The Quotations That Keith Thomas Just Couldn't Resist

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Quotations That Keith Thomas Just Couldn't Resist


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 out loud.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Quotations That Keith Thomas Just Couldn't Resist
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.