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Unit information: Science and the Supernatural in 2018/19

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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 long nineteenth century is often seen as the period when reason defeated ‘superstition’, and science replaced the supernatural. Yet this period also saw a renewed interest in the afterlife, ghosts, and possession, both in Western Europe and in America. Doctors, physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and anthropologists 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 in medicine and healing, electricity and magnetism, psychology and possession, photography and hidden forces, ‘modern wonders’ and haunted technologies, colonial magic, and finishes with psychoanalysis and the unconscious, and the rise of science-fiction and UFOs. Students will work with photographs, 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 stigmata of Louise Lateau (1868), the first UFO incidents in the US (1890s) and the werewolf of Uttenheim (1925).


  • To place students in direct contact with the current research interests of the academic tutor
  • To enable students to explore the issues surrounding the state of research on science and the supernatural in Britain, France, and the United States during this period
  • To develop further students' ability to work with primary sources
  • To develop further students' abilities to integrate both primary and secondary source material into a wider historical analysis

To develop further students' ability to learn independently within a small-group context.

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

Seminars - 3 hours per week

Assessment Details

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

Reading and References

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. ‘Unbewitching as Therapy’, American Ethnologist, 1989, 16:1, 40-56.

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

Hayward, Rhodri. ‘Demonology, Neurology, and Medicine in Edwardian Britain’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78: 1, spring 2004.

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

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)