Skip to main content

Study information

Magic in the Middle Ages: Context

Module titleMagic in the Middle Ages: Context
Module codeHIH3267
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr Jennifer Farrell (Lecturer)

Dr Catherine Rider (Convenor)

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 Context module will focus on the social and cultural context of medieval magic and analyse the debates in modern historiography surrounding these issues, while the co-requisite Sources module (HIH3266) will provide close focus on the sources available for the study of medieval magic.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will examine how medieval people thought about magic, and the magical practices that they used, in the Middle Ages. In this period, ideas about what magic was, how it worked, and whether it was acceptable, underwent profound changes in response to the circulation of new magical texts in Europe from the twelfth century onwards, and in response to changing theological ideas about magic. This module will investigate key issues including how medieval churchmen thought about magic; popular magical practices; the contents and impact of magical texts; and how medieval anxieties about magic paved the way for early modern witch trials. It will also explore the debates in modern historiography surrounding these issues.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Evaluate the different complex themes in the history of medieval magic
  • 2. Make close specialist evaluation of the key developments within the period, developed through independent study and seminar work

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 3. Analyse the key developments within a particular historical environment
  • 4. Focus on and comprehend complex issues
  • 5. Understand and deploy historical terminology in a comprehensible manner
  • 6. Follow the complex reasoning inherent in the discourse of the period

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 7. Independently and autonomously study and also work within a group, including presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning
  • 8. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment
  • 9. 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:

Term 1:

  • Medieval Concepts of Magic (classical and Christian; magic and paganism; magic and the Church) 
  • Popular Magic (divination, magic and medicine, magic and sex) 

Term 2:

  • 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 will offer an overview for students who may have little background in this subject. The co-requisite module will also provide close focus on the historical sources available for detailed analysis of medieval magic, so complementing this module. The seminars will focus on the central issues in the history of magic in the Middle Ages, allowing you to develop their skills and knowledge more fully. You will be expected to prepare for seminars by reading and 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 course1-7, 9Oral 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
Portfolio of two assignments70Combined total of 4000 words1-8Oral and written
Written Assignment302500 words1-8Oral and written

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Portfolio of 2 assignments (totalling 4000 words)Portfolio of 2 assignments (totalling 4000 words)1-8Referral/Deferral period
Assignment (2500 words)Assignment (2500 words)1-8Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

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

  • R. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  • K. Jolly, C. Raudvere, E. Peters, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (Athlone Press, 2002).
  • N. Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons (Pimlico Press, 3rd edition, 1993).
  • C. Fanger (ed.), Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).
  • V. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Clarendon Press, 1991).
  • K. Park, 'Medicine and Magic: the Healing Arts', in J. Brown/R. Davis (ed.), Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (Longman, 1998).
  • G. Brucker, 'Sorcery in Early Renaissance Florence', Studies in the Renaissance 10 (1963).
  • K. Jones and M. Zell, '"The divels speciall instruments": women and witchcraft before the "great witch-hunt"', Social History 30 (2005).

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

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

Module co-requisites

HIH3266: Magic in the Middle Ages (Sources)

NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date