One of the frustrations of being a fantasy writer is confronting the accusation that one can simply make it all up. The best authors, IMHO, use a combination of reality and imagination to bring a new world to life. To me, part of the fun in fiction is to blend invention and reality into an engaging and realistic experience for the reader.
My adventures in writing Elisha Barber began with research. Researching medieval medicine, and surgery in particular; researching 14th century England; and researching medieval magic. That’s the one that gets me the strangest looks, especially in bookstores. I’m not looking for books about Wicca or magical thinking, I’d have to explain, I’m looking for books on the history and study of magic.
Writing historical fantasy has its own attractions and difficulties, and this, it turns out, was one of them. As I became invested in the historical setting, I wanted to learn more about how my characters would have thought and reacted. What did they expect of magic? What role did it play for them, individually and in society?
One of the biggest surprises was the relationship of magic and the Catholic church. Many people believe the church always condemned magical practice and persecuted those accused of it. As I often discovered when I drilled deeper into history, the situation was more complicated than that. Many clerics, including popes, worked with sanctioned magical practitioners and consulted astrologers on a regular basis—the understanding of God’s creation and his plan through the stars fell in and out of favor over the centuries.
The Holy Office of the Inquisition was founded to investigate claims of miracles, including the related questions of heresy and eventually witchcraft. In many cases early on, no torture or execution was necessary, just an admission that the accused had misunderstood church doctrine and a promise to do better. In 1258, Pope Alexander denied the request of some inquisitors to investigate sorcery unless there was also clear evidence of heresy.
Later in the Middle Ages, when concerns about heresy verged upon civil war based in religious disagreement (Cathars in France, Protestants vs. Catholics)–this investigatory function expanded and allowed for abuse, bequeathing us the image of the all-powerful church trying to crush all manner of folk beliefs and unholy influences.
In fact, the greatest persecutions—like the infamous Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony–often had less to do with a fear of magic or even with religious disputes than with political pressures about land ownership. For much of our history, land meant wealth, and the church, as custodian not only of the souls of men, but also as a landlord, and as an intermediary for other leaders, could not help but be involved.
A couple of interesting sources for studying the relationship between magic and the church are The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe by Valerie Flint and Antoinette Marie Pratt’s Attitude of the Catholic Church Toward Witchcraft and the Allied Practices of Sorcery and Magic, in which the author herself frets about the early and medieval church’s lack of condemnation toward magic as a whole, though she ultimately concludes that such practice should be avoided. Actual transcriptions of church and other writings pertaining to witchcraft are also available in compendia like Kors and Peters’ documentary history Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700.
But religion isn’t the only source of information. The magical practitioners of the Middle Ages left us a wealth of detail about rituals, beliefs and practices, often in the form of treatises bound together with unrelated texts into the codexes which served as personal libraries at the time.
At the International Congress on Medieval Studies, I discovered Societas Magica—an academic organization for the study of magic during the Middle Ages—and its associated newsletter and publication series Magic in History, include translations of actual texts, discussions and comparisons by scholars working in the field. Every year, new texts come to light, offering further insight into how magic was approached by contemporaries, and a chance for the accidental scholar like myself to be inspired.