If there was a medieval society where magic was only taught within royal and high ranking noble families, would this cause the society to stagnate?

I mean, a lot of technological developments (but not all) have resulted in more balanced and progressive societies. Would the fact that the 'high born' nobles now have yet another way to enforce their hold over the people, to maintain the status quo, result in a civilization that remains virtually unchanged over the centuries (I suppose much like a magically induced dark age perhaps).

Or, seeing as a lot of Victorian-era science was undertaken by nobles (I'm not too familiar with science in medieval times), would the addition of the mystic arts to their repertoire actually bolster the whole 'gentleman scientist' movement and hence speed up technological development?

There are a few similar questions like Why would a magic world be stuck in medieval times? or Must magic be tied to medieval tech? or even one about disease curing magic (which had some interesting points about delayed development), but those were either dealing with four elements magic, looking for reasons why a society might stagnate or based in worlds where magic is commonplace. I know the reason I would like to use, but I'd like to know if it's a plausible reason, if it makes sense.

A couple of ground rules:

  • There isn't much of a restriction on the kinds of magic used, only that it's commonplace. Somewhere between Harry Potter diversity and Lord of the Rings rarity.

  • It can be (and frequently is) difficult to perform/energy sapping and can kill you or go horribly wrong if you don't know what you're doing (unsupervised magicians don't tend to last long).

  • It's closely guarded, not only is it taught only within high ranking noble houses, even then, only a few of them actually become any good at it (that's not to say there's anything special about the nobles, just that they... hold all the cards and besides, a book on magic isn't going to help a commoner if they can't read anyway - which I suppose would further reinforce the status quo)

  • Very proficient users (kings and queens etc.) are able to greatly improve their health (and maybe extend their lifespans) through the use of powerful magic (much to their children's dissatisfaction - there can be only one king ;)

  • There is also no reason why modern technology can't be used, it's just that the bulk of the populace isn't educated enough (or at all really) and those that are would rather keep the status quo as it is (the only way to get in power is to already be in power).

So, could all this basically put an indefinite halt to the development of society, or is progress inevitable? Or can royal magicians put an indefinite halt to a society's development in order to maintain their own positions?

  • $\begingroup$ Without knowing anything about what magic is actually capable of, it's hard to tell how it would be used. Also, don't forget: nobles don't always remain nobles. $\endgroup$ Nov 11, 2016 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ I would watch the CPGrey Youtubes on Leaders & Power.. youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs&t=4s & the Dynasties followup youtube.com/watch?v=ig_qpNfXHIU&t=1s So you can understand how the ruling class hold onto their rule, before including magic as either a 'treasure' or a 'key' in itself. $\endgroup$ Nov 11, 2016 at 2:31

9 Answers 9


It depends on a lot of things.

How does the magic work? What can it do? What are the limits of capabilities of a trained mage?

You said it's difficult and tiring, so it seems likely that the few actually trained mages would not be able to make a significant difference by themselves. Their powers may make them feared personally, may make them extremely hard to assassinate, may let them intervene in certain situations from time to time, but it's unlikely to replace industrial production with a load of self-sustaining spells to operate a factory.

But maybe it helps with knowledge. Science, historically, was done by rich people who could afford to do it (everyone else was largely concerned with making sure they had enough to eat). So some of those rich people in your world might be mages rather than scientists, but what would they do with their magic? Does their power allow them to examine the world in more detail? Could they skip past the need to invent the microscope in order to discover bacteria? Could they discern molecules and atoms? Subatomic particles? Quantum mechanics? Or on a larger scale, can they discern the nature of the solar system, the kind of physics that leads to general relativity? Would they ultimately be able to resolve the question of quantum gravity which is as yet unsolved in our world?

If they could, they may actually trigger vast technological progress if they passed such knowledge on and worked with non-magical scientists and inventors and industrialists. Their attitude obviously matters, maybe they're not interested in helping anybody, but maybe they are, maybe they want their country to become more powerful and more productive and they're sitting on this spell that has given them an idea about getting energy from unstable isotopes of certain heavy metals, and they've got another spell that lets them find out where to mine them...

Of course, if you can't use magic to find stuff out about the world, then it's not likely to help at all.

