Spring 2009
Fully Enrolled

SOCS 617
Magic, Miracle, and Witchcraft in Europe before 1700


01/26/2009 - 05/04/2009
Monday 06:00 PM - 08:30 PM

Public Affairs Center 422

Until the 'disenchantment of the world' in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europeans lived in a universe shot through with hidden and awesome power. God's action in the world was possible but puzzlingly, He often operated through other agents, through his saints and by miracle. On the other hand, humans were often tempted to appeal to other powers to get what they wanted and the use of magic, some pagan in origin, some not, was a pervasive influence. The world was full of demons and even devils, who used illusion and magic to entrap people by possessing them or turning them towards witchcraft in exchange for wealth and health. Surprisingly, the occult was not all bad and Catholics and later Protestants too wrestled with the question of what to accept and what to suppress. Magical forces did not fade with the Renaissance but actually grew alongside the first developments towards modern natural science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The necromancer joined the saint, the priest, and the witch as the faces of occult power. This course will take a broad look at the people and powers that filled the place where science sits today.

In surveying the long history of magic and miracle in Europe, we shall ask such questions as: what exactly these terms mean and how the meanings changed? How far away from such a world-view are we today and did magic really end in the seventeenth century? And, if so, why? Who controlled the use of magic and how was its misuse identified and punished? Were the processes of inquisition and prosecution fair or effective? Were there really witches or just witch-hunts? Why did people believe in miracles and magic? How did different sorts of Christians and Jews treat magic?

Among the readings will be primary sources written during the period and modern scholarly works. These will include substantial parts of: Valerie Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, which outlines the way in which the Roman Catholic church both rejected some types of magic but adopted and adapted other parts of the pre-Christian pagan practices; Richard Kieckhefer's Magic in the Middle Ages, which describes the growth of magical ideas and practices through the Middle Ages; and Patrick Geary's Furta Sacra, which will guide us into the world of saints, relics and miracles. We shall also read closely on the power of kings to cure, of witches to harm, and ordeals to show God's justice.

There will be two take home examinations and one ten-page research paper due after the end of the class sessions.

This course is open to auditors.

A few pages of optional primary documents will be provided in advance for discussion during the first class.

A syllabus for this course is available at:
Course Syllabus

Gary Shaw (B.A. McGill University; D.Phil Oxford University) is professor of history. He is the author of The Creation of a Community (1993) and Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (2005). He co-edited The Return of Science: Evolution, History and Theory (2002) with Philip Pomper. His current research interests include the circulation of people and ideas in later medieval England and bishops and indulgences in the later medieval English church.


Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:
John Demos, THE ENEMY WITHIN: 2000 YEARS OF WITCHHUNTING (Viking), Hardcover

Valerie Flint, RISE OF MAGIC IN EARLY MEDIEVAL EUROPE (Princeton University Press), Paperback

Patrick Geary, FURTA SACRA (Princeton University Press), paperback

Carlo Ginzburg, THE NIGHT BATTLES (Johns Hopkins University Press), Paperback

Richard Kieckhefer, MAGIC IN THE MIDDLE AGES (Cambridge University Press), Paperback

Brian Levack, THE WITHCRAFT SOURCEBOOK (Routledge), Paperback


Register for Courses

Contact glsinquire@wesleyan.edu to submit comments or suggestions. 
Copyright Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 06459