Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Magiography (Mages are monks, monks are mages)

There's quite a convoluted story as to how I came back to tabletop gaming and how this blog came into being—a story which one day I shall tell. For now you will have to content yourself with the following flake of my life: once, I was attempting to design  a video game using RPG Maker. 

It went through various iterations, but core to all of them was the act of researching and studying magic.

The Alchemist by Erol Otus

It's difficult for me to explain quite why I find this model of the magician (as cloistered academic) so appealing. Perhaps its the fact that my youthful academic promise remains unfulfilled, or that my adult pea-brain is still mystified as to how universities came into being in the first place (against the backdrop of warring church and state... people were just able to swan off and read?). In any case, the "academic magician" is an archetype I've wanted to interrogate more closely for a long time now.

This is explicitly not about Harry Potter.

Monk during Book Transcription by Gerard de Jode.

The subject came up again when Foot of the Mountain Adventures shared a post about gamifying the 1e magical research mechanic as a mini-game:

There is also a link within that post to a more simplified spell research system:

During the course of a playtest (which is currently taking place over discord chat) Pat remarked that my character had been given a "cell" in the basement of the library within which to conduct her magical research, taking pains to emphasise that this wasn't a prison cell (though in a game where characters are constantly exploring dungeons such explanations might not be necessary!). Actually I think on the same page as him already, and mention of the word cell sent me into something of a mental spiral.

I realised the academic wizard archetype corresponded to medieval nuns and monks: the cell I was imagining was a monastic cell. Suddenly the archetype made sense, and I felt stupid for not seeing it earlier. If you want an image of a magic-user doing spell research you can't go far wrong by typing out "monk transcripting text" in your search bar:

Check out this iconic wizard.

So What?

Let's consider that a wizard is one who (initially at least) eschews the pleasures of the flesh and leads an ascetic (and monastic) life in order to carry out magical research. This higher calling is divine, as is all magic wrought in the name of whatever higher intelligence overseas creation.

This at once allows us to square the circle of arcane vs. divine magic, at least in respect of magic users vs. clerics. If we look at the medieval church we can see:
  • A rigid ecclesiastical hierarchy overlapping with military might and land power.
  • Multiple monastic orders sitting parallel to this.
  • Military orders (templars etc.) arising out of those orders.
Do different orders of monks correspond to different schools of magic? 

Do paladins now cast "arcane" magic because they grew out of monastic orders? 

Do the paladins need spell books? Do they need them in a different way to magic users? Should they listen to them being read rather than reading hem directly?

The non-military orders produce—and reproduce—texts. Most sacred, some heretical... what about mistakes? Or perversions? Is this where the Necronomicon comes from?

What about the Bayeux tapestry? A collaborative, narrative work of art made by nuns (aka magic-users)?

Does the mainstream church/temple hierarchy tolerate magical research as long as it is contained within monastic traditions... do they perceive all other practices as witchcraft?

Are other forms of magic available due to covenants with dark powers (warlocks)? Older pagan traditions (witches)? Are these all forms of heresy?

What are adventurer magic-users? Are they travelling as journeyman or as outcasts?

Are certain texts considered profane? Is this what leads magic-users out on the open road as adventurers? Are they dabbling with chaotic magic?

Is the only sanctioned magic the cleric spell list?


My mind is buzzing because in today's session/text exhange I imagined that part of magical research would involve reading the biographies of magicians: it would be too easy for libraries to provide actual scrolls and spell-books, so what are the contents of the books magic users study? Advanced magical theory? Algebraic texts?

Again, my mind turned to monks recording hagiographies of saints: within these detailed accounts of their lives, would learned people have not hoped for some revelation of the divine, of the miraculous? Perhaps such accounts of the great magicians might exist. A magiography?

Look at this engraving by Albrecht Durer. it depicts St. Anthony the Great, a renowned hermit:

I think most of you could build a campaign from this image.

* * *

Just some notes for later development. I've already recorded a podcast about the role of alignment in a No Country for Old Men inspired OSR setting, and this is part of that slush-pile, just sharing it with you now.


  1. I enjoy this concept a lot, but I'll have to give it some more thinking. Secular magic feels like it should be distinct from sacred... but is that just my learned bias I wonder?

    1. 1. Monks didn't only investigate sacred things (though their approach to such exercises took on a devotional aspect): history, literature, science... brewing.
      2. Alternatively, all magic is divine (All things bright and beautiful etc.) but there's still a distinction between the cleric and mage spell-lists... perhaps like white/black/red mages in Japanese CRPGs?

  2. You should look into Ars Magica to steal ideas like I have for my games. It's basically mages as monks in a monastery with a bit of professors at a university thrown in.

    1. You know I really should, I've been aware of this game for the longest time and never taken the plunge- long enough ago that I snickered at the British English double entendre in the title (I am beyond such juvenile foolishness now of course!). If you trawl back far enough in this blog, you might find references to a CRPG project (long since abandoned) that sat somewhere in between this model and the tale of Persephone and the underworld.

      I will do so once funds are available.