Fantasy vs. Reality

Separating fact from fiction in our understanding of the medieval world.

Game of Thrones

Grimdark Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire

Read more about Game of Thrones, medievalism, and grimdark fantasy in Shiloh’s new book, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones! Order your copy from Boydell & Brewer or Amazon today! 


As I wrote back in November, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has been celebrated—by Martin himself as well as by some reviewers, fans, and even a few scholars—as a more-historically authentic take on medievalesque fantasy. But, it simply isn’t. And more than that, believing that it is can lead to some awful conclusions about the medieval past and the present.

In my previous article, I discussed how Martin’s “all-white” Westeros (I called it A Song of White People and Fire) was bunk. And more, that believing it to be true was both easy and toxic:

The problem is the feedback loop. Martin argues that a primarily white Middle Ages is historically accurate. This leads some of his readers to believe that Westeros is an accurate depiction of the Middle Ages (because Martin says it is). Thus, anything Martin writes is an accurate depiction of the Middle Ages. This is, of course, all based on what the reader “feels” the Middle Ages was like, and much of this “feeling” comes from reading medievalist fantasy. Of course, many readers push back against this, arguing for a more nuanced view of the Middle Ages, or (as I have here) that medievalist fantasy is not historical fiction. But reading critically and against the text can be very difficult, and often the loudest voices in the room are from those who refuse to interrogate their preconceived notions.

But there is much more to discuss than Martin’s take on race. Another area in which Martin’s view of the medieval world, as reflected in his books, conflicts with reality in toxic ways is through its hyper-violence. Why does Martin’s especially brutal view of the Middle Ages appeal so much to people in the modern world?

“Fantasy for People Who Hate Fantasy”

George R. R. Martin’s particular flavor of medievalism—meaning, his overarching way of reimaginging the Middle Ages—is violent, dark, brutal, and relentlessly masculine. Martin certainly isn’t alone in doing this. In a 1986 essay called “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” Italian medievalist and author Umberto Eco invented ten categories of medievalisms. Martin’s medievalism is what Eco calls “Barbaric Age” medievalism, which he describes as “Dark par excellence,” a medievalism that celebrates “virile, brute force” and “the glories of a new Aryanism.” More recently, Amy Kaufman calls it a “muscular medievalism” that “imagines the past as a man’s world in which masculinity was powerful, impenetrable, and uniquely privileged.”

Martin’s Middle Ages were terrible for everyone. Children are orphaned, women are constantly subject to the threat of rape, the common folk suffer as the nobility fight among themselves, and the only way to have any sort of power is through physical violence. In Westeros, Martin has created a patriarchal society with a brand of masculinity so toxic that no one—not even men—escape from it unscathed. He’s even turned toxic masculinity up to eleven.

Part of Martin’s mission is to debunk the idea of chivalry. This on its own isn’t necessarily a problem. “Chivalry,” as a universal code to protect the weak and uphold the law is mostly a myth, anyway. As Richard Kaeuper puts it in his excellent book Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe:

[W]e must not forget that knighthood was nourished on aggressive impulses, that it existed to use its shining armour and sharp-edged weaponry in acts of showy and bloody violence.

But Martin perhaps goes too far the other way, counteracting a rosy vision of the past with one covered in mud. In the books, any knight foolish enough to be a true believer in chivalry is doomed.

A Song of Dead Knights and Murdered Chivalry

Poor, poor Sansa.

The longest-suffering victim of the chivalry delusion is Sansa Stark. She starts the series as a doe-eyed eleven-year-old who believes fully in the stories of heroic knights and gracious ladies. These beliefs blind her to the realities of the court intrigue she is doomed to encounter, and causes her to suffer at the hands of the sheer awfulness of Cersei and Joffrey Lannister.

Her naiveté is punished with imprisonment, the death of her father, psychological torture, physical abuse, and sexual assault. Her betrothed, Joffrey, appears to be a handsome prince at first. And Joffrey knows it, and thus manipulates her through her delusions about chivalry. When the veneer crumbles, he taunts her for it, assuring her that if their children are as stupid as she is, he’ll “chop off [her] head and find a smarter wife.”

Sansa’s naïveté also puts her in physical and sexual jeopardy: it is only by Tyrion’s intervention that she is kept from being stripped naked and beaten in front of the court on Joffrey’s orders. When Joffrey eventually casts her aside, he threatens to rape her whenever he feels like it.

Over the course of A Feast for Crows (as well as the “Alayne” sample chapter from the ever-forthcoming The Winds of Winter) Sansa is shown transforming into a keen political mind. But she’s doing it under the tutelage of a much older man who has creepy sexual interest in her because of his years-long obsession with her mother.

Jamie Lannister, chivalry fallen from grace.

Jaime Lannister is another of chivalry’s victims. He initially strove to be a chivalric hero, having grown up and trained under legendary figures like Arthur Dayne (“the Sword of the Morning”) and Gerold Hightower. The villains of his childhood were the Robin-Hood-like Kingswood Brotherhood, with their colorful names such as Wenda the White Fawn, Big-Belly Ben, and the Smiling Knight. Yet Jaime becomes so disillusioned by court politics and oaths made to imperfect men that he eventually kills his own king:

So many vows . . . They make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.

