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Histories of Magic and Witchcraft in the Pre-Modern World (Level 5)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor: Mike Berlin
  • Assessment: Two 2,000 word assessments (25% each), one 48-hour take-home exam (50%), 60% class attendance requirement

Module description

Why does it matter that people in the pre-modern world believed in magic, witches and supernatural forces? Through a detailed inquiry of a range of written, visual and material primary sources, this module will allow you to explore the changing faces of magic and the witch from antiquity to the present. As a team-taught module drawing on expertise from across the department, the material reaches from the classical idea of the witch to medieval heresy trials, from the famous ‘witch-hunts’ which occurred across the globe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to the decline of witch trails, and through to the role of witchcraft in shaping modernity and the contemporary world.

We will trace the idea of the witch, beliefs about magic and the crime of witchcraft across time in Europe, the Americas and wider world. From inquisitorial trial records to fictional fairytales with the aged crone, from demonological treatises to operas with witches and sorcerers, the rich source material provokes multiple lines of inquiry. This module will allow you to explore the complexities of beliefs about witchcraft, to understand them in the context of the pre-modern world, and to interrogate our notions of modernity and progression.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Imagining the Witch in History
  • The Classical Witch
  • Early Christianity, Monasticism and Magic
  • Origins of the Witch Sect
  • Early Witch Hunts
  • Religious Conflict and Witch Craze
  • Torture and Confession
  • Matthew Hopkins and English Witchcraft
  • Possession and Exorcism: Loudun
  • Centres and Peripheries
  • Aged Crones and Child Witches
  • Anthropology and Popular Magic
  • Visual Culture
  • Emotions and Witchcraft
  • Archaeology and Material Remnants of Witchcraft
  • Masques, Drama and Dance
  • Music, Opera and Witchcraft
  • Faust and Fairytales
  • Scepticism and Decline
  • Occult and Magic into the Modern World

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • understand the chronological and geographical framework of pre-modern European witchcraft and magic
  • have a working knowledge of the historiography of pre-modern magic and witchcraft
  • be able to apply theoretical and methodological insights drawn from cross-disciplinary comparisons to the study of pre-modern witchcraft
  • appreciate the connections between complex multi-causal explanations for the phenomenon of pre-modern witchcraft and magic
  • have a broad appreciation of the interconnections between the key conceptual categories such as gender, religion, philosophy, science, law and the state, and the study of pre-modern magic and witchcraft.