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Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition

Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition

Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz Ph.D.
University of California, Los Angeles
Course No.  893
Course No.  893
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Western civilization is closely associated with reason and science, and with exceptional accomplishment in art, architecture, music, and literature. Yet it has also been characterized by widespread belief in the supernatural and the irrational—with mystics who have visions of the divine, and with entire$1#$ movements of people who wait in fervent anticipation of the apocalypse. $2#$

In addition, Western culture has been the setting for repeated acts of barbarism: persecutions of certain groups such as Jews, or accused heretics and witches.

Why has this been the case?

This two-part series invites you to consider what might be called the "underbelly" of Western society, a complex mixture of deeply embedded beliefs and unsettling social forces that has given rise to our greatest saints

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Western civilization is closely associated with reason and science, and with exceptional accomplishment in art, architecture, music, and literature. Yet it has also been characterized by widespread belief in the supernatural and the irrational—with mystics who have visions of the divine, and with entire$1#$ movements of people who wait in fervent anticipation of the apocalypse. $2#$

In addition, Western culture has been the setting for repeated acts of barbarism: persecutions of certain groups such as Jews, or accused heretics and witches.

Why has this been the case?

This two-part series invites you to consider what might be called the "underbelly" of Western society, a complex mixture of deeply embedded beliefs and unsettling social forces that has given rise to our greatest saints and our most shameful acts. The "terror of history," according to Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz, is a deeply held belief—dating from the ancient Greeks to Nietzsche and beyond—that the world is essentially about disorder and emptiness, and that human beings live constantly on the edge of doom.

We see history as terrifying, so we try to escape it. One strategy is to withdraw through transcendental experiences. Another, unfortunately, is to shift our fears onto scapegoats such as lepers, nonconformists, and other outsiders whom we choose to blame for "the catastrophe of our existence," as Professor Ruiz puts it.

The Renaissance as a Time of Magic and Astrology

This course explores the concept of the terror of history through a study of mysticism, heresy, apocalyptic movements, and the witch hunting craze in Europe between 1000 and 1700. You will examine new sources and think in new ways about events in the centuries from the late medieval period to early modern Europe.

You will be introduced to texts with which you may not be familiar, such as the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, the text of Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism. Or the Malleus Maleficarum, The Hammer of Witches, a handbook for identifying, interrogating, and trying witches.

You will view the Renaissance not from the perspective that it was the beginning of modernity but that it was a time when many among the educated were fascinated by alchemy and magic, when the Pope depended on his astrologer, when the learned considered the Corpus Hermeticum—a mixture of magic and astrology believed to date from the time of Moses—to be a more valuable text than Plato's Symposium.

You will consider how social, economic, political, and religious climates—especially during times of change and stress—exerted tremendous influence on the prevalence of irrational attitudes and persecutions. For example, between 1000 and 1700, periods of economic trouble were highly correlated with a rise in apocalyptic fervor. Similarly, religious wars coincided with the persecution of witches.

This course is presented by a teacher who displays both exceptional mastery over, and endless enthusiasm for, his subject matter. Professor Ruiz has been named one of four Outstanding Teachers of the Year in the United States by the Carnegie Foundation.

Particularly valuable is his willingness to add his own perspective, both professional and personal, to his lectures. Whether discussing aspects of ancient mystical practices that were common in Cuba during his boyhood, or offering an opinion on whether witchcraft has ever truly existed, Professor Ruiz makes clear that history is a living thing.

Why Witches and Heretics Were Persecuted

Much of The Terror of History has to do with the concept of the "other"—those who are seen by society as different—often by virtue of their sex, economic status, or beliefs—and are frequently persecuted.

These lectures examine the concept of otherness in a variety of ways and examine how certain groups came to be seen as other. Often, this involved the creation of boundaries, either real or imaginary, between people.

For example, the enclosure movement of the 15th century fenced peasants off their land, and the Reformation created a new religious boundary between Catholic and Protestant. This made it easier to accuse those who were poor, or of the wrong faith, of being heretics or witches.

