The Royal Society and the Decline of Magic

Co-presented with the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, University of Sydney

Professor Michael Hunter

Professor Michael Hunter
15 February , 2011

The role of the Royal Society in the so-called ‘Decline of Magic’ was paradoxical. In the society’s early years, many of its Fellows were deeply committed to magical pursuits, while some urged the institution actively to investigate their validity. Yet in practice the society simply excluded magic from its corporate activities, for a variety of reasons on which it is possible to speculate.

What is important is that, due to the society’s crucial role in defining the proper realm of scientific enquiry, the result was to banish magic from this by default. This proved surprisingly influential, leading to the emergence in the early 18th century of a myth of the society’s positive role in eradicating such beliefs which was erroneous but is significant in itself.

Michael Hunter has been Professor of History at Birkbeck since 1992. He is the principal editor of the Works (14 vols., 1999-2000) and Correspondence (6 vols., 2000) of Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry. In addition, he has written various interpretative works on Boyle, and his biography, Boyle: Between God and Science, was published in 2009. He has also written or edited many books on the history of ideas and their context in late 17th-century Britain, dealing with such themes as the early history of the Royal Society. His current research is on changing attitudes to magical ideas c. 1700. A further interest is in printed images of the period. A major grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2006 to 2009 resulted in the construction of the website,, and the publication of an ancillary interpretative volume.