Thursday, 25 April 2013

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

Pros: knowledgable professor, interesting subject matter, lots of topics/periods covered

Cons: lectures are short making it hard to cover all the information

This is a course offered by The Teaching Company and taught by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz from the University of California at Los Angeles.  There are 24 lectures on DVD (or CD) in the series and a range of topics that span from the Middle Ages to the late 1600s.

Due to the nature of this course, some topics got greater coverage than other and some topics were more interesting than others.  The last seven lectures especially, the ones dealing with the witch craze, were fascinating.  Prof. Ruiz carefully set each lecture - or set of lectures - in its historical context, giving you the information you need to understand each issue from a historical, rather than modern, perspective.

My favourite lecture, number 21, The Witch Craze and Misogyny, was brilliant.  It contained an overview of Western thought and concisely explained how religions shifted from female centered fertility cults in ancient times and became male centered.  This shift created male centered societies and laid the groundwork for beliefs that are still with us today - like the fear of female sexuality and women as objects.  

While witches got a good deal of attention I was disappointed that so little time was spent on the explanation of magic, alchemy and astrology, all of which had a great deal of importance at various times in the past.  Similarly, the 30 minutes provided for each lecture was never enough time to deal with all of the information, and so some topics were just lightly touched on, so there would be time to examine examples in detail.  For example, lecture 12 deals with mysticism in the 12th century and focused specifically on the experiences of Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux.  So, not only did this lecture talk about how mysticism changed between the 11th and 12th centuries and how those two people experienced it, it also exained how men and women experienced mysticism differently.  Any of these points would have made a great 30 minute lecture on their own. 

Having said that, the courses are accompanied by a course guidebook which summarizes the points from the lectures as well as give suggestions for additional reading.  Like any university course (and that's what these are), you're expected to study the topic matter on your own.  Indeed, I found this course a fantastic jumping off point for researching aspects touched upon that I wanted more information about.

This particular professor had an accent.  As most of my professors in university did as well, this didn't bother me.  But if English isn't your first language, you may have some trouble getting used to his accent.  Also, there are only a few images used in this course, so you're not missing anything by getting the CDs rather than the DVDs.  It was filmed in 2002, so the film quality isn't the best either.  Still, you're not getting the course for the great visuals, but for the interesting information.

I really enjoyed this course and will be starting my next one soon.

If you want a taste of the lectures, UCLA has posted The Terror of History: The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe that combines material included in several of the Great Courses lectures.  It's a 51 minute presentation.

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