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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Mary R O'Neil
HSTEU 305
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

HSTEU 305 European Witch Trials

This course examines medieval European witch beliefs and the process by which various beliefs led to the witch trials of the 15-17th centuries. Beginning with an overview of anthropological approaches to witchcraft and the philosophical “problem of evil,” we will study the evidence for witch beliefs in early Germanic legal codes and clerical documents rejecting these beliefs as impossible. By the 15th century however, medieval theologians had demonized a wide range of popular magical beliefs through the theory of the “diabolical pact.” The confrontation between learned and popular traditions forms a major theme of the course. Witch hunting manuals written by learned theologians and jurists will be examined in an effort to understand how the fusion of traditional and theological beliefs occurred. The history of the witch trials themselves provides the central focus of readings and lectures, which include a comparative legal and social history of witch hunting in Switzerlandm Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Scotland and England, as well as Salem in the English colony of Massachusetts. Gender issues and the question of “why most accused witches were women?” will be addressed throughout the course.

Student learning goals

Learning about the history of witch beliefs and witch trials in Europe from early middle ages to the 17th century.

Understanding differences between cultural levels, especially oral traditions versus written documents of the educated.

Understanding the social situations which gave rise to witchcraft accusations, with some attention to modern parallels.

Understanding the gender issues in European witch beliefs: why were most accused witches women? And what about areas where most were men?

Learning a basic framework of European social and intellectual history in order to place witch beliefs in their broadest context.

Understanding why most witch trials occured in 16th-17th centuries rather than in the medieval period.

General method of instruction

Lecture & discussion of assigned readings both in lecture and in sections. Weekly sections to discuss selected readings in depth (required). Slides will be shown occasionally.

Recommended preparation

Any background in European history would be useful but not required.

Ability to read and think about very different belief systems.

Willingness to keep up with readings.

Class assignments and grading

Requirements: two short papers, midterm, final

Course carries "W" (Writing) Credit

Class participation: 10% Midterm: 20% 1st paper: 20% 2cd paper: 25% Final: 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: 01/23/2011