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BA Politics and Modern History

Year of entry: 2021

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


Why did people in early modern England believe in the supernatural world? This module asks students to investigate the nature and everyday appeal  of belief in magical healing practices, ghosts, demonic possession, monstrous births, angels and other occult phenomena in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We will try to explain how reports of supernatural activity helped people to understand political and religious crises, but also how belief in a vibrant world of supernatural power intersected with people’s day-to-day concerns. Particular focus falls on how women engaged with, and often crafted supernatural reports to protest against mistreatment and to protect the health of their families. Finally, the module addresses  controversial claims that religious reformations and scientific revolutions  began a process of 'disenchantment'  that resulted in a more ‘rational’ understanding of the natural world by the close of the period. 


HIST31292 is only available to students on History-owned 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 become conversant with a range of historical and interdisciplinary theories and methods including material culture studies, gender history, and the sociology of religion.
  • They will learn to question linear historical narratives of historical change e.g. the ‘rise of science’, secularisation 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, age and gender groups.

Knowledge and understanding

  1. Understand the meaning and importance of beliefs about supernatural phenomena in the lives of early modern men and women.
  2. Assess the impact of religious, cultural, medical and intellectual change in transforming perceptions of supernatural phenomena between c.1500 and c.1700.  
  3. Evaluate the ways in which natural philosophy,  and empiricism both supported and contested the definition of supernatural events.
  4. Explain particularities of supernatural belief in different local and national contexts.
  5. Understand and critique historical debates about the ‘disenchantment’ of early modern culture.

Intellectual skills

  1. Understand relevant historical models of social and cultural change.
  2. Understand sociological, material culture-centred, and anthropological approaches to social change.
  3. Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of interdisciplinary methods in historical analysis.
  4. Assess the relative strengths and limitations of print, manuscript, visual and material sources.

Practical skills

  1. Essay writing
  2. Seminar participation and discussion
  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 technology and build confidence.
  2. Teamwork and collaborative discussions with peers.
  3. Improved written and oral communication skills.
  4. Critical analysis and evaluation 

Employability skills

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. They will also utilise digital library tools and databases, with online heritage interpretation and online collection management systems.

Assessment methods

Primary source analysis 40%
Essay 60%


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Oral feedback on seminar contributions


Written feedback on essay and primary source analysis


Additional one-to-one feedback (during office hours or by appointment)



Recommended reading

  1. Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (2007)
  2. Peter Marshall and Alexandra Walsham (eds), Angels in the Early Modern World (2006)
  3. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)
  4. Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (1999)
  5. Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (2011)
  6. Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (1963)
  7. 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
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Sasha Handley Unit coordinator

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