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The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition

Discover why Western civilization, which is so closely associated with reason and science, has also been characterized by widespread belief in the supernatural and the irrational.

Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 100.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terror of History This is beyond excellent, is there such a thing! Thanks so much to all!
Date published: 2022-06-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not what I had hoped I really wanted to love this course - I'm so interested in the subject matter! With that said, I just couldn't get into it. I think the problem might have been that there seems to have been a bit of an assumption of a higher degree of pre-existing knowledge than I have, because I often felt like things weren't fully explained or were just glossed over. I know a lot more about the witch craze and so found those lectures better, so maybe that is why I struggled with the parts on mystics and heretics. When going through those lectures and questions, I would often have to spend several hours looking up the subjects or the topics to better understand what the lecturer was getting at. It also clearly didn't hold my attention - going through the bibliographical notes, there are people there who I don't remember hearing of ever. I must have spaced out during the lectures!
Date published: 2021-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential for anyone interested in how evil works. I am interested in evil as an institutionalized process in western societies. I have studied personalized evil and this course covers the corresponding institutional evil as it has been practiced in European cultures. If how organizations that present themselves as good justify practicing evil, this elegantly presented program will answer many of your questions.
Date published: 2021-11-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Reflections I deeply empathize with Prof Ruiz. He is humble, articulate, passionate, hard working, and deeply self-reflective. He is able to sum up entire chapters of other TGC courses in a single sentence. Examples include his astute observations on societal interactions from 1000 to the 16th century (Lectures 5-12) and wonderfully detailed portrayals of mystics, etc. throughout the course. There does seem to be Reviewer confusion about the underlying theme of this course. "THE TERROR OF HISTORY” is NOT primarily about witches, etc. but rather Ruiz’s “quandary of our existence”. Ruiz (L1) introduces this premise via Fredrick Nietzsche’s 1872 “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music” in which King Minos of Crete asks a Satyr: "What is the best gift the gods could give man?” Satyr: “The best gift…is never to be born." Nietzsche adds: "...and if you are born, to die at an early age." Ruiz next fleshes this out. I quote (L1 starting at 14 minutes): "Our lives, which continuously hang on the edge of doom...there is no meaning...” “Culture is the construction of meaning." “The context in which we live is a terrifying experience and…humans expend all of our collective history escaping from or…creating a world in which you can escape from history.” “The Greeks knew ‘in their heart of hearts’, that the world was all about DISORDER (caps mine)…about emptiness. “There are ways in which we…flee...the terror of history...that awareness of the untold cruelties of …the ephemeral nature of our lives..." "We deal with this terror...with the idea of constructing culture or seeking the transcendental in mystical experiences, awaiting the millennium and the end of history and the end of that terror or by shifting the burdens of that terror to other people." (Scape-goating becomes a major theme of the rest of the course). DISCUSSION: Ruiz's myopic hopeless negativity (“The Terror") is the downfall of this otherwise brilliant course. He gives his email address at UCLA at the beginning & end for comments yet frustrates any student (L1) who doesn't agree with his negativity. CONCLUSION: 5 for research and accurate, unsensational views of mystics (L4-23) vs. 1 for characterizing natural “DISORDER” as evil and forcing such hopelessness on his audience. Such a confusion leads to more “ordered”, centralized power and less listening. It is no wonder our kids are on drugs when the “Humanities” teach and grade them on such negativity about their very existence. In doing so, Ruiz misses the reality of positive mystic experience. I would recommend some of TGC’s courses from the late Dr. Rufus Fears.
Date published: 2021-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly enjoyed this history course! Professor Ruiz exemplifies the type of professor I had always wanted. Passionate, an avid scholar and a great storyteller. His approach and enthusiasm kept me desiring more. I had read several unflattering reviews concerning his accent, but honestly, he speaks very eloquently and articulates his ideas clearly. I had no problem understanding his slight, barely perceptible Spanish accent. In fact, his accent lent an air of sensuality and intrigue to his lectures. If you enjoy learning history through stories, rather than the dry, tasteless approach of memorizing a list of events or dates, then you might enjoy this course.
