Review: Magic in the Middle Ages

Magic in the Middle Ages is a Coursera course offered by the Universitat de Barcelona. It is actually the fifth course from Coursera that I have done and the third one done purely for my own interest. I was initially quite excited because of the topic but, since completing it, I have lost a fair bit of enthusiasm. That’s not to say that it is entirely without merit but I think that, currently, it is not taking advantage of the format and could be aimed better for a Coursera audience.

The course aims to teach students about magic in the middle ages, this includes how magic was perceived, different magical practices and the treatment of magic in both Christianity and Islam. As with most of these courses, it primarily consists of a series of short video lectures followed by a multiple choice quiz each week. There are also two short essays in this course which are judged by your peers.

The main issue that I encountered, was that videos, with very few exceptions, do not take advantage of the visual medium. They are nearly all videos of the instructor sitting or standing in place and lecturing. This is a waste of the video format which could be used to show artefacts or re-enactments of events. In most cases, you are better off just reading the transcripts of the videos as it is faster and you will not miss out on anything.

Even when visual aids are used they are, for the most part, not helpful. In many of the videos you see various words appear on the screen, especially when giving Greek, Latin and Arabic etymology. Not only is this not of great relevance to the message but I’d imagine that most people watching cannot read Greek or Arabic anyway. This is combined with a bad tendency of the videos to drop all sorts of names into the lectures, often only to be heard once. The section on magic in Islam was particularly bad in this respect, throwing out many names of Arab scholars, alchemists and texts which, while no doubt important for scholars of medieval magic, can be skipped for such an audience without losing any relevant content.

There are times when the videos do make good use of the format, such as when describing geomancy, divination through earth. At that point, I was only reading the subtitles but found it necessary to watch the video in order to follow the way that geomantic figures were constructed. This need to watch the video if a good thing because if I can skip the video without it affecting my learning then I wonder why it’s a video and not just text or audio. If relevant and important images were included more often it would’ve greatly aided engagement with the material.

As a scientist, there was one aspect of the course which was a constant source of frustration; their refusal to make any judgement on the validity of the practices. I understand why they do this, as historians their job is to understand the past, not to pass judgement on it. However, there is a middle path between making unfair judgements on historical persons through the lens of today and refusing to say that some people in the past were mistaken.

Another reason, as a colleague of mine suggested, is that their refusal to judge past beliefs is because then they might have to make such judgements about present beliefs. The problem is that there is a continuum between past and present beliefs and people’s actions are motivated by their beliefs. They cover demonic magic in the middle ages but the Roman Catholic Church approved an organisation of exorcists that was founded in 1990! We see astrology existing in the middle ages and, despite all the evidence that it doesn’t work, we have people that believe in it today. These are not just trivial matters. We saw the killing of those accused of being witches in the Middle Ages and we saw the same thing happen in South Africa this month!

Magical beliefs still abound in this world and many people today are still following belief systems that began in the middle ages and earlier. Most of these do not have any scientific evidence supporting them or, like with alchemy becoming chemistry, the parts that were valid have been separated from the nonsense. We need to be honest that the other parts were nonsense.

In short, I found the course disappointing and would not recommend it in its current form, unless you have a particularly strong interest in understanding the way magic was understood in the middle ages or if you are doing research for a novel. The course gets most interesting when they go into more detail about specific practices such the alchemical belief system or the methods of geomancy but those parts are too sparse. For what its worth, I finished the course with a final grade of 81.1%.

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