Tag Archives: english history

Why Magic was popular and why it dwindled – review

Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century EnglandReligion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England by Keith Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mankind in the face of contemporary existential strains of life has often attributed its frailties to the development of certain religious beliefs, leading to the shaping of the anima mundi of the time it possesses. Such a symbolic interactionist perspective on history is perspicaciously excised in Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas that shows us how collective splinters of folklore could influence the Modus Operandi of established religion.

The pith of folklore is a reputed natural human tendency in dealing with daily life amid double jeopardy of whimsical nature and more capricious mankind that results in finding pain relief in the form of supernatural elements. Keith illustrates the social and cultural climates of 16th and 17th century England where the efficacy of magic was reputed to overwhelm the consolation of the Gospel in the recourse to the powerful being that could supposedly give the supplicants the immediate panacea to their existential malaise. This popular attitude toward the magical measure of putative healing betokens the reason why there was no active mass active involvement in radical social reform or political radicalism; it was their way of mitigating the rigor of their daily duties that life imposed. The concept of chance was a welcome method of diverting the rules of merit and reward in prosperous life that only a select few would and could achieve to the game of luck played by goddess Fortuna’s Wheel of Fortune. By trusting the work of pure luck, people would not jeopardize their self-esteem because fortune was beyond their measures no matter how hard they worked hard to obtain it.

How the folk belief in magic influenced the established Christianity, particularly Catholicism, is the sine qua non of mesmerism of popular psychology and its portent efficacy of evangelization with a promise of magical healing. The church incorporated the magical elements of pagan belief to its rituals and doctrines of the catechism, such as transubstantiation and holy relics by reconciling the esoteric pagan knowledge with the orthodox Christian teaching. The investment of supernatural power through religious ceremony propitiated the minds of the low and high alike non-discriminately via syncretism until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the English Reformation that necessitated the emerging of new natural science and mechanical philosophy and the accordant mode of thinking ultimately debilitating the supreme power of magic and the magical elements used in the church.

Keith is excellent in disabusing readers what might seem to be a trifle and pettifogging subject to advanced minds with his wealth of knowledge on the subject and human psychology narrated in plain language so that readers of all strata can access the secret garden of knowledge that he kindly invites us to visit and wallow ourselves in. This is my second time reading his work, and I am always amazed by his depth of erudition fabulously conflated with his witty remarks on events and vivacious descriptions of the period, all gleaned from his extensive research on the subject and keen scholarly observations thereon. This book is not a book of magical incantations, but about the power of the populace that made magic popular and unpopular as the seasons of mankind required new kind of belief system synonymous with the ethos of contemporary life.

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Lion’s heart wrapt in Sari – on Jayaben Desai


The Unlikely Fighter: Jayaben Desai

It was one sweltering summer day of 1976 when 43-year old Jayaben Desai finally culminated over the demeaning mistreatment and delivered her tirade against her manager of the Grunswick Film Processing Laboratories in London and stormed out of his glass office that sealed her outcry of frustration and indignation that had been smothered under the daily duties of existential needs for livelihood for years. So when her manager told her to work overtime at the very last minute as usual, again and again, Desai couldn’t take it any longer. For Desai’s personal life and her right to freedom after work meant nothing to the management whose discriminating attitudes toward their southwestern Asian immigrant workers were beyond pale. No More Docile Asian Woman who, unlike her English counterparts, would acquiesce to her despotic manager’s orders. This time Desai transformed herself into a lioness unafraid of the goading. This time was hers, and hers and her fellow immigrant workers. 


A Lion’s Heart wrapt in sari

Upon reading the article “We are the lions, Mr. Manager” in my subscribed BBC history magazine, which was about the famous Grunswick Strike in 1977 led by then-unknown former Grunswick employee, Jayaben Desai, I could not help but take pen to paper for the following reasons: (1) it was about the first remarkable calling for a solidarity for the rights of workers on the periphery of social recognition;(2) it was the first and foremost Asian women’s strike against the industrial injustice backed up by the establishments, including that which they claimed to be for the people and by the people; and (3) it manifested the deep-seated general British public’s sentiment towards their Asian immigrant neighbors who were regarded as socially and culturally inferior to theirs based on race and culture. 


Despite Desai and her collaborators, mobilized support from politicians and trade unions was conspicuous by its absence.

