The Witch Panic of the 16th and 17th Centuries in the Western World

Course Title: The Witch Panic of the 16th and 17th Centuries in the Western World

Dates:  Wednesdays, Feb. 8-Mar. 1, 2017

Time:  10:00AM – 12:00PM

Course# 17W2

Course Fee-$25 or $30 after January 25

Location:  Mercer Library, 2648W Margaret St. Mercer, WI

Objectives:  The objective of this course is to examine in close detail the witchcraft panic that spread like wildfire throughout Europe and the American colonies during the 16th and 17th centuries as well as to explore why the phenomenon remains such an endlessly fascinating historical event. If history can teach us anything, it is perhaps something important about human societies—most especially, what they’re capable of doing given a context of profound cultural change and societal upheaval.

Course structure:  The course will be given in _4_ sessions, each _120__ minutes long, covering the following topics:

This four-part course examines the widespread outbreak of torture, trials, and executions for witchcraft during the 16th and 17th centuries that resulted in the deaths of as many as 80,000 women, men, and children in Europe and the New World. The panic that ensued drew on a long history of witchcraft belief, belief that turned to widespread—and deadly—fear in the context of the profound religious and cultural upheaval of the period.

While the witchcraft panic tells us much about Western social, political, and religious culture of the early modern period, it also provides a useful lens through which to view contemporary “witch hunts” and to reflect on more general questions about human society—about the nature of belief, about fear and responses to fear, and about cultural norms that allow the persecution of particular individuals.

Class 1:  The Invention of “Witchcraft”: Science, Religion, and Magic in the Medieval World

Class 2: The Invention of “Witchcraft”: The Role of the Devil and the Spread of Terror

Class 3: The Witch Panic: The Campaign to Exterminate Witches in Europe and the New World

Class 4: The Witch Panic: Consequences, Explanations, and Lessons Learned?


Requirements: The only requirement for this course is an interest in the topic. The instructor will provide short articles and/or excerpts to read between class meetings to aid in discussion as well as deepen students’ understanding of the early modern witchcraft hysteria as well as the contemporary concept of “witch hunts.”

Instructor: Mary Magray has an MA in European history and a PhD in British and Irish history, with a focus on women and religion. She has been teaching a wide variety of European history courses to students of all ages for more than twenty-five years, including the history of early modern witchcraft at Wesleyan College and the University of Wisconsin. She is the author of The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 1750-1900, published by Oxford University Press in 1998, and is currently an instructor in the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.