Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble: Class Stirs the Pot of Witchcraft’s History
By Laurie Laker ’12
“I’ve taught a number of early modern European history (1300-1900) courses at CC over the years, but witchcraft has never been the sole focus until this block,” explains Tip Ragan, professor of history at Colorado College.
Ragan’s Block 5 class, titled Sorcery, Magic, and Devilry: The History of Witchcraft, explores the dark and often dangerous history of witchcraft. The class examined witchcraft through socio-cultural and historical perspectives, as well as through a more contemporary lens that opened up perspectives on othering, discrimination, and power dynamics.
“Before this year, I had been planning on teaching the traditional Civilization in the West course in Blocks 5 and 6,” explains Ragan.
“When the West in Time requirement was eliminated, I thought that it was an opportunity to develop some new courses, and witchcraft was an area that I’d never exclusively focused on before.”
The class itself comes at a unique moment in history, when all humanities in particular, and the liberal arts in general, feel under attack by the stress on STEM-based programs. Ragan’s argument in teaching this course is simple – “History is more vital now than ever before, because as our society is besieged by the proliferation of “fake news” we need to develop the skills, indeed the wisdom, of learning how to judge basic facts, as best we can, and how to think about them in their larger historical and social contexts. We need to foster, in short, a socially and culturally literate generation of lifelong learners.”
Covering incidents and changes in witchcraft and magic from the 1300s until late-1700s, Ragan’s class contains an incredible range of students from first-years through seniors, from a wide variety of majors, and a diversity of backgrounds. Within the classroom, students debate what it means to be a practitioner of the “dark arts” and explore how societies around the world, while thinking about who gets to draw the boundaries between magic and other intangible topics, like religion.
“The witch craze, the Salem witch trials – they all overlap with commonalities and intersections of race and power,” says Nayeli Pena ’22, a potential economics major in the class.
“The material is really interesting, not only because of the focus, but also because I can apply it directly to my life – who gets the power to make the decisions, how people are othered by society, and how difference is demonized – it’s all relevant today,” Pena adds.
Utilizing primary source material as well as more contemporary expressions or portrayals of witchcraft - including film screenings as well a classroom visitor who practices Pagan natural religion – the class is a lively and hotly contested space. Far beyond simple historical examination, one thing that Ragan aims with this course is to present witchcraft as part of culture and society, not something that stands outside of them.
“Until the 17th century, there was very little distinction between what we now call chemistry and what we would label as alchemy or magic,” he explains.
“Medieval society in particular was an integrated space, where science, religion, magic, and emotion all overlapped and intersected. Witchcraft per se is invented when people in power separate it out as a category of being and layer on misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism onto it.”
As a 100-level class, witchcraft acts as a topical lens through which to incorporate different analytical tools, such as psychoanalysis, literary theory, feminist thought, and Marxism to help students (and professor) understand the land of the occult, as well as how some societies have come to depend on witchcraft while others police it relentlessly. Examining that crux of difference is key.
“It’s a very liberal arts class,” says Henry Rose ’21, a computer science major.
“It gives us such a rich knowledge base on how to do critical and in-depth readings, examine texts and pull arguments out. My area, computer science, is far more problem-solving work, so this class was really great to round out my CC learning experience.”