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The Dynamics of Witchcraft 1450–1750 - 30 credits (HS1790)

Module Tutor: Dr Garthine Walker Walker, The Extraordinary and the Everyday

Course Description

The widespread belief in witchcraft and magic is often identified as a defining feature of the early modern period. In this module, we shall consider the dynamics of witchcraft in early modern Europe and European colonies, and the ways in which historians and other scholars have made sense of it. In the Autumn semester, we begin with the intellectual and cultural foundations of witch beliefs: the legacy of medieval beliefs and the connections between witchcraft and heresy; the influence of the infamous fifteenth-century witch-hunting text Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches), and debates between early modern demonologists. We then move on to the trials themselves by examining the structures that facilitated prosecutions: the role of secular and ecclesiastical authorities; the significance of the Inquisition and other legal and religious systems and institutions; the idea that witch trials were targeted at midwives and healers; and the dynamics of relationships between accused witches and the neighbours who accused and prosecuted them. In the Spring semester, we explore the idea of witchcraft as a fantasy of power for the powerless, and evaluate the merit of psychoanalytic explanations for witch accusations and confessions. We also consider demon possession, exorcism, and love magic, before turning to focus on the issue of male witches in order to re-consider whether witch trials should be seen as a form of misogyny. Throughout the module, we examine a number of primary sources to help us evaluate the arguments of modern scholarship on early modern witchcraft. Just as at the beginning of the module we thought about the rise of witch trials in the fifteenth century, at the end we assess reasons for the decline in trials in the eighteenth century.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every Year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures and seminar discussion of major issues. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to lectures.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one 1000 word assessed essay [15%], one 2000 word assessed essay [35%] and one two-hour unseen written examination paper in which the student will answer two questions [50%].

Course assignments:

Assessed Essay 1 will contribute 15% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 1,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

Assessed Essay 2 will contribute 35% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

Early Modern Witches: An Introduction
Historians & Witchcraft: An Overview
The Early Modern Conundrum: How to Deal with a Witch?

The Medieval Inheritance
The ‘Hammer of the Witches’: Malleus Maleficarum
Medieval Witch Beliefs

Learned Debate(s) about Witchcraft
Sceptics & Believers?

Law, Politics & Religion
Case Studies: Germany & Scotland
Case Studies: England & Wales
Patterns of Prosecution
Trial & Punishment: Source Analysis

The ‘New’ Social History of Witchcraft
Witches & their Neighbours
Accusations & Confessions: Source Analysis

Radical Feminism & the Burning Times
The Midwife-Witch & the Wise Woman
Seeking the Midwife & Healing Witch
The Prosecution of Men
Male Witches
Was Witch-Hunting Woman-Hunting

Witchcraft & Psychoanalysis
Taking the ‘Psycho’ Out of Analysis

Demonism & Spirit Possession
Love Magic
Bodies Possessed

Decline of Witch Trials
Explaining the Decline

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module a student will be able to

  • demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the dynamics of witchcraft beliefs, accusations and prosecutions;
  • demonstrate an understanding of key historical and historiographical perspectives;
  • analyse issues such as the nature of beliefs in witchcraft, accountability and culpability, chronology and geography, and labelling in the light of those historical and historiographical perspectives;
  • evaluate the relative merits and demerits of a range of alternative interpretations (especially those informed by anthropology and other social sciences, psychoanalytic theory, and certain forms of feminist theory);
  • demonstrate an understanding of selected primary sources and to show an appreciation of how historians have interpreted them;

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions. 

Suggested book purchases

Darren Oldridge (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader (Routledge, [2002] 2nd edn 2008).
Purchasing this volume of reprinted academic journal articles and book chapters means that you will have at least some secondary literature to hand for almost all topics.

Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Longman, 3rd edition, 2006).
This is the best of the textbooks available on this topic.