The witch craze provides a way to view the concept of other as women's history. Misogynistic attitudes and a growing antipathy toward the poor created a kind of profiling of witches. A witch was identified as someone who was a woman, past childbearing age, poor, lived on the edge of town, and often had certain kinds of esoteric knowledge, such as the use of herbal medicines. In Essex, England, 278 of 291 people accused of witchcraft were women, and all were over 40 years old.

You will also consider how authority—frequently an alliance of secular government and the church—used others for its benefit. The Inquisition and witchhunting were a means to create a sense of community and identity for the populations of emerging nations and to enforce orthodoxy.

Methods of execution, such as hanging, drowning, and burning at the stake, provided multiple benefits: spectacle and entertainment, a sense of shared public purpose, and powerful lessons about the fate of those who deviated from accepted norms.

Have we outgrown the terror of history? Is it behind us?

Professor Ruiz suggests that Western culture can be seen as a pendulum swinging between periods of rational thinking and periods of superstition and irrationality. If we look at the 20th century, it was certainly a time of enormous scientific and technological achievements. On the other hand, it was also the most violent century in history.

The pendulum swings. And the terror of history continues.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Terror of History
    A lecture introducing specific themes in Western tradition, and the manner in which men and women in medieval and early modern Europe dealt with wars, plagues, oppressive lordships, and injustice. To understand the pre-modern and modern West, we must understand the different perspectives from which Western men and women looked at the world. x
  • 2
    Politics, Economy, and Society
    This lecture overlooks the social, political, and economic contexts of European mysticism, heresy, and witchcraft between 1000 and 1650. The rise of mysticism and heretical movements in the 12th century and the beginnings of the witch craze in the late 15th century were grounded in local historical contexts: the rise of the nation-state, the end of feudal society, and the formation of new social ties among different classes. x
  • 3
    Religion and Culture
    The discussion of historical context turns to the role of religion and culture in the development of esoteric beliefs and doctrines. The lecture focuses on the religious reform movements of the 11th and 12th centuries, the growth of new forms of spirituality after the Black Death, and above all, the pervasive influence of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation on European mentality. x
  • 4
    Mysticism in the Western Tradition
    A close look at mysticism and the role of mystics in Western European history. The lecture examines the different types of mysticism, the stages of the mystical ascent to God, and the differences between Western mysticism and transcendental practices elsewhere in the world. x
  • 5
    Mysticism in the Twelfth Century
    We turn from a general discussion of mysticism to case studies of mystics and their roles in Christian society. In this lecture, we look at two specific mystics, Hildegarde of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux. x
  • 6
    Mysticism in the Thirteenth Century
    Here Professor Teofilo Ruiz examines the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi and Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divina Commedia. The lecture seeks to place these mystics in their respective historical contexts, and also examines in some detail Francis's reception of the stigmata. x
  • 7
    Jewish Mysticism
    A close and comparative look at one aspect of Jewish mysticism, we examine in some detail the writing of the Zohar, or "Book of Splendor," the main Kabbalistic text of the Middle Ages. We conclude with a review of the impact of Kabbalah on Christian thought and religion. x
  • 8
    Mysticism in Early Modern Europe
    The nature of mysticism in early modern Europe and its evolution as a response to the impact of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The lecture also examines case studies of the two greatest Spanish mystics of the 16th century, Saint Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. x
  • 9
    Heresy and the Millennium
    An examination of the place of heresy and apocalyptic beliefs in Western Europe between 1000 and 1650. The lecture compares heretical and apocalyptic movements and assesses the significance of these movements in the development of Western culture. x
  • 10
    The Church Under Attack
    The emergence of specific heresies in 12th and 13th century Europe. The lecture explores the social and economic conditions in southern France that led to the rise of heterodox movements. In particular, the lecture describes the beliefs of Waldensians and Cathars. x
  • 11
    The Birth of the Inquisition
    An analysis of the meaning of the Inquisition in medieval culture, and the historiographical debate on whether inquisitorial practices marked a significant shift in the treatment of heretics, Jews, women, and lepers. The lecture concludes with a brief examination of the heresy of the Free Spirit. x
  • 12
    The Millennium in the Sixteenth Century
