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Magic, Science & Religion in the Renaissance - HIS00059M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Miss Philippa Hellawell
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2017-18

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2017-18

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After successfully completing this course, students should:

  • have a deep understanding of the interplay between magic, science and religion during the period 1450-1700
  • be able to carry out a critical, close reading of selected primary texts
  • have an appreciation of the challenges posed by intellectual history

Module content

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?

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

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


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000 word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 of the spring term, for which they will receive an individual tutorial. They will then submit a 4,000 word assessed essay in week 1 of the summer term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative assessments

  • Within two working weeks of the completion of the assessment task. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

Summative assessments

  • Within six working weeks of the completion of the assessment task. For more information, see the Statement on 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. 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.

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.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): changes to courses

The 2020/21 academic year will start in September. We aim to deliver as much face-to-face teaching as we can, supported by high quality online alternatives where we must.

Find details of the measures we're planning to protect our community.

Course changes for new students