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The Ends of Life is one of the most enjoyable, provocative, and instructive works of historical scholarship I have ever read. It is a work I will return to again and again, and I doubt that I will ever exhaust its riches—even though its historical narrative occupies fewer than three hundred pages (followed by a hundred and fifty pages of notes). Keith Thomas has provided as rich and compelling a picture of what early modern people lived for—what they believed gave meaning to their existence—as we could ever hope to have. And few if any historical subjects could be more worthy of our attention.
Sir Keith Thomas is widely regarded as one of the greatest living historians, and yet his reputation has been built almost wholly on just two books: Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (1983). Aside from the occasional article or pamphlet, Thomas produced little in the quarter-century following the publication of Man and the Natural World. One might think of him as the Marilynne Robinson of historians, given that almost the same number of years separated Robinson's extraordinary novel Housekeeping from her even more extraordinary Gilead.
Thomas taught at Oxford for over thirty years. (The novelist and biographer D. J. Taylor studied under Thomas when at Oxford, and has written that "He was a brilliant and merciless expositor, quite the cleverest man I met at Oxford or anywhere else—so brilliant and merciless that he should never have been let anywhere near nervous undergraduates.") Then, in 1986, he was named President of Corpus Christi College and held that post until his retirement in 2000. This administrative service is usually cited to explain the long scholarly silence, but the fact of the matter is that Thomas' historical method simply requires extended periods of research and gestation. It's worth noting that his academic career began in 1955: none of his books was produced in ...