Skip to main content

Study information

Magic in the Middle Ages: Sources

Module titleMagic in the Middle Ages: Sources
Module codeHIH3266
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr Jennifer Farrell (Lecturer)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

This course explores how medieval people thought about magic and the magical practices that they used.  It takes a long chronological sweep, from the period of conversion to Christianity in the early Middle Ages to the development of new ideas about witchcraft in the fifteenth century.  The course will examine the key changes which took place during the period, including the Church’s efforts to Christianise popular practices; the impact of new magical texts which circulated in Europe from the twelfth century onwards; intellectual debates about what magic was and how it worked; and the rising number of trials of magical practitioners. It will also examine how these factors contributed to the invention of a new crime, witchcraft, and the first witch trials.  This Sources module will bring together a wide range of evidence, including religious treatises, academic theology, magical texts, works of literature and trial records to examine both the reality of medieval magic and perceptions of it, while the co-requisite Context module (HIH 3267) will place this evidence in its social and cultural context, and analyse the key debates in modern historiography.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will focus on the sources available for studying magical practices, and attitudes to magic, in medieval Europe. It will use a range of sources, including theology, church law, magical texts, scientific and medical texts, and trial records. Students will be expected to evaluate the reliability and value of these sources as well as to explain their significance within the wider context of the subject.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Have a detailed knowledge of the different sources available for the study of medieval magic, together with a very close specialist knowledge of those sources which the students focus upon in their seminar presentations and written work
  • 2. Analyse the complex diversity of the sources studied

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Analyse closely original sources and to assess their reliability as historical evidence. Ability to focus on and comprehend complex texts
  • 4. Understand and deploy relevant historical terminology in a comprehensible manner
  • 5. Follow theories and evaluate critically the often complex reasoning of contemporary discourses

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Independently and autonomously study and work within a group work, including presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning
  • 7. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment
  • 8. Present complex arguments orally

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

This module will focus on primary sources relating to the following subjects:

  • Medieval Concepts of Magic (classical and Christian; magic and paganism; magic and the Church)
  • Popular Magic (divination, magic and medicine, magic and sex)
  • New Kinds of Magic (Arabic astrological magic, ritual magic, natural magic, magic in literature)
  • The Background to the Witch Trials (the theology of demonic magic, the image of the witch, witchcraft and women, prosecuting magic, the first witch trials)

The introductory session offers an overview for students who may have little background in the subject, exploring concepts of what magic is and its role in society. The co-requisite module will also provide close analysis of the social and cultural context of medieval magic and the historiographical debates surrounding it. The seminars will focus on sources for studying magical practices and attitudes to them, allowing students to develop their skills and knowledge more fully. Some of the sources will be presented by individual students; others will be presented by students working in groups; and on others there will be open discussion. Students will be expected to prepare for seminars by reading and/or evaluating the respective sources in advance, and will discuss the issues raised therein in the seminar itself.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching4422 x 2 hour seminars
Guided independent study256Reading and preparation for seminars, coursework and presentations

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Seminar discussionOngoing through course1-6, 8Oral feedback from tutor and fellow students

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Portfolio702 assignments totalling 4000 words1-7Oral and written feedback
Individual presentation3025 minutes1-8Oral and written feedback

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Portfolio assignmentPortfolio assignment1-7Referral/Deferral period
Individual presentationWritten transcript of 25 minute presentation (2,500 words)1-8Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

The re-assessment consists of a 4,000 word portfolio of source work, as in the original assessment, but replaces the individual presentation with a written script that could be delivered in such a presentation and which is the equivalent of 25 minutes of speech.

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • P. G. Maxwell-Stuart (ed./trans.), The Occult in Mediaeval Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  • Kors/E. Peters, Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700 (2nd edn, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
  • J. Shinners, Medieval Popular Religion: a Reader (Broadview Press, 1997).
  • W. Klingshirn, 'Isidore of Seville's Taxonomy of Magicians and Diviners', Traditio 58, 2003.
  • St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana bk 2, chs. 19-24, trans. R. Green (Clarendon Press, 1995).
  • St Augustine, City of God, trans. H. Bettenson, bk. 10, chs. 8-12 (Penguin, 2004).
  • R. Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: a Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
  • Chretien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. W. Kibler and C. Carroll, (Penguin, 1991).

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Magic, medieval history

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

At least 90 credits of History at level 1 and/or level 2

Module co-requisites

HIH3267: Magic in the Middle Ages (Context)

NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date