I'd read TV Tropes for their various tropes on magic systems, as there are many ways to do magic and their implications are all very different. A more mystical, more widespread magic system is more likely to inhibit technological progress than a very comprehensible, scientifically definable magic system.

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    $\begingroup$ I was thinking along those lines, you only need a few people to go "hey look at this!" for the whole thing to go from a hindrance to a great motivator $\endgroup$
    – Samwise
    Nov 11, 2016 at 21:39

This would most probably lead to a technological explosion initially which would later stagnate and halt. Here is some explanation why:

There can be two possible scenarios about the character of the royalty; they are either virtuous or evil. In case of being virtuous, they would highly encourage technological development within their kingdoms, so as to improve the lifestyles of their subjects. This would create a technological boom as magic helps improve technology by providing required materials. However, since scientific progress is initially based on theories and postulates, and scientific people tend to harbor opposing theories and contradictory beliefs about things yet unknown, it would become more and more difficult to supplant technology with magic, until finally the royalty will be done with it and instead teach people some basic magic skills to help them in daily lives.

In case the royalty are evil and use magic to strengthen their hold upon their subjects, the scientific minded people will try and counter their magic with scientific inventions, quickly escalating the situation to a type of civil war. This would create a boom in technical discoveries and inventions. In case the technicians win, technological progress would continue to boom. However in case the technicians lose and the royalty prevail, they would capture and kill all the scientists, completely halting the technological progress.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that you really need to divide tech and magic. If there will be magic, it will work just as another "IF" in the list of material properties etc. Thus technology will be different, but it still will be technology. Will it use magic instead of electricity? And why not? Your answer is kinda "only black or white can be there", but in reality, we have a wide palette of gray in between. $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2016 at 8:05


You've isolated the magic from the population too much for it to make a difference. There's a difference between science and engineering at this point. Science didn't tell you how to build a bridge or make a better loom, this was stuff being done by blacksmiths and engineers on the ground not scientists in ivory towers.

Magic will only slow technological development if it's available to the common people. If day to day, the magic says that you don't need that machine, magic can do it.

Even in the magical Discworld, where access to magic is limited in a similar way to your question when steam engine time came, steam engines happened. This is technological progress for the masses, not for the elites.

In that period, science in the ivory towers was driven by curiosity, not by need. They want to know how the world works and the place of everything within it. Their lives, on the whole, are already fairly easy going, they have servants to do all the hard work. If using a spell to light a fire requires significant effort, calling a servant to perform the same task is considerably easier.

Engineering is done by the people and that is driven by need, steam engines and looms were build by people with dirty hands who needed a job done better.

It's not until the Manhattan Project that technology is driven by science

  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't considered that, you make a good point $\endgroup$
    – Samwise
    Nov 12, 2016 at 21:21

Not if the nobles are the only ones that have it, craftsmen are almost never nobles. And it is the craftsmen and merchant classes that help create improvements.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate on that? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Nov 11, 2016 at 10:23

Magic will cause technological stagnation because magic can substitute most uses for technology. As Terry Pratchett once wrote:

Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

  • Irrigation? Just summon a raincloud.
  • Medicine? Just cast a healing spell.
  • Communication? Just use a magic mirror.
  • Transportation? Just open a portal.
  • Architecture? Just conjure a wall with earth magic.
  • Weapons? Just throw some fireballs at them.

As long as magic is available, there is no reason to develop any technology for these purposes. Sure, technology could eventually surpass the abilities of even the best wizards and enable even those without magic skill to benefit from it. But technology is developed incrementally. Every technology is based on someone observing an existing technology and thinking "I could think of a slightly better way to do this". No light bulb without a gas lamp. No gas lamp without a candle. No candle without a torch.

But when a new technology does not offer an improvement over magic, nobody will use it and it will be forgotten before someone can improve on it.

