HIST 260: Magic, Religion and Science since 1400

Reader requirements: A reader with an interest in current developments in science, religious studies (broadly understood) or Christianity & Judaism, professionals in the medicine, the health sciences, psychological & counseling & teaching fields.  

  1. Course Information
  2. Schedule
  3. Giving Feedback

Course Information:

Instructor: Prof. Thomas Robisheaux

Why is magic forbidden or derided, and, yet pervasive in so many subtle ways in western culture?   What claims can religion legitimately make about the natural world?  Human society?  The invisible, the supernatural or divine?  Why is science the measure of all knowledge today, able to inspire awe, and yet still can’t answer the questions people most want to know about: the meaning or value of life, the spiritual, super-natural or preternatural dimensions of nature and human experience?

This course charts the relationships between these three ways of knowing in western culture—the magical, the religious, and the scientific—and their surprisingly mutual dependence upon each other. The large issues of the course flow from the de-legitimizing of magic and the setting of limits to religious knowledge of all types during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. This long, complex process of establishing science as the touchstone of valid knowledge about nature and human society frames our exploration of several topics, including: Renaissance naturalism and the occult sciences, witchcraft and witch hunting, the Scientific Revolution, Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism, mesmerism, nineteenth-century Spiritualism, Darwinism and Christianity, the psychologizing of magic and religion in the modern world, psychical research and parapsychology, modern film and the supernatural, the “new religious movements” of the 1960s, modern occultism, contemporary satanic panics and the emergence of consciousness studies.

Student Writing Assignment:

What are students writing?

(1) Short 500-word engagements or analyses of assigned readings that show a grasp of the material and a critical historical engagement; (2) synthetic essays in response to large questions about the history of science, magic & religion (about 10 pages in length); and (3) short (10 pages or 2,500 words) research papers on a topic of the student’s choice related to course units on Renaissance medicine or the history of naturalism or psychical research, using sources from the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

For whom? 

Ideal audience is an educated reader interested in (broadly) history or studies of science & religion, the kind of reader one might find of a publication such as The New Yorker or Commentary or History Today or The New York Times Bookreview section.

Where would such writing typically be found?  

See above.

Why would someone usually read it? 

To learn more about science today, the history of science, religion in our culture, history of America & Europe, or how people in different cultures & times think, view nature, human society & the divine.


The are the course deadlines, as they pertain to the Duke Reader Project:

Major graded writing assignment schedule (each 8-10 pages in length)

Midterm Essay #1 Draft deadline: Feb. 11th

Midterm Essay #1 deadline: Feb. 18th

Research Paper Draft deadline: April 9th

Research Paper deadline: April 22nd

Final Essays Draft deadline: April 29th

Final Essays Due: May Exam week


Minor short ungraded papers: (2 pages, 500 words)

Week of Jan. 22nd

Week of Feb. 5th

Week of Feb. 26th

Week of March 5th

Week of March 26th


Syllabus: HIST 260_Syllabus Spring 2018[2]

Giving Feedback (general information that will apply to most courses):

Giving feedback is the activity around which the entire project is designed. You may have considerable professional experience giving feedback on writing — whether to colleagues, employees, or other contexts — or perhaps this is an fairly novel experience. Given the aims and nature of the Reader Project, we are hoping that our volunteers engage with student writing in a particular way–one that is quite different from what is conventionally done in other contexts.

The primary aim of the project is to help students really understand what it means to write for readers, rather than as a school assignment. Think about the following when you give feedback, whether in writing or in real time:

  • Respond as a reader rather than as an editor. (They can get basic editorial help from others.) Focus on sharing your reactions to the draft as a user of such writing. What are you thinking as you read? More

Instructor Response Questions:

Some general criteria for evaluating essays that are given to students.   Also attached: some sample essay questions & instructions from past courses.  

Criteria for evaluation of essays

  1. The cogency and convincing quality of the argument in the essay.   Each essay is expected to develop a clear response to the question.    Every part of the essay should support or develop that thesis.   And your overall thesis should make a compelling answer to the question.   Remember that the best arguments will be your own, drawing on and synthesizing course materials in a compelling way.   Essays that digress from the topic, make weak connections between various points, or that offer less convincing responses to the question will be evaluated as less successful than those that are clear, cogently argued, well developed, and to the point.

The essay should make an historical argument, that is to say, essays that argue from a general, timeless or philosophical point of view will be judged less successful than those that try to understand issues within the historical context of the time.  The goal of a history course is, of course, historical understanding, in this case, the understanding of magic, religion and science within very particular time periods.   Your opinion or philosophical judgment about these historical developments is therefore less important than explaining why the ideas or developments worked the way that they did in particular historical periods.

  1. How well you support your argument and/or points.   In history proof or evidence rests on empirical data – in this case, from the lectures, workshops and readings – and so points in your essay depend on your being able to cite specific illustrative material to support it.   Every point should be supported.  A rule of thumb: at least one – preferably two – solid bits of supporting evidence in a paragraph.   Cite names, specific ideas, places, the names of an important treatise & its contents where possible.
  2. How broadly and intelligently the essay draws on course readings, lectures and other course materials.   Essays must demonstrate that you have read the assigned readings, that you can draw widely on them, synthesize them effectively, and draw from them appropriate information to support your case.   Essays that rely only on lecture notes or only on readings are not as successful as genuinely synthetic pieces of writing.   Remember: your job in this class is to draw together all of the course materials.   Lectures complement readings, and vice versa.   Relying solely on one or the other for your essays will lead to a weak essay.

Sample Essay Questions:

HIST 260_Midterm 1 Spring 2016[1] HIST 260_Midterm 2 Spring 2015[1]

HIST 260_Midterm 1 Spring 2016[1]