Porcelain – a curse and a blessing

It was around 16 BC, in the middle of the Shang Dynasty (which spanned 17–11 BC) that porcelain first began to appear in China. Initially this wonder-material was a great boon; its inherent properties, such as low permeability and elasticity, strength, hardness, toughness, translucency and resonance, and its high resistance to chemical attack and thermal shock, ingrained it into Chinese art and architecture, as well as into everyday life. Porcelain was used as an effective food and liquid-storage, and in many ways immensely helped the advancement of the Chinese empire until the post-medieval era.

Porcelain making in ancient china

Porcelain-making in ancient China

However, the early discovery of porcelain prevented the development of glass, which was not brought into frequent use until the 19th century, significantly later than in Europe. Non-reactive and non-porous glass was vital for progress into hard chemistry and all sciences tied to it. Glass grinding led to lenses, and subsequently microscopes and telescopes, which brought about a new understanding of the world. It was also vital for spectacles, which significantly extended the working-life of intellectuals by as much as 15-20 years, allowing them to read and work when presbyopia or other sight-conditions set in. It can be argued (although perhaps slightly teleologically) that porcelain – an early and useful discovery – held back the scientific development of China and became a barrier to its further advancement.

Magic vs. Technology

The “Porcelain Argument” can, on a larger scale, be used as a way of understanding the impact of magic on the technological and scientific progression of a fictional society. The very existence of magic, and the ability of some individuals to manipulate it (either by innate talent or hard work) allows for the accomplishment of both astonishing things, and of other-wise arduous, mundane tasks, in a quick and simple way. Thus, as in the case of porcelain in China, magic can be a fix-all tool which may inhibit the development of other technologies and scientific progression in a fantasy world setting.

It stands to reason that, as long as magic is readily available in one form or another, the need for technological advancement to perform the same function becomes effectively redundant. If “Necessity is the mother of Invention”, then conversely a lack of need produces a lack of development. Of course, ‘available’ is a variable term – magic may be available to those only with considerable money, or it may not be for sale at all. Thus the magic-technology balance might vary in different social echelons and within different societies.

One example of the effect of magic on technology can be found in the realms of communication, particularly long-distance communication. Trade, espionage and warfare all rely on effective communication, and failure to deliver an important message could alter the tide of war, bankrupt a merchant enterprise or lead to a major political incident. But what if a message could travel instantaneously across hundreds, if not thousands, of miles with a fairly simple spell, or even through a magical device (which would effectively remove the immediate need for a spell-caster)? For critical decisions such as these any price, even a very high one, would be worth it in order to prevent disaster. This would significantly alter military tactics, trade strategies, and any other aspect of a nation relying on instant communication. Concepts of distance would change, people might travel and trade further afield. Conversely, monarchs from distant lands would be able to communicate almost face-to-face, without travelling, which would hugely affect the scope of international relations. Magical protections might be necessary to protect against magical espionage or listening devices.

If magical communication was readily available to the public, would there be any reason for the advancement of technologies allowing long-distance communication, such as carrier-pigeons and pyre-relays (and later, the invention of telegraph, telephones, and internet-based communications) or even the development of shorter-distance communication methods such as semaphore, morse code, heliographs, or drum and whistling codes? Such technologies would require extended research and frequently expensive infrastructure, not to mention the fact that they may not even be invented if magic is always assumed to be the ultimate solution for communication. Would people even bother writing letters to one another? Amongst the wealthy it might be considered obsolete, or even miserly.

Steampunk magic technology woman

by Rebecca Saray; see more at her blog

As has been indicated above, there may be various reasons why people may not have access to magic in an otherwise magic-rich fantasy setting. Some regions or nations may have a less-developed knowledge and understanding of magic, it may not have been discovered at all, or perhaps magic may not even function or exist in their area (dead magic areas). In multi-species worlds, some species may not be as attuned as others and, in those societies, technology would probably have developed more rapidly, fuelled by a desire to keep up with other nations or species. Magic could also be considered unholy or criminal in some (or all) regions, and that would significantly affect its use in mainstream society.

Magic could also add a whole new level to the arms and industry race. Depending on how magic is used, the philosophies of its users and its offensive capabilities, nations without access to magic (within an otherwise magic-rich world) with might be considered weak, and would probably be quickly invaded or annexed. Certainly developments leading to, for example, the radar or the nuclear bomb would not occur, but it is even more important to consider the simpler things such as agriculture, manufacturing, energy and propulsion. These are the aspects which would lead to a rich and prosperous kingdom with surplus resources, allowing them to become wealthy and powerful. Surplus food allows cities, trade and a large standing military – all the characteristics of a formidable nation. Even if they did not take magic into the battlefield, it would be inextricably entwined with their success.