Date published: 2020-12-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth your time. I listened to the entire course while driving a long distance. I think it is professional, well rounded and informative.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Cumbersome Yet Worthwhile This is the least favorite of my three courses by Professor Teofilo Ruiz, the other two being The Other 1492: Ferdinand, Isabella and the Making of an Empire and Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal. Although it’s pretty good as is, it lumps together topics that don’t fit together very well. If you took out the witches, you would have a more coherent course on alternative Christianities, from Hildegard of Bingen to Thomas Müntzer. If you took out the mystics and replaced them with Jews and lepers, you would have a fascinating account of medieval/early modern Europe as a “persecuting society.” In either case one could do without the two stand-alone lectures on Renaissance magic, astrology, alchemy and hermeticism that didn’t even make the course title. Or Professor Ruiz could have made some room for medieval scholasticism and the early modern Scientific Revolution, juxtaposing the rational and irrational sides of the Western mind. Instead of applying one of these three possibilities, Ruiz has constructed an unconvincing device to unify the course, the “terror of history,” in which (he claims) Europeans embraced mystical or heterodox ideas to deny or escape Europe’s growing historical consciousness. After introducing this “terror” in Lecture 1 he does nothing to develop or apply it; this oversight is probably a good thing. I have a couple of smaller objections too. Some of his chosen characters don’t strike me as very mystical in their approaches to Christianity, especially Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux and Ignatius of Loyola. In his long discussion of the witch craze, I would have liked more specific cases. The most detailed one is that of the sexually voracious French cleric Urbain Grandier, very interesting but utterly untypical—male, powerful, and well-connected rather than the marginal middle-aged or elderly single rural women that comprised the large majority of convicted witches. That said, the course has its strengths. Ruiz is very good, as always, at describing the social and economic conditions that supported new trends in European mentalities--the spread of commerce, growing hostility toward the poor, especially poor women, and the rise of the coercive, bureaucratic state. He rightly cautions us to regard suspiciously the claims of elite writers describing and condemning the folkways of illiterate peasants and points out how the coercion of the former easily distorted the lived reality of the latter. Well-educated men created a well-organized and juridically refined yet almost completely fictitious witch-ology that they forced accused to affirm, often under torture. In the north Italian region of Friuli, for example, local “good walkers” thought to have magical power because of being born with cauls over their faces went out on certain nights armed with fennel stalks to fight off imagined witches threatening village crops. When the Inquisition discovered these good walkers, it allowed no possibility of beneficent magic and over a few decades forced them to admit to being bad witches themselves. I also appreciate Ruiz’s account of Jewish mysticism and millenarianism, especially his explanation of the Kabbalah. In presenting his lectures, Professor Ruiz has quite a prominent Cuban accent. This takes at least three forms. Many English words that begin with an “s” and another consonant sound get a leading “e,” so space, spiritual, slowly, small, squeezed, and struggle become espace, espiritual, eslowly, esmall, esqueezed, and estruggle. He also unconsciously applies a “d” to the end of words that normally end with an “n,” so in, rain, orphan and when become ind, raind, orphand, and whend. He is also uncomfortable with the “j” and converts “majority” to “mayority.” Some might find the accent off-putting, but I enjoy it; it’s part of his personal brand. I do recommend this course, with the reservations I raised above. The last section is certainly the most exciting. As the professor admits, his own students become bored with the mystics and want to get on to the witches; he must tell them “be patient, the witches are coming!” Unlike his students, you have the option to skip ahead if you buy this course.
Date published: 2020-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I thought it was a great ride Yes, I benefited from this course, enjoyed it, and would recommend it. The social and cultural context and information presented in this course gave me some new insights into European history and the history of Christianity. The professor is eloquent, sometimes compelling to watch, and has excellent presentation skills. Qualifiers to keep in mind: I believe this course is given at a high intellectual level, so do not expect a standard freshman-level survey course. This information herein is neither cursory, nor rudimentary. This is really like three mini-courses in one: mystics, heresy, witchcraft. So expect the course to seem a little disjointed, and without a clear thematic thread running throughout. Though the professor attempts to make a case for a consistent thread tying it all together. The professor has a pronounced Spanish accent, but this should not deter the attentive listener. And frankly, the professor’s command of the English language is far superior to most native English speakers. His verbal skills, grammar, and presentation skill are impeccable, even elegant. So if you enjoy well-spoken, erudite, and articulate intellectuals, this professor will be a pleasure to watch.
Date published: 2019-12-02
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Western civilization, so closely associated with reason and science, has also been characterized by widespread belief in the supernatural and the irrational. Why? The answers lie in this intriguing course—a study of mysticism, heresy, apocalyptic movements, and the witch craze in Europe between 1000 and 1700.


