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Over a Thousand Years Ago: Britain at the Founding of Hogwarts


We're told the founders built the castle. Well, castles didn't exist in Britain during the Saxon period (with or without plumbing!) There were no large stone buildings, excepting some churches.

Over a Thousand Years Ago: Britain at the Founding of Hogwarts

Both the Sorting Hat and Professor Binns say that Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago. Given our assumed timeline that places the books in the early to mid-1990s, that means that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry came into existence sometime in the 900s. The four founders, Rowena Ravenclaw, Helga Hufflepuff, Salazar Slytherin, and Godric Gryffindor, created a school which has stood for a millenium and has become one of the foremost wizarding schools in the world. But was Hogwarts always the way it is today? Did it always occupy a castle overlooking a lake in Scotland? Apparently so, since we are told that the founders built the castle and since Salazar Slytherin built his Chamber under the school, and it’s still there. And what about the language of Hogwarts? Is it possible that people in the north of Britain in the 900s learned and spoke Latin, which is apparently the language of magic? What was Britain like back then?

Just for the record, Britain–well, southern Britain anyway– became part of the Roman Empire in A.D. 43. How many people were educated enough to know Latin is a moot point. A date in the tenth century, or perhaps somewhat earlier, puts the founding of Hogwarts firmly into the Anglo-Saxon era, or Pictish in Scotland.

At that time, yes, the educated would know Latin (at least, after the arrival of Christianity). As far as women went, I would suggest that that would include only the daughters of nobility, educated privately (if at all) and nuns, also often of noble birth. (As a matter of interest, the school my daughter is about to move on to was founded in 604, but it didn’t admit girls until 1993!) I don’t know anything about witchcraft during the period, but I think it’s unlikely that practitioners of native magic would be Latin speakers.

But I think it’s a mistake to try to put Hogwarts’ founding into a Muggle historical context. We’re told the founders built the castle. Well, castles didn’t exist in Britain during the Saxon period (with or without plumbing!) There were no large stone buildings, excepting some churches. OK, there was the original Westminster Abbey, sometime in the 900s (built by a Frenchman) but nothing else substantial and certainly not in Scotland.

The names of the founders don’t ring true for the period, either. Gryffindor seems to be of French origin, more the sort of thing you’d get after the Norman Conquest, which was in 1066.

So it looks to me like we either just have accept what JKR says and not question it too closely, or assume that already there was a rift between magical and non-magical folks, which means that we don’t have to worry too much about how Helga and Rowena learned their Latin.

On a related note, it has been suggested that Latin is used for spells as it is a sort of lingua franca, allowing communication between wizards of different nationalities.

My Latin is somewhat rusty, but I would say that many of JKR’s spells aren’t so much Latin, as Latin-derived. She uses some very odd forms with no consistency. To me, she’s just playing with words in the same way she often does with names. We also have no evidence whatsoever that the students learn Latin, or any other language, come to that. I imagine too that over the years, magical practice developed and changed, so that perhaps when Hogwarts was founded, the spells may even have had different expressions and not have been in Latin. Do you discover a spell (do you have to find the magic words), or do you create it, embuing words with magical meaning in the process? Or are the words just a tool used for focussing one’s power? We see wordless, as well as wandless magic. But then Hermione corrected the pronunciation of Wingardium [what kind of a Latin word is that?] Leviosa, didn’t she, which implies that not only the word, but the way it is uttered is important.

Judging by the way we see magic work, it would seem that the exact words aren’t really as important as the right force of will, which the words help the mind to achieve. With that, it wouldn’t matter so much what you said as how strongly you believed that what you said would create the magical effect.

For Hogwarts to have been built in its current form (or as anything that we would recognise as a castle) in the 900s, magic must have been employed. And it is unlikely to have been disguised from the Muggles as a crumbling ruin with a ‘keep out’ notice, either. Some other form of magical protection would have been needed to hide so big and unusual an edifice.

But…If JKR says that the founders built a castle, fine, within the confines of this piece of literature, they did. However a lot of people reading Harry Potter will not realise that this is an anachronism. I’m tempted to ask whether the author herself realized this. If she did, does it have significance? I suspect not. I suspect she just liked the idea of the school being set in an ancient castle, just as she simply liked the idea of the students all going to school by train (even though many of them logically will have travelled further just to get to King’s Cross than they would have done if they’d gone directly to Hogwarts).

This anachronism suggests, to me at least, that we don’t have to worry too much about making the other details of the founding fit too much, either.

© 2002 E. D. Blanning


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Tags: history inconsistencies