Magic, Labor, and Allegory: Imagining the Usurer



The process by which people ceased to “believe in” magic was remarkably swift for such a seismic shift in consciousness; it took place over the course of the seventeenth century. A person born in 1600, when almost all educated people “believed in” magic could easily have lived long enough to witness a world in which virtually none of them did. This epochal change distinguishes the modern Western consciousness from the vast majority of its forebears, and also from many of its contemporaries, as we learn from the recent resurgence of witch-panics throughout the postcolonial world. A change of these dimensions could not have occurred with such rapidity had not English minds been prepared by a course of ideological indoctrination, and the process by which usury attained respectability was an important part of that curriculum. I have been arguing that, at least at the beginning of our period the economic, liturgical, and magical modes of autonomous representation were not fully distinguished from each other. Indeed, sixteenth-century literature often explicitly connects them, and it frequently does so on what might seem the surprising grounds that they are all forms of alienated labor. In John Bale’s didactic propaganda play Comedy Concernynge Thre Lawes (1538) we hear that the character named Idololatria can perform labor by means of both pagan and Papist magic.


Seventeenth Century Corporal Punishment Labor Power Conspicuous Consumption Early Modern Period 
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© David Hawkes 2010

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