Early Modernity Meets Social Anthropology
It was a conversation that I did not expect to have so soon into my time at LSE, but something of a reassuring one. Speaking at a drinks reception in February with our Head of Department, Professor Tim Allen, I began to realise where lines can cross between early modern studies and the fields of international development and social anthropology.
Professor Allen’s research interests include witchcraft, particularly in Northern Uganda, and the role of the media in fragile areas. He has been one of the most outspoken critics of the BBC’s Newsnight in recent years for its sensationalist portrayal of Uganda and child sacrifice (a record of which can be found here).
And while somebody else took up the mantle of synthesising these complaints for the academy, a recent publication (co-authored with Kyla Reid) sees Tim re-enter the debate by urging caution against over-reaction to specific cases because of the consequences that can befall vulnerable regions.
But, of course, anthropology has its own history too. And one of the key figures in this discipline has been Sir Keith Thomas, whose seminal text Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) has become influential in many different areas of social study.
It was to this text that Tim and I drew for common ground.
Thomas is primarily – though not exclusively – an early modernist. He draws upon a great range of sources (indeed, it’s a deceptively long text) to question how and why ideologies underpinned by magic and religion end up supplanted by science.
In that sense, early modern England is – one would have thought – the ideal playground.
One certainly sees a strong sense of these two cultures merging in the 1660s. The institutionalisation of scientific development in the form of the Royal Society, the growth of the glass industry, and the pressurisation of the Dutch at sea saw England become one of the most prosperous nations in Europe by the early eighteenth century.
But this in no way dispelled the culture of magic and myth. Almanacs and works of astrology foretold war, natural disasters, pestilence, and heavy casualties, many of which came to pass. With the nation gripped in its traditional state of insecurity, many who resented the loss of religious toleration under the restored monarchy saw the appearance of comets in 1665 as a prodigious omen.
Samuel Danforth (1626-1674), whose works include the earliest surviving examples of almanacs in America, produced a portentous list in a 1664 text to show how ‘The Histories of former Ages do abuntantly testifie that Comets have been many times Heralds of wrath to a secure and impenitent World’.
Then there is the celebrity cult surrounding figures such as the faith healer, Valentine Greatrakes, also known as the ‘stroker’ or the ‘miracle-curer’. Greatrakes’ fame was brief but powerful. His claims to heal the sick by laying his hands on them saw him granted an audience with Charles II, while his practice also attacted the attention of the newly founded Royal Society.
The poet and politician Andrew Marvell was recorded as a witness to two of Greatrakes’ rituals in 1666, though there is no record of this in his own work. Like the King, perhaps, Marvell seems to have been too unsure to broach the subject. It’s an apt reminder that the science of the human body remained beyond the realm of general understanding.
So, as Thomas notes, popular belief in prophecies could easily be manipulated to affect the affairs of state. And with the rise of print in the 1640s and a new throng of satire and political propaganda – disciplines that have attracted attention in the decades following Thomas’s book – the country’s press engine was able to revel in the infancy of the daily tabloid.
My first and only encounter with this book was during my Master’s year, when I had the opportunity and freedom to explore early modern historiography. It sat between Christopher Hill and Kevin Sharpe on the one hand, and the dual between Lawrence Stone and Conrad Russell on the other.
One striking feature of the book is that it finds no major thesis to bind its many observations. It challenges the notions that magic is a stop-gap answer for questions of human difficulty or crisis, or that it is simply replaced by developments in science and technology. But it poses as many questions as it answers.
Another striking feature is how potent and universal the concept of ‘modernity’ seems, with such a powerful weight of evidence behind it. It emphasises why I think there is great purchase in the nomenclature.
‘Renaissance’ has always seemed to me to be a term that looks backwards, whereas ‘early modern’ is one that looks forwards. I’ve always seen my work on privacy as demonstrative of this mark of modernity. Evolution and change has to begin with ideas, even if not particularly coherent ones.
But modernity feels particularly potent in this book, given the common elements that Thomas believes can be identified with less developed areas. War, insecurity, and unpredictability breed unusual and sometimes desperate systems of belief. Citizens of seventeenth-century England were keen to overcome these sorts of circumstances and find security, Thomas argues. And in many ways, by the end of the century, they had succeeded. Lamentably, there are parts of the world yet to find the same levels of stability that were achieved in England more than 300 years ago.
I know relatively little of the plight of Northern Uganda, and reading will not provide the tangible insight of the social anthropologists who spend many months of the year out in these countries, submerged in the culture. But if we are to draw broader parallels between processes of modernisation, it would seem to me that improving stability and overcoming travesty are the lessons that English history has taught us.
How sensationalising cases of barbarism will assist Uganda in finding stability is a mystery, and I’m glad to work for someone who appreciates these lessons of the past and who speaks forcefully about the plight of a country that he clearly loves.
See Tim Allen subjected to the famous ‘Gearty Grilling’ – a provocative five-minute interrogation on his research.