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COURSE NAME: "Magic and Witchcraft in Medieval and Early Modern Europe"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2020

INSTRUCTOR: Fabrizio Conti
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: MW 4:40-6:00 PM
OFFICE HOURS: By appointment

This course examines the rise and decline of beliefs in magic and witchcraft – the supposed power of humans to intervene in natural events and to harm others by supernatural means – in medieval and early modern Europe, up to the outburst of the so-called “witch craze.” It studies social, cultural, literary, judicial, religious, gender, economic, and environmental aspects of these beliefs, and their roots in such things as classical Greek and Roman literary traditions and popular folklore. Students will analyze primary sources in English, such as early literary texts elaborating on witch
beliefs, the infamous handbook for inquisitors, Hammer of Witches, the records of early modern trials, and intellectual reflections on the reality or otherwise of magic and witchcraft, and a variety of contemporary historiographical explanations. Students will thus be helped to frame magic and witchcraft in their historical, anthropological, environmental, sociological, and intellectual contexts, and to enrich their understanding the evolution of medieval and early modern European societies and cultures.

Satisfies: "Medieval History" or "Early Modern History" core course requirement for History majors

This course will take a comparative and, when possible, multidisciplinary approach to a wide range of topics concerning magic and witchcraft in medieval and early modern Europe. We will examine the formation and the social uses of categories and ideas such as magic, superstition, heresy, and witchcraft, the development of relevant rituals and traditions, and the scapegoating process through which particular groups – such as the leper, the Jew, the heretic, and eventually the witch – were identified or created. We will also consider the gendering of witchcraft and the related issues of male domination, and the roots of ideas about witches and witchcraft in Greco- Roman traditions and in popular beliefs and folklore. Analyses of primary sources – including Heinrich Kramer’s “handbook,” Hammer of Witches (1486), and the juridical procedures aimed at identifying “witches” and making them “confess” to their alleged crimes – and secondary literature, including Carlo Ginzburg’s popular study on the “Benandanti” or “Good-goers,” will help us to understand how the cultural construction of witchcraft-related stereotypes led to the outbreak of the “witch-craze” and the persecution of witches by both churches and states. We will conclude by considering the decline of ideas about witchcraft and their evolution into ideas about “vampirism,” and the representation of witchcraft in modern and contemporary arts and cinema.


Students will develop their knowledge of the European witchcraft phenomenon, its causes, contexts, and consequences, and their skills in thinking, speaking, and writing critically about complex historical phenomena, through the examination of textual and non-textual primary sources and the evaluation of diverse interpretations of sources, events, and ideas.

Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberCommentsFormatLocal BookstoreOnline Purchase
Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary HistoryAlan Charles Kors and Edward Peters University of Pennsylvania Press (2nd ed. 2001) 9780812217513 Paperback ed. available in the Frohring Library at JCU   

Audiovisual Project This is a project to be done and presented in pairs and consisting in a comparative/critical analysis of a movie/TV documentary show on witchcraft against selected historical sources. The outcome will be a 15-minute presentation. A list of sources and visual items will be provided. Topics and dates of the presentation will be agreed upon with the instructor. 20%
Research Paper This is a research paper of 3000 words, which will be based on the examination of primary sources and/or online tools/databases for the studying of witch-trials. You will be given a list of sources/online tools/scholarly articles, among which you will select the one(s) you prefer.25%
Midterm ExamThis will be an in-class written exam composed of short answer and essay questions. Your grade on this exam will depend upon the analytical strength and persuasiveness of your arguments as well as the factual accuracy of your answers.20%
Final ExamThis will be an in-class written exam composed of short answer and essay questions. Your grade on this exam will depend upon the analytical strength and persuasiveness of your arguments as well as the factual accuracy of your answers.25%
Attendance and Class ParticipationIt is mandatory that you (1) are in class, (2) have done the readings, and (3) express your views and questions in class, and are able to make connections with previous topics. Persistent absences or failure to do the readings will also affect your grade.10%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.