What really made me incendiary about the one woman’s protest against the exploitation of the race and gender for dignity and justice was the absence of massive support from her fellow English workers. She was reminiscent of a lone frontier woman in a duel against her heartless landowner with hoots and holler from his ilk. Although supports from people with goodwill and conscience were impossible to ignore, a majority of established social organizations did not lend helping hands to Ms. Desai and her fellow hardscrabble workers sending a distressed SOS call to their English peers. Where were their so-called English contemporary counterparts who were also economically disadvantaged and socially oppressed? Was the outcry of their fellow immigrant workers only a barbarous shouting trying to threaten their jobs? 

Although Ms. Desai’s heroic legacy has left an indelible footprint in the world’s social history encompassing racialized minority workers on social radar, labor disputes concerning the exploitation of race and gender are still rampant. What’s more, it still happens in our digitalized social media-governed age all over the world, including here in the States. How to stop or ameliorate the social ill shouldn’t be treated as a stylish, popular subject to gain constituents for political party ideology. Until then, the exploited will remain invisible in the dark and dank corners of the society willfully ignored and utterly abandoned.   

‘The Great Fire of London in 1666’ by Walter George Bell- review

The Great Fire of London in 1666The Great Fire of London in 1666 by Walter George Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The great city of London was burning. The noble and the humble were all in together in the face of furious fires that looked something of the eternal flames of Inferno. It took from September 2 to September 6, 1666 for Old London – Shakespeare’s London- to disappear into the past. It was a scene to behold, it was a scene to record. The medieval City of London inside the old roman city wall became a gray detritus of ashes and more ashes, which changed the face of London forever – in a far better way that improved the conditions of living in the scandalously popular city, the city that had no regards for the lowly and the lowest. For out of the detritus of the devastation, came a phoenix hoovering over the gray skies of London with golden opportunities for the contemporary Londoners and even better for the progeny and the citizens of the world as magnificently illustrated in this telling book by Walter George Bell.

It all happened on the morning of Sunday, September 2nd, 1666 at the shop and house of one Farynon, King Charles II of England’s baker, stood in Pudding Lane, ten doors from Thames Street due to his lack of due care of the oven. Although the baker later vehemently disavowed such negligence that caused the Inferno, Bell confirms the tortious act on the part of the baker on the ground of “a calm consideration of the evidence” collected afterwards. However, at the time of and the immediate aftermath of the Fire, the public fueled by the demotic uproar of the angry mob decided that it resulted from a concerted plot of the Roman Catholics and Frenchmen. In fact, the unanimous vengeance upon Catholics and subjects of any Catholic countries was all the rage under the misbelief that they set fire on the city as punishment for the impudent English heresy against the Papacy. Even the supposedly judicious members of the Council were prejudiced against foreigners and Catholics in London despite the King’s speech to the homeless in effort to assuage such outrageous public agitation. In consideration of the ethos of the period, the speculated causes of the Fire related to religious motivations that all called for God’s punishment for heresy (especially Catholicism) and other cardinal sins that looked particularly rampant in “sinful London”.  Nevertheless, the Council finally relented by proclaiming that the cause of fire was no other but “God’s will, a great wind and the seasons so very dry.”

What seemed to be a scourge of God turned out to be a seismic labor pain of birth of a new city that was beneficial to those at the low rungs of a social ladder because the ecclesiastical city of bell towers and spires would be transformed into a commercial city of work and more work in new salubrious environment. Bell expounds that post-Fire London was a new breed of commercialism, making London culturally vibrant and famously cosmopolitan as a uniquely quaint city where modernity and traditionality were fashionably blended. Moreover, Bell points out that rebuilding of London after the Fire also improved living qualities of the inhabitants in terms of unhealthy housing and inconvenient pavement conditions with the reconstruction of the streets of London designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It also generated a plethora of trades that contributed to the betterment of economic conditions of people living in and coming to London for better life.

This book is at its most compelling when assessing the consequential events of the Fire drawn on a multitude of historical records and the author’s calm objective analysis of the Fire without a hint of religious proclivity or partisan social commentaries. It doesn’t turn out to be a stuffy history book that the topic indicates but an engaging nonfiction narrative that combines Orwellian journalistic perspectives with Thucydides’ standard of historical realism, all in the perspicacious use of plain English communicative to all. All in all, if you are curious about post-Shakespearean London or want to know about the history of London, this book will not disappoint you.

