The Occult in Victorian Britain (HIC2316)

StaffDr Richard Noakes - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level6
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

This module explores one of the most intriguing features of the post-Enlightenment period: the persistence of belief in such ‘occult’ phenomena as ghosts, spirits of the dead, and thought-reading.  By the close study of primary and secondary source materials, it critically engages with the argument that nineteenth century, and in particular Victorian, passion for the occult was a ‘flight’ from the reasoning approach to the world established during the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.  It explores the claim that the Victorian interest in occult was a response to problems of religious and moral authority, the implications of new scientific and philosophical interpretations of the cosmos, the effects of new technologies and urban environments, and the growth of the mass media and popular politics.


The module also considers the ways in which histories of the occult have changed since the Victorian period, and what insights these have yielded.  Students will acquire a detailed understanding of specific aspects of the occult and the broader religious, political, scientific, and economic issues in Victorian Britain.  Students will enhance their skills in close and critical reading of primary and secondary sources and this will provide excellent preparation for the level 3 dissertation.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Demonstrate a detailed understanding of the main themes in the history of occult beliefs and practices in Britain and other countries from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, together with a deeper knowledge of themes to be selected by students for essay and seminar work.
  • 2. Demonstrate in written and oral contributions the ability to link changes in occult beliefs and practices to broader historical developments.
  • 3. Demonstrate a sound knowledge of the historiography of the occult.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Analyse and reflect critically and contextually upon historical texts relating to a specific historical period or theme.
  • 5. Collate data from a range of sources, both primary and secondary
  • 6. With limited guidance, understand and deploy historical terminology in a comprehensible manner
  • 7. With limited guidance, handle different approaches to history in areas of controversy.
  • 8. Work with primary sources under direction from the module tutor.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 9. Show evidence of ability to read and use texts and source materials critically and empathetically
  • 10. Present material for group discussion and have respect for others’ reasoned views
  • 11. With limited guidance, gather and deploy material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument

Syllabus plan

Histories of the occult; contexts of Victorian Britain; the occult during the Enlightenment; mesmerism and medicine; Victorian ‘crisis of faith’?; Modern Spiritualism; contesting scientific, medical, clerical and moral authority; ghost stories and psychology; spiritualism, psychical research and Modern Theosophy at war; occultisms during the First World War; disenchantment or re-enchantment of the world.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Lectures11Provide a spine through which all students can be brought to a similar level of knowledge and through which ideas and controversies can be transmitted
Seminar11The seminars will focus on particular aspects of the subject-matter, with a view to offering a fuller understanding than can be delivered through the lectures, allowing the students to develop their skills and knowledge more fully. Students will be expected to prepare adequately for seminars in advance by reading and evaluating and to discuss the issues raised in the seminar itself.
Guided independent study60Individual essays. You should spend a significant amount of time on independent research reading, planning and writing your individual essay. This research will be expected to extend significantly into the further reading supplied on ELE.
Guided independent study33Reading for lectures. It is expected that you will spend three hours preparing for each lecture by reading. Materials to be supplied on ELE.
Guided independent study33Reading for seminars. It is expected that you will spend three hours preparing for each seminar by reading. Materials to be supplied on ELE.
Guided independent study2Group work for presenting one of the weekly formative presentations. The distribution of this effort should be agreed by the groups

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Draft essya plan800 words1-9, 11Written and verbal comments
Group presentation5 mins per student plus Q&A1-11Written and verbal comments

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay1002500 words1-9, 11Mark and written comments

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay 2,500wEssay 2,500w1-9, 11Referral/deferral period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading


Bown, N., Burdett, C., and Thurschwell, P. (eds.) (2004), The Victorian Supernatural.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Brown, C. (2001). The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000.  London: Routledge

Burrow, J. (2000), The Crisis of Reason.  European Thought, 1848-1914.  New Haven: Yale University Press

Davies, O. (2007), Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts.  Palgrave: Macmillan

Finucane, R. C. (1972), Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts.  London: Junction Books

Gauld, A. (1968). The Founders of Psychical Research.  London: Routledge

Goodrick-Clarke, N. (2009), The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction.  New York: Oxford University Press

Hanegraaff, W. (2013), Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed.  London: Bloomsbury Academic

Harvey, C. and Matthew, H. C. G. (2000), Nineteenth Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press

Houghton, W. (1957). The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-70.  New Haven.  Yale University Press

Melechi. A. (2008), Servants of the Supernatural: The Night Side of the Victorian Mind.  London: William Heinemann

Owen, A. (2004). The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern.  Chicago: Chicago University Press

Pearsall, R. (2004). The Table-Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult.  Stroud: Alan Sutton

Sconce, J. (2000). Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press

Turner, F. (1993). Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays on Victorian Intellectual Life.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

ELE – College to provide hyperlink to appropriate pages

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

Web based and electronic resources:

Available as distance learning?


Last revision date


Key words search

Victorian; Britain; history; occult; religion; science; beliefs; culture