History Through the Lens of Magic 

Class: HIST 264: Magic in Europe from Antiquity to the Enlightenment

Course Description: A survey of magical thought and practice in Europe from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment. 

The goal of the class: Students learn how to use historical thinking by examining magic to ask and answer questions about humanity and society.

How does a society’s embrace of magic help us understand its culture as a whole? HIST 264 teaches students how to understand a society, its power structures, and its politics, through the lens of magical thought and practices in Europe over the span of 22 centuries.

Taught by Associate Professor of History Corinne Wieben, PhD, this course reviews the theory and practice of magic from the Bronze Age to the 20th century. Wieben’s interest in magic began while researching criminal trials in medieval Lucca in 2014. 

“On the surface, the course is about magic,” says Wieben. “Dig a little deeper, though, and the course is really about people and power: those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to keep it. As you can imagine, it gets pretty dramatic!”

In this course, Wieben places a great emphasis on analyzing historical texts and teaching students how to critically review them.

“Most of the course is building up context around a given text, followed by analysis of primary sources about some aspect of magic,” she says, “and then seeing what we can decipher about the society from that text.”   Wieben’s passion for a topic as fanciful as magic is really rooted in a love of studying societies as a whole.

“I realized that in teaching the history of magic, I could incorporate religion, philosophy, medicine, science, and technology because of course, all of those fall under the purview of magic,” she says.

Wieben uses the course as an opportunity to pick apart stereotypes of specific historical periods or figures.

Wieben emphasizes the use of primary sources and historical texts in her course. Here’s a list of the most popular texts/topics discussed, including episodes from Wieben’s podcast: 

Wieben’s podcast, Enchanted: The History of Magic & Witchcraft. Most popular episodes are The Lovelorn Lady and The Philosopher’s Stone Trilogy.

The Book of Magic, Brian Copenhaver (2015) 

The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West, David J. Collins, S. J. (2015)

“The Charms of Women and Priests,” Gender & History, Corinne Wieben (2017)

Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, Marina Montesano (2018) 

Magic and Superstition in Europe, Michael D. Bailey (2006) 

The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, Valerie I. J. Flint (1991) 

“We tend to associate classical Greece and Rome with an almost modern rationality,” says Wieben, “but while Plato was writing about philosophy, he was also writing about magic.” Similarly, we often stereotype the Middle Ages as a superstitious time, but out of it was born the practice of alchemy which contributed to the foundation for modern science.

Along with finding a new perspective on the past, the course also finds ways to examine the magic around students today by exploring modern conspiracy theories that have roots in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

“We question what it means to say a society is rational or irrational or superstitious or scientific,” says Wieben. “We get to think about historical periods differently and by contrast, think about modernity a little bit differently too.”

—Laura Veith