February 7th, 2017

imaginative girl

Guest Blog: E.C. Ambrose on Medieval Magic and Medicine

You guys know I love historical fantasy - so today I'm hosting author E.C. Ambrose, whose latest medieval fantasy novel, Elisha Mancer, was published by DAW Books today!

Here she is:

One facet of my work which I am proud to share with Stephanie is the incorporation of magic with history — in particular, a historically appropriate conception of magic for the period.

Researching historical magic is a tricky process. The would-be researcher will first encounter all kinds of works on contemporary witchcraft or magic, and sleight-of-hand—all of which are interesting, but not very useful. There is, however, an academic line of inquiry into the history of human beliefs about magic, including the archaeology of magical charms and texts, and the study of magical texts, and the biographies of historical magic practitioners.

For my era, I was thrilled to discover Societas Magica, the academic society for the study of magic during the Middle Ages. These scholars study manuscripts of magical knowledge or understanding which are frequently bound together codex-style, either with other magical texts, or simply collections of household knowledge, of which magic was only a part. They have overseen a series of volumes from the University of Pennsylvania press covering a wide variety of magical studies and practices, including ritual magic, divination, and conjuring spirits.

While most people today would not profess a belief in magic (in spite of reading horoscopes, having lucky shoes or washing their cars to make it rain), during the 14th century, and for much of human history, a healthy respect for magic was common, even among people who did not claim to have witnessed it themselves. While the official Church stance on magic was that it didn't exist, the reality suggests that priests frequently confronted the genuine belief of their parishoners. Manifestations of apparently magical power could be taken as demonic possession or the influence of Satan, but it's not until the 15th century that the idea of a witch hunt becomes truly significant.
Interestingly, people often defended themselves against magical attack through recourse to spells or charms. These might be written down and worn on the body. Both magical charms and learned ritual magic gathered in books tend to include numerous Biblical references and the names of saints, implicating the religion of the time in magical beliefs. One of the most beautiful translations of this type of magic into a historical fantasy setting is R. A. MacAvoy's Damiano's Lute series, which I heartily recommend.

However, medieval research was important to me in more ways than one. I spent a lot of time (and money) researching medieval surgery, and I did not want the introduction of magic to simply wash away the reality of medical practice. One of the things that often bothers me about the use of magic in fantasy novels is its tendency to become a panacea, solving all the problems that people face without much effort or cost. The healer simply evokes healing magic and the injury (and all of its physical and emotional ramifications) evaporate.

If I may pick on J. K. Rowling for a moment, (I think she's big enough to take it), the example I usually point to is the botched healing of Harry's arm after it is broken during a quidditch match. Professor Lockheart inadvertently removes Harry's bone instead of healing it. Harry is then sent to the infirmary where a potion allows him to re-grow the bone. It hurts a bit, but he's back to normal, virtually overnight. There are huge anatomical implications to the loss of an entire bone, not to mention the subsequent replacement of that bone (joints, veins, nerves, ligaments and muscles—an entire eco-system relies on the presence of the bone).

Medieval understandings of magic were based on a few key principles, one of which was knowledge of the thing the pracitioner wishes to effect. When my protagonist, Elisha, a trained barber-surgeon, begins to discover his own magical potential, it is his medical knowledge that makes it effective. A magus without medical skill would not be able to do the things Elisha can, and sometimes, even the dual skills in magic and medicine are not enough to save the patient or solve the problem.

Finding the balance between history, magic, and medicine has been one of my challenges and delights in writing these books. Elisha Mancer, book four in my Dark Apostle series of fantasy novels about medieval surgery, lanches this month! For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com/books

E. C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at ecambrose.wordpress.com, and you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Find Volume One, Elisha Barber, on Indiebound,
Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Find Volume Four, Elisha Mancer (published today!), on IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.