Setting: 4 types of magic, namely bio, godly, Ancient and artifact.

  1. Bio magic: throwing fireballs, making things float, destroying household items seemingly defying you on purpose...

    • Relatively weak, invokable by any human (usually) but it is quite taxing.
    • Effects in the order of "make 200kg float".
    • Requires training and a decent load of talent.
    • Mostly used domestically.
  2. Godly magic: weather, landslides, pregnancies...

    • Powerful and indirectly invokable by humans.
    • Humans pray to a deity, deity checks their mood, humans rejoice/cower in fear/nothing.
    • Effects are in the size of our natural disasters, earthquakes, minor hurricanes, overnight harvests.
    • Deities are of the ancient Greek kind: fickle, vindictive, prone to playing favorites, etc.
  3. Ancient magic: Time, Life, Fate ...

    • Power is almost limitless but uncontrollable.
    • No specific way to gain its favor or invoke its wrath.
    • Effects are in the order of "surviving after being buried in molten lava" and such miracles.
  4. Artifact magic: any of the 3 preceding types of magic can become bound in an artifact.

    • This makes it less powerful and fleeting but changes how it works.
    • It responds semi-stochastically to certain magic inputs that humans can produce.
    • For the current question it can be considered as reliable as medieval as alchemy. Sometimes it heals, sometimes things blow up and sometimes you are left with just the stuff you started with except now you look like a muttering fool.
    • Imbuing can only be done by powers capable of invoking the magic.
    • Artifacts of bio magic are generally very weak, except for those with a strong natural affinity for imbuing and a talent for magic.
    • Artifacts of godly magic are rare but powerful. Generally not capable of natural disasters they are powerful weapons of war, breaching walls or damaging ports with tidal waves.
    • Artifacts of Ancient magic are the stuff of myths: capable of resurrecting the dead, bending time to the owners' wishes, allowing you to overthrow a deity. Many young fools have gone out in pursuit but none have managed to recover such an artifact.

Most magic infused worlds are in 1 of 2 situations :

1) magic is public and the world is medieval consisting of several medium/small kingdoms, possibly of differing species.

2) the world followed our history with its monsters, heroes and creatures capable of wielding magic kept themselves hidden throughout all of it.

At first, it seems strange that so many worlds would get stuck in the Middle Ages but it's not: in our history, it took the positive side-effects of the Black Death to get us going. Damaging the absolute rule of the church, infusing the survivors with greater wealth, killing ruling dynasties. The increased scarcity of labor improved quality of life and increased demand for better agriculture. This led to trade and independent cities along trading routes. Guilds, crafts, bourgeoisie and the seeds of the Renaissance were sown. Any magic society that could wield healing magic, would be far better suited against a virulent disease. Healing magic is always practical and will, therefore, be honed, allowing greater survival odds. Corpse infection would also be out of the question since a few household fireballs could incinerate a corpse beyond danger.

Without such a monster plague to shake up the status-quo, could a magic society ever get to a continental level? With ruling families controlling powerful artifacts, uprisings are easy to strike down but large areas of influence are hard. You can't really give a representative a powerful, irreplaceable weapon and expect them to continue to obey you without question. They have leverage and eventually, a representative will try to leverage that into a land of their own. On the other hand, it is very hard to control peasants without a powerful deterrent, if you have come to rely on it. Suddenly training a military capable of holding a region in check is costly and requires logistics that are a step above regular govern-a-few-dozen-peasant logistics. This would deter would-be conquerors since it would take a lot of effort, which most despots try to avoid.

(my conjecture)

Such a situation looks like it would stall in a constant cycle of rise and fall of lineages fueled by a few handful artifacts collecting dust as a deterrent until the current owner gets overthrown or the line dies out every couple of centuries (or decades). Since there would no trade, rulers would be content with every pair of hands working the fields barely providing for themselves and providing royally for their liege. Long distance travel would be non-existent except for the few travelers brave and stupid enough, wielding some bio artifact powerful enough to protect themselves and weak enough to not get confiscated on arrival at a castle (bored greedy kings are usually looking to increase their amount of dust-collectors).

The issue is not technology. The aspect of interest is the sociological part: empowering the peasantry, independent cities, free trade. The assumption is that the situation of many small kingdoms has already manifested. Could such a social situation be broken from within or would some great natural disaster be needed to get things going?


7 Answers 7


You're looking at a very different society from the one, say, Britain had at the time of the black death.

  • The church isn't all powerful, you have lots of little churches with gods that get involved in the daily lives of people. Even if only by striking them down with lightning.

  • The scientific revolution is going to be a very different game. Applied magic is a breach of the laws of thermodynamics. The laws we consider fundamental are merely guidelines.

What are the pressures on your society, why is it the way it is?

The Inclosure Acts started pushing England's subsistence farmers off the land and into the cities in the early 1600s, the diseases associated with high population density and minimal hygiene were inevitable. You've prevented the plague, so now you have a surplus of starving people in the cities. Perhaps this is enough to start your revolution.

There's no need to beat your ploughshares into swords, everyone has enough household magic available to cook a knight in his armour.

Feudalism wasn't oppression, it was a deal. The lord owns the land and protects the peasants. They didn't need to be kept repressed until things started going wrong. There's a historic precedent for the amount of power the people had; when Lady Jane Grey was Queen for 9 days there was a civil war, armies were raised and the lords were called upon, but lords who were going to side with Jane often ended up siding with Mary because the people didn't believe Jane had the right to the throne and wouldn't fight on her side. The lord cannot fight without the backing of the people. There were no standing armies.

All this requires triggers.

The primary trigger were these Inclosure Acts, the change from small scale subsistence farming to large scale industrial farms. People who were content with their lot were displaced. As long as the people are content, there will be no revolution.