    The outburst of millenarian expectations in the wake of the Reformation, and the great social and religious upheavals caused by peasant uprisings in early 16th-century Germany. This lecture places these rebellions, and their expectations of a godly kingdom, in the context of religious reform, political antagonism, and cultural change. x
  • 13
    Jewish Millennial Expectations
    The impact on Jewish religious life of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the works of Isaac Abravanel and other important Jewish millenarian thinkers, and the life of Sabbatai Sevi, whose proclamation as the Messiah created great disturbances among the Sephardic Jews in the mid-17th century. x
  • 14
    The Mysteries of the Renaissance
    We move from millenarian movements to a discussion of Renaissance concerns with "deep time," the recovery of what were thought to be the most ancient forms of knowledge. The lecture outlines briefly the different intellectual influences on the development of mysteries: hermeticism, astrology, alchemy, and magic. x
  • 15
    Hermeticism, Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic
    A closer look at the different intellectual traditions competing for the mind of the West in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The lecture looks briefly at astrology, alchemy, and magic, then turns to hermeticism, explaining in detail what the hermetic tradition was and tracing its roots to second-century Gnosticism and astrological lore. x
  • 16
    The Origins of Witchcraft
    The beginning of our lengthy discussion of witchcraft and the European witch craze. This lecture defines and examines the history of witchcraft in the West, then discusses how Christian theologians redefined witchcraft just before the end of the 15th century. x
  • 17
    Religion, Science, and Magic
    A map of the religious and cultural landscape of Western Europe before, during, and after the witch craze. The lecture explores the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and the Counter-Reformation; the shifting relationships among religion, magic, and science; and the rise of new scientific paradigms in the 16th century. x
  • 18
    The Witch Craze and Its Historians
    A look at the 80,000 to 100,000 people, mostly elderly women, executed because they were believed to be witches. To explain how this came about, this lecture looks in detail at the social, economic, and political changes that took place in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. x
  • 19
    Fear and the Construction of Satan
    An exploration of the nature of fear and how it was used by those in power to strengthen their rule. The lecture proceeds to a discussion of the devil in Western tradition, and concludes by exploring the centrality of Satan in the construction of the witch craze. x
  • 20
    The Witch Craze and Misogyny
    A review of the place of women in the West and a partial feminist explanation for the witch craze, followed by an examination of the writing of the Malleus Maleficarum ("The Hammer of Witches") and the role of this late 15th-century text in laying the foundations for the persecution of witches. x
  • 21
    The World of Witches
    A specific description of witchcraft, drawn from a mid-16th-century source. In addition, the lecture will explore some specific subjects, such as the nocturnal gatherings of witches and accusations of child sacrifices, cannibalism, and sexual excesses. x
  • 22
    The Witches of Loudon
    An outline of the famous witchcraft trial of the clergyman Urbain Grandier in the city of Loudon in France. The lecture uses this case as a lens through which to examine the mentality and sexual mores of early modern Europeans, and concludes with a summation of the history of the witch craze. x
  • 23
    The Witches of Essex and Salem
    An attempt to answer a number of questions on the social history of witchcraft, and to draw a social profile of those who were brought to trial on charges of witchcraft and Satanism by exploring two case studies: Essex, England; and Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century. x
  • 24
    The Survival of the Past
    An exploration of the survival of pre-Christian traditions in Europe: Beltane fires, May Day celebrations, mistletoe, maypoles, and other such practices. We conclude with some thoughts on the manner in which the terror of history remains a grim reality in the contemporary world. x

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Teofilo F. Ruiz
Ph.D. Teofilo F. Ruiz
University of California, Los Angeles
Dr. Teofilo F. Ruiz is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. A student of Joseph R. Strayer, Dr. Ruiz earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Prior to taking his post at UCLA, he held teaching positions at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York Graduate Center, the University of Michigan, the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, and Princeton University-as the 250th Anniversary Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching. In 1994-1995, the Carnegie Foundation selected Professor Ruiz as one of four Outstanding Teachers of the Year in the United States. Professor Ruiz has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Dr. Ruiz has published six books, more than 40 articles, and more than 100 reviews and smaller articles in national and international scholarly journals. His Crisis and Continuity, Land and Town in Late Medieval Castile was awarded the Premio del Rey Prize by the American Historical Association.
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