A Sevenfold Medieval Magic System

This is a follow-up to a previous post in which I talked about using role-playing game rules to work out a magic system for my current work-in-progress. In that post, I described a magic system that works well with my conception of faery or supernatural beings, but then my story took an unexpected detour, and I realized I needed to flesh out how the magic of mortal practitioners works.

One thing I knew I wanted was something that felt like it could be at home in the same historical era from which I drew my faery folk—namely, the Renaissance/Elizabethan era. This was the era not only of witch trials but of alchemists and esoteric philosophers who dabbled in the arcane arts.

From an RPG point of view, the mechanics work pretty much the same. A hypothetical player spends a point of Refresh to buy the Arcane Magic skill. They can then build stunts off of that skill if they so choose.

There is, however, a twist in that Arcane Magic can be divided into a number of discrete disciplines. Each of these correspond to some aspect of magic at it was understood in Europe circa 1400–1700. Our hypothetical player can learn one of these disciplines for free; after that, he can only get more by buying them as stunts. A truly versatile wizard, therefore, must allocate most if not all of his or her “character build” into magic, with little room for other pursuits.

Here are the arcane disciplines I have in mind. In terms of the Fate Core system, each discipline works in conjunction with a different “supporting” skill:

Alchemy (Crafts) involves the transmutation of substances as preparatory to the “Great Work” of personal spiritual transformation.

Divination (Lore) is a technique of magical self-analysis and a help in learning the language of symbols. Using a divinatory device (a scrying bowl, runes, tarot cards, casting bones, etc.), the diviner sees the world from a higher perspective, from which he or she examines the probabilities of what may happen next.

Goety (Provoke) involves channeling one’s primal emotions in order to manifest the power and “will” of some cosmic force or entity to which the mage is beholden. (D&D calls this kind of mage a “warlock,” but with very little linguistic justification, in my opinion.)

Healing (Empathy) uses herbs, incantations, amulets, etc., to effect healing of mind, body, and spirit.

Spirit-Riding (Investigate) employs astral projection to gather information, attack enemies, or to engage in dealings with “otherworld folk”—either to make pacts with them to gain their supernatural assistance or to battle against those who threaten others.

Theurgy (Will) involves wending elemental forces to create tangible effects in the world: what most people understand as “magic.”

Witchcraft (Various skills) uses sympathetic magic to harness the magical potentialities of herbs, minerals, incantations, gestures, animal parts, and other objects to achieve practical results in areas such as dowsing, love and marriage, fertility, money, and so forth.

And no, I haven’t forgotten about Qabbalah. I envision it not as a distinct discipline, however, but as a Lore-based stunt permitting bonuses to roles involving magical research. (And the character I had in mind when I threw these ideas together is definitely a skilled Qabbalist.)

The Latin Word(s) for “Muggle”

Yesterday I offered a brief rant about the apparent absence of the French neologism moldu for “Muggle” in the new Fantastic Beasts movie. I’m fascinated by foreign languages, and several years back, when my daughter was at the height of her Harry Potter fascination, I became interested in how some of the unique magical terminology of the books translated into various other languages. Today, I’d like to share a little bit of what I found, and some conjectures I was able to make from it in terms of an original Latin word for “Muggle.”

Two factors make it difficult to arrive at a Latin word for “Muggle.” First, several modern translations of Harry Potter into the Romance languages simply leave the English word untranslated. Frustratingly, this is also the case with Peter Needham’s Harrius Potter et philosophi lapis. Second, among the translations that go to the trouble of inventing a vernacular equivalent, the forms are widely divergent.

In what follows, I’ve observed the following conventions:

  • Words found in official Harry Potter translations are in boldface: Romanian încuiat.
  • Conjectural words arrived at through linguistic principles are preceded by an asterisk: Sicilian *babbanu. My knowledge of some of these languages is quite limited, and I’m happy to concede I may have applied the necessary sound changes incorrectly.
  • Conjectural words where the etymological root is itself open to debate are preceded by an asterisk and followed by a question mark: Norman French *muguel?

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Eastern Romance Languages

The Romanian word for “Muggle” is încuiat, an archaic form of încuia, meaning “ignorant.” This, in turn, comes from Latin incuneatus, “wedged in,” hence “narrow(-minded)” or “ignorant.” We might propose an original sense of “ignorant of magic” or something similar.

Italo-Romance Languages

In Italian, we find the word babbano for a non-magical person. This word is suggestive of babbeo, “fool, idiot,” deriving from Latin balbus, “stammering, stuttering, fumbling.” A hypothetical Late Latin form *balbanus most likely lies behind babbano and might suggest incompetence at uttering incantations or casting spells.

Presumably the terms in Sicilian, Venetian, and other Italo-Romance languages are cognate to Italian babbano.

Gallo-Romance Languages

Harry Potter has been translated into two Gallo-Romance languages: Catalan and French. As far as I know, all translations into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (such as Catalan) use the English word “muggle.” These languages will be considered in the next section.

In French, we find the word moldu, as I noted in my previous post. It is ultimately derived from Old French mol, meaning “soft” or “limp.” It is also vaguely possible that moldu was influenced by Proto-Celtic *meldo-, meaning “soft,” “humble,” or “mild-mannered.” The Gaulish form, used during Roman times, would be *moldos.

At any rate, in most of medieval France, the word for Muggle would have been moldu. We might, however, hypothesize that the Norman French dialect had a word something like *muguel, of Germanic origin.

The word in Occitan, spoken in the southern part of France, is most likely cognate to the indigenous Catalan term, whatever that should be.