You'll need a political change, the lords getting greedy. A natural disaster displacing a large number of people. A war. What most people want is for tomorrow to be much like today. They're not going to revolt without good reason.

  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't thought about the situation as a 'deal'. I only looked at the more problematic parts. The main part in this unappreciated question is whether or not static social pressure could break the feudal system. Thank you for clarifying it was not a situation that required breaking at the time. $\endgroup$
    – Aaron
    Feb 6, 2018 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron, far from a perfect deal, but there were rights and responsibilities on both sides $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Feb 7, 2018 at 14:10

Industrialization depends on the ability to replace human labor

People invented steam engines and mechanical looms and giant merchant ships so they could do things with less people. It takes hundreds of slaves to row a 1,000 ton ship, but less than a hundred to sail a ship of that size, and a few dozen to man a steam powered ship. Similarly, 10 people and a mechanical loom can do the work of 100 weavers. A steam engine can tirelessly pump more water than 10 men who need to sleep and eat and rest.

So, why wouldn't a magical world make these developments? Well, it would not if there were some better way to move goods over water, spin fiber into yarn, and pump water out of mines. I suppose you could teleport, conjure and summon a water elemental to do these things; then you wouldn't need an industrial revolution, and your society wouldn't really advance out of the middle ages.

So can you do those things? It doesn't look like it from your question, but your specification of powers isn't completely clear.


Ask yourself, is there something that level X technology can do that they can't do in the middle ages with magic? If the answer is 'no', then there is no need for technological advancement. If the answer is 'yes' then humanity will eventually get there, though social conditions might make it take some time.

  • $\begingroup$ If magic is costly it makes sense to still industrialise. Or if magic is unreliable. $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Feb 6, 2018 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ Also worth pointing out that human labour-scaling problems can apply to magic too. Ten mages summoning elementals might themselves be more cheaply replaced by one mage and a mechanical loom. $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    Feb 6, 2018 at 7:01

I believe it is possible but it would rely on this:

That magic is not possible for some people. This would always raise some inequality flag, a banner people could rally to.

This inequality will foster the need to equalize things. If, say, a kingdom has the fewest magical individuals, lower than average compared to the rest of the others it may come to pass that they will advance their technologies instead of their magic. It also comes to mind that if magic is not possible for most people, technology will be. Not anyone can wield a fireball right but maybe being taught to shoot a gun or fire a cannon is easier.


If people learn/study magic, in other words it's based upon the understanding and manipulation of fundamental forces then what you have isn't "magic" it's science in a different universe.

If magic is inherently inexplicable people will strive to find ways to make it more reliable/predictable, if they succeed see above, if it's impossible to understand there will be due cause to develop an alternate means to achieve the same effects.


Technology tends to develop in reaction to harsh situations to adapt. Its as you said with the plague. But what you seem to be forgetting is magic is one of the things that would develop as well. It makes life easier, people would want to develop and improve at it. Magic wouldn't stick to wizards doing amazing things and no one else, artifacts that you can buy at the store would surface that function as parts of a machine, why build a pump to get the water when you can simply put an artifact in that floats the water up to you with no mechanism required?

And while magic would remove many problems that inspired technological development, it would also create them. People would ask "How do I stop my enemies from wiping out my fleet with a conjured storm?" and questions like that, and so they'd develop to solve that problem.

Technology would not stall with magic, it would simply develop differently. Magic would be part of the worlds physics system, and so those physics would be used to help develop


I think you have a straight shot to industrialization if your biomagic artifacts can be made reliable. They don't have to be super strong, just better than an alternative way of making a part of some larger machine or system. Any modern machine is going to be some combination of mechanical, chemical, or electrical components. As long as it makes sense in your world to build machines that are some combination of mechanical, chemical, electrical, or magical artifact components then an industrial revolution makes perfect sense.

The first caveat you already took care of: magic can't be so strong that it makes no sense to industrialize. The second caveat is the reliability of artifacts: either it's so bad that a mundane industrial revolution takes place (because why should common people count on things that frequently explode by accident?), or else improvements in artifact design spark a magi-tech industrial revolution.


In real life the Middle Ages was full of conflict between the Christian church, which was trying to communicate its message to the whole population, and holdover beliefs from paganism, which had nominally ended about 1000 years before, but was still holding on in the form of what we now call superstition and witchcraft. So the "household magic" you describe was a very real thing in everyday life. It is often cited that some 50,000 witches were burned between the Middle Ages and the Salem Witch Trials. That gives you an idea of how common those beliefs were, especially when you remember that populations were much lower than they are now. In countries where the dominant Christian church is still Catholic, i.e. the same as in the Middle Ages, such as Mexico, there are still multiple "traditional healers" in every rural village, even with the impact of modern science and technology.

But from a Christian perspective, witchcraft was both bad and stupid. It encouraged rebellion against sound moral teaching, because if I have another answer, I don't have to listen to you. It also was a reliance on outright superstition. Many of the beliefs we know about from that time, such as the Doctrine of Signatures (i.e. red clover tea is good for the prostate, because a red clover flower looks like a penis) were just plain dumb. I don't think we should discount the power of the spirit world, good and bad, and I think we have neglected a lot of natural remedies, but I think that science is a step forward from all that.

Bottom line, people in the Middle Ages were preoccupied with magic to the same degree you describe. The difference was that it usually didn't work. I'm not sure it's healthy to dwell on a fantasy in which magic does work. I have to consider, what if God is real, and he is trying to make a difference? Real magic then becomes a threat, not to God, but to our own sanity and health. If magic actually functions, the results would be dysfunctional.


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