If you’re steeped in the lore of the Harry Potter universe, the dichotomies are familiar: quill and keyboard, owl and postal service, scroll and tablet, witch and Muggle. As a reader and writer of historical fiction, these paradoxes immediately invited me to look backward through time to where the differences between the Muggle and magical worlds were less stark. Before the Statute of Secrecy, wizards and Muggles mingled more. Their split would have been pushed along by three historical forces: the European Witch Hunt, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. This is a tall argument, I know. But I’m ready to defend it and, in doing so, acknowledge the elephant in the room that J. K. Rowling resolutely avoided: religion.
Religion, specifically Christianity, was at the heart of the persecution of witches, but the 15th to 18th century witch hunts were also the result of several other powerful forces in Early Modern Europe. Regardless of who the trials actually targeted, the practice meant nothing good even for those possessing true magic. Magic folk, and particularly their children, were vulnerable, and living alongside Muggles would have become increasingly uncomfortable and dangerous. This danger was one of the key factors leading to the enactment of the Statute of Secrecy in 1692, which sought to move the wizarding world into hiding.
While this initial separation was significant, it would have been one of location and association, not so much one of worldview. However, in the 18th century, a new movement in the Muggle world would put an even larger gap between magic and non-magic people. The Enlightenment is a broad term to describe a big shift that happened in European society. Before then, attitudes, beliefs and customs were shaped by religious thought. Science as a way of testing and understanding the world did not exist. That the universe could be understood as a series of provable physical laws was a new concept.
The idea that knowledge could be widely available to all was also new. In the early 18th century, knowledge had been kept within the church and associated universities. The Enlightenment, which coincided with the spread of the printing press, meant that knowledge was now a public pursuit. It was a move away from a world ruled by mysterious, mystical forces, toward one governed by physical laws that could be tested by anyone. You didn’t have to be a learned monk or wizard toiling in a dusty library to find answers.
In fact, the spirit of the Enlightenment wanted to separate mystic or magical knowledge from the public sphere. One of its biggest contributions to society was the separation of religion from politics. While this sounds irrelevant to magic folk, it meant that though they might no longer be in danger of being burned at the stake, their way of being in the world was becoming much less fashionable. Religion and magic may seem unconnected, but they both represented the ways of knowing and acting that the Enlightenment was trying to squeeze out of public life. Spells or prayers were replaced by formulae and equations.
The third and most visible separation of the magic and non-magic worlds was achieved by machines and mass production. Technology sought to do things Muggles couldn’t do, and so we got the electric light, the engine, computers, airplanes and pheletones… I mean, telephones. When Harry becomes immersed in the magical world, what strikes him most, apart from the obvious, is the medieval level of technology: candles, quills, and oil lamps.
Creating historical Harry Potter fanfiction is the most fun I’ve had as a writer. Taking Rowling’s hints about the four founders and fleshing them out into full-bodied 11th century people emphasized that a firm separation of magicians and Muggles is a recent development. A medieval witch striving to create a philosopher’s stone was eccentric, yes, but eccentric in the way that a modern physicist wrestling with string theory is eccentric. Alchemy, or practices like adding a counter-clockwise stir to your concoction weren’t magical practices, they were the science of the day. The most powerful rulers consulted astrologers as a matter of course, and knowledge really was preserved on scrolls.
When we enter Rowling’s magical world in book or on film, the cues are obvious: castles, and pre-Industrial technology. Focusing on the history of the magical world, this division is far less obvious. Before the Enlightenment, the idea of magic wasn’t a fanciful element in stories for kids — it was something people believed in, and sometimes feared. So, while the Statute of Secrecy made the world safer for witches and wizards, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution deepened the divisions between the worlds. Muggles and wizards became much easier to recognize, and Muggle Studies was added to the curriculum at Hogwarts.
Find Christine Malec’s Harry Potter historical fanfiction, Before the Tide, at beltanethebook.com.