Jaime loses the respect of everyone around him, due to their chivalric expectations of him. Later, he loses his sword hand, the symbol of his knighthood. But as a male character, Jaime escapes worse sorts of torture and manipulation that Sansa endures. Instead, he wises up and rejects the myth of chivalry on his own.

A Savage Beast in Every Man

The disturbing implication of all of this brutality presented under the banner of “realism” is that it implies that a fictional world is more “real” if the men in it are violent rapists.

In the books, rape is expected in nearly every interaction between men and women, especially if the man has any kind of physical power. For example, Cersei Lannister assures Sansa Stark that if the keep where they’re hiding during the Battle of the Blackwater is breached,

most of my guests are in for a bit of rape, I’d say. And you should never rule out mutilation, torture, and murder in times like these.

When Brienne and Jaime are captured by the Bloody Mummers, Brienne is constantly threatened with rape (despite her size, strength, and prowess with a sword). Only Jaime’s intercession prevents a sexual assault. And despite rescuing Brienne, Jaime still sees rape as an inevitable aspect of war. In his experience,

Men [. . .] would kill at their lord’s command, rape when their blood was up after battle, and plunder wherever they could, but once the war was done, they would go back to their homes, trade their spears for hoes, wed their neighbor’s daughters, and raise a pack of squalling children.

Rape is a hallmark of Kaufman’s “muscular medievalism.” Almost no other facet of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is defended as vigorously with cries of “historical realism” by Martin and his fans. Comment threads on the topic are full of people who insist that people who are horrified by the amount of rape and violence in Westeros should “get over it” because “that’s just how it was back then.” Even Martin argues that rape is necessary to his story he’s telling, especially in times of war:

When I read history books, rape is a part of all these wars. There’s never been a war where it wasn’t, and that includes wars that are going on today. It just seems to me that there’s something fundamentally dishonest if you write a war story and you leave that out.

But rape is not just a part of war in Martin’s world. The threat of rape or actual rape happens constantly, even when battle and war are not factors. It’s so expected, in fact, that Sansa is surprised when Tyrion doesn’t rape her on their wedding night; it’s clear that the reader is supposed to admire him for his restraint rather than expecting that a woman would be treated with respect by default.

Rape and Violence in Game of Thrones

In Game of Thrones, even consensual relationships are turned into rape.

The HBO show takes the grimdark patriarchal brutality of A Song of Ice and Fire to another level. Consensual sex scenes—one between Daenerys and Drogo and one between Jaime and Cersei—were changed into rape scenes. And off-page rape scenes involving minor characters were amplified by putting them onscreen, and by transferring them to Sansa, where they could be acted out live. The showrunners defend these choices by claiming that they are creating a realistic Middle Ages through their depictions of violence and sexual assault. They also claim to be accurately representing Martin’s books, even when they aren’t.

HBO’s darkening of Martin’s vision of the past isn’t just a series of errors. It’s a feedback loop of medievalism in popular culture. When violence is seen as somehow more “serious” and “realistic” than other approaches, the cruel, barbaric fantasy view of the medieval world is amplified for cable television. It seems to become even more “real,” but actually just brings an already grimdark fantasy story closer to a genre like horror.

Game of Horrible Rapes and Tortures

Don’t get me wrong: A Song of Ice and Fire depicts an amazingly dense, layered world and a fascinating overall story. But its problems come from the barbaric medievalism Martin infused into his construction of Westeros. Martin has argued that his brutal version of the past is an antidote to what he calls the “Disneyland” or “Ren Faire” Middle Ages of other writers. Worse, he feels this has given the fantasy genre a reputation as “entertainment for children or particularly slow adults.”

Perhaps he is right. Perhaps one of the reasons Game of Thrones is so popular is because it makes us feel like adults, or like savvy viewers, by rejecting so violently a Disneyfied version of the past.

But Martin’s darker view of the past isn’t more real. Just because something is edgy doesn’t mean it’s true; as many of the articles here at The Public Medievalist have shown, there was a lot more to the Middle Ages than war, violence, whiteness, and sexism.

What does it say about modern readers and viewers that we’re ready to buy in to such a dark vision of the medieval past? Perhaps our fascination with barbaric medievalism lets us offload our own social problems onto a time period so far behind us that it’s practically alien. We can feel superior to those dirty, backwards medieval people. And we can feel safe in our own modern mythology of progress and decency, quietly ignoring any similarities George R. R. Martin’s world has with our own.

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Fantasy vs. Reality

Solving the Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist

Back in May I published an article here about the one-handed military flail that got a little bit of attention. And by “a little bit of attention”, I mean that it got about 200,000 unique page views. It wasn’t Kim-Kardashian’s-butt level of breaking the internet, but it sure broke me a little.

