The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, edited by Brian Copenhaver, Penguin, £30
Speaking to David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins fretted about the title of his new children’s book. “It is called The Magic Of Reality,” (see Duel on p26) he said “and one of the problems I’m facing is the distinction between the use of the word magic, as in a magic trick, and the magic of the universe, life on Earth, which one uses in a poetic way.” “No,” Attenborough reassured him, “I think there’s a distinction between magic and wonder. Magic should be restricted to things that are actually not so. Rabbits don’t really live in hats. It’s magic.”
Attenborough’s remark reflects how, in scientific circles, magic implies trickery and credulity. But this is only part of the story. During the Renaissance, certain kinds of magic were the closest thing to experimental science—which is why Lynn Thorndike, the American historian, yoked them together in his epic survey, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923-1958).
In taking magic seriously as an intellectual endeavour, Thorndike’s analysis was groundbreaking. A vast amount of scholarship has updated it since. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) was another landmark, which cautioned against making an easy link between magic’s demise and science’s ascendance—not least because early science failed to produce many new technologies or medicines to displace the supposed efficacy of magic. His conclusions have been challenged and refined by more recent work. Some notion of the current state of play emerges from The Book of Magic, a compendium of extracts from key sources ranging from the Bible to forbidden magic manuals of the Middle Ages and the writings of Enlightenment figures such as Gottfried Leibniz. Edited by Brian Copenhaver, a historian at the University of California in Los Angeles, this illuminating book should dispel the notion that magic was just superstition and secure its place in the history of ideas.
The role of the magic tradition in the inception of science is complex but to present the two as antithetical is wrong. They were in many respects mutually supportive and even hard to distinguish. Magic as an intellectual endeavour can be seen as largely sober and systematic. Even the tricksier “popular” magic of the showman or mountebank was closely allied to practical technologies and mechanical skill.…