Recent Courses

Introduction to the History of Science, HIST 118

Science is one of the defining features of Western society. However, that science is a relatively recent development, within the past couple centuries. And its development was neither preordained nor unproblematic. The goal of this course is to introduce the early history of how humans tried to understand the natural world around them. Although the specific focus of the course will vary slightly from year to year, it will usually extend from Greek antiquity through the late medieval period. An important component of the course will be developments in both Islamic and Byzantine societies. The course will conclude by looking briefly at the intellectual crises that occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We will approach the subject through secondary material and by confronting primary documents (usually texts) in an effort to understand various contexts—e.g., political, social, religious, economic—that fostered particular understandings of nature.
Frequency: Each fall semester

History of the Occult and Witchcraft in Early-Modern Europe, HIST 237

Obviously, no single course can provide a comprehensive treatment of witchcraft and the occult sciences. Instead, I hope to provide an introduction to the major themes and problems historians encounter when studying them. We will approach these themes through a combination of secondary and primary sources, including art and literature. This course has two distinct goals. The first is to gain a better understanding of the historical situation that produced witches, witchcraft and the occult sciences: How and why did people believe or claim to believe in witches, astrology, magic and the like? What, in fact, did people believe? Why did some people attack those beliefs? The second goal is to recognize how historians and recent authors (and perhaps film makers and artists) have used the past. Why are studies of witchcraft and astrology experiencing such a renaissance today? How are witches and magic portrayed in popular media? What roles do magic, witches, Wiccans and astrology play in our contemporary society?
Frequency: Fall 2005, Fall 2007, Fall 2013

History of the Scientific Revolution, HIST 257

The birth of modern science is usually located in the remarkable changes that occurred in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Such names as Copernicus, Vesalius, Galileo, and Newton play important roles in our history. But what were these people really doing and how did it relate to modern science? This course attempts to answer those questions. We begin by looking quickly at the failure of the scholastic world-view and the problems that it could not address. The bulk of the course will focus on the developments in astronomy/astrology, anatomy/physiology, physics, botany and mathematics from ca. 1500 to ca. 1700. Other intellectual activities, which are not usually granted a place in this story, will also occupy our attention: Biblical exegesis and prophecy, the search for the perfect/universal language and alchemy. We will consider these topics in their institutional, political, religious and social contexts. Another key issue that we will confront is the relationship between science and religion. Giordano Bruno and Galileo are frequently held up as martyrs for rationality and science. We will try to assess these and other common claims about the purported conflict between science and religion.
Frequency: Fall 2006, Fall 2010

Plagues, Epidemics and Diseases in History, HIST 258

Deadly and indiscriminate, plagues and virulent epidemics have devastated and transformed society for more than two millennia. The plague of Athens killed perhaps one third of the Athenians, including the great statesman Pericles. 1700 years later, the Black Death killed a third of the population of Europe, pope and pauper alike. Plagues have caused profound social, political, cultural and demographic upheaval. Many epidemics continue to haunt our imagination: the Black Death of the fourteenth century; syphilis at the end of the fifteenth century; the early nineteenth-century influenza epidemic; or the influenza pandemic in the early twentieth century. This course investigates the causes and effects of epidemics through detailed analyses of specific historical outbreaks. Of particular interest are the intellectual, social, and cultural resources that were employed to understand and explain the advent of epidemic diseases.
Frequency: Spring 2006, Spring 2012

Collecting Nature and Displaying Authority: The Evolution of Scientific Enquiry in Early-Modern Europe, HIST 259

It is widely held that scientific enquiry changed radically between the 15th and the 18th centuries, the period regularly associated with the scientific Revolution. There is less agreement on how to account for that change. Without trying to explain why or even if the scientific Revolution occurred, this course assumes that historians can learn a lot about the period by studying the changes that occurred in collecting and displaying nature.
Collecting and displaying natural and artificial artifacts have always been entwined with a host of political, social, and intellectual motivations and goals. By focusing on the interplay of these different contexts and competing interests, we will begin to appreciate the development of public museums; how that relates to the rise of experimental science; the emergence of public institutions devoted to science and the study of nature. In short, the fortunes of Kunstkammer and Cabinets of Curiosity are intimately related to the rise of modern science culture and for that reason merit our attention.
Frequency: Spring 2008, Spring 2010, Spring 2013

Institutions of Natural Knowledge, HIST 350

Who produces scientific knowledge and in what contexts? How do those contexts shape the resultant scientific and natural knowledge? Or is scientific knowledge somehow immune to external influences? In direct contrast to the myth of the lone genius struggling to uncover natural laws and to reveal how the universe works, this seminar explores the ways that different institutions have shaped the production of natural knowledge. In this approach, individuals do not discover timeless laws of nature so much as the create truths about the natural world within the economy of the institution. To understand these truths we must understand the institutions that called them into existence.
Frequency: Spring 2006

Courtly Science in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, HIST 350

The court was the site not only of political intrigue and royal pageantry, but also of scientific practices and the creation of natural knowledge. Like other activities, the creation of natural knowledge (“science”) was shaped by the implicit and explicit rules that governed courtly behavior as well as the political and dynastic goals of the ruler. This course examines how and why scientific knowledge was created, displayed, used and at times performed at different royal and imperial courts in late medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Frequency: Spring 2007, Spring 2011

Universities and Science in in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, HIST 350

The thirteenth century witnessed one of the most important developments in the history of the western world: the advent of the university. Universities quickly became the institution that educated, trained, perhaps indoctrinated, and provided credentials for each subsequent generation of scholars. Universities became the sites of both the production of knowledge and the dissemination of that knowledge. University-trained scholars became the arbiters of knowledge. This course seeks to understand how and why universities developed and then how they argued successfully for the right to adjudicate between competing knowledge claims. The material in the course will explore these questions through various official and unofficial primary sources, e.g., university statutes, acts of the university faculties, and textbooks and lecture notes used in classrooms.
Frequency: Spring 2008

Technologies as Politics in Early Modern Europe, HIST 350

This course explores the increasingly important role of technologies in the exercise of political power in early modern Europe. How and why, in other words, did early modern princes support, develop, and deploy various sciences and technologies such as mapping, mining and metallurgy, scientific instruments, technical scientific treatises? Why did they support chemical laboratories, observatories, collections of natural and artificial objects (think early museums)? What was the relationship between the exercise of political power and recording and printing bills of mortality, systems of quarantine, and other measures aimed at ensuring public health? What were the roles played by experts who increasingly seemed to control the production of technical knowledge?
The broad set of questions focuses on the systematic identification and deployment of technical and scientific knowledge as a form of governance.
Frequency: Spring 2012, Spring 2014 (team taught this semester)