Since the publication of The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has exploded globally. Harry, Ron and Hermione are some of the best-loved characters from children’s literature, and adventures from their world have even reached the big screen and stage. Recently, a new exhibition at the British Library revealed some of the franchise’s historical and mythological influences from the Middle Ages. From fantastic beasts to the mysterious science of alchemy, JK Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry is filled with medieval references just waiting to be uncovered…
1) Fantastic beasts
By the 12th century, bestiaries – a type of medieval encyclopaedia – were the ‘bestsellers’ of the medieval world. In these works, cats, pigs and rabbits rub shoulders with fantastical, mythological creatures like the phoenix, the unicorn and the basilisk. The manuscripts are a mix of fact and fiction, blending together religious writings and folklore with hyperbolic accounts from returned travellers – at a time when far less was known about the world. As well as describing these animals, authors would use them as a form of moral instruction – warning against the hypocritical tears of a crocodile, for example, or encouraging readers to imitate the industrious bee.
A number of animals found in medieval bestiaries can also be found in the Harry Potter world. In the second Harry Potter novel, The Chamber of Secrets, two of these animals go head to head: the basilisk and Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes.
According to medieval legend, the basilisk – also known as king of the serpents – is a cockerel with a snake’s tail. It can kill birds with the fire from its mouth, and any human who locks eyes with the creature will drop dead. The phoenix, in bestiaries, is a purplish-red bird that is sometimes described as being the size of an eagle. The bird is immortal – every 500 years, it will build a pyre for itself and set itself on fire using the sun. Nine days later, it will rise again from the dead.
Although both of these animals will be familiar to Harry Potter fans, Rowling’s creations are slightly different to their medieval counterparts. Her basilisk can also kill with a glance, but it is more like a giant snake than a snake-cockerel hybrid. According to medieval bestiaries, only a weasel can defeat a basilisk, but in The Chamber of Secrets, Fawkes helps Harry to destroy one by pecking out its eyes.
In the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry eats his first chocolate frog on the train to Hogwarts and discovers a ‘Famous Witch and Wizard’ card, which describes a man called Nicolas Flamel. In the books, Flamel is Albus Dumbledore’s friend and the man responsible for creating the philosopher’s stone in the book’s title.
Flamel is not Rowling’s invention, however – he really existed. Born in Pontoise, France, in 1330, he was a successful scribe and book-seller. After his death in 1418, rumours began circulating that he had learned alchemical secrets on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in north-western Spain. It was believed that he had discovered the philosopher’s stone, which could turn metal into gold, and that he and his wife had also found a recipe for the elixir of life. In the Harry Potter world, Rowling’s philosopher’s stone is linked to both of these legends – it can turn matter into gold, and can also bestow immortality on the owner.
Despite the rumours, there is no real evidence that the real Nicolas Flamel had anything to do with alchemy. However, the practice was considered to be one of the highest arts in the medieval and renaissance period, and many people did study it. Alchemy is a kind of medieval chemistry, concerned with the transformation of matter (for example, turning base metals into gold). Originally written about in Arabic manuscripts, these were translated into English throughout the medieval period and became incredibly popular. Alchemists believed that nature had secrets to reveal, which could be discovered through careful experimentation. The practice taps into humanity’s desire to seek more knowledge, and is now considered to be part of the history of science.
In the Harry Potter books, Herbology is one of the many classes available at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Students of Herbology learn about the properties of both mundane and magical plants, and how to care for them and use them properly. The older the students get, the more dangerous the plants on the curriculum become.
One of these plants, which appears in almost every book, is the mandrake. The plant has a root that looks like a human and, when it matures, its cry can be fatal to anyone that hears it. Mandrakes pop up first in classical literature and are then documented in medieval herbals, in illustrations which depict a man-shaped root. Medieval herbals are a certain type of manuscript, which collect together the medicinal, culinary, aromatic and magical properties of different plants and, like bestiaries, they are a mix of fact, fiction, and folklore. So, in one herbal from the 12th century, now housed in the British Library, readers are instructed on how to collect real mandrakes, which are allegedly very useful in medicine, without damaging their hearing or losing their lives. In the Harry Potter novels, mandrakes are used as a restorative draught for those who have been ‘petrified’ (stunned into a comatose state by a basilisk). In medieval herbals, however, they are recommended for pre-operative patients, to make them soporific and minimise their pain.