And obviously this brought a lot of commenters as well, some with thoughtful, incisive criticisms (though to be expected, some… not so much). I took the good-faith comments into consideration and set about improving my ideas, and turning over other rocks looking for the real origins of the one-handed military flail. For example, it helped me realize that the real issue isn’t that the weapon is impractical to the point of nonsense (though it sure is), the issue is that the only ones that exist are a scant few very-late medieval manuscript images and a few museum pieces that were either never meant for the battlefield or nineteenth-century fakes. Whether or not the weapon might have worked is irrelevant when faced with the fact that there’s no proof that it was ever actually a thing.

But, I’ve found one possible origin story for the weapon. I’ll give you a spoiler—while it was certainly a weapon that never existed in the forms we are most familiar with today, there is an answer to be found on the steppes of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Mongolia.

And thanks to the good people over at Medieval Warfare Magazine, I’ve had another crack at it. Check out my article—“The medieval weapon that never existed: The military flail” in their latest issue. It’s also chock full of articles on (in-no-way-relevant-to-today) subjects like the violent popular uprisings of the 16th century by none other than Kelly DeVries. Go check it out!

Medieval Warfare vi 6

Importantly, I want to thank Nickolas Dupras of Northern Michigan University for his help analyzing the extant flails, and Zsuzsanna Reed Papp and Andrei Octavian Fărcaș, both of Central European University, for introducing me to the Eastern European context for these weapons! And thanks, finally, to all those who read, shared, and commented on the original article. It makes me incredibly excited to see that there is so much interest in uncovering the mysteries of the medieval world!

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Fantasy vs. RealityMuseums and Heritage

The Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist

Editor’s Note: Since posting this, I’ve done more research and updated my thoughts on this subject in an article for Medieval Warfare magazine. Check it out here.

Just about everybody interested in the Middle Ages, who has played Dungeons and Dragons, or read historical and fantasy novels knows what a military flail is. It’s one of these: (more…)

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Fantasy vs. RealityPast and PresentWhat is History For?

This Conspiracy will Put Medievalists Out of a Job! (No, it won’t…)

Engaging with the public directly puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people. In the public lectures and museum work that I’ve done, I have met a large number of really compelling people, most of whom are more knowledgeable and passionate about history than the professoriate would fear.

But, as any public historian will tell you, occasionally you encounter a fun one.

One of mine occurred during the Q&A section of a public lecture I gave several years ago on the depiction of Robin Hood in film and television. In the back of the room, a perfectly normal-seeming man stood up and, with a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t quite place, asked me a question that I won’t soon forget:

“What if it’s all a lie?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t quite know what to do with that question.

He then launched into a monologue describing a bizarre theory—one which I have come to find out is not just his own—that concludes simply: the Early Middle Ages did not exist.

This man was describing to me (and a group of increasingly confused audience members) the Phantom Time Hypothesis. In short, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, developed and promoted by journalist Heribert Illig and historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, posits that the historical period between 600AD and 900AD simply didn’t exist.

It’s a fascinating load of crap. (more…)

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Fantasy vs. RealityGames and The InternetUncategorized

Banished: The Medieval Game that Isn’t

One of the most venerable genres of computer games is the city-building simulator. SimCity is the great-granddaddy of them all, of course, and many kids in my generation wasted plenty of recess hours hunched over a computer program which, somehow, managed to make urban planning and civic zoning fun.

SimCity’s breakout success made its makers at Maxis a household name among many gamers. And Maxis went on to launch a number of sequels (though the shambolic failure of the most recent iteration has threatened to derail its future), as well as a number of other Sim-games (SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, SimFarm). Other companies also took up the mantle, often asking their players to build cities in exciting historical locales: Pharaoh for ancient Egypt, Caesar for Rome, Tropico for the 20th-century Caribbean, and the Anno series had titles set in 1701, 1404 and 2070.

The remarkable thing about the gameplay of SimCity was its lack of external conflict. In short, by contrast with the vast majority of games then and now, there were no bad guys to shoot, no race cars to overtake, no bosses to defeat, no princesses to save. The fundamental challenge was in creating a perfectly-balanced system, where each of the metaphorical gears would run in time with all the others. That is, until this guy showed up to ruin everything:

By contrast, city-Sims set in the Middle Ages typically restored the external conflict. Medieval cities, it seems, were less interesting as whirring, dynamic urban centers, and more interesting as fortifications against plundering hordes. The successful Stronghold franchise is a testament to this trend, where, in only the medieval context, the city-sim was replaced by the castle-sim.

And so it was no small interest that I recently began playing Banished. (more…)

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Fantasy vs. RealityGames and The Internet

It’s What You Do With It That Counts: Factual accuracy and mechanical accuracy in Crusader Kings II

Guest post from Robert Houghton. Robert mainly researches urban and episcopal history in Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and also has a strong interest in the portrayal of the Middle Ages in the media. He currently works at the University of St Andrews and as a research consultant for Paradox Interactive.

 A few weeks ago, Paul posted about the mechanics of historical computer games and how it’s more important to have accurate mechanics than it is to have accurate facts. I’d like to elaborate on this with the example of Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II, a game which I have had the pleasure of working on since January 2013. (more…)

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