Teofilo F. Ruiz

The terror of history is that awareness not only of the untold cruelties of our life on earth, of the ephemeral nature of our lives, of our emotions, of the cultural constructions we make.


University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. Teofilo F. Ruiz is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. A student of Joseph R. Strayer, Dr. Ruiz earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Prior to taking his post at UCLA, he held teaching positions at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York Graduate Center, the University of Michigan, the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, and Princeton University-as the 250th Anniversary Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching. In 1994-1995, the Carnegie Foundation selected Professor Ruiz as one of four Outstanding Teachers of the Year in the United States. Professor Ruiz has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Dr. Ruiz has published six books, more than 40 articles, and more than 100 reviews and smaller articles in national and international scholarly journals. His Crisis and Continuity, Land and Town in Late Medieval Castile was awarded the Premio del Rey Prize by the American Historical Association.

The Terror of History

01: The Terror of History

A lecture introducing specific themes in Western tradition, and the manner in which men and women in medieval and early modern Europe dealt with wars, plagues, oppressive lordships, and injustice. To understand the pre-modern and modern West, we must understand the different perspectives from which Western men and women looked at the world.

33 min
Politics, Economy, and Society

02: Politics, Economy, and Society

This lecture overlooks the social, political, and economic contexts of European mysticism, heresy, and witchcraft between 1000 and 1650. The rise of mysticism and heretical movements in the 12th century and the beginnings of the witch craze in the late 15th century were grounded in local historical contexts: the rise of the nation-state, the end of feudal society, and the formation of new social ties among different classes.

30 min
Religion and Culture

03: Religion and Culture

The discussion of historical context turns to the role of religion and culture in the development of esoteric beliefs and doctrines. The lecture focuses on the religious reform movements of the 11th and 12th centuries, the growth of new forms of spirituality after the Black Death, and above all, the pervasive influence of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation on European mentality.

31 min
Mysticism in the Western Tradition

04: Mysticism in the Western Tradition

A close look at mysticism and the role of mystics in Western European history. The lecture examines the different types of mysticism, the stages of the mystical ascent to God, and the differences between Western mysticism and transcendental practices elsewhere in the world.

31 min
Mysticism in the Twelfth Century

05: Mysticism in the Twelfth Century

We turn from a general discussion of mysticism to case studies of mystics and their roles in Christian society. In this lecture, we look at two specific mystics, Hildegarde of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux.

32 min
Mysticism in the Thirteenth Century

06: Mysticism in the Thirteenth Century

Here Professor Teofilo Ruiz examines the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi and Dante Alighieri, the author of the "Divina Commedia." The lecture seeks to place these mystics in their respective historical contexts, and also examines in some detail Francis's reception of the stigmata.

31 min
Jewish Mysticism

07: Jewish Mysticism

A close and comparative look at one aspect of Jewish mysticism, we examine in some detail the writing of the "Zohar" or "Book of Splendor" - the main Kabbalistic text of the Middle Ages. We conclude with a review of the impact of Kabbalah on Christian thought and religion.

30 min
Mysticism in Early Modern Europe

08: Mysticism in Early Modern Europe

The nature of mysticism in early modern Europe and its evolution as a response to the impact of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The lecture also examines case studies of the two greatest Spanish mystics of the 16th century, Saint Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

31 min
Heresy and the Millennium

09: Heresy and the Millennium

An examination of the place of heresy and apocalyptic beliefs in Western Europe between 1000 and 1650. The lecture compares heretical and apocalyptic movements and assesses the significance of these movements in the development of Western culture.

32 min
The Church Under Attack

10: The Church Under Attack

The emergence of specific heresies in 12th and 13th century Europe. The lecture explores the social and economic conditions in southern France that led to the rise of heterodox movements. In particular, the lecture describes the beliefs of Waldensians and Cathars.