You cannot make-up a major exam (midterm or final) without the permission of the Dean’s Office. The Dean’s Office will grant such permission only when the absence was caused by a serious impediment, such as a documented illness, hospitalization or death in the immediate family (in which you must attend the funeral) or other situations of similar gravity. Absences due to other meaningful conflicts, such as job interviews, family celebrations, travel difficulties, student misunderstandings or personal convenience, will not be excused. Students who will be absent from a major exam must notify the Dean’s Office prior to that exam. Absences from class due to the observance of a religious holiday will normally be excused. Individual students who will have to miss class to observe a religious holiday should notify the instructor by the end of the Add/Drop period to make prior arrangements for making up any work that will be missed. The final exam period runs until ____________
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


All readings will be either provided through Moodle or accessible via the Frohring Library

Final Paper is Due on December 22nd at 8PM Rome Time. 



Week 1 

Why Magic and Witchcraft?

21 M  Course Intro: Defining Magic and Witchcraft

Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), 
pp. 3-9; 16-23 (Deep Perspectives: The Global Context)


23 W  New Trends in the Search for the Explanations

Read one of the following two articles:

Robin Briggs, “‘Many Reasons Why’: Witchcraft and the Problem of Multiple Explanation”, in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in
Culture and Belief
, ed. by Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 49-63

Edward Bever, “Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic”, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 7/1 (2012): 3-18


Week 2

The Classical Roots of Magic and Witchcraft

28 M  Magic in the Ancient World

Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003, 6th ed.), pp. 1-19 (Intro: The Sources, and The Study of Ancient Magic)


30 W  The Witches of Rome

Maxwell Teitel Paule, Canidia: Rome’s First Witch (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), pp. 1-22 (Canidia, or What Is a Witch?)

Horace, Epode V, "The Witch' Incantation": https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/HoraceEpodesAndCarmenSaeculare.php#anchor_Toc98670053



2 F  Witches Devouring Babies

Maxwell Teitel Paule, Canidia: Rome’s First Witch (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), pp. 65-79 (Canidia as Child-Killing Demon)


Week 3

Folklore, Nature, and Heresy

5 M  Shamanism

Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present, pp. 74-95 (The Shamanic Context)

Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits. Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages 
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 72-78 (Folk Trances)


7 W  The World of Nature 

Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution 
(New York: HarperCollins, 1989), pp. 1-41 (Nature as Female)


Week 4

12 M The Game of Diana and the World of the Dead

Kors and Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, pp. 50-54 (Isidore of Seville: Etymologies); 
pp.60-67 (Regino of Prum: The Canon Episcopi, and Burchard of Worms: The Corrector)

Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present, pp. 120-146 (The Hosts of the Night)


14 W The Demonization of Beliefs

Kors and Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, pp. 112-118 (Popes, Theologians, Preachers, Lawyers, and Judges; Pope 
Gregory IX: Vox in Rama; Pope Alexander IV: Sorcery and the Inquisitors); pp. 119-127 (Pope John XXII: Sorcery and the
Inquisitors; Nicolau Eymeric: The Directorium inquisitorum)


Week 5

The Sabbath

19 M Constructing The Sabbath

Martine Ostorero, “The Concept of the Witches’ Sabbath in the Alpine Region (1430-1440): Text and Context”, in Witchcraft Mythologies 
and Persecutions: Demons, Spirits, Witches / 3, ed. by Gábor Klaniczay and Éva Pócs, (Budapest: CEU Press, 2008), pp. 15-34

Kors and Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, pp. 149-159 (The Sect of Diabolical Witches; Pope Alexander V to Pontus Fougeyron 
on New Sects; Pope Eugenius IV: Two Letters on the Pressing Danger; Johannes Nider: The Formicarius)


21 W Interpreting The Sabbath

Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, tr. by Raymond Rosenthal 
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 89-110

Kors and Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, pp. 159-162 (The Errores Gazariorum); pp. 166-169 (Martin Le Franc, The Defender of Ladies)


