My vote for best historical work ever is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. I first read chunks of the book as an undergrad and have used it as a reference up till now, all the while becoming more convinced that it was worthy of this title. Recently I made sure to get the whole thing read and am now more convinced than ever and wanted to put a post. Thomas’s book became the starting point for an extensive array of subjects and Thomas was highly innovative in the types of sources he used. I had long been impressed with the massive amounts of information that Thomas had gone through but on this reading I’m particularly impressed with the depth of Thomas’s analysis. What’s most impressive about the book is that it was published when Thomas was only 38. Sir Keith Thomas certainly deserved his knighting.
Thus 40 year later, Religion and the Decline of Magic is still highly relevant, forming the groundwork for an abundance of scholarship including studies of Mormon folk practices (Richard Bushman once told me that he had been troubled by JS’s activities until he read Thomas and decided it was pretty normal).
So I tend to view any critiques of Thomas as off base. People tend to ding him for his second sentence “Astrology, witchcraft, ancient prophecies, ghosts, and fairies, are now rightly disdained by intelligent persons” (ix). Historians aren’t supposed to say such things nowadays. But I take this as a kind of apology for his fascination with the topic. Thomas concludes the book with the following, ?What is certain about the various beliefs discussed in this book is that today they have either disappeared or at least greatly decayed in prestige. This is why they are easier to isolate and to analyze. But it does not mean that they are intrinsically less worthy of respect than some of those which we ourselves continue to hold? (668).
That said, my one critique is that it ultimately supports there being an ontological difference between religion and magic. Thomas admits that the categories can be murky but ultimately uphold the categories. Yet since that is still a commonly held attitude (I think I’ll put up a post on that pretty soon), Thomas gets a pass. It is the best history book every written after all.
So what would your pick for best history book ever, Mormon or otherwise? [And tell us why.]