32 min
The Birth of the Inquisition

11: The Birth of the Inquisition

An analysis of the meaning of the Inquisition in medieval culture, and the historiographical debate on whether inquisitorial practices marked a significant shift in the treatment of heretics, Jews, women, and lepers. The lecture concludes with a brief examination of the heresy of the Free Spirit.

31 min
The Millennium in the Sixteenth Century

12: The Millennium in the Sixteenth Century

The outburst of millenarian expectations in the wake of the Reformation, and the great social and religious upheavals caused by peasant uprisings in early 16th-century Germany. This lecture places these rebellions, and their expectations of a godly kingdom, in the context of religious reform, political antagonism, and cultural change.

30 min
Jewish Millennial Expectations

13: Jewish Millennial Expectations

The impact on Jewish religious life of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the works of Isaac Abravanel and other important Jewish millenarian thinkers, and the life of Sabbatai Sevi, whose proclamation as the Messiah created great disturbances among the Sephardic Jews in the mid-17th century.

31 min
The Mysteries of the Renaissance

14: The Mysteries of the Renaissance

We move from millenarian movements to a discussion of Renaissance concerns with "deep time;" the recovery of what were thought to be the most ancient forms of knowledge. The lecture outlines briefly the different intellectual influences on the development of mysteries: hermeticism, astrology, alchemy, and magic.

30 min
Hermeticism, Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic

15: Hermeticism, Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic

A closer look at the different intellectual traditions competing for the mind of the West in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The lecture looks briefly at astrology, alchemy, and magic, then turns to hermeticism, explaining in detail what the hermetic tradition was and tracing its roots to second-century Gnosticism and astrological lore.

30 min
The Origins of Witchcraft

16: The Origins of Witchcraft

The beginning of our lengthy discussion of witchcraft and the European witch craze. This lecture defines and examines the history of witchcraft in the West, then discusses how Christian theologians redefined witchcraft just before the end of the 15th century.

30 min
Religion, Science, and Magic

17: Religion, Science, and Magic

A map of the religious and cultural landscape of Western Europe before, during, and after the witch craze. The lecture explores the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and the Counter-Reformation; the shifting relationships among religion, magic, and science; and the rise of new scientific paradigms in the 16th century.

31 min
The Witch Craze and Its Historians

18: The Witch Craze and Its Historians

A look at the 80,000 to 100,000 people, mostly elderly women, executed because they were believed to be witches. To explain how this came about, this lecture looks in detail at the social, economic, and political changes that took place in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

31 min
Fear and the Construction of Satan

19: Fear and the Construction of Satan

An exploration of the nature of fear and how it was used by those in power to strengthen their rule. The lecture proceeds to a discussion of the devil in Western tradition, and concludes by exploring the centrality of Satan in the construction of the witch craze.

30 min
The Witch Craze and Misogyny

20: The Witch Craze and Misogyny

A review of the place of women in the West and a partial feminist explanation for the witch craze, followed by an examination of the writing of the "Malleus Maleficarum" (The Hammer of Witches) and the role of this late 15th-century text in laying the foundations for the persecution of witches.

31 min
The World of Witches

21: The World of Witches

A specific description of witchcraft, drawn from a mid-16th-century source. In addition, the lecture will explore some specific subjects, such as the nocturnal gatherings of witches and accusations of child sacrifices, cannibalism, and sexual excesses.

30 min
The Witches of Loudon

22: The Witches of Loudon

An outline of the famous witchcraft trial of the clergyman Urbain Grandier in the city of Loudon in France. The lecture uses this case as a lens through which to examine the mentality and sexual mores of early modern Europeans, and concludes with a summation of the history of the witch craze.

30 min
The Witches of Essex and Salem

23: The Witches of Essex and Salem

An attempt to answer a number of questions on the social history of witchcraft, and to draw a social profile of those who were brought to trial on charges of witchcraft and Satanism by exploring two case studies: Essex, England; and Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century.

30 min
The Survival of the Past

24: The Survival of the Past

An exploration of the survival of pre-Christian traditions in Europe: Beltane fires, May Day celebrations, mistletoe, maypoles, and other such practices. We conclude with some thoughts on the manner in which the terror of history remains a grim reality in the contemporary world.

31 min