Week 6

The DNA of Witch-Beliefs

26 M Classical Culture and Folklore in Witch-Beliefs 

Fabrizio Conti, "Notes on The Nature of Beliefs in Witchcraft: Folklore and Classical Culture in 15th Century 
Mendicant Traditions", Religions (2019), 10, 576: https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/10/576

28 W Take-Home Midterm Exam

Paradigms of Witchcraft: "Cumulative Concept" VS Witchcraft Mythologies

Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London: Longman, repr. 1993), Ch. 2 (The Intellectual Foundations)

Richard Kieckhefer, “Mythologies of Witchcraft in the Fifteenth Century”, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 1-1 (2006): 79-108


Week 7

The Hammer of Witches (Malleus Maleficarum)

2 M Instructing the Inquisitors and Persecuting the Witches

Kors and Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, pp. 176-228 (The Hammer of Witches); p. 229 (Pope Alexander VI's Letter)


Witchcraft, Fear, and History

4 W  Film Screening and Discussion

Häxan, the first docufilm on witchcraft, released in 1922

Teofilo F. Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization 

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 4-16


6 F Make-up Class

Witch-Beliefs in Late-Medieval Italian Towns

"Bernardino of Siena Preaches Against Women Sorcerers", in Kors and Peters Witchcraft in Europe, pp. 133-137

Reading and Discussion of Excerpts from Anti-Witchcraft Texts 


Week 8

Witches as Women

9 M  Why Women? Witches as Women from Classical Rome to the Malleus Maleficarum

Read one of the following two articles:

Marina Montesano, Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy 
(Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 37-66 (The Witch as a Woman: Tales of Magic in Rome)

Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Beliefs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 
Ch. 2 (Why Women? The Malleus Maleficarum)

11 W  A Male Domination Issue?

Read one of the following two articles:

Marianne Hester, Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: A Study of the Dynamics of Male Domination
(London: Routledge, 1992), selected pp. 107-130 ("The Early Modern Witch Hunts I") 

Tamar Herzig, "Flies, Heretics, and the Gendering of Witchcraft", Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 5/1 (2010): 51-80

Week 9

The Trials

16 M  The Witch-Craze*

* A list of online tools/databases for the study of witch-trials will be provided and discussed

Richard Kieckhefer, “The First Wave of Trials for Diabolic Witchcraft”, in The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft
in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America
, ed. by Brian P. Levack (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 159-178

Tamar Herzig,  "Witchcraft Prosecutions in Italy", in The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft, pp. 249-267


 18 W  The Inquisitor and the Defendant

Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992),
pp. 1-15 (Witchcraft and Popular Piety: Notes on a Modenese Trial of 1519)

Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, pp. 141-148 (The Inquisitor as Anthropologist)

Week 10

Being (or Believed to be) a Witch?

23 M  Witches: Beliefs and Behaviors 

Fabrizio Conti, Witchcraft, Superstition, and Observant Franciscan Preachers: Pastoral Approach and
Intellectual Debate in Renaissance Milan
(Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), selected pp.

25 W  The Benandanti: Forced to Become Witches

Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and 
Seventeenth Centuries 
(Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), selected pp.

Week 11

Witches in the Arts and Cinema

30 M 
The “Occult Revival”
 in Popular Culture

Marcello Truzzi, “The Occult Revival as Popular Culture: Some Random Observations on the Old and the Nouveau Witch”, 
in The Sociological Quarterly, 13/1 (1972), pp. 16-36 



2 W  Witches in Art

Charles Zika, “Images of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe”, in Levack, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft

Week 12

Towards the End

7 M  The Decline of Witch-Craze and the Rise of Vampirism

Read one of the following:

Brian Levack, “The Decline and End of Witchcraft Prosecutions”, in The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft, pp. 429-446

Peter Elmer, "Medicine and Witchcraft", in The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft, pp. 561-591

9 W  Final Discussion - Magic: Present and Future

Michael Bailey, Magic: The Basics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018) , Ch. 6 (Magic in the Modern World)

Final Exam