Not all is as it seems

We have discussed some of the effects of magic on a grand scale, considering nations, wars and mercantile enterprises. But what effect would magic have on, for example, the every day peasant? Superficially, a typical medieval fantasy village resembles a historical, medieval village. However, the differences would be significant; spell casting and magical items would change the medieval world in many fascinating ways.

“I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath
given you one face and you make yourself another.”

W. Shakespeare, Hamlet (III.i.142-3)

lineage2 Elf by lkk20273

lineage2 Elf by lkk20273

What about a simple healing spell, instead of painstakingly learning the different uses of plants and herbs? Child mortality and death from illness would be drastically decreased, and population density would be significantly increased. The ability to magically sustain and ensure the healthiness and growth of crops and livestock would significantly increase crop and food yields, leading to a healthier, wealthier peasant class with more free time for leisure or education. Light during the night (which would also impede the development of electricity, or even the refining of candles and oil lamps) would affect the length of the working day in winter, and could have some impact on education as well. The ability to magically copy tomes would have a similar impact to the printing press – books would change from exclusive, expensive, bespoke items to more widely available, commonplace commodities.

More examples abound – just consider the impact of mending spells, ‘turn rock to mud’, ‘magic hands’ and levitation on heavy labour such as construction work, mining and prospecting. Individually, all these look like small differences, but their accumulation would significantly change the life experiences of a medieval world at a very fundamental level. Even if only one magic-user lived in the village, his/her presence would still have a significant impact on daily life.

Of course, technology would still be present for many reasons. A good example would be that those in power wish to control and suppress their subjects (as is historically the case) and thus might limit the access they have to magic. In such cases, although the economy and work life of peasants might be assisted by some magic, technology would still play a significant role to their domestic lives.

Magic Users and their Social Perception

It is interesting to consider the social role of a magic user. Magic users of different strengths may find different niches within society – a low-level hedge-wizard may set up a practice in a village or small town, whereas a magic-user capable of more significant spells might be employed by a court, or might even endeavour to create a nation of his own. From a storytelling perspective, magic makes a beautiful “rags to riches” hook since frequently the ability to use magic is a matter of innate talent. Magic might also be passed down through blood lines, which might lead to whole families being ostracised or celebrated. The more common magic is, the more that it is likely to be present in a small way in many people and thus the more likely it will be to have an impact on everyday life. Conversely, in rare magic worlds, magic and its users are more likely to be taboo, revered and/or feared. In such cases, technology and the sciences would certainly be more likely to advance, and some might even be wary of those disciplines if they bear a too-striking resemblance to the powers of magic users.

In conclusion

In magic-rich fantasy worlds, magic and technology compete for the same niche, and the existence of one can impede the progress of the other. Nevertheless, they do co-exist to a certain extent, often due to a lack of knowledge or resources. The existence and the ability to manipulate magic would significantly alter the “historical” timeline of a world. It would also likely extend the duration of a medieval-style era, since magic would prevent a ‘renaissance’ of the sciences leading to a higher technological level. Magic is also a resource; whether used in a peaceful way to expand growth and industry, or employed offensively, it can change the balance between those with access to it and those without.

Today we recognise that science and technology have drastically altered our strategies and our perceptions throughout history. By considering how these might or might not have progressed alongside magic, or how they may have varied in a world with unequal magic, we can have a fuller understanding of magic’s integration and impact on a fantasy realm.

What do you think the impact of magic would have been? Can you think of any examples? We would love to hear from you, so leave a comment below!


Ancient Chinese Inventions and Discoveries that Shaped the World http://blog.world-mysteries.com/science/ancient-chinese-inventions-and-discoveries-that-shaped-the-world/, retrieved 25 February 2015

Lu, Jonathan. “REASSESSING THE NEEDHAM QUESTION: WHAT FORCES IMPEDED THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN SCIENCE IN CHINA AFTER THE 15TH CENTURY?.” CONCORD REVIEW (2011): 209. https://www.emmawillard.org/sites/emmawillard.org/files/ConcordReview-Summer2011.pdf#page=1

About Janet Forbes

Janet Forbes is a London-based professional musician, a classical soprano and recorder player performing everything from medieval polyphony to contemporary opera. You can find out about her “real job” at on her website. Janet is also a keen historian, archaeologist, writer, role playing games player, and the Mother-of-Kittens.

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