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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.

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