A number of healing practices used in the medieval period sound suspiciously like ‘magic’ to us, and were even described as such at the time. For example, sympathetic magic, a type of ‘natural magic’, was used in the medieval period to cure various ailments. For eye problems, a doctor might prescribe the eye of a vulture, wrapped in the skin of a wolf, to be worn around the patient’s neck. Plant-based poultices, meanwhile, would be coupled with a charm, or spell, to increase the chances of success. Although some of these practices were labelled as ‘superstitious’ in the later Middle Ages, they weren’t associated with demonic magic until the dawning of the witch hunts in the 15th century. Similarly, many of the plants which the students of Hogwarts learn about in their Herbology lessons are used for medicine as well as in potions and spells. Rowling’s exploration of plant-based healing, and the blurring of magic and medicine, therefore has a direct relation to medieval ‘natural magic’, which was considered at the time to be a branch of science.
4) Arthurian Legend
Some of the most popular legends from the medieval period tell stories about the mighty King Arthur, who ruled over Camelot and whose knights went on many quests and adventures. Stories about this fictional kingdom, and its shifting cast of characters, survive in over 500 manuscripts, written in a number of different languages. Although King Arthur himself does not appear in the Harry Potter world, there are many Arthurian references in the novels.
According to the medieval legends, Arthur was advised by a wizard and prophet named Merlin, who seems to have been invented by the writer and historian Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). Merlin appears in the Harry Potter books as the founder of the Order of Merlin, of which Dumbledore himself is a member. Its purpose is to promote peaceable relations between Muggles and the Wizarding World, which involves controlling the use of magic against Muggles. There are additional parallels to be drawn between Merlin and Dumbledore: both are magical figures who advise and counsel a younger hero (Arthur and Harry respectively).
In this 19th-century illustration, a sorceress called Nimue casts a spell over the wizard Merlin, confining him to a cave forever. Merlin features in a variety of medieval literature, including Geoffrey Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’. (Culture Club/Getty Images)
Moreover, in terms of plot, the Harry Potter novels are directly influenced by many medieval romances: stories about knightly heroes – often orphans, like Harry – who rescue damsels, fight monsters, and delve into the supernatural. Medieval romances are usually structured around a plot in which a hero must depart on an adventure and then return, changed, at the end. The first three novels in the series directly follow this plot arc and, whilst the later books in the series are more complex, they are still filled with quests and challenges – like the fearsome Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
5) Magical objects
Much of the adventure and intrigue in the Harry Potter world revolves around magical objects. Examples include the Goblet of Fire, an innocuous looking cup which acts as an impartial judge; the Mirror of Erised, which offers the gazer a glimpse of their heart’s deepest desire; and Horcruxes, items in which a dark witch or wizard had stored a part of their soul. In medieval legend, objects are equally central and often have magical or miraculous properties. One of the most famous Arthurian legends is the quest for the Holy Grail, a cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper and which could give its owner eternal life.
In medieval Christianity, too, objects are often imbued with special powers. Relics of saints in particular were often believed to have the power to heal illness or help fertility. Many people – including the fictional pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket, who had been Archbishop of Canterbury before his death, where they would buy a vial of his watered-down ‘healing blood’ as a souvenir. The milk of the Virgin Mary and the tears and blood of Christ were also advertised and available for sale at various sites of pilgrimage. Harry Potter, too, is saturated with innocent looking objects, which frequently spring to life and aid their owners. Examples include the Marauder’s Map (which shows the live location of every person in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) and the Invisibility Cloak (which allows its wearer to move around undetected).
Dr Hetta Howes is a lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at City, University of London.
The exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open at the British Library, London, until 28 February 2018.