So a couple of weeks ago I was writing about the argument that showing elves/mutants/cyborgs/metahumans as a discriminated minority is a bad idea for various reasons. And I said that discrimination against mages or witches fit into a different category as it’s not racial or really a metaphor for race. People in Europe have a long history of burning or otherwise killing witches; in some parts of Africa, people are persecuted today for witchcraft (whether that’s the best translation for it); and in the US the fear of Satanists Among Us is alive and well (and people have gone to jail for being part of nonexistent Satanic child-molester rings). So I don’t think making “mage” an oppressed minority is all that implausible.
Yet at the same time, I almost never enjoy seeing stories that involve persecuted mages hunted by the holy church or torch-wielding mobs or whatever in this setting does the hunting. And I realized that’s partly because in fiction it often is treated as a racial thing: magic is an innate, mutant-like talent and the humans react to it like the classic “mutie hater” in X-Men.
That’s not really how it happens. Witchcraft and wizardry in European tradition (beyond Europe I’m not confident enough to opine) aren’t things you are but things you do. Lots of people claimed to be witches, conjure folk or a “cunning man”, and many of them were tolerated/admired/feared in their community for years before things blew up. Not because they’d suddenly discovered Goody Pringle or the Widow Smith was a witch but because they’d supposedly done something that went beyond the pale. In Europe, it was typically that they’d allegedly signed a pact with Satan or attended the sabbat; in England, it was usually that they’d performed maleficium, actually used magic to harm someone. Cover by Cardy, all rights remain with current owner.
That isn’t to suggest that the witch-hunters were right, or reasonable. Ultimately they killed hundred of people — British “witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins played a role in 400 witch convictions — none of whom had magical powers. Witch-hunters are much, much more dangerous than witches and kill far more people. The same way that while Satanists molesting or abusing children would be a horrifying thing, it never happened. Mike Warnke did not participate in human sacrifice. The 1990s campaign against Satanism destroyed far more lives than any Satanists around at the time did (so if you’re writing about magic of some sort in the real world, please avoid stories where, say, there really were Satan-worshipping witches at Salem)
Even Christianity’s attitude to magic has changed over time. For the first millennium or so, the Catholic Church considered claims that magic worked or that someone could summon a demon to curse you to be heretical — no-one but God and his chosen agents could perform such wonders! This changed. One theory is that after the Inquisition began hunting heretics, it soon found there weren’t enough heresies to stamp out. So they went after witches, much the same way some police departments will use SWAT equipment on routine calls because SWAT class emergencies don’t happen that often.
So if there are laws against witches, they may not constitute an absolute ban on magic. Or any ban on magic, rather than the abuse of magic. A midwife/cunning woman who’s known and liked by everyone may have no troubles — but if there’s a problem with one of the births she attends, that could change (check out the 1996 The Crucible film, which captures perfectly how grudges and slights can trigger accusations of witchcraft).
I think there’s more story potential in a complicated response to magic than the kind of mindless idiocy Monty Python and the Holy Grail sent up so well.