Making Magic Respectable

Like many folks here, I am greatly enjoying Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s a terrific fantasy series: I can’t tell you how well it adapts Susanna Clarke’s novel as I haven’t read it yet (so many books, so many of them to write!) but the author seems pleased. The next episode appears to focus on Arabella Strange (Charlotte Riley) so it ought to be very interesting indeed.

Norrell’s obsession, if you don’t know, is to bring back English magic and make it ‘respectable’ (the contrast to his aims has been embodied by the street magician Vinculus, played with great vigour by Paul Kaye). Of course a big part of my interest in the show has been to see how they portray magic, given my own interests in the history of magic.

Even among medievalists, magic has only slowly become a ‘respectable’ sort of topic. Tolkien was one of the first scholars to insist that the fantastic elements in Beowulf were as worthy of study as the linguistic, where dull people had insisted its only charms lay. Societas Magica has done much to bring respectability to the study, following the fascinating history from earliest antiquity up to the present and sharing syllabuses from many different courses. They haven’t quite got Picatrix on everyone’s lips, but they’re working on it.

I’ll be teaching a course on women and witchcraft this autumn. It will be interesting to see what expectations the students bring. One of the aspects of that history we’ll be looking at is how magic moved from being a humble practise to becoming a formal art. I suppose in some ways you could compare it to famous big name chefs taking over simple peasant dishes. Simple charms to protect travelers, reduce illness or restore a field (things I write about in Rook Chant) are very different from the elaborate rituals that learned clerics used to summon demons. But in the late Middle Ages, these two very different strands became intertwined — and by the early Modern era they exploded in the infamous witch hunts.

I write about some of this practical magic in my History Witch column; perhaps I should share some examples here. Just to be respectable.

Rook Chant at Amazon UK