Harry Potter and a Look at Hogwarts in History

I’m a Harry Potter fan.  I might as well just put it out there.  I love the characters around the main group, such as Professor Binns–who is beyond perfect!  J.K. Rowling studied Greek, Latin and French, so she has a sense of history… and, obviously, of history teachers.  Professor Binns, the only ghost teaching at Hogwarts, is emblematic of the sort of history teacher no one can stand having as he drones on and on, seemingly enchanting the students with drowsiness, running through the names and dates of History of Magic.

In the books, Professor Binns figures most prominently in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (although, thanks to Hermione’s diligence, she saves the day and improves the lives of countless magical creatures with information she carefully excavates from the sawdust dribbling from the ghost’s mouth).  In the second book of the Harry Potter series, a menace is unleashed within the castle and its origins go all the way back to the school’s founding.  For the first time in all his time teaching, as wizard or ghost, he is suddenly the object of intense attentiveness when he is interrupted for the first time by a student’s raised hand, (and, it should be noted that he meets this unusual occurrence with discomfort, instead of relief!).  It is Hermione’s hand and she is asking about the Chamber of Secrets.

Professor Binns, glancing up in the middle of a deadly dull lecture on the International Warlock Convention of 1289, looked amazed.


“Granger, Professor.  I was wondering if you could tell us anything about the Chamber of Secrets,” said Hermione in a clear voice…

Professor Binns blinked.

“My subject is History of Magic,” he said in a dry wheezy voice.  “I deal with facts, Miss Granger, not myths and legends.”  He cleared his throat with a small noise like chalk snapping and continued, “In September of that year, a subcommittee of Sardinian sorcerers–”

He stuttered to a halt.  Hermione’s hand was waving in the air again.

“Miss Grant?”

“Please, sir, don’t legends always have some basis in fact?”

Professor Binns was looking at her in such amazement, Harry was sure no student had ever interrupted him before, alive or dead.

“Well,” said Professor Binns slowly, “yes, one could argue that, I suppose.”  He peered at Hermione as though he had never seen a student properly before.  “However, the legend of which you speak is such a very sensational, even ludicrous tale–”

But the whole class was now hanging on Professor Binns’s every word.  He looked dimly at them all, every face turned to his.  Harry could tell he was completely thrown by such an unusual show of interest.

“Oh very well,” he said slowly.  “Let me see . . . the Chamber of Secrets . . .

“You all know, of course, that Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago–the precise date is uncertain–by the four greatest witches and wizards of the age.  The four school Houses are named after them: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin.  They built this castle together, far from prying eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution.”

~ pg.149-150, Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets, Rowling

The venerable professor has more to say on the subject of the Chamber of Secrets, but not on Hogwarts history.  So, there are some interesting tidbits, here.  He says that the school was founded over a thousand years ago, but the precise date is unknown.  I am going to borrow from an interview, here, in which Rowling says, “Logically [Hogwarts] had to be set in a secluded place, and pretty soon I settled on Scotland in my mind.”  This makes sense and is pretty much how I thought of it’s setting–so, kudos to Rowling for her description–especially with the weather and the loch.

The books begin in the ’90s, so “over a thousand years old” means right around or before 990.  Hogwarts is, thus, older than Oxford University (teaching had existed at the site as of 1096, but it is in 1167 after Henry II bans English students from attending the University of Paris that it really begins to develop–I’m sorry to say it is regarded as a bit of backwater in continental Europe for quite a while–and in 1231 it was recognized as a universitas) and the University of Paris (which had been a major hub of learning for years before it received an official foundation from the Church in 1200, having already produced some of Europe’s brightest minds, and would remain an important intellectual center for sometime after that)–and, for the record, also precedes the University of Salamanca (1218/1254), University of Bologna (1088/1158), University of Padua (already established by 1222) and the University of Cambridge (1209/1231).  These are universities, of course, and so are aimed at older students, starting around 15 and 16.

We infer from Professor Binns that the house system is implemented at the school’s founding.  This proves the school is ahead of its time, as British public schools (with the house system) are centuries away at this point . . . perhaps an intrepid wizard was so fascinated by muggles that he became involved in public education–this might account for certain similarities between early soccer and rugby games with Quidditch!  Such formalized education does not exist at the time of Hogwarts’s founding in the European muggle world.  (There are “schools”, of course, though they are tied to one religious institution or another and not set up with the organization implied by the presence of the houses, but maybe the system had yet to fully evolve even at Hogworts.)

