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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Mary R O'Neil
HSTEU 205
Seattle Campus

European Witch Trials

Witchcraft and magical beliefs in Europe considered as a problem in intellectual, social, and legal history. Medieval background, systematization of witchcraft theory in fifteenth century; comparison of learned and popular beliefs; mechanisms of witch trials and inquisitorial procedure; the Faust legend; growth of skepticism and decline of witchcraft in seventeenth century.

Class description

Medieval and early modern European society believed strongly in the existence of witches; action against these imagined enemies of the human race culminated in the great witch panic of the 16th and 17th centuries. Modern historians, however, agree that there was no organized society of witches, and this course starts from that premise. Witch beliefs will be approached first from an anthropological perspective, as a standard explanation for misfortune in peasant societies and as part of European folkloric tradition, linked to other imagined beings (fairies, elves, werewolves, etc.). Secondly, beliefs about witches will be analyzed historically from the early medieval period to about 1700, with an emphasis on the interaction between popular and learned clerical concepts of witchcraft, magic and sorcery. Special attention will be given to the issue of why (unlike other traditional societies studied by anthropologists) European witches were overwhelmingly women. Due to local variations in law, judicial processes and patterns of persecution, witch trials from the 15th to the 17th centuries will be studied on a country by country basis, including Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, England, and the American colonies (Salem). By the end of the course, students will have a good understanding of how and why the European "witch panic" occurred, as well as the decline of witch beliefs in the 17th-18th centuries.

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Lecture plus weekly section meetings to discuss documents related to the witch trials.

Recommended preparation

There are no prerequisites, but some background in European history would be useful. Students must be prepared to learn a lot about medieval and early modern history in order to have a framework for understanding the witch trials.

Class assignments and grading

Requirements: midterm, final, two papers (one 2-3 pages, one 5-7 pages), plus a few short written response to assigned readings.

Assigned reading: Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (Revised edition, 2001) Kors & Peters, Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: Documentary History (2cd ed) Brian Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe 2001, 2cd edition Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus Carlo Ginzburg, Night Battles: Witchcraft, Agrarian Cults in 16-17th C Boyer & Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft Plus xerox packet with selected articles.

Section participation, including short written assignments: 15% First short paper: 15% Midterm: 20% Second longer paper 25% Final exam: 25%


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Additional Information
Last Update by Mary R O'Neil
Date: 04/05/2006