Beliefs in witchcraft, the power of humans to intervene in the flow of life events and to harm others by supernatural means, is widely distributed both geographically and chronologically. How in European history the accusations were developed and put together with the elaboration of a sufficiently coherent framework of reference can be the focus of historical attention. This is indeed part of a wider process of formation of scapegoat images through time and on different social targets, from the heretics to the lepers, and from the Jews to ultimately witches. All this, along with the late medieval construction of the concept of the diabolic witches’ Sabbath, constitute a historical issue, the discussion and the understanding of which demand the involvement of a multidisciplinary way of approaching historical inquiry as well as an open-minded sight.
This course aims to lay out the rise and downturn of witch beliefs in medieval and early modern Europe, tracing the multifaceted roots leading to their construction, from the Classical Greek and Roman literary traditions to medieval lore and popular beliefs, up to the outburst of the “witch-craze” in early modern Europe. In this iteration of the course, we will dedicate more attention to witchcraft prosecutions beyond the paradigmatic West-European persecution waves: Central and Eastern Europe and modern witch-hunts in the global South. We will dedicate a few sessions on contemporary witch-hunts in the Global South and will pay particular attention to contemporary witch persecutions in Africa. Discussing magic and witchcraft in a global context will bring us to issues that can help us understand modern witch-hunting waves, and the dangerous social psychological mechanisms leading to scapegoat persecutions. At the same time, we will present the persistence, the cultural heritage of beliefs in magic, fashionable resurgences of neo-paganism, shamanism, alternative medicine, and new age sectarianism.
A variety of approaches will be considered to help the participants frame the problem of witchcraft within its rich socio-historical, anthropological, intellectual, and religious contexts through an open-minded, comparative, and multidisciplinary take on a wide range of topics pertaining to the witchcraft issue. We will discuss the formation and the historiographical uses of categories such as magic, superstition, heresy, and witchcraft, the development of relevant rituals and traditions, and the scapegoating process through which the above-mentioned groups – such as the leper, the Jew, the heretic, and eventually the witch – were identified or modeled. We will also consider the gendering of witchcraft and the related issue of misogyny and male domination, as well as the roots of ideas about witches and witchcraft in Greco-Roman traditions and in popular beliefs and folklore. Emphasis will be given to three aspects: the analysis of primary sources, the discussion of modern methodological approaches, and the instruments and places for research. The analyses of primary sources aim to discuss the genesis and the evolution of the image of the witch through time and according to different cultural models, from Classical authors such as Horace, Ovid, and Apuleius, to the various medieval literary and folkloric traditions, to early-modern developments, with the core role played by Heinrich Kramer’s Hammer of Witches (1486), and the juridical procedures aimed at identifying witches and making them confess their alleged crimes.
Modern historiographical theories aiming to explain the historical construction of witchcraft will be discussed and challenged, from Brian Levack’s systematization of the classical “cumulative concept” idea to Richard Kieckhefer’s new approach towards the identification of multiple “mythologies” of witchcraft, and from Carolyn Merchant’s consideration of the gender issue and the relationship between nature, the feminine, and the male domination issue, to Carlo Ginzburg’s comparative and morphological approaches that he has employed to study his Benandanti or for deciphering the witches’ Sabbath.
The faculty will present and engage participants in discussing their own research on topics including the relationship between learned systems and popular narratives, shamanism, medieval preaching on witches, the relationship between Classical culture and witchcraft, the world of superstition, witchcraft, and persecuting societies. The discussion of the existing variety of methodological approaches to the problem of witchcraft will allow the participants to develop a solid understanding of the methods, the sources, the interpretative instruments, the results, and the perspectives of studying a particularly challenging cultural/historical phenomenon such as witchcraft; moreover, participants will be given up-to-date knowledge concerning current research initiatives and opportunities at the international level in the field of cultural history.
The course faculty will offer a time slot for individual consultations, and the last day of the course will be dedicated to student presentations. Documentary film screenings and a one-day field trip will provide further variety and opportunities for discussions.
We invite applications from graduate/post-graduate students/scholars as well as advanced undergraduate students who have adequate prior study or engagement experience on the subject and make a compelling case in their application/statement of interest.
The language of instruction is English; thus, all applicants have to demonstrate a strong command of spoken and written English to be able to participate actively in discussions at seminars and workshops. Some of the shortlisted applicants may be contacted for a telephone interview.
This course will focus on the following discipline areas:
- Historical Anthropology
- Art History
- Legal History
- Human Rights
"The course helped me find some new questions for my current research; likewise, it gave me information about relevant studies and literature. And these were very good days of communication (networking) with other colleagues."
"I think it was very enriching to have the opportunity to listen to people who come from different disciplines, who have different perspectives and ways of teaching, and whose research focuses on different historical periods and parts of the world."
"The course has enabled me to broaden my horizons and expand my knowledge. I really appreciated the decision to focus the course on interdisciplinarity and to go beyond the concept of periodization, covering a long period of time."
"The course allowed me to make corrections to my own research into the topic and provided a way to acquire additional sources."
"The course was very useful. There was a broad variety of perspectives and disciplines with the top authors in the field. I never would have imagined that studying with so many of the authors I have read as a hobbyist would have someday been a reality. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy this experience."
"I would recommend this course as it is a rare opportunity to have access to such eminent specialists in the field of magic and witchcraft research."
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Completed CEU Summer University Application Form
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