Ibero-Romance Languages

In Brazilian Portuguese, we find the slang term trouxa, “gullible, sucker.” This word is related to Old Spanish troja or troxa “load, burden,” and only serves as a synonym for Muggle because of its colloquial secondary meaning.

Translations of Harry Potter into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (Spanish, Catalan, and Iberian Portuguese) all use the word muggle. There doesn’t seem to be anything to gain by second-guessing the translators. They tell us that muggle is a perfectly acceptable Catalan, Spanish, or Portuguese word, so let’s take them at their word. For whatever reasons, these three languages have adopted the English term as a loanword and accept it as part of their indigenous vocabulary, much as Spanish speakers have also adopted Anglicisms like bisteca (“beefsteak”), fútbol (“football”), parking (“parking lot/car park”), etc. Perhaps in time, the spelling of “muggle” will be altered to conform to local conventions (e.g., in Spanish, it might become something like *móguel or *múguel).

But what did Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan-speaking wizards call non-magical persons before adopting this English world? Almost certainly, it was a local derivative of one of the Latin words discussed above: mollis, *balbanus, or incuneatus. Since Spanish is often closer to Italian than to French, *balbanus-forms are most likely, though we can’t really rule out mollis-forms. I suspect incuneatus-forms would be highly unlikely, however.

Furthermore, given the precedent of French moldu, if the Ibero-Romance languages settled on a mollis-form, they may well have added an augmentative or pejorative suffix to their vernacular terms (Spanish muelle, Portuguese mole, Catalan moll, etc.). In Spanish, the Romance language with which I’m most familiar, the range possibilities is quite impressive: mollón, mollote, mollejo, mollucho, etc.


Here, then, are my best guesses for the local indigenous words for a non-magical person in various Romance languages, either attested in published translations or proposed on linguistic bases.

Eastern Romance
Romanian: încuiat

Italian: babbano
Sicilian: *babbanu

Lombard: *bauban
Venetian: *babban

—Langues d’oc
Catalan: muggle (originally *balba? *mollo?)
Occitan: *balban? *molon? (or *moldu?)

—Langues d’oïl
French (Norman): *muguel?
French (Standard): moldu

Asturian: *muggle? (originally *balbanu? *mollón?)

Galician: *muggle? (originally *balbano? *molón?)
Portuguese (Brazil): trouxa (originally *balbão? *molão?)
Portuguese (Portugal): muggle (originally *balbão? *molão?)

Spanish: muggle (originally *balbano? *mollón? [*mollote, etc.?])

To conclude, there are three good candidates for the “original” Latin word for a non-magical person, incuneatus, *balbanus, and mollis. Incuneatus has the advantage of being an actual, attested Latin word. Mollis is also attested, but would seem to have a common enough meaning as to require some sort of modification (such as the French ending –du) to make it serve as a technical term. Similarly, balbus is an attested word modified by the adjectival ending–anus to form *balbanus.

At least to me, incuneatus has the least pejorative connotation. Perhaps we can propose a Classical Latin incuneatus and later, less “sophisticated” Vulgar Latin forms based on mollis and balbus. There are many other examples where Latin has both a “proper” and one or more “slang” words for the same thing: equus and caballus (“horse”), caput and testa (“head”), capsa, buxus, and scatula (“box”), etc. Romance languages draw their vocabulary sometimes from one side of the lexical pool and sometimes from the other.

The French Word for “Muggle”

Apparently, the second Fantastic Beasts movie, set in France, reveals that the French word for Muggle is “non-magique.” In other words, “non-magical.” This makes me très, très triste.

That’s because there has already been a canonical French word for Muggle for many years: moldu. That, at least, is how the term was translated in French editions of the Harry Potter books.

What’s a moldu, you ask? It’s a neologism—and a darn good one! The mol– element is most likely derived from Latin mollis, “soft,” by way of Old French mol, “soft, limp.” But what about the –du? I think it’s most likely a slang suffix, perhaps slightly pejorative, but not as much as other possible terms such as *molasse or *molard might be.

In other words, the French translations of Harry Potter invented a new word that means something like “softy” and used it for Muggles.

And this is actually very similar to the original English word in meaning. English “Muggle” is a good Germanic word with an ancient pedigree—which makes the American term no-maj all the more exasperating! Muggle’s Germanic origin is evidenced not only by its phonology and likely etymology but also by the fact that most other Germanic languages use a cognate term, to judge by their translations of the Potter books.

The element mug– appears in a number of English words, both historically and today. “Mug” is a slang term for a dupe or a fool. A “muggins” is a simpleton. “Muggle” as used by wizards is possibly related to Old Norse mjukr, “soft, pliant,” but almost certainly to be derived ultimately from Proto-Germanic *meukaz (cf. Gothic *muka, “soft, humble”). It is etymologically related to the word “meek.”

The –le at the end is most likely a diminutive suffix (cf. –l, –ele-, –le, –li, –lein, etc. in High German dialects). I believe Rowling has in fact stated in an interview that she added this suffix in order to make the word “more cuddly.”

So, once again, we end up with a literal meaning something like “softy,” with a slang suffix attached—though this time to make the term somewhat less pejorative.

As I noted, almost all Germanic languages use a cognate term: German Muggel, Danish muggler, etc. We can fairly safely propose an early Northwest Germanic word *mugga or *muggel, which becomes *muggel in Old English, a thousand or more years ago.

Two Germanic languages apparently developed slang terms that eventually became mainstream. In Dutch, we find dreuzel, perhaps related to treuzel (“slow person”), and the Norwegian word is gomp, of uncertain derivation (cf. Old Norse *gumpr, “buttock, rump”?).

I know Ms. Rowling gets to write her stories however she wants, but would it kill her to examine the work her (contracted, authorized) translators have already done?

Zut alors!