A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court

by Antiquarian


My Dear Readers... (A Non-Canon Interlude)

Antiquarian sat at his dark oaken desk in the midst of his expansive study, quill scratching away as he tried not to fall asleep mid-sentence. A critic had once observed that the study and its owner suited each other well: a stuffy old room filled with dust, antiques, and archaic books, all battered and worn, and a dusty brown unicorn in faded tweed jacket, his disheveled brown mane and mustache turning to grey and his forest green aura and eyes darkening with bitterness. Antiquarian had not disputed the critic other than to note that he had plenty of modern books as well, and that his aura and eyes had always been dark.

His secretary, the ever-patient Miss Aura, bustled into the room, her pale coat and red-gold mane a bright mote of youth and energy in the archaic room. “You should really open the window and let some fresh air in, sir,” she chided him, setting a cup of coffee down on the desk. “It’s not healthy for you to brood.”

“I am not brooding, Miss Aura,” he grated, pulling out a hip flask and emptying half the contents into the coffee. “I am merely grimacing. Brooding is what I do when I contemplate the state of the modern education system and that quack Neighsay. Grimacing is what I do when I’m being defeated by my own creation.”

“I stand corrected,” she said with a role of her eyes. “Can I take your grimacing to mean that you are facing a problem with your latest project?”

“You could say that,” he sighed, taking a sip from his enhanced coffee. “You see, it’s essential for my readers to understand Jacques’ psyche, but most people haven’t spent decades studying human history in general, much less specializing in Medieval Europe and Christianity. And why should they? It’s a hearty undertaking with few tangible rewards for most. The result, however, is that things that I take for granted as evident are obscure to most, and people are asking a lot of very important and insightful questions. The more studied ones are even bringing up some very valid points and references from the period. Which is wonderful!” he hastened to add before she could point out that he should be happy that readers were taking an interest in learning or else were already learned. “And I want to engage with all of them to clear up any confusion they have and elaborate on some of the facts that people have mentioned, but addressing them piecemeal isn’t working.” He took a longer drink. “Every time I answer one, another crops up. And, because not everyone has the time to read through all the comments, not that I’m suggesting they should, I sometimes see more or less the same question multiple times.” He ran a hoof through his hair and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t want to let any of them down, but I’m afraid that, despite my best efforts, plenty of readers are still confused through no fault of their own.”

“Mm,” she nodded absently as she vainly attempted to make headway against the dust. “Well, that is quite the conundrum. Jacques is very much a man out of time, and if you insist on being as true to that as possible, there will always be things that he takes for granted that seem odd to the readers without context. But, if you think about it, there’s a certain inevitability to it. After all,” she added with a smirk, “you’re too stubborn to break the rules of your own system.”

Antiquarian frowned and prepared to shoot back a retort about his stubbornness, but before he could his eyes widened and he beamed. “Break the rules! Break the rules! Aura, you’re a genius!”

Aura looked up, startled. “I… am?”

“Yes, yes of course,” he cackled. “It’s so obvious now! I’ll just have to break the rules.”

Aura blinked. “Sir, you’re scaring me.”

Antiquarian pulled his typewriter out and plopped it on the desk, typing away in a maddened frenzy. “Prepare two chapter slots, Aura! When the next one goes out, it’ll have a little non-canon companion volume to go with it!”

“I’m… not sure I follow.”

“Aura,” he said with a mad grin, “I’m going to address the audience… directly!


My Dear Readers,

In case that introduction didn’t make it clear, this chapter is to be considered non-canon. It is intended to give you all a rough overview of the common medieval view on certain spiritual matters, specifically with regards to supernatural powers. There are three things that I want to make abundantly clear.

Firstly, this is by no means a fully inclusive look at medieval spirituality. That would literally take hundreds of books to fully explain. This is, at most, a very watered-down summary of certain key elements that directly pertain to the story.

Secondly, for the sake of convenience I will not be saying “The Catholic Church believes X” at each point; I will just be saying “This is X” most of the time. The words flow more naturally when I write this way and I want to get this done quickly. This is not intended to proselytize or preach; it is shorthand to make it easier for me to write. I am presenting to you the view that Jacques would have had at his point in history on supernatural matters in the context of broader Catholic theology so that you may better understand his concerns and motivations. No more, and no less. As with everything in this story, I am not trying to force you to come to a certain conclusion so much as I am trying to help you understand why Jacques is coming to the conclusions that he is along this journey.

Thirdly, this chapter is not to discourage you from asking more questions in the future. As I said, this list is not an exhaustive look at the whole picture; it’s a snapshot that serves as my attempt to clarify some of the more commonly asked questions.