We don’t know much about Scotland, at this time, because we don’t have many sources.  We do know a fair bit about what is going on in England roughly in the period during which we place the castle’s founding.  Professor Binns says that the founders built the castle far from prying eyes because it was a time of persecution as the common people feared magic.  Alas, Professor Binns is not very convincing, here.  It is possible a strong bishop or abbot was bent on driving the the magic out of some particularly obvious witches or wizards, but this is not actually an era remarkable for its persecution.  It does stand out for its invasions, however.  England (Scotland, included) was an island under siege for centuries.  Romans came, then left, next Angles and Saxons came, followed by Jutes and Danes and Vikings, themselves followed by various peoples descended from Vikings, coming from various Scandinavian kingdoms and finally the Normans.  The Anglo-Saxons are fairly well in control once they establish their kingdoms until 1066, but they are spending a lot of time defending land from foreign invaders and occasionally losing bits, such as York.  The period of invasion is rather at its most intense from the 9th century through William the Conqueror.  During the time of the founding, it is more likely that the intrepid Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw were trying to avoid defending and marauding armies as opposed to peasants with pitchforks and fire brands.

In other words, I am inclined to call “Codswallop!” on Professor Binns, but as he has been dead for a while he may not have been up on the latest research.  Besides, his lectures were always read from notes and it is possible he misspoke having been caught off guard and put so unexpectedly on the spot!  There is no doubt, however, that a period of persecution was to come, so maybe with their four powers combined the founders were anticipating dark times.  Deviant behavior of a wide variety starts to become very unpopular in the 13th century, but it really picks up in the 14th.  Most of these, however, have to do with sex or religion.

Meanwhile, alchemy and astrology will become important fields in the Medieval period until they come under attack from the Enlightenment (even as scholars from the Enlightenment will continue to use many of the techniques pioneered by these “hucksters”, and still in use, today).  Harry comes into direct contact with the object of every alchemist’s desires: the Philosopher’s [Sorcerer’s] Stone (it was changed for Americans . . . I’m not really sure why, but there you go).  There were some dicey periods when being different could definitely be dangerous, but one’s political loyalties and creed were definitely more likely to run one into trouble.  (Disease could also earn one rather rough treatment, but not always or in every case.)  Joan of Arc is burned as a witch by the English because she is French and a symbol for the enemy’s armies–in France, after her death, she is quickly pushed forward for canonization as a martyr guided by God.

It is not until the Early Modern period where one truly sees a concerted effort to burn witches–yes, after the Enlightenment is already underway–Americans will recall that famous epoch of trials and executions in colonial Salem.  That’s truly the time when British wizardry would have been determined to avoid muggles and life would have been risky.  This is 6-700 years hence, but perhaps the four founders knew some congenial centaurs who felt less cramped by modern English settlements and were more forthcoming about what the stars told them.  Well, maybe Helga Hufflepuff knew them; it is difficult to conceive Slytherin liking them much, but maybe he did–perhaps, the his legacy was twisted in the development of the myth, enhanced by an unfortunate tendency for his house to draw practitioners of the Dark Arts.  After all, according to dusty Professor Cuthbert Binns (an Anlgo-Saxon first name, by the way, but only revealed on Rowling’s website) there is nothing to support his involvement in the historical record:

“For a few years, the founders worked in harmony together, seeking out youngsters who showed signs of magic and bringing them to the castle to be educated.  But then disagreements sprang up between them.  A rift began to grow between Slytherin and the others.  Slytherin wished to be more selective about the students admitted to Hogwarts.  He believed that magical learning should be kept within all-magic families.  He disliked taking students of Muggle parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy.  After a while, there was a serious argument on the subject between Slytherin and Gryffindor, and Slytherin left the school.”

Professor Binns paused again, pursing his lips, looking like a wrinkled old tortoise.

“Reliable historical sources tell us this much,” he said.  “But these honest facts have been obscured by the fanciful legend of the Chamber of Secrets.  The story goes that Slytherin had built a hidden chamber in the castle, of which the other founders knew nothing.

“Slytherin, according to the legend, sealed the Chamber of Secrets so that none would be able to open it until his own true heir arrived at the school.  The heir alone would be able to unseal the Chamber of Secrets, unleash the horror within, and use it to purge the school of all who were unworthy to study magic.”

… Professor Binns looked faintly annoyed.

“The whole thing is arrant nonsense, of course,” he said.  “Naturally, the school has been searched for evidence of such a chamber, many times, by the most learned witches and wizards.  It does not exist.  A tale told to frighten the gullible.”

Perhaps, the real culprit merely implicated Salazar Slytherin by association and, like Lucius Malfoy, but more powerful and darker, continued his life as a reasonably respectable wizard in a chaotic period.  Afterall, the chamber was said to have been built into the castle at its founding, but it is revealed to be connected to the plumbing!  Besides castles on the order of Hogwarts don’t arrive in England until William the Conqueror builds them to quell the population, suggesting Hogwarts, the physical institution, had more humble origins.  Maybe it is one of history’s great frame-ups!



Filed under Historian's Journal

2 responses to “Harry Potter and a Look at Hogwarts in History

  1. Pingback: Tired after Tuesday « Oddly Said

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Posts that don’t make the Top Ten | Brush off the dust! History now!

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