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One of the panels I had the privilege of attending at last month’s Historical Novel Society conference focused on the role of magic in historical fiction. Those of us immersed in another period, such as the Middle Ages, find the boundaries between historical fiction and fantasy are indeed blurred.

I could not write about 8th-century Europeans without religion and magic. The official records speak of victories with God’s help, miracles, and liturgies for divine favor. This was an age that believed in visions and the power of saints’ relics, the latter sometimes worth stealing.

In addition, Christians employed charms and tried to bribe kobolds into not wreaking havoc. To ward off demons and ghosts, medieval folk of all classes lit night candles and often did not sleep alone. When someone died, the bereaved most pressing concern was that the dead stayed dead. Wakes, prayers, and alms-giving on behalf of the dead served to keep the dead at peace.

The supernatural is how medieval people explained the unexplainable in their world. Why does the baby who seemed healthy at birth have deformities? Must be changeling or God is punishing me for my sin (such as conceiving the child on a Sunday). Why am I sick? Either the dwarves are mad they weren’t bribed or God is angry. Why did the child drown in the stream? Must have been a water nixie. Why is that teenager hearing voices no one else can? Must be divine vision or demon possession.

These people were not stupid. They simply had no way of knowing about germs, genetics, or brain chemistry. Who knows, they might think us crazy for thinking entities too small for the eye are the cause of disease.

They turned for an explanation where they could. And if you believe in a supernatural cause, it makes sense.

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