With Respect,

Antiquarian


Origins

These principles of God, spirits, and spiritual matters actually predate Christianity in their origins, as we see them from Genesis on. Thus, in answer to multiple readers’ questions of where Christian notions of miracles vs. magic (and related topics) came from, the answer is that they’ve always been around; they’ve simply become more nuanced over the centuries as teachings have been clarified.

God

To give a proper grounding for understanding the medieval take on God would require volumes. Since we don’t have that, I’ll hit a couple key points. One of the most important concepts is that God doesn’t need us. We add nothing to God by existing or worshipping God. What this means practically is that the universe has been loved into being by a God that created everything to share love rather than to benefit from it in any way. That which God does for us and instructs us to do is done so as to bring us into a fuller state of harmony with God and the rest of creation. Properly ordered, all aspects of creation, from the greatest to the smallest, ultimately wind their way back to this Grand Design of harmony and goodness.

Or, if that was a little heavy-handed and philosophical, just listen to “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from Prince of Egypt. I’m serious. It’s actually a very good illustration of the concept of Providence and the ultimate harmonic designs of God.

Angels and Demons

These beings of spirit were created with power and authority over creation that we would consider supernatural, but which are in fact simply a natural part of the Angels’ stewardship (more on stewardship later). There are nine choirs of angels: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. While I could get into what they are each responsible for, suffice it to say they have power and authority over specific things. Now, when a number of angels rebelled in pride, they separated themselves from the Grand Design because they separated themselves from God and, by extension, the Divine Life. They retain their power, because for the moment their power and authority is tied to the world. However, when the world ends, they are, to use common parlance, screwed.

A Note on Hell

Hell is most properly understood as an eternal state of being. With God is all of life, creation, harmony, and existence. Thus, if one is separated from God, the only remaining option is the hell; the absence of Life. Or, to put it more bluntly, eternal Death. When life and death are talked about theologically, it is thus vital to discern whether it is physical or spiritual life and death which are being discussed. It is further important to note that God did not make hell. Rather, hell is a state of void made by the very people who imprison themselves there by cutting themselves off from the Source of Life. To be clear, when I say ‘void,’ I do not mean that the place does not exist. Hell is very real and hell is a place of eternal punishment and damnation. When I say ‘void,’ I mean that it is an eternity of not-God/not-Life/not-Happiness, an unending absence of anything good. Hell is the result of a free choice to decide on ‘not-God,’ and thus be in a state/place of eternal separation and misery.

Human Stewardship

I briefly mentioned stewardship earlier; in essence, what stewardship refers to is the power, authority, and responsibility that a being is granted over a specific thing(s). Humans, in Genesis, were granted stewardship over the world, with both the right to be its stewards and responsibility to be good stewards. Stewardship is a recurring theme in the Bible. Many tales speak of honorable stewards who seek prosperity for all peoples and the respectful care for their land; these stewards are greatly rewarded. Bad stewards who make life miserable for others and abuse their land come to a bad end for their actions.

Stewardship is tied to gifts, faculties, and powers that an individual or collective is meant to have. For humans, this includes math, science, logic, philosophy, governance, art, creativity, etc. Humans are supposed to seek to use these faculties to the best of their abilities to better love, understand, and care for creation (Knowledge and Understanding are both considered Gifts of the Holy Spirit). This is why, despite hiccups like Galileo, the Catholic Church has a long history of advocating the sciences, from Copernicus (a doctor of canon law and the father of heliocentrism) to Mendel (a friar and the father of genetics) to George Lemaître (a priest and the formulator of the Big Bang Theory). The modern university system was begun by the medieval church. Monks preserved the works of Aristotle and Plato, the legends of Beowulf and the Norse, and pretty much any ancient texts they could get their hands on. Philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas would expound on what the Greeks and Romans had once discussed. I could go on, but this is sufficient for a brief overview.

Since another reader brought it up, I’ll also touch briefly on the medieval customs regarding medicine, because it’s actually a fairly good representation of the principle of human gifts and faculties with regards to stewardship. The practice of herbalists and apothecaries acting as healers was commonplace in medieval Europe and, while some parts of early medicine was laughably wrong (much medical knowledge had been lost with Rome, and some of what had been preserved was wrong anyway), the underlying principle gives good insight into their mindset: God created an intelligible world, and within it there are many things which can help us care for each other and creation; by better understanding them through science and reason, we can better live in harmony. Practicing medicine was simply an exercise in practicing the gifts we were born into as humans. Thus, mixing up a natural brew to cure an ailment would simply be an extension of one’s inherent, innate faculties.

