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Witchcraft: Religion, Law and Crime in the Atlantic World

This course poses a series of questions. What is the historian’s task? How do historians know what they know? What methods and skills do historians use? This course introduces history majors (and non-majors) to the methods and practices of historical knowledge production and to the philosophy/theory of history. Put slightly differently, the course will introduce students to the work/craft of history as thought and methodology. It will also encourage students to think about history (as discipline, method) critically, to address questions such as: What is history for and what does the student of history/the historian do in research (as the detective and the archivist), in writing (as the storyteller and the analyst), and in (critical) thought (as the teacher and the philosopher)? What does it mean to teach/study history in a time of struggle? What are the possibilities and limits of history?

This course examines the history of witchcraft and its relationship to religion, crime, and law. Who was deemed a “witch” in different historical contexts, and why? How did perceptions about witchcraft change over time? We will begin our inquiry in the early modern period, with the “witch crisis” in early modern Europe and the rise of European colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade. We will then do a close analysis of the Salem witch trials, reading original documents and examining the role of law, colonialism, slavery, and capitalism in the witch “outbreak” of 1692. The final section of the course will think about religion, law, and crime comparatively, examining concepts such as “voodoo” and “obeah.” Throughout the course, we will focus on how history is done –including close readings of primary documents, synthesis of historiographical arguments, and theorization of important concepts, such as “superstition,” “religion,” “magic,” and “law.”


This syllabus was created for the Young Scholars in American Religion program.

Katharine Gerbner

University of Minnesota

Public College or University
Institution Type

Resource Type

Undergraduate Course
Class Type

Date Published

Religious Studies, Area Studies, History

Religous Tradition

Gender/Women/ Sexuality, Politics/Law/Government, Region/Urban/Rural

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