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Context

In my world, magic has been granted to mortals by their gods.

As a result, the Church heavily regulates it, and the only legal spellcasters are clerics and clergymen. Magic use is heavily regulated by a continent-wide neutral organisation of high clerics, bishops and cardinals (think of it of something like a crossover between the OSHA - for the safety and regulation side- and some kind of Inquisition -to take care of the moral side and prevent blasphemy): you need to pass exams, acquire a certification and become an "authenticated" magic user before you can cast a single spell.

Usually, casting a spell requires the user to call upon the forces of the Divine (by drawing from the "mana" pool generated by the gods), but a cleric and a doctor found that one can cast a spell by either using the God's mana pool, or using the mana generated by every human, animal, plant or insect. They compiled all their information in a white paper and broadcast it to the continent, thus sowing the seed for a revolution in the spellcasting domain. Think of it like Satoshi Nakamoto's White paper, in terms of cultural impact.

By using this method, you basically remove the safety guards that come by calling upon the forces of the Divine: casting spells become more dangerous, but anyone that practices enough can cast spell as well as a cleric, whilst not being a registered user and not using the might of the Gods.

Technology

  • Being a Renaissance-level setting, printing presses are a common occurrence, and paper production is not an issue. The technology is advanced enough so the white paper can be printed on a A4/A5 format tops.
  • Information can be transmitted almost instantly via magic, but needs a special magic item in order to display it to human eyes. Spellcasters can still feel/hear/sense in some way the message.
  • This is between a medium and high magic setting, kinda like in Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher works or Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft series.

Infrastructures, organisations and culture

  • War has been around for a while. Rare are the periods of peace, thus hospitals and science academies are already built. Same goes for magic colleges, big and small.
  • A lot of people from all social classes are dissatisfied with the current magic regulations. Protests and open letters have already tried to relax the regulations, but nothing changed. Underground spellcasters associations and unions are relatively common, acknowledged by the Church but barely tolerated.
  • Basic education is quite common, and children often work with their parents part-time while going to school (or work and learn on alternating weeks). Hence, the literacy rate is rather high and homogenous for a Renaissance-level setting. Nobility will have access to more prestigious colleges, but basic knowledge and skills are learnt by a large part of the population.
  • Great archives are present in every major city. Containing documents of all kinds, about two thirds of the non-confidential and non-governmental documents are available to the public.

Here is the problem: how can the doctor and the cleric that wrote the white paper broadcast it sneakily enough to not attract the attention of the Church, but at a wide enough scale to kickstart underground experiments (and finally, allow commoners to cast (often non-combat) simple spells)?

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    $\begingroup$ This seems to be a question of how pamphlets could be distributed in a clandestine manner in a pre-industrial, post printing press setting. Unless something magical needs to happen when the person reads the pamphlet, then the "magic" part of it seems to distract from the actual question. If interaction with magic is required, then it becomes a matter of opinion, since only you really know how "magic" in your world could disrupt that distribution. Could you kindly condense this? $\endgroup$ May 2, 2023 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ Why don't they used the good old Renaissance-and-early-Modern era practice of having their banned books printed in some place or another where the locals did not care about the Pope and his Inquisition, and then have the copies smuggled and sold where money could be made by selling them? In real history, the place to get banned books printed was Venice in the 1500s, then Geneva, then Amsterdam in the 1600s and 1700s. (And the question uses the word "broadcast" incorrectly; probably the intended meaning is "disseminated".) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 3, 2023 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ Disagree with the VTCs, the question of 'what social conditions allowed the Reformation to succeed' is the crux of many, many histories, etc. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 3, 2023 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant Except OP isn't asking about social conditions, they're asking how a doctor and clerk can accomplish a task. Their personal connections and relations will have a significant impact on how they can accomplish the task. Someone known as a fraud and charlatan will have to employ different methods than someone with personal contacts in every major city. It's a relevant question to the world but it's a character specific issue. This is not establishing some fact of the world it's writing a character dependent story. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    May 3, 2023 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ "printing presses are a common occurence" - The Renaissance-era printing press reduced the price of books from thousands of days worth of wages to hundreds, but this was still far too expensive for a mass distribution of printed material. For that you need the industrial revolution, (or an insane amount of money). $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    May 3, 2023 at 7:49

6 Answers 6

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Copy the Reformation; the Church may not notice on the institutional level

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, you've created a setting much like the conditions just before the Reformation.

If the church is on the ball, you probably can't spread the paper without someone from the church noticing.

Like the Reformation, though, if the church is corrupt/distracted/bureaucratic, it can fail at every step to 'notice' the problem at a level high enough to take the effective countermeasures, and thus escalate at a rate which always leaves it one step behind.

Luther was both brave and pugnacious, and anything but discreet, but the local church could not get Rome to realise that things were spinning out of control, partially because individuals in Rome had strong vested interests in the status quo.

In a very real sense, the Church didn't see anything unusual until entire kingdoms were breaking off.

Once there is some threshold value of the paper floating around, it will 'spread itself' like an internet meme.

