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Humanism, Magic & Science, c.1500-c.1700 - HIS00018I

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Simon Ditchfield
  • Credit value: 30 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

The period ca. 1500-1700 is traditionally regarded as having witnessed, intellectually speaking, the birth of the modern world. The clerical collectivist mind-set of the Middle Ages, based on deference to authority (political and intellectual), is seen to have given way to a secular individualist world-view founded on scepticism and experiment. This course aims to test this proposition and to examine just what this intellectual watershed (if watershed it was) consisted of. To do this, the binary simplicity of modern mental habits which oppose science to magic, the humanities to the sciences and religion to reason have to be jettisoned and replaced by an awareness of the fundamental unity of experience which characterised this intellectual ‘world we have lost’ in which priests could be scientists, and scientists, alchemists. How is it that the acknowledged ‘father’ of modern science, Sir Isaac Newton, has been described with some justification as ‘the last of the magicians’?

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2022-23 to Summer Term 2022-23

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to study particular historical topics in depth;
  • To develop students’ ability to examine a topic from a range of perspectives and to strengthen their ability to work critically and reflectively with secondary and primary material; and
  • To combine seminar preparation and discussion of the topic being studied with extended independent work on a project devised by the student.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Have acquired a deep knowledge of the specific topic studied

  • Have developed their ability to use and synthesise a range of primary and secondary sources

  • Be able to evaluate the arguments that historians have made about the topic studied

  • Have developed their ability to study independently through seminar-based teaching

  • Gain experience of working collaboratively through an assessed group project

Module content

Teaching Programme:

This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two-hour seminar run from weeks 2-10 in the spring term and a four week period of project work undertaken in weeks 1-4 of the summer term. Students will complete their group project work within that period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Introduction: the shape of knowledge (G.B. Della Porta)

  2. Rhetoric and education (D. Erasmus)

  3. Dialectic (reason) and the vision of learning (F. Bacon)

  4. Magic, alchemy and the new medicine (Paracelsus)

  5. Hermetic philosophy and the new science (G. Bruno)

  6. Martyr, heretic or rash courtier? (G. Galileo)

  7. The ‘making’ of modern science (I. Newton)

  8. 'The West and the Rest': or why Isaac Newton wasn't Chinese

  9. ‘The Scientific Revolution’: what’s in a concept?

Group project work will involve any text from the field of natural philosophy broadly interpreted by an author other than those dealt with in the seminar.


Task Length % of module mark
Group Project
N/A 33
Online Exam - 24 hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Humanism, Magic and Science
8 hours 67

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative assessment will be a group presentation between weeks 5 and 7 of the spring term.

For summative assessment students take a 24-hour open exam in the summer term assessment period, usually released at 11:00 on day 1 and submitted at 11:00 on day 2. For those taking two Explorations modules the 24-hour open exams are held on consecutive days, with both papers released at 11:00 on day 1 and both due for submission on 11:00 of day 3.

Students also submit a piece of written work for their group project of no more than 3,000 words in week 5 of the summer term.

The exam carries 67% of assessment and the project element 33% for this module.

Students who need to be reassessed in the project component of this module (for example due to Exceptional Circumstance) will be required to submit in the summer reassessment period a shorter individual project (2,000 words) which should include a short reflection (500 words max) on group work, considering how this project could be expanded if a team of three to four people were working on it. Students should consider how they would divide up the research tasks, and reflect briefly on problems which might arise and how they would manage them. Module tutors will advise on the content and design of this project.


Task Length % of module mark
Group Project
N/A 33
Online Exam - 24 hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Humanism, Magic and Science
8 hours 67

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will typically receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their discussion groups and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work with their tutor (or module convenor) during student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Henry, John. The Scientific revolution and the origins of modern science. 3rd edition. Palgrave: Basingstoke, 2008.


Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the sciences: European knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700. 3rd edition. Palgrave: Basingstoke, 2018.


Mark A. Waddell, Magic, Science and Religion in early modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.