Supernatural

Now that the groundwork has been laid, let’s talk about supernatural powers. It has always been the case that humans have wielded supernatural power within the Judeo-Christian tradition. A quick perusal of the Bible will reveal such stories as Samson’s superstrength and Elijah calling down fire from heaven in the Old Testament, and numerous healings and exorcisms in the New Testament. Beyond the Bible, we see accounts of saints working miracles (ranging from healing and bilocation to calling down lightning) well into the modern era. By the same token, we hear about demon possessions, practice of the dark arts, and fire summoned through magic. So the question is, what’s the distinction?

Well, for starters, I’m going to point out that terminology can actually be one of the most confusing parts of this. ‘Thaumaturgy,’ for instance, has been used historically to refer to miracles worked by saints and to magic performed by witches. And that’s just in the Christian context. In the end, terminology can be deceptive and meanings can change, so I’m going to talk about the underlying principles rather than the words.

Firstly, let’s talk about Good supernatural power. God can grant humans to work supernatural works (commonly called ‘miracles’) ranging from superhuman feats of strength and precision to reading the hearts of others to healing to calling down fire. Sometimes it’s an isolated event; sometimes the person is regularly a miracle-worker/wonder-worker/thaumaturge. St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, for instance, was called ‘the Thaumaturgist.’ Wielding this power is totally acceptable, because its source is in Life and it is in line with harmony and the Grand Design.

Then there’s Evil supernatural power. If a person ever tries to wield a power that they don’t actually have granted to them, it’s bad news. This is because, if God hasn’t granted the power, there’s really only one other place to get it: hell. Or, to put it another way, Death. Whether a person goes out explicitly seeking to make a bargain with a devil or is simply trying to bring it about by their own power or even if another person invokes the power upon them doesn’t matter. If it isn’t supposed to be there, then it comes about from an unnatural and ultimately evil source. Good intentions don’t really matter, because the evil seed ultimately corrupts. For reference, consider Gandalf and the reason he gives Frodo as to why he can’t use the One Ring: it would corrupt him; he would want to use it for good, but through him it would work evil. This power which comes from Death has been called many things over the years, but in the Judeo-Christian context is most commonly (though not always) called simply ‘magic.’

Thus, powers that humans wield fall broadly into three categories: that which is natural for us (stewardship), that which is made natural for us and has its origins in Life (Good Supernatural/Miracles), and that which is taken unnaturally and is, by extension, separated from the Divine Life (Evil Supernatural/Magic). Thus, magic is not evil because it’s a supernatural power called ‘magic,’ it’s evil because it has an unnatural origin, which by extension means that it’s separated from God and the Divine Life, and thus comes from Death. If ‘magic’ were a term used to refer to miracles or to an innate power that a being was truly created with, then ‘magic’ would be good in that context.

Legends

Okay, so that was a lot to throw at you. But wait! It gets even more complicated!

You see, as I mentioned before, terminology changes all the time. With the various pagan tribes of Europe gradually converting to Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, we see a lot of terms for supernatural being used for both miracles and magic and the workers of both (remember thaumaturge?)

It gets even more confusing when you consider mythical beasts. Many were considered automatically evil because they had been brought about through magic (or were just straight-up demons). On the other hand, many mythical beasts were traditionally considered holy, even heaven-sent. In the catacombs of Rome, I frequently saw phoenix drawn on the walls because the phoenix was a symbol for the Resurrection. Unicorns, as I hinted at with one of Jacques’ internal monologues, were often thought of as being holy, specifically as a symbol of Jesus’ glory. Saint Basil makes this connection in his writings on Psalm 92:10:

“On the whole, since it is possible to find the word ‘horn’ used by Scripture in many places instead of ‘glory’, as the saying ‘He will exalt the horn of his people’ (Ps 148:14) and ‘His horn shall be exalted in glory’ (Ps 112:9), or also, since the ‘horn’ is frequently used instead of ‘power’, as the saying ‘My protector and the horn of my salvation’, Christ is the power of God; therefore, he is called the Unicorn on the ground that he has one horn, that is, one common power with the Father.” – Homilies on the Psalms 13.5

Medieval minds had many conflicting views on which mythical monsters fell into which camp, or if they fell into a camp at all rather than being regular animals.

Then we get into legends regarding humans. Let’s take a look at Arthurian Legends. In some tales, Merlin, the ally of Arthur, is half-demon! Seems odd, right? Well, not when you consider the context. One thing that must be remembered about Arthur is that there are as many different narratives as there are writers, and the tales reflect the concerns of the time. Le Morte de’Arthur was patterned on existing Arthurian legends in which Arthur and his knights were not exactly heroic figures. Legendary, yes, but seldom heroic, and what heroes there were often died tragically. This is because these Arthurian tales were written as criticisms of the emerging corruption and lecherous behavior amongst period nobles. The half-demon Merlin is a semi-recurring character in these tales, and one of his most prominent acts is to help Uther (Arthur’s father) to essentially rape Arthur’s mother by using his magic to make Uther look like her husband. Which is just all kinds of awful.

