the world actually lay behind them. As much as the anthropologist, studying cultures which are distant in space, the historian studying cultures distant in time must overcome a considerable difference in language, where the subtler meanings of words may be lost on the outside observer.
Thomas does attempt to recreate the mental world of witch belief, and probably gets close to how it actually was, but there is no way of absolutely verifying his ideas. As such, with his anthropologically-informed conclusions resting at least in part upon his reconstruction of past mentalities, Thomas’ conclusions seem to have a potentially weak foundation. Religion and the Decline of Magic undoubtedly profits in some way at least from its borrowings from anthropology.
Some of its main conclusions owe much to anthropological conclusions, and these are not simply forced upon history without the cross-examination of historical evidence. In the last resort this is a work of history drawing upon anthropology, not of anthropological conclusions imposed upon the past as part of some general positivist scheme. It is, however, far from perfect. The examples used, while numerous, are given in a sentence or two, which cannot hope to relate the full implications of the source being employed, and might simply be distortions of the facts to back up the scheme Thomas attempts to describe.
The whole survey seems slightly lopsided as a result of the consideration of mainly anthropologically-informed conclusions, and some of the conclusions which he does draw seem to have their share of weaknesses. All of this is harsh criticism, though, especially as very few books (and this would be one of them) claim to tell the whole story. Thomas does show that anthropology can open up a number of routes of enquiry which may well have been obscure to ‘conventional’ historians, and indeed to shed light on historical events. He may have gone a little too far in his borrowings, but he does not write bad history by any means.
In the opinion of E. P. Thompson, Religion and the Decline of Magic is, “… an immensely important and stimulating book… ”
BIBLIOGRAPHY G. R. Elton, The Practice of History (London 1987) C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (London 1993) H. Geertz, ‘An Anthropology of religion and Magic’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 6 (1975) K. Thomas, ‘History and Anthropology’, Past and Present, 24 (1963) K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London 1971) E. P. Thompson, ‘Anthropology and the Discipline of Historical Context’, Midland History, 1 (1971).