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Unit information: Science and the Supernatural in 2015/16

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Unit name Science and the Supernatural
Unit code HIST30044
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Will Pooley
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The nineteenth century is often seen as the period when reason defeated ‘superstition’, and science replaced the supernatural. Yet the period between 1848 and 1925 in Western Europe and America also saw a renewed interest in the afterlife, ghosts, and possession. Doctors and scientists did not simply condemn supernatural beliefs: they investigated, substantiated, and promoted them, as well. In doing so, they opened conversations with a wide public interested in hidden forces, spirits, illness, and destiny.

This course explores these dialogues through different themes in each seminar: medicine and healing, astrology and astronomy, electricity and magnetism, psychology and possession, photography and hidden forces, ‘modern wonders’ and haunted technologies, and psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Students will work with photographs and material culture, as well as scientific texts, folklore collections, and the personal writings of influential figures involved in cases such as the Hydesville Haunting (1848), Robert Houdin’s trip to Algeria (1852), the burning of Bridget Cleary (1895), and the werewolf of Uttenheim (1925). The unit aims to develop a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between science and the supernatural in the long nineteenth century, and to foster students' capacity to integrate a wide variety of primary sources in their historical work.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will have developed:

1. an in depth understanding of the connections between science and the supernatural in France, Britain, and the United States in this period

2. a high degree of competency in working with an increasingly specialist range of primary sources

3. an ability to identify and evaluate a range of academic viewpoints relating to science and the supernatural, with an acuity appropriate to level H

4. an ability to formulate independent lines of thought and to express these with a high level of accomplishment.

Teaching details

Weekly 2 hour seminars

Assessment Details

3500 word essay (50%) and a 2 hour exam (50%). Both assessments test ILOs 1 to 4.

Reading and References

Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (New York, 2001)

Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (New York, 1999)

Graham Jones, ‘Modern Magic and the War on Miracles in French Colonial Culture’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol 52:1 (2010), pp.66-99

Christopher Moreman (ed.), The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World, 3 vols. (Santa Barbara, California, 2013)

Richard Noakes, ‘Spiritualism, Science and the Supernatural in mid-Victorian Britain’, in Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett and Pamela Thurschwell (eds.) The Victorian Supernatural, (Cambridge, 2004)

Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago, 2004)