If magic follows the following rules, what would the effect be on the gender roles of a medieval (1200-1300) civilization?

  1. All magic requires runes and a verbal activation (saying 'magic words' that correspond to the runes). Runes are one-use only. 1 in 100 women can activate spells, one in 10,000 women can make runes, 1 in 100 men can make runes, and one in 10,000 men can activate spells.
  2. Any spell lasts a maximum of one minute (no enchanting)
  3. Any spell has a certain maximum amount of power, and will not complete tasks under that power (you can create a small fireball, but can't make a storm or teleport)
  4. Any spell takes three seconds to take effect after the verbal component has been said (gives time for a counter-spell)
  5. Runes can be traced on a surface (traced rune) and can then be activated only by the maker, or engraved/written (engraved rune) where they can be triggered by anyone holding the object.
  6. All activation phrases must be yelled, and cannot be muffled (can't use magic while gagged or holding cloth over face)

Assume that magic has existed since the dawn of humanity, and is accepted and magicians are not persecuted (usually).

  • $\begingroup$ Of which country and culture of the time? They certainly were not uniform. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ Western European $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:06
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Questions of the form "What would the effect of X be upon society" are often closed for being primarily opinion based. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Gryphon that still doesn't help, each nation had different perspectives on equality and magic. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is going to be very broad. A counter question that you might want to consider, "Given any arbitrary effect on gender roles that you choose, can you come up with a reason that magic could not have that effect?" I'd argue that you could name just about any change to the roles you please, and one could write an argument for how magic got you there. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:52

4 Answers 4


Given your example spells, I don't think gender roles would change much.

Gender roles seem to be based on personal strength: most men are physically stronger than most women, and would win a hypothetical fight, which makes women reluctant to start that fight. With your new rules, most men would still be physically stronger than 99% of women, so the force driving gender roles would still mostly happen. The spellcasters would probably be exceptions.

I'll note that "throw fireballs" is a pretty terrible use of magic power. Throwing fireballs is only useful if you're at war with someone, and a fireball probably doesn't kill people much better than a guy with a longbow. What sorceress wants her job description to be "about as effective as a man with a longbow"?

The people with real power are the ones whose spells are useful every day. How about "cure disease" or "bless the crops" or "mold metal"? Can sorceresses do that? These are the effects people actually want.

Here's what it would take to change gender roles in medieval society: women would need to be as physically powerful as men. Maybe there's a sorceress out there with a spell that makes people stronger, permanently. But maybe the spell maxes out at a certain amount of force, and the amount of force depends on the strength of the spell, not on the strength of the person receiving the spell. At that point, men aren't reliably stronger; most likely it turns out that rich people can buy stronger enhancement spells, so men stop being dominant and rich people become dominant instead.

(The other thing that would change gender roles would be if everyone were a spellcaster. It sounds like that's not the direction you want to go, though.)

  • $\begingroup$ The make someone stronger forever part is impossible. See rule 2 of magic. $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Gryphon If you throw a fireball at someone, do the burns go away after one minute? if you heal someone's broken arm, does it re-break after one minute? If no, then other long-term changes are possible too, yes? Maybe magic just adds more tissue to the muscle. $\endgroup$
    – Dan B
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Might work, but would be really dangerous, as they have virtually no knowledge of biology. You could easily cause cancer or shove important stuff around. If you break the guy's bone by adding stuff where it shouldn't be, it would probably never heal, because there is muscle in the way. The risks are way too high. $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 20:22

This doesn't just change gender stuff--it would change religion--which could change everything, including gender politics.

As to how--well--that's a very broad question--and I could take it a million different directions, and so could you. It's pretty opinion-based, but I am going to try to strip that aspect away and focus logically on this, without getting too speculative.

Runes are one-use only. 1 in 100 women can activate spells, one in 10,000 women can make runes, 1 in 100 men can make runes, and one in 10,000 men can activate spells.

You can't have one without the other, which might be your attempt at equality. Inevitability, one or the other will be deemed more important.

Also, just because 1 in 100 of a particular gender CAN do a thing, doesn't mean they will be encouraged to. So for example, the gender which is better at activation, may be told to stay silent or have their tongue cut out OR they never learn to read the runes because they are never taught.

Very rarely, I suppose there are Rune Makers who can also activate. This would be a powerful personage who can--if it has happened to be a woman, you can bet women will be looked at as more magical--and vice versa as far as men is concerned.

All I can say here is that your scenario is so broad it could be used to oppress either gender. It's rare enough that I don't see it having a huge impact on most relationships, but it will have an overall impact on ALL social, economic, and largest of all religious aspects.


I think yes, it can.

First, I have to assume that destructive and protective magic (like fireballs and shields) is superior to any medieval weapons and armor. This will make spellcasters indispensable in the army, and make this group wield a great power. Kings and warlords could be able to control them only to some extent, if they don't have special magical devices (like in case of Robert Jordan's "damanes"). They can be controlled by limiting their access to runes, but this is like trying to keep army from a mutiny by keeping away the swords. So, leaders would have to appease spellcasters, sharing wealth and power with them. In medieval Western Europe, there was no such privileged female group.

This, I assume, would have a trickle down effect on attitude towards women in general. Domestically, non-magical women would still be treated the same, but the society in general would be welcoming to accepting women in other professions, even if they are not related to magic.


First you have to clarify in your mind why the 'roles' evolved as they did.

My own view is that it's essentially about 'expendability.'

A family/tribe only needs one fertile male to survive, but with one fertile female, for most of human history..the family is almost guaranteed to die out in short order. In a world where infant mortality and deaths in childbirth are 'humongous' any further risks to females need to be minimized as much as possible, this only begins to change with relatively modern population densities.

Beyond that, most of our written histories concern upper class families, landowners and the like, whose social mores and laws have never been those by which most folk live. Even the underdogs in most of our old tales are the sons of king or lord or freeholder.

So? Necessity, Invention. Expectation, Ambition. Power, Preservation.

You wouldn't be changing 'gender roles' at all, you'd just be changing what particular currencies constitute 'powerful.' With such an obvious currency though, you'd expect far more purges. Not of the poor, they'd still be chattel & possessions of the rich..but the powerful would rightly fear those others with power..and "God's Gift" would not be up for debate, Kings wouldn't need to look to the clergy to back them up with arguments of "divine mandate," for it would be self-evident and intrinsic to them.

Of course, there'd be a certain amount of protectionism. The right to kill the 'gifted' would be retained only by the gifted, even were they enemies (see: assassination.)

Upward mobility would almost entirely cease to exist in any magical society, almost regardless of the actual power of the magic, the able would always outrank the unable...until or unless we evolved some kind of counter-meritocracy like the contemporary west is attempting.


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