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Expanded Course Description
This course is an examination of the period often considered the most “magical” historical period, the Middle Ages, and a look at what magic consisted of, meant, and reflected in the period. Looking at the practices of medieval western Europe, particularly Britain, we will examine how medieval culture defined magic, what they hoped to achieve by practicing or forbidding magic, the ways in which magic reflects the medieval understanding of the universe, and how an exploration of magic led to the beginnings of modern science. Along the way we will investigate the medieval origins of two sometimes controversial modern American holidays, Hallowe’en and Christmas. We will also examine the role of magic in fiction — the origin of modern fantasy and superhero stories — and reflect on what that suggests about our relationship to the world. Finally, we will look at some of the legacies of medieval thought about magic, from modern practices such as throwing coins in fountains to “new religions” such as Wicca and neo-paganism. The study of medieval magic will allow us to understand the role of magic in both the medieval and the modern world and give us the tools to give informed opinions about modern controversies.