One disadvantage your paper has is that the average person probably doesn't have really deep moral and religious convictions unsealed by the paper.

During the Reformation, the Protestants were utterly determined to return to the simple theology of 'believe in Jesus and be saved by God's grace'; the principled ones were quite willing to suffer and die for their beliefs. (Others were willing to kill to supplant the church; the Catholic viewpoint is that the latter predominated).

You don't have that. But OTOH, they can get an obscene amount of material gain by having magic.

So expect proportionally less suffering martyrs and more grifters, self interested monarchs and tyrants than during the Reformation.

PS Printers have a vested interest in printing hugely popular works.

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    $\begingroup$ Never underestimate the importance of self interested monarchs and tyrants in the Protestant Reformation. More important than the failure of the church to supplant heresy was the will of lords and kings to get out from under the manipulations of the Church. Places where the inquisition was allowed to reach remained dominantly Catholic, but anti-papacy rulers created protestant safe-havens which the inquisition could not work in. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 3, 2023 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Make that 'monarchs, self-interested or not' and I agree. Like everyone else, some had convictions, others didn't. They weren't all Henry VIII...but Henry VIII sure was! Re: this answer, even in Germany, monarchs only got involved once things had been escalating for several years. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 3, 2023 at 2:00
  • $\begingroup$ This was my first thought as well: nail your thesis to the door of the nearest church. If it works in the real world it can work in a fantasy one! $\endgroup$
    – sdfgeoff
    May 4, 2023 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ Definitely my favourite answer. The Reformation fits coincidentally well in my setting! I definitely need to get my world's commoners interested in magic, though. Thanks for the advices :) $\endgroup$ May 6, 2023 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant would Luther had hatched the egg if Tetzel hadn't been so brazen? (Maybe; he'd been reading the Bible, but revolutions need a "last straw".) $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 6, 2023 at 13:38
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Print, don't broadcast

Spellcasters can still feel/hear/sense in some way the message.

This little tidbit tells me that magic transmission is out of the question. You need to get the attention of commoners BEFORE the magic community becomes aware of it and snuffs it out meaning that anything that tips your hat to the magic community is a bad idea. The printing press is your friend here. It was historically used as a means of mass communication. Pamphlets were handed from one trusted person to the next in a spider web of information transfer, and if any element in the chain was compromised, it typically only led back so far until you hit a person unwilling to give up an real names of accomplices. This was good enough for the various revolutionaries of the Late Renaissance to gather thousands of supporters in secrete; so, it should be good enough for your setting.

If you add any magic to the system, it should be in the form of spells to prevent the magic community from using their powers to track your notes better than a traditional detective could. So, if they can normally use a note to scry for previous owners, then the notes should be enchanted to disrupt such spells. If they can magically force you to speak the truth or extract memories, then the paper could contain a spell to make you forget who you got it from. Things like that.

If you want to take it a step further, the papers could even be enchanted specifically to deceive magic users. Since magic users are specially in-tune with magic, perhaps you could have the paper show a false message to someone who is magically aligned. So a cleric might read it as just a boring recipe for peanut pottage, but a person who's not attuned to magic might see the actual message.

There are also low tech ways of hiding a message non-magically using some manner of steganography or hand cypher-such that only a person told how to read it can read it. That way, a cleric tossing a suspect's cottage might for example find some innocuous looking lithographic prints of some trees sitting in the suspect's desk, but when they are placed back to back, and a light shown through them, the combined hatch work is actually writing.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoted for the papers detecting magic users. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 3, 2023 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ Plus, if the paper/book is already in circulation, it only takes another person with a printing press to get a copy to get a new print release going. Once it snowballs enough the spread becomes almost unstoppable. Like the "samizdat" literature in communist countries and the chain hoax emails nowadays. $\endgroup$
    – mishan
    May 3, 2023 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant a clever way of using meta-magic! $\endgroup$
    – Trang Oul
    May 3, 2023 at 18:32
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Write a story

Build the premise into a work of fiction aimed at your target audience that hints at ideas that should the reader try for themselves, they would find out to be true.

The church is less likely to read the story themselves and the readers would keep the secret to themselves while encouraging their friends to also read the book.

Finally, there is an amount of plausible deniability if someone has the book.

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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of the French Revolutionaries who would write about the "wickedness of the Persians" when they were actually writing commentary about the Aristocracy. The Aristocrats did not get it because they did not see themselves that way, but commoners would read it and be like, "but wait... Lord Such-and-Such just did that last week!" $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 3, 2023 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I googled this and got nothing. Can you remember more details? It sounds fascinating and like something that ought to exist today. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 4, 2023 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant The Persian Letters by Montesquieu is about the journey of 2 Persians exploring France. Because the protagonists were Muslims, thier opinions would have been seen as somewhere between worthless and wicked in the eyes of the French; so, if these characters had something bad to say about France, it would not be incriminating on the author because they were clearly "wicked" anti-heroes. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 4, 2023 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ According to my professor from college, after this book, "Persian" became a common code word for revolutionaries who needed plausible deniability when talking about the nobility; though, I'm not sure where he got that piece of information from, since I can not find any references to it myself either. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 4, 2023 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ Simple yet effective! Love it. $\endgroup$ May 6, 2023 at 0:00
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Air Dropped Pamphlets from Mass Carrier Pigeons

So, a little nod to WW2 propaganda leaflets, you have the means of printing, so you can mass-produce (or close enough) enough leaflets.

