At the culmination of the semester, Hayton’s students will have studied the history of witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy, having focused on the turbulent 15th through 17th centuries. Hayton hopes that his course will change the way the students view this time period: “I want the students to take away a richer understanding of what the 15th through 17th centuries truly were like. This course certainly challenges the standard understanding of this period—the period of the Renaissance, of the Reformation, when humans shed their cloaks of ignorance and slavehood to the Catholic Church.” Hayton believes that current scholars who study witchcraft and occult sciences have perpetuated a host of misconceptions about the roles of these sciences throughout history, including a belief that one’s daily horoscope is related to the science of astrology.
While studying witchcraft, Hayton and his students look at various themes, including magic, the visual representation of witchcraft, issues of gender, and issues of religion and its relationship to witchcraft. Hayton believes that approaching the study of witchcraft through these themes allows him to confront another set of misconceptions about this area of study: “I want to dissuade people from a handful of what I fear are still very common assumptions about witchcraft in the past: that the people in the past were stupid for believing in witchcraft, that all women were witches, that one religion had some monopoly on persecuting and killing witches, that the Inquisition was a part of this picture, and that witchcraft beliefs and persecutions were uniform throughout Europe.”