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Students are spellbound by this literature course that puts them in the middle of the magic

museum of witchcraft and magic in cornwall, england

The silhouette of witches and the tingle of magic mean Halloween celebrations are near, but for students in Michele Tarter’s “The Witch in Literature” course, the mysterious symbols have a much deeper meaning.

Tarter, who has made annual visits to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, England for her own research for years, felt compelled to share the magic with her students.

“It’s just too special to have all for myself,” she says. “And that’s what teacher-scholars do — we take our passions, turn them into courses, and share the enthusiasm and joy of learning.”

So Tarter, professor and chair of the Department of English, developed a course and led a group of 15 students across the pond to the seaside village of Boscastle, Cornwall for a three-week tour of magical landmarks and landscapes, where they read and explored witchcraft across the ages, deepening and expanding their understanding of witches and magic in literature and culture.

group of student travelers in front of King Arthur's Castle Ruins
During their trip, students visited King Arthur’s Castle Ruins in Cornwall, England.

They visited fabled and mythical sites like Sherwood Forest, King Arthur’s castle ruins, Merlin’s Cave, and Stonehenge, and read The Mists of Avalon, a novel that relates Arthurian legends from the perspective of female characters. The course also incorporated archival research at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, where students pursued their own interests and individualized projects.

“When I say magic, I often mean healing,” Tarter says. “The earliest witches — the healers — they had many remedies of healing. They were the apothecaries, the midwives.”

Psychology/pre-med major Emily Reeves ’24 researched artifacts related to fertility and Goddess trinity motifs, along with herbologists and healers.

“I learned more about the history of women in medicine than I had in any other pre-med courses that I’ve taken,” says Reeves. “The first accused witches were village wise women who were essentially the first female doctors. Literature provides valuable perspectives on how women’s positions as healers and medical professionals have evolved and changed as society has shifted, and why biases still exist against certain professionals, like midwives.” 

Physics major Kevin Hoppe ’25 took the course because it was completely outside of his comfort zone. In Cornwall, he studied crystals and fossils and learned about their magical properties.

“Some of the fossils were called ‘fairy loaves,’ which looked like loaves of bread but are actually fossilized sea urchins,” Hoppe says. “Bakers would hang these charms by their ovens to ensure that they would always have bread.”

Tarter is quick to spell out that the coursework isn’t all charms and incantations. Rather, it’s a deeply layered study in unlearning stereotypes, reclaiming powerful women, and understanding why they were seen as threatening.

“The students might be learning about witches in this class, but they’re really learning much more broadly about prejudice, and attack, and methods of persecution,” she said. “Because if it’s not ‘witch,’ it’s something else, but it’s the same story of scapegoating, targeting, and persecuting those who are threatening to the mainstream.”

— Emily W. Dodd ’03