Magic, Science and Religion in the Renaissance

Tutor: Sophie Weeks

Module type: MA Option

Module Code: HIS00059M

This course will explore the close interplay between magic, science and religion: some of the major conceptual frameworks of early modern Europe.

Reading the works of significant early modern thinkers (including Bacon, Bruno, Dee, Newton and Paracelsus), we will analyse the assumptions underlying different views of the world and the broader reasons why thinkers adopted one set of assumptions or another in particular historical contexts. The relationship between these intellectual frameworks is complicated and diverse.

We will explore the interaction between magical and religious discourse; 'occult' and 'scientific' forms of knowledge; and natural and supernatural realms. For example, what threat did philosophers' natural explanations for miraculous phenomena pose to religion? What role did alchemy and theology play in Isaac Newton's approach to natural philosophy? More broadly, did magic underlie a larger project of cultural and religious reform? What is the relationship between magic and those transformations in knowledge and practice traditionally associated with the Scientific Revolution?

The likely seminar programme is as follows:

  • Reading Natural Magic Literature
  • Learned Renaissance Magic
  • Magic as Impiety
  • Historiographical Debates: The Occult and the Scientific
  • Magic and Scepticism
  • Mediaeval Magic to Renaissance Science: Radiation Theory
  • Experiment in the Renaissance I: Natural History, Magic and Miracle
  • Experiment in the Renaissance II: Alchemy


Preliniary reading:

  • Henry, John. Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd, 2002
  • Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella. London: Warburg Institute, 1958, repr. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2000
  • Webster, Charles. From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, repr. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996
  • Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London: Routledge, 1964


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.