You have Pigeons - you probably don't even need specially trained carrier pigeons - any bird species that is known to frequent a well populated area (like a town square, for instance) - capturing enough birds could easily be done either manually or using Magic 'Just catching some birds for a squab pie Guv' - an easily plausible activity. Especially if coinciding with an event where it would be expected (like a Feast).

Now, the means to have the leaflets fall off - you could do something mechanical like a small watch device, or you could have something like a drop of acid that eats away at the rope holding the message to the bird after X number of seconds.

Or you could use a spell here - plenty of options for plausible deniability 'I was trying to rid the town square of this vile and heretical manuscript, sadly I did the incantation wrong and didn't target the correct item'

The short version is that on a day when lots of people would be in the town square, suddenly 1,000 birds are released, all with a little message on a string - the string is broken (acid/Spell/Other) and the leaflets land in the crowd.

Some are turned in, some are not - using WW2 estimates 1 in 7 were not returned to the Officers for destruction.

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  • $\begingroup$ OP stated the method had to be sneaky and not attract the attention of the church. Pretty sure air dropped pamphlets is pretty noticeable. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    May 3, 2023 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ I read 'attentions of the church' as in don't attract them, to the individuals doing - so plausible deniability. If one person is walking round with a manuscript, then that person gets arrested - if 1,000 people are walking round with it... $\endgroup$ May 3, 2023 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ I read it the other way. 1000 people walking around with it is 1000 heretics that need to be punished. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    May 3, 2023 at 3:12
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TL,DR: Hide it in plain sight.

At the dawn of the era of print, pamphlets abounded. People would write something, print it, and try to sell it on the streets. As it was cheap to mass-produce printed documents, each copy could be sold for a pittance and still make a profit for the seller. Popular pamphlets sold and were reprinted until the public lost interest, while unpopular pamphlets vanished quickly.

In this environment in historical Europe, the authorities had neither the time, the inclination or the manpower to examine every pamphlet, which might range from agriculture to zoology. Only the subversive pamphlets, encouraging rebellion against the authorities might attract attention at all.

Amidst this environment of a profusion of paper, another pamphlet that encourages people to think about magic in a new way would be likely to go unnoticed by the authorities. Tha authorities already have use of magic, so they would hardly be interested in an unprovocatively titled pamphlet aimed at the unmagical masses.

By the time that the literate but unmagical masses have read this pamphlet and have begun to practise magic to the point where they can produce it on demand, or blow themselves (or someone else) up with it, thus attracting the attention of the authorities, the pamphlet will have been circulating for quite a while, and many people will have read and understood it.

By the time that the authorities notice, become concerned, debate the matter, and decide to act, the metaphorical genie will not only be completely out of the metaphorical bottle, but the bottle will have metaphorically been smashed to pieces, so there will be no stuffing it back in and burying it.

By this point, ordinary people will be able to produce their own pamphlets on the techniques required, and maybe even improve upon them, and there will be second and subsequent waves of different pamphlets distributed on the same subject. The authorities won't have the manpower to hunt down every copy, and with an increasing number of unauthorised magicians in all walks of society, they won't be able to force the populace to give up its spellcasters without risking an all-out insurrection.

At this point it's up to the OP if repression and insurrection occurs... but I wouldn't put my money on the authorities.

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The First Rule of Magic-Club

... Is not to talk about magic-club.

Don't tell people about your heresy - show them!

Grab a dozen disaffected commoners, and induct them into your secret magic club. Teach them some magic using your method, tell them it's very important that they not spread the word, and leave. Go to the next city, and start a new group.

After a couple of months of establishing clubs in various cities, when you return to the original location you'll find that the secret club has grown to gargantuan size because your dissidents can't keep a secret to save their lives.

Perfect.

Proselytize

Now that you've created a bunch of clubs that are definitely going to be infiltrated by the authorities any minute, you switch tactics. Tell the club members they need to disband for their own good, and send them to a bunch of different cities to prevent the authorities from rounding them all up at once.

Give strict instructions that they not set up a new club in the new cities, but be sure to send two or three members to each city. At least one of them will start up a new club.

Contagion

At this point, the cat's out of the bag. There are hundreds of people spread across scores of cities who know the "secret." Someone's going to go public. Of course the authorities will come down hard on that person, but that's only going to make the heresy more interesting. Everyone wants to learn more about your new way of doing magic.

A bunch of your converts will go public, trying to gain fame and fortune from their knowledge. Others will grow their clubs in secret, like viral reservoirs waiting for the day when they spill over.

Regardless, the knowledge is already too widespread for the authorities to stop.

Just be sure to use a fake name so the heresy can't be traced back to you. I suggest "Edward Norton."

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