On the other end of the supernatural spectrum in Arthurian storytelling, we look to some of the earliest legends. In a good number of these, Arthur was a great warrior king who bore a shield painted with the Madonna and Child and a holy sword called Caliburn. With heaven-blest strength and these holy weapons he is said to have been able to kill men with a single blow and once slew 900 single-handedly in a battle.

Note that supernatural events occur in both sorts of tales, but that the origin of such power makes the difference between good/evil. Again, this general principle is a better guide than terminology alone.

History

I could get into a very, very lengthy list of noted Jewish and Christian miracle-workers, but I think a better use of our time would just be to simply give an example of how supernatural events have been differentiated one from the other by the Church in history.

Joan of Arc was a peasant girl from an insignificant village in France during the Hundred Years War. France was on the brink of losing after about 90 years of steady decline, and they needed a miracle. That miracle came in the form of Joan having visions from various angels and saints telling her that God had charged her with saving France. Naturally, people were suspicious that she was receiving visions from the devil or (more likely) was simply sick in the head. She appeared before a Church court and, after investigation, the clergy became convinced that her visions were genuine. She was given their blessing to go forth and do the work to which she’d been assigned.

Now, I’d love to go on about Joan of Arc, as she’s one of the most remarkable historical figures in history. As the only person (male or female) to ever be granted supreme command of the military forces of a country at seventeen in all of history (not counting monarchs and the like), her career was short but stunningly successful. She was so impressive as a figure of courage, integrity, and piety that Mark Twain (who infamously disliked both the French and Catholicism) wrote a novel about her that took twelve years of labor and which he considered to be his best and most important work. However, for the sake of brevity, I’ll move into the rest of why she’s significant to this conversation.

After a long string of victories that were called miraculous, Joan made a lot of enemies in the French court (and the English were none too happy with her either). She was betrayed into English hands, tried by a sham court of power-hungry French clergymen who’d been bought for the purpose, and burned at the stake under false pretext of unrepentant witchcraft.

There are unsettling parallels to what happened to the Templars, but I digress.

Joan’s name was ultimately cleared in a later investigation by a Church court which exposed the lies of the false trial, brought up as evidence her first trial (which had been deliberately omitted in the second trial), and affirmed the original decision that her visions were Divine in origin.

I bring this story up to further illustrate the point that what power a person has doesn’t really matter in itself; only where they got it from and by what authority they wield it.

Friendship is Magic

So… what does this all mean in the context of MLP? Well, quite simply, it means that there’s no reason that Jacques can’t fit in. Jacques is a trained exorcist. His job is to determine the origin of supernatural powers, much like the original court that tried Joan. As far as he is concerned, what the ponies call ‘common magic’ is simply a term for a natural power that is granted them as a part of their stewardship; it’s akin to what he would call science, natural faculties, or knowledge in the human world rather than the human definition of magic. He would likely be able to compare it to the human capacity for making medicine as an extension of their God-given faculties and powers. He might not like the fact that the term ‘magic’ is used, but he understands that the definition in each world is fundamentally different. Once he’s able to make that distinction, there’s nothing to stop him from acclimating.

Conclusion

If you take nothing else from this, here is the principle that I want to leave you with: shorthand terminology, like ‘miracle’ or ‘magic,’ can be useful for getting a general idea of whether something would be considered good or evil, since many terms are consistent over long periods of time. However, to truly drill down to what it would be considered in actuality, it is necessary to consider it in the context of where the power originated, what its purpose is, how and why it was obtained/given, etc. Terms can lie, so the underlying premise must be examined. Also, the Catholic Church has professionals explicitly created for this purpose. If you want to know if there’s been an official statement on a specific thing, just putter around the Vatican website or check out the works of the late Fr. Gabriele Amorth (the Vatican’s chief exorcist before his death). If it’s been officially examined, there’s almost certainly an official document you can find (though, depending on what country it was examined in, it might not be in English; I had to find audio versions of Amorth’s work that were dubbed when doing my research).

One of the best allegories for it is to just read Tolkien, quite honestly. The distinctions that he makes as to where power and authority come from and who has the right to wield them explores the principles that would be common to Catholicism, but through the lens of a unique world with multiple races and frequent supernatural events in play; ‘magic’ in that world resembles to MLP’s definition, making it a good point of comparison.

Hope that answers a few questions. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming. Happy reading!