Nancy Reagin: “A Half-Blood World”

Now available from Wiley & Sons is the new book Harry Potter & History, ed. by Nancy Reagin. This book explores a more educational background to the world of Harry Potter, and how elements from the series relate to real-life history. (Think Voldemort vs. Hitler; the real Nicolas Flamel; and Muggle uses for magical things like mandrakes and bezoars.) The book offers a perfect opportunity to re-read your favorite books (okay, and rewatch the movies, too). Today, we have an exclusive guest post from Reagin to give you a better taste of what Harry Potter & History has to offer. Check back later today for your chance to win a copy, as well!

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“A Half Blood World”

For a historian like me, one thing that jumps off the pages of every Harry Potter book is how much Muggle history there is in the wizarding world.

Like many fantasy and YA authors, J.K. Rowling used large building blocks of real history in creating Harry’s world.  That’s not surprising: when you come down to it, it is hard to make up an imagined world from scratch, without using some real history as part of your backdrop.  That’s why (like most historians) I love fantasy worlds as well.  They’re hybrid worlds, blending real history with imagination.

Like Harry, we live in a world where reminders of the past surround us: monuments that tell the “official story” of our nation or heroes; parks or streets named after people who were important long ago; or even things passed down in our own families, like names or pieces of china.  Witches and wizards must be even more aware of the past, since ghosts walk among them giving testimony about how things were centuries ago, and they have technologies like pensieves and Time-Turners to make history easier to recreate.

But the wizarding world is full of reminders of its Muggle roots as well as its magical history because like Harry, the wizarding world is half-blooded.  Its people and culture are descended on one side from Muggles and their historical cultures.

For many centuries, J. K. Rowling tells us, wizards and witches lived side-by-side with Muggles in villages and towns across Europe, often intermarrying or socializing.  They must have often shared knowledge and values, since they were—in most respects—part of the same culture.

Even after the Statute of Secrecy forced wizarding families to separate themselves from Muggles in the late seventeenth century, there was still a constant flow of Muggle-born students into Hogwarts, which no doubt accelerated after the nineteenth century.  The expansion of public education during that period meant that magically-gifted children born to Muggle families—even poor ones–would be taught to read and write, and thus given the basic primary education needed to attend Hogwarts.

The constant infusion of new Muggle-borns into wizarding society via Hogwarts meant that the magical world was never truly separated from developments in the Muggle world, although pureblood families looked down on those who—like the Weasleys—liked Muggle gadgets and socialized with the Muggle-born. But in spite of the pureblood elites’ disdain of Muggle influences, those influences continued to enter the wizarding world, and Muggle-born wizards and witches might even have carried back wizarding ideas and models to their families of origin, when they went to visit Muggle relatives.

As a result, we see many parallel developments in both worlds long after the Statute of Secrecy was passed.  The Malfoys may have looked down on Muggle aristocrats, but they lived very much like Muggle gentry, on a manor with house elves in place of human butlers, maids, and footmen.  Like the great Muggle public schools it resembled (and perhaps foreshadowed), Hogwarts also divided its pupils into Houses, had them wear house ties and school robes, and hosted an annual competition for a House Cup; in these and in many other respects, Hogwarts was very much like other British boarding schools.

Ideas flowed back and forth between the wizarding and Muggle worlds, along with institutions and lifestyles.  The highest judicial authority in wizarding Britain, for example—the Wizengamot—stems from the real (that is, Muggle) Witenagemots (councils) established by the kings of England a thousand years before, around the time that Hogwarts was founded.  Even before Hogwarts was founded, people who practiced magic were common throughout Europe, using charms, potions, and spells to get the outcomes they wanted.

Mandrakes were commonly sold in markets across medieval Europe, for example, and very wealthy people might even buy a powder made from the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Bezoars were prized by Muggle princes, kings, and queens for centuries: even today, gold or silver-encrusted bezoars from their collections can be seen in European museums, and one of the largest bezoars ever discovered (in South America) was sent to the Pope, in Rome.   Almost all of the magical techniques and objects Harry sees at Hogwarts were well-known to medieval and Renaissance Europeans, in fact.

Like Harry, Severus Snape, and Voldemort—all of Hogwart’s “lost boys”—the wizarding world is a half-blood.  Its roots go deep into Muggle history, the history that Prof. Binns does not teach his pupils.  Rowling’s world is a rich and dazzling creation, a world built of magic and history.  Exploring that history, and seeing how the wizarding world grew from our own, helps us to appreciate the wizarding world even more.

That’s why I organized a group of historians who are also Harry Potter fans to research and write Harry Potter and History.  We wanted to know more about the wizarding world, and to understand it better.  Our goal was to create a reader’s companion for the Potter series that takes history out to play, by showing how history is woven deep into the fabric of the wizarding world.  Our research gave us new vantage points from which to see the wizarding world, and I hope we’ve shared those with other Potter fans.

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