Secretum secretorum - De Mirabilibus Mundi - Paradigm
Background for Ars Magica sagas

Ars Magica Storytelling and Paradigms

Initial sermon

Mailing lists after some time invariably begin to appear quaint to an outsider. People discussing over years a restricted set of subjects in front of a restricted forum tend to form their own set of codes. They also share some common experiences only alluded to and not easily deducible by newcomers. Such idiosyncrasies of the Ars Magica mailing list at Berkeley did appear when Jeremiah Genest embarked on his paradigm project the 8th of May.

For some reason buried in the past the mention of just the word 'paradigm' made appear a (self ?) appointed police force, caused at least one subscriber to inquire how to get out of the mailing list and be spared in an upcoming 'paradigm war', brought another to express his amazement that some people appeared to handle *that* subject civilly, and a totally new definition of paradigm, written with a big P, for which nobody claims responsibility (probably because you would have gotten laughed out of any philosophy course for it), did emerge from the mailing list's past.

With it surfaced fascinating pigeon holes like BDR or its opposite, whose name I have forgotten or was never mentioned. In short, the list reacted like a small medieval university did when someone mentioned its heretic professor, who illuminated the town square one fine evening twenty years ago.

I fear that at the root of this lies the inconsiderate use of the word 'paradigm' already in ArM3: 'Even in regard to their own paradigms many fantasy worlds don't hold together ..' (page 10, one of those that continuosly and ominously fall out of my copy). Well, there we have it all: poor, innocent kids who buy books with fancy covers are induced to believe that worlds have paradigms. And of course they begin to ponder what the paradigms of fantasy worlds might be, even if they do not understand what a paradigm is in the first place. I can imagine the rest and am glad that I were not present when the familiar hit the fan.

Hey, now what *is* a paradigm?

Of course the ArM3 phrase is aesfoetidia. Worlds do *not* have paradigms, neither with a big nor with a little P.

I wish to shortly sum up the early history of the concept, making clear in the process that the word was bound to cause some confusion among scholars, too.

It was introduced in 1962 in Thomas S. Kuhn: 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' (University of Chicago Press - many reprints and translations). Mind you, it is 'introduced', not

defined there - and it is the most frequently used noun in the book.

To partially remedy the lack of a proper definition, Kuhn in 1974 (!) published 'Second Thoughts on Paradigms' (in 'The Structure of Scientific Theories', conference notes by the University of Illinois, 1974). In this treatise Kuhn stresses the following two properties of 'paradigm', making it the defining feature of a scientific community - a group of people working on the same problems within the same context and with the same methods.

  1. A paradigm is "all that is common to all members of scientific community, and only to them". (to the benefit of the list I translate back from my german translation - some words may differ in the original.) It encompasses the problems worth to be tackled, the language to formulate them, the methods to solve the problems, the ways to teach the communities' concepts and the literature read by its members.

  2. A paradigm is "what explains the relatively unproblematic communication about technical issues within a scientific community, and its relatively unified technical judgements" (I wish I could contribute to the formation of a paradigm in the mailing list - 'relatively unproblematic communication' sounds like big progress).

Kuhn always stresses, that scientific communities in his sense exist on many levels: all natural scientists, all astronomers, all radio astronomers and also the followers of a specific theory form a scientific community. His concept hence leaves much room for the empirical determination of scientific communities. And of course he does *not* assume that these communities are monolithical 'one belief' structures.

When I will use 'paradigm' below I will include all the clergy, being nearly exclusively in charge of the dominant social paradigms around 1200, into the scientific communities observed. Because medieval villages often had their own views of life, and always their own methods to cope with its hardships - nobles and clergy rather being part of them than relief - I will at times

also speak of paradigms of the common man (read e.g. Le Roy Ladurie: Montaillou, village Occitan de 1294 a 1324, Gallimard Paris, 1975 for an example of intellectual and heretic village life).

History in Ars Magica

The standard background of Ars Magica is Mythic Europe, meant as a Europe as medieval as storytellers and troupe care to make it. If they don't go beyond high school texts and the Mythic Europe (TM) and Medieval Handbook (TM, too) supplements, and do not mind to branch into an alternative world once the campaign started, they do not have to worry about paradigms and can have lotsa fun. Lucky guys.

The trouble starts when you wish to introduce real medieval people, know the name of the bishop in charge at the time of the campaign in the covenant's diocesis, or just want to have a village cleric (PC or NPC) act like a real 13th century italian village cleric.

The trouble starts when you have a player who gets into a pretty real medieval character and does his own reading, generating a world view for this character. (The trouble starts, too, if you wish to base the research of your magi on 'the medieval paradigm' - again just aesfoetidia, the world view of an average medieval intellectual - no statistically relevant public opinion research available, or something like that. But that is not my subject.)