Pirate, Writer, and Traitor- on Walter Raleigh


Sir Walter Raleigh

The first time I got to know this interesting English notable was through a small paperback compiling vignettes of historical figures in the western civilizations I found from my father’s library. No man stood more gallantly and impressively than this daring figure in the Elizabethan England; it was no less a courtier, writer, and adventurer than Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) himself. The vista of his gentlemanly manner of soaking his cloak for the queen to tread upon in the messy muddy road lingered in my mind. (He was the only man in the queen’s entourage who did not hesitate to do so.) This would generate a possible peal of jeering laughter from many contemporary men and women in the age of insouciant conventions and lax mores. But such gesture of civility, a sign of respect, orderliness, and thoughtfulness, tells a lot about one’s character in the absence of the proliferation of the civic virtue as a result of ignorance, lassitude, and degradation. And based upon this gentlemanly aspect of Raleigh, I have formulated and kept my favorable opinions on him.

With this as a background of my knowledge of and interest in Raleigh, to come upon the article written by Anna Beer, visiting fellow at University of Oxford, about Raleigh’s years in the Tower of London from the latest edition of BBC History was a kind of nostalgic pleasure, rekindling my first impression on this enigmatic man. In fact, Ms. Beer seems to have viewpoints on Raleigh similar to mine: an explorer (or more precisely, a privateer), a writer, a poet, a courtier, and a gentleman are nominal titles bestowing upon Raleigh. Besides, unlike many other political and historical figures of his time, Raleigh was a dashing, handsome man who would make a fitting character actor for romantic adventure movies or drams, if he were alive. And perhaps it was this physical attractiveness of Raleigh that contributed to his endearment to Queen Elizabeth I, who was offended upon learning that her favorite subject had married discreetly without letting her know in advance. But above all, Raleigh’s prodigious feats of intellect in a spirit of Odyssey were laurels for his distinguishing merits. At the behest of the queen, Raleigh ventured to South America in search of El dorado, directed a settlement of the lost colony of Roanoke in Virginia (even though he himself did not go), ruled the seas by confiscating valuable cargoes carried by Spanish ships (he was also a pirate), and engaged in international trades like a very successful modern businessman. He was in fact flying high under the aegis of Queen Elizabeth I.

However, after the death of the vestal guardian and benefactor, Raleigh fell out of favor with King James I, who seemed to be hell bent on removing him from the court because of his unyielding individuality, which only the queen knew how to harness to her advantage. So Raleigh was found guilty of treason and incarcerated in the Tower of London on the ground that he and his ilk conspired to dethrone the king. It was groundless, of course, but the king could not wait longer to get rid of him and did not even allow him to retain a lawyer to defend himself. But no such royal counter-intuitive animosity deterred him from expressing his ever unbridled spirit; during his imprisonment in the tower, Raleigh built up a personal library of 500 books, a personal conservatory for drawing on the knowledge of a universal history for his writings, one of which included The History of the World that criticized King James I and his abuse of autocratic power and institutionalized faith. It was a radical kind of thought in his time of England. The recalcitrant subject was surely anathema to the king. Raleigh was beheaded in public in 1618, but even during his execution, he was all man by adhering to his principles without an apology nor a customary reverence toward the king.

The legacy of this adventurous Elizabethan gentleman continues in his writings that strike the political, religious, and literary chords in our hearts as well as those of the revolutionaries subsequent to his death. For example, Oliver Cromwell was an ardent myrmidon of Raleigh’s writings and even recommended them to his son in earnest. Not only Cromewell championed Raleigh’s political stance but also he reconstructed Raleigh’s dismally pessimistic providentialism, aka Calvin Predestination, based on the futility of all human actions as a result of unavoidable death to an optimism about the potentials of human endeavor under the proper guidance of providence. In addition, Raleigh’s critiques of monarchy and his support of parliament ignited the fuse of insurgencies calling for radical political changes. Surely, Raleigh was not a perfect man with immaculate morality, but he was a man of intellect, courage, confidence, and civility laced with irrepressible individuality whom posterity can look up to, especially in this multifariously convoluted era when so many politicians are just grandstanding from the vantage points of popularity.