BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Contesting the Supernatural in the Early Modern British Isles, c. 1600-1800

Unit code HIST31292
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


This module examines the changing meaning and significance of supernatural beliefs in the early modern British Isles (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). Students will investigate the nature, appeal and contestation of beliefs about magic, miracles, ghosts, demons, angels and other occult phenomena in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We will interrogate controversial claims that religious reformations, scientific revolutions and enlightenment philosophies began a process of 'disenchantment' and ‘secularization’ that resulted in a more ‘rational’ understanding of humans and the natural world by the close of the eighteenth century.


HIST31292 is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies programmes; CLAH-owned programmes; and History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas (please check your programme structure for further details).

This module is only available to students on History-owned programmes; History and American Studies; Euro Studies programmes; and Classics and Ancient History-owned programmes.


  • Students will be encouraged to critique Max Weber’s claim that the Protestant Reformation initiated a process of 'disenchantment' that resulted in a more ‘rational’ understanding of the natural world.
  • They will learn to question linear historical narratives about the ‘rise of science’, satire and scepticism.
  • Simplistic divisions between ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ culture will be challenged by examining variations of belief about the perceived efficacy of supernatural forces by different social groups.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course you should be able to:


Representative examples of the class topics are listed below:

  • Magic and Religion before the Reformation
  • Reformation and Disenchantment
  • Ghostly Visions and the Abolition of Purgatory
  • Magical Healing
  • Possession & Exorcism
  • Supernatural Landscapes
  • Angels and Angelology
  • The Occult Laboratory of the Royal Society
  • Supernatural Belief and Enlightenment Culture

Teaching and learning methods

In addition to the weekly one-hour lecture and two-hour seminar, two weekly office hours will be held for students who wish to discuss course content or assignments. The course tutor will also aim to organise a field trip to the John Rylands Library to see primary source collections linked to this subject.

Knowledge and understanding

  1. Understand the meaning and importance of beliefs about supernatural phenomena in the lives of early modern men and women in the British Isles.
  2. Assess the impact of religious, cultural, medical and intellectual change in transforming perceptions of supernatural phenomena between c.1600 and c.1800.  
  3. Evaluate the ways in which natural philosophy, enlightenment and empiricism both supported and contested the definition of supernatural events.
  4. Explain particularities of supernatural belief in different local and national contexts. Understand and critique historical debates about the ‘disenchantment’ of early modern culture in the British Isles.

Intellectual skills

  1. Understand relevant historical models of cultural change relevant to the early modern British Isles.
  2. Understand sociological and anthropological approaches to religious change and magic beliefs.
  3. Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of interdisciplinary methods in historical analysis.
  4. Assess the relative strengths and limitations of print, manuscript and visual sources.

Practical skills

  1. Essay writing
  2. Seminar participation and oral presentations
  3. Primary Source Analysis (textual and visual)
  4. Analysis of secondary literature
  5. Use of appropriate online search engines and internet resources (e.g. Early English Books Online; Eighteenth Century Collections Online; Internet History Sourcebook)

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  1. Design and delivery of oral presentations, which may improve knowledge and use of PowerPoint and build confidence.
  2. Teamwork and collaborative discussions with peers.
  3. Improved written and oral communication skills.
  4. Critical analysis and evaluation.

Employability skills

Oral communication
Students can expect to learn essential communications skills amongst their peers and with the tutor, through seminar discussion and presentations, which are essential to the workplace.
They can expect to develop important independent research skills as they prepare for their assignments and from the visit to the John Rylands Library, where they will become familiar with libraries, heritage institutions and collection management systems.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%

Feedback methods

  • Oral feedback on group presentation: Formative
  • Written feedback on primary source analysis: Summative
  • Written feedback on essay: Summative
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during office hours or by appointment): Formative

Recommended reading

Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (2007)

Peter Marshall and Alexandra Walsham (eds), Angels in the Early Modern World (2006)

Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England (2006)

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)

Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (1999)

Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (2011)

Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (1963)

D.P. Walker, Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (1981)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Supervised time in studio/wksp 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 156

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Sasha Handley Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Assessment Methods

Primary Source Analysis - 1500 words - 20%

Essay - 2500 words - 40%

Exam - 2 hours, 2 questions - 40%

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