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Medieval Magic and Fantasy: The Clarke Interview

Today, as a special New Year’s treat, I have the pleasure of interviewing Ansel Clarke, a medieval magic history scholar and graduate student from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, SK (@AnselC11). I’ve asked Ansel to give us his views on the portrayal of medieval European magic in fantasy literature and film, areas within it that might be ripe for writers to explore, and some resources to learn more. Also, you can tell he's legit because he made me put in a footnote at the end of this.

1. Ansel, please tell us a bit about yourself: What is your area of expertise? thesis topic?

AC: If I had to sum it up in one area I would say charms, but my thesis took something of a meandering path, so I know a bit about ritual magic, witchcraft, and Church ceremonies as well. I did a lot of religious and early medieval history (476-1000) as well so I know some stuff about heresies, I am not an expert on them by any means, but I know my Pelagians from my Heretics of the Free Spirit.

2. What got you interested in the topic of medieval magic in general, and your specialty in particular?

AC: I first became interested in medieval magic studying the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. They interacted with their religion in an interesting way, trying to squeeze in as much of the old polytheism, and magic, as they could. Sometimes the bishops corrected them and sometimes they didn’t. I remember a king, I forget who, had included Jesus in a pantheon of old gods. Some saint or another threw down all of the statues and gave him a stern lecture on the First Commandment. It’s somewhere in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. So that got my attention first. Also, in my undergrad I took some courses on Late Antiquity and was really interested in how the Emperor Constantine worked to harmonise Christian doctrine, and how that became very difficult and led to the creation of Heresies.

So I guess I came to magic by way of people being bad at, or kicked out of, Christianity. Which seems appropriate because my work is now focused on the later Middle Ages, but still deals with transgression.

3. Do you write any fiction or poetry yourself? If so, please tell us about your work.

AC: Not as much as I used to. I hadn’t written much since high school, but in 2012 I had job that was particularly emotionally draining. I resolved to do one creative thing a day to keep from feeling too much like a cog or a random number generator. This obviously slowed down in grad school, but might pick up with my thesis’s first draft out of the way.

4. Do you read fantasy fiction? If so, what/who are some favourites? What about those do you enjoy?

AC: I read a lot of comics. My favourite in recent years has been Hellboy, although it went through something that to me felt a lot like an ending some years back. As kid, I lived for Spider-Man, and I still find it fun, but it has the same problem of never ending stories that eventually stop making sense.

The last Fantasy book I read was The Name of the Wind which had a pretty good grasp of sympathetic magic. Sadly, I lost it when I moved to Saskatchewan. I liked The Hobbit as kid, but found Lord of the Rings to be wordy. I never really got C.S. Lewis. A lot of people love him, but I just don’t get it.

My all-time favourite authors, though, are Jack London (with whom I proudly share a birthday) and Farley Mowat, which is weird for some who hates camping as much as I do. They just have a way of communicating the immediate danger and wonder of nature. I honestly could not tell you what appealed to me about their work. I think they just loved what they wrote about.

5. Many experts in fields represented in fiction find inaccuracies and misrepresentations irksome. Let’s talk about that a bit.

a. Is there anything that drives you nuts in literature or movies dealing with your field?

AC: In a lot of work, Hecate is the antagonist. I know this is the case in at least one Hellboy story arc as well as MacBeth. I don’t know of any myths in which she is evil – unfriendly sure – but her appearances in modern fiction mostly seem to be a carrying forward of Sixteenth Century C.E. attitudes about witchcraft. So, yeah, lay off Hecate a while.

I recently read a comic book, Alabaster, which tried to be creepy using Bible verses. Which is fine and really works in some cases. The trouble was that it went straight to Revelations. Revelations is the “Hot Topic” of the Bible; every wannabe Goth kid shops there when they’re trying to scare their offensively bland parents. Consider instead a particularly scary actual manuscript for killing a person and turning them into a ghost slave, one that used names drawn from the liturgy. Since these names were also frequently used in protective amulets, the use of normally pretty innocuous or even very hopeful ceremonies for such a grisly purpose just had a feeling of exquisite wrongness. Scarier than overusing Revelations.

What’s creepy in a lot of magic is the magician is drawing on things which people from the 11th to 17th century would have recognized as a powerful forces for protection. Suddenly, the very pious people of the Middle Ages were confronted with something very central to their public and spiritual lives being used for something unspeakably sinister. Ritual magicians usually didn’t want to hurt anyone, most spells were for sex or money, but they had the power to seriously upset the cosmic order as imagined by contemporaries. There’s a sense of unpredictability there.[1] This is what I have learned from actual necromancers about being spooky.

With charms, what always gets me is the black vs. white magic, good vs evil witch narrative. Richard Kieckhefer makes an interesting point that any magical force that can be used to heal can also be used to harm. There’s a lot of ambiguity in medieval magic that I am not sure 21st century entertainment is comfortable embracing. A lot magicians had clients, so they could be working to restore one person’s sight while casting a curse on another.

b. What’s the funniest/stupidest thing you’ve ever read or seen in a movie?

The movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a godawful, inaccurate, sexist mess, and contains my name just to rub salt in the wound. All known copies should be burned. Season of the Witch is also bad in the same way but without my (misspelled) name. A lot of people overlook that magic isn’t just stuff that doesn’t make sense, and that there’s usually an internal logic. It really does annoy me when people use magic as an excuse for lazy writing. I am not saying you have to explain every detail of the universe you are building, but at least explain what it is about your characters that lets them overcome the obstacles they are presented with. A good place to start with this would be the article “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” by Richard Kieckhefer.

I could write a book on sexism and magic in movies, but will refrain from doing that here. All I will say is, stop repeating Reginald Scot’s weird anger at women.

c. Is there any book or movie that gets it right?

The movie The VVitch actually did a really good job of employing Biblical symbolism for the creepy effect, and portraying 16th and 17th century magic accurately. Sadly, a guy seated behind my girlfriend and I insisted on talking the whole time.

6. As a reader, is there anything you’d like to see more of in fantasy literature using medieval magic?

AC: In terms of the ritual magic, I’d like to see more about just how sad some of the users were. Frank Klaassen has an article where he discusses how a lot of magic seems to convey a feeling of sexual, financial, or intellectual inadequacy among the users. Which seems really pathetic, so there might be a dark comedy to be written there.

For charms, there’s the fact that some were really gross, requiring people to eat leaves or dung or whatever to get well. It’s weird that stuff like that never comes up in modern depictions of magic. Sometimes the eye of newt was meant to cure cataracts rather than to curse MacBeth.

As above, so here, I would like to see the ambiguity of magic addressed. But also, it could be fun to read about just how workaday it could be. There were people who made some, or perhaps even most, of their money treating illness using charms, charms that the Church frequently would disapprove of. There are spells that women would use to make their husbands impotent, so that marriages couldn’t be consummated, or spells to keep thieves away. What’s super interesting is that some of these things are hard to tell apart from Orthodox prayers and even appear in the same texts. I would love to see more of that come out in fiction, people defying the Church every day in subtle ways.

7. Is there anything you haven’t seen that would be fertile ground for story tellers?

AC: Pretty much all of the above: the patheticness of the Necromancers, and the subtle defiance of charmers could be rich fields for writers. The appropriation of religious symbols and objects to profane uses would work, too. For example, using the Eucharist, not for summoning the devil in a church or anything, but to keep caterpillars out of a garden. Just representations of the overwhelming and bizarre world that people in the Middle Ages lived in could be fascinating.

8. Are there resources you would recommend to fiction writers exploring this area in their work?

AC: For secondary sources, i.e. written by modern scholars, Forbidden Rites by Richard Kieckhefer is worth the twenty clams or so Amazon charges. Even if you can’t read the Latin, he gives good insight into how the mind of a necromancer worked. Lea Olsan has collected all kinds of charms in her chapter “the Corpus of Charms in the Middle English Leechcraft Remedy Books.” My copy is dog-eared and treasured.

For primary sources, Reginald Scot was both a meticulous researcher and raving lunatic, so the Discoverie of Witchcraft is interesting if nothing else. Be careful if you do want to portray magic really accurately though, as he draws on a number of other writers without acknowledging them, but a book called England’s First Demonologist by Phillip C. Almond sorts through all of Scott’s baggage pretty well.

Finally, I cannot say enough good things about Esoteric Archives.

Kind of the best thing about magic for writers is that while necromancers, or charmers, or whomever all agree on a certain logic, they very rarely agree on specific rules. So, feel free to give yourself some leeway when writing and not be completely bound to what is written in a given text. Just don’t get lazy.

9. Anything you’d like to add?

AC: If you steal my idea for a novel about a talking rabbit who works as computer programmer I will curse you.

[1] A lumber jack with a chainsaw makes perfect sense, it’s a part of his job. Not scary. A lunatic with a chain saw is scary, but you know to expect and what to do. Stephen from accounting with a chain saw is scary, because he clearly meant to bring it to the office, but no one knows why.

You can follow Ansel Clarke on Twitter @AnselC11


I almost went with computer programmers, but rabbits have longer teeth, so, hare goes. Sure they’re cuddly vegetarians, apparently harmless, (still speaking of rabbits), but they have a dark side. They can bite and scratch, and kick. They are prone to slicing through electrical cords (although that’s more of a problem for them than us). They are shockingly sweet, leading to lethal overdoses of cuteness, something that the medical community are paid off in carrots to conceal from the public. And they multiply, well, like bunnies, which can be a very scary problem for farmers, not to mention environmental devastation. And we all know about the mystical power of rabbits. Fertility symbols indeed. Beware the rabbit, my friends. And computer programmers.

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