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#Coursera #Fantasy #Medieval


3.5 stars out of 5.

I’d been looking at this particular Coursera Course for a while, as it looked pretty interesting and good research for the books.

Here’s the summary from the Cousera website About this course: Magical thought has always attracted human imagination. In this course we will introduce you to the Middle Ages through a wide conception of magic. Students will have an approach to medieval culture, beliefs and practices from the perspective of History and History of Science. Popular magic, as well as learned magic (alchemy, geomancy and necromancy) will be addressed. Moreover, we will also deal with how eastern practices and texts influenced western culture. In July 2016, the course will contain a brand-new module devoted to astrology. Magic in the Middle Ages offers a captivating overview of medieval society and promotes reflection about certain stereotypes associated with this period.’

So did it fulfil this? Yes and no.

Let’s start with the ‘yes’. There was a lot of information to be learned in only 5 weeks – personally I would have liked another week or so. That said I was actually doing another, totally unrelated course at the same time and probably didn’t do this justice. The lectures were taught via video (and I’ll cover that later), with transcripts available, plus some selected reading, tests and two short assignments.

Each week covered a slightly different topic:

Unit 1 – Introduction to Medieval Magic

Unit 2 – Magic and Heresy

Unit 3 – From Magic to Witchcraft

Unit 4 – Magic in Islam

Unit 5 – Astrology and Geomancy

Of these the first three were the most interesting, although it was also interesting to see how Islam viewed magic – as opposed to the far more negative view of the Western Christian views. This particular module was probably the trickiest (not least because of the more unfamiliar names and terms) and I think more time could have been spent comparing the different cultural and religious outlooks, had the course been longer.

Magic permeated the Middle Ages, be it ‘healing’ magic, natural magic, or the more sinister type. In many ways it ran alongside religion, although it goes without saying that the religions of the day weren’t happy about it.  To us, in the modern world, much of it seems really odd, and for many secular societies or individual the whole concept of magic and religion is very outdated. Yet it was important to those who dwelt in a world not ordered by science and technology, where seasonal changes, illness, and belief could literally be a matter of life and death.  Magic was a way of trying to control what was often uncontrollable, to even the odds in a dangerous world. Religion and magic shared many aspects and Christianity itself (and Islam) hold many magical elements – including miracles, foresight and much more.

The topics were certainly engaging and thought provoking – especially the fact that many suffered imprisonment, torture and death for ‘heresy’ simply because of malice, ignorance or wishing to maintain older beliefs.  If the ‘magic’ wasn’t of the right sort, then people suffered. It was interesting to see the differing types of magic, and practitioners – from the wealthy intellectual court astronomers and magicians to the simple ‘cunning folk’. This builds on past study, at least for me. I’d agree it’s a good foundation for further research.

Was it useful  for writing fantasy? Yes, I think so as it gave a broad outline of medieval magical ideas to build on, and the prejudice surrounding them.

So the ‘no’.

The sound quality was bloody awful. The mix of tutors were all heavily accented and the recordings were of poor quality, with echoes, background noises, random volume changes and at one point a random question about King Arthur popped up on screen and froze the vid until it was answered. I found it far easier to just read the transcripts, but even then they were a little choppy.

As you’ve probably guessed I feel that the course should have been a bit longer – everything was a bit rushed. To be fair I didn’t utilise the discussion forum much.

The second assignment was a bit confusing – the grading questions were different to the points asked for discussion.

Overall a 3.5 for this – mostly because of the awful technical issues. Clean up the sound quality and this would be an engaging course.