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    $\begingroup$ Although Discworld does provide some ideas as to why technology might develop in a magical world, when only an elite have access to magic everyone one else has to rely on other means. A wizard can light a fire using a magic spell, everyone one else needs a tinderbox or a match. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Nov 11, 2016 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, but I have to disagree. In Discworld there is no real impediment for anyone who wants to to learn some magic. Even people with no talent for magic whatsoever can benefit from "ambient magic" if they really put their minds to it. They do not do it, however, because the practice of magic carries a lot of risk of being eaten by an eldritch horror, lesser mad god or elf. So it a case of most people preferring the slower, safer, route of technology rather than being prevented from using it by the elite. $\endgroup$
    – ThreeLifes
    Nov 23, 2016 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ Though this is what would normally occur with magic prolific environments, a few of the questions points makes this a bit more invalid....only a few nobles will have this ability. If the noble is unwilling to say, make a rain cloud, then technology will have to fill in. The limited nature of magic here might still drive a need for technology. $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Feb 8, 2018 at 17:18

This kind of question is at the core deeply political and/or philosophical for the simple reason that what you describe is the question whether access to education should only be granted to the rich and intelligent...

Simple answer: Access to edducation has been proven to be a great accelerator to science, wealth and society, so in the end I would like to say your scenario plays out a lot like usual history...

However, here is a not so simple answer.

If only a few could really handle magic and it is an elite-thing anyways, then I would think it would be something like the White Tower in Robert Jordans Wheel of Time... An elite that is searching for people who can use magic but becoming so arrogant and dismissive of anything that is not their own, enabling paralell societies to grow and in the end overtake the establishment.

Now that I think about it... still the same.

  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't quite thought about it like that, but that's a good point $\endgroup$
    – Samwise
    Nov 11, 2016 at 21:36

It depends a lot on the social conditions. If the working class has access to capital (able to get a bank loan with reasonable effort) and rule of law (their property can't be seized without due process), then they are going to find ways to innovate in order to make their lives better. That's what sparked the industrial revolution. So even if some people don't have access to magic, they'll develop ways to make their lives better and more convenient. And in such conditions, magic will find its way to the masses as people get richer and become able to buy access to knowledge.

But as the other answers pointed out, it depends mostly on what the magic is capable of. For example, can magicians teleport themselves and/or other people and objects? If not, something resembling a modern transportation infrastructure will develop eventually. If yes, then I imagine a class of magicians might arise who are willing to sell such services to make a living (that is, a magical equivalent of the trucking industry). So the first task is to establish exactly what the magic can and cannot do.


I've long posited that magic would be a force for discovery if it existed.

If it takes any form of Effort to produce magical effects then you'll want to maximise your bang-for-buck.

Broadly the theory goes like this:

Magic is the art of bending and breaking physics. In order to minimise how much magic you use, you would want to leverage your knowledge of how things are supposed to work.

If I want to make an object spin with magic, I could twist it arbitrarily at great effort to myself, or I could apply a linear force at one end of it and let physics take over. Understanding leverage may dramatically reduce the amount of effort I have to expend.

If I want to heal someone, it can only benefit me to know how their bodies work.

And then there's the tools magic provides. Scrying might allow a magic-user to directly observe atomic structures and molecules, or to move one's perspective to orbital altitudes or even the surface of the moon.

Use of magic to generate heat would potentially allow smelting of materials that conventional refining has yet to work with, Bauxite for example in the real world requires extreme temperatures that are inaccessible even with a blast-furnace, nearly all aluminium is recycled simply because it's so hard to acquire efficiently.

A medieval world with aluminium is an entertaining thought.

Introspective and explorative wizardry would undoubtedly push back the boundaries of human knowledge very easily, the problem is social. If wizardry is commonplace, there will be curious souls exploring what's possible. If it's a small intellectual elite with time on their hands, they'll explore. If they have wars to fight, or have rigid demands on their behaviour, wizardry will likely not contribute much to scientific progress.

Another factor is the way in which magic works. I've been assuming fairly arbitrary physical effects, but if it's more like clearly defined Spells, then wizards are End-Users of an existing system and far less likely to explore, even assuming the tools they have at their disposal are adaptable enough to do so.


No, the nobles still fight wars, If you fight wars then your going to have arms race. And arms race is brings more then better weapons but better communication and transportation methods (armies have to move quickly armies have to communication with each other). As long as the king isn't so powerful that he doesn't need an army then technology will developed


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