Byline: DAVID SEXTON
THE ENDS OF LIFE: ROADS TO FULFILMENT IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND by Keith Thomas (Oxford, [pounds sterling]20)
SIR Keith Thomas, now 76, has had an academic life of the highest distinction.
He's a Fellow of All Souls, and has been in his day President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Professor of Modern History at Oxford and President of the British Academy.
Relatively early in his career, in 1963, he published an enormously influential 20-page article called History and Anthropology, in which he announced his project of "constructing a retrospective ethnography of early modern England, approaching the past in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society".
In this, he had been inspired by the pioneer anthropologist E E Evans- Pritchard, whose great work was Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937), a people of the Upper Nile.
In 1971, Thomas duly published the historical-anthropological classic on which his reputation still rests, Religion and the Decline of Magic, looking at the rise and fall of witchcraft in 16th- and 17th-century England.
This was followed in 1983 by Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800, tracing the early history of environmental awareness.
Since then, Thomas has not published another significant book. Now, 26 years later, here is his third major tome, a revision of a series of lectures given in Oxford in 2000.
His subject this time is nothing less than the great questions of life. "How should we live? What is the summum bonum of human life?" His declared mission may be, as he says, to "consider the meanings of such questions for the men and women of early modern England" but the text that has resulted is a literary artefact, expressing Sir Keith's own sense of life as much as it reveals the past as inhabited by others.
For Thomas's method is, quite simply, citation, from the "writings and recorded utterances of the period", including literature as well as letters, diaries and court records. "At times my text comes close to being a collage of quotations," he admits. He likes Walter Benjamin's ideal of "a work consisting entirely of quotations, put together so skilfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text".
There are obvious serious problems in offering snippets (few of his quotations are of any length) completely out of context (not only is none provided but he repeatedly brings together very different periods and milieux). What's the proof that any of it is at all representative? Sir Keith simply throws up his hands.
"Lacking any satisfactory method of quantifying these matters, all I can do is to record my impressions after long immersion in the period. I am well aware that other historians may have formed different impressions. Travellers to a foreign country, even anthropologists, seldom return with exactly the same accounts." As time-travel literature, The Ends of Life is captivating. Reading this book in company must be irritating to others because it's so hard to resist reading so much of it …