It is then that you find out, the hard way, that history is incomplete reconstruction and needs a lot of imagination to make it live again. Especially so because in Ars Magica you might throw angels, magi, faeries, unicorns, dragons and demons upon these more or less historical personalities, have them visit Arcadia, regios and the spirit world, and have to come up with their reactions.

Assume now that you decided beforehand that you will not let your campaign branch out into an alternative history but stick to ours, you must make sure that nothing happens which causes great turmoil among the people in mythic Europe - such as a reproducible proof that some of their fundamental believes are wrong.

It is here that Kuhnian paradigm helps you a lot.

Paradigms and Storytelling

From now on I assume you do not belong to the lucky guys from above.

For each group of people in your campaign you should roughly determine their basic believes, those which cause them to act how they do and how they must if the campaign is not to branch out to where you don't want it. These are indeed Kuhnian paradigms - and disproving or severely challenging them causes a paradigm shift which you don't want to happen among these people.

There are, of course, conflicting basic believes and paradigms. Probably you will have both jews and gentiles in your campaign, and you wish to avoid mass conversion of one side to the other. Hence you must obviously avoid any public or reproducible confutation of either group's basic believes - with or without the help of magic, regios, spirit world, miracles and the rest. (And note that a manifest proof for a 'tolerant' god accepting both religions is, in the middle ages, a confutation of both.)

In this way you will get a set of things that will and a set of things that will not work in your campaign. These more than any thing else will limit you as a storyteller in a historical Ars Magica campaign. If I recall it right, the quaint little tag BDR means 'Belief Defines Reality'. You can find out soon that the belief of medieval people was constitutive for the medieval world. Challenge it in an honest experiment of thought, like an Ars Magica campaign, and see to which alternative history it leads you. I am pretty sure that the limits of hermetic magic and the code of Hermes are explicitly invented with the intention to avoid undesirable paradigm shifts. They are a rather ingenious machine to have real history and magic coexist in a campaign.

Paradigm Shifts

Now assume you have the above taken to heart and run a campaign for some time. Then, doing your reading again, you find that the paradigms of your people are about to change during the next decade. Assume that the method to interpret the Holy Scripture will change, or the way to visualize the human body. (With the treatise on Ioachim de Flore I gave you an in depth example.) Do you have to change 'reality' now, or you will be no longer historical? No, reality did not enter into any of the arguments above at all. You take note what from now on, with the new paradigms accepted, must not or can happen in your campaign, and that could be it.

But it probably won't. Paradigm shifts are marvelous campaign devices. They can, but need not, be connected to a change of an underlying reality. If important, this change can be foreshadowed over many game sessions; it *can* be given a supernatural background - will of God, magical accident of global proportions etc.; this could be found out by the PC magi, and if found out early, would give them a tremendous advantage among the other covenants of their tribunal; in short, paradigm shifts are *the* stuff out of which you can make any number of plots for heroic intellectual types or those with True Faith.

You might find out, too, that by storytelling these paradigm shifts, and thereby looking at many facets of them, you get a better grasp on medieval world views yourself. A cathedral might be read quite differently if you can crossreference its sculptures and architecture to the examples of paradigm shifts given above.

Paradigms and Game 'Reality'

Paradigms are a concept of sociology and history of science. They serve to describe the relations among scientific communities, not the 'reality'. If a storyteller has to decide about something in the game, she can use dice, rule books, common sense, player psychology, paradigms and, last, her concept of medieval 'reality'. She will not always tell her players why she made a decision.

This is, because it would be a titanic and thankless job to get a consistent application of all these means of the storyteller. So, 'reality' in Ars Magica is a thing that only storytellers and authors worry about. In my opinion, a storyteller in a historical Ars campaign can subscribe to any 'reality' which medieval philosophy, theology, cosmology and science offer. He just has to make sure, that those historical persons thinking differently are *not* disproved in a way which would change history.

For me, Jeremiah Genest's Aristotelian cosmology works nicely as this kind of 'fallback reality', because:

  1. most of it it is developed and established only after the 1250s, well after the time of the usual Ars Magica campaigns - so *no* school of thought present in these campaigns owns the truth;
  2. it is well presented by Jeremiah;
  3. while I personally, as a campaign background, prefer the Platonic speculation of the 12th and 13th century to the Aristotelian consolidation at the end of the 13th century, I must admit that the former did not yield the consistent and stable cosmological results of the latter; (2) the big paradigm shift of my campaign leads straight to a pretty rational, aristotelian and thomistic world view.



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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest