Film and TV

Delving deep into film and TV depictions of the past.

Film and TVWhat is History For?

The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination

Read more about film and popular perceptions of the medieval past in Paul’s new book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism! As a special for readers of The Public Medievalist, if you order your copy from I.B. Tauris Publishers, use the coupon code MIDDLE30 and receive 30% off the hardback price! It is also available as an e-book on Amazon and Google Play.


Whenever I ask people—academics and non-academics alike—what they think the public knows about history, the answer almost always comes back the same: “NOTHING!”

There’s a snobby cynicism that lies at the heart of that answer—that without academic training, we are all just dunderheaded simpletons stumbling through the world. This idea has been cultivated and exploited by journalists and politicians over and over again. To take just one example, in 2013, Education Secretary of the United Kingdom Michael Gove went on a tear about the state of the education system in his country:

Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

“Survey after survey?” One teacher made an official request to know what these surveys were. The official answer from the Department of Education cited marketing surveys conducted by a UK cable TV channel (UKTV Gold) and a hotel chain (Premier Inn) where individuals were given pop-quizzes about historical facts. Gove then used the results of these marketing exercises to bash the UK education system and call for reform.

This isn’t the first time people have used sloppy methodology to make a point. Many of these surveys use research tools that would make a sociologist cringe, and all of them are biased. They intend to trap participants into getting wrong answers so that they can present the results as a “shocking” display of public ignorance.

Take, as an example, this survey, conducted by the BBC in 2004:

Q1 Which one of the following conquered Britain?

  1. a) Germans; b) Spanish; c) Romans; d) Americans; e) Don’t know

Q2 Who won the Battle of Hastings?

  1. a) Napoleon; b) Wellington; c) Alexander the Great; d) William the Conqueror; e) Don’t know

Q3 Which of the following fought men [sic] in the English fleet against the Spanish Armada?

  1. a) Horatio Hornblower; b) Christopher Columbus; c) Francis Drake; d) Gandalf; e) Don’t know

Q4 Which famous battle is marked every year on July 12 by the Orangemen in Northern Ireland?

  1. a) Boyne; b) Stamford Bridge; c) Bulge; d) Helmsdeep [sic]; e) Don’t know

Q5 During which war did the Battle of Britain take place?

  1. a) Hundred Years War; b) First World War; c) Second World War; d) Cold War; e) Don’t know

How many did you know? How many of you were tempted to choose “Gandalf” for 3, and “Helmsdeep” for 4, just because you’re a Tolkien fan? (I know I would have been.)

Despite being a marketing exercise explicitly intended to sell their Battlefield Britain TV series, the news media took this as evidence of shockingly widespread ignorance. The BBC presented their results in breathless tones:

Almost half of 16 to 34-year-olds questioned didn’t know Sir Francis Drake fought in the battle against the Spanish Armada […] One in five 16 to 24-year-olds said it was the explorer and discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus. Horatio Hornblower, the fictional commander in the CS Forester books, was the answer from one in five 25 to 34 year olds. And Gandalf, the wizard from The Lord of the Rings, was the choice of more than one in twenty 16 to 24-year-olds.

An article in The Guardian used it to bang the drum for a return to “traditional” history education. In an article reporting on the survey (entitled “Gandalf finds a place in British history”), they interviewed Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, who said:

“It clearly shows that our state education system has got a lot to answer for. A grounding in national history is essential for all young people in order to understand the present. This is extremely shocking.”

Another example, this time a front-page headline from the New York Times. Note the date.

The problem is that, at their core, these surveys assume understanding history is fundamentally about memorizing historical facts. If you don’t know those specific facts (almost always about supposedly “Great Men” or supposedly important battles, like in the BBC survey above), then clearly there was something wrong with your education, and thus, something wrong with you.

But history is about so much more than the rote memorization of names and dates. It is about how we understand ourselves as people. It is about learning to appreciate the differences and similarities of cultures different to our own, learning how all cultures change over time, and learning to see ourselves in people from other times and places. And it is so much more.

How can a survey study all of that?

That is exactly the topic of my new book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination. The study at the center of the book is fundamentally about how people use film as a way of learning about and engaging with the medieval past. Instead of using surveys that can only scratch the surface of what it means to learn history, I talked to people and really listened to the answers. I wanted to find out how people understand, learn about, and use the past in their daily lives. And I wanted to find real answers instead of just confirming my own preconceptions.

With Apologies to Mr. Bloom…

Orlando bloom with a sword strapped to his back and a prayer shawl on his shoulder, from the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.
So pretty. So medieval?

To give you a taste of the results, let’s look at the case of Orlando Bloom.

I showed four groups of students—recruited from across the University of Leeds campus—three medieval films each, and interviewed them before and after viewing the movies to see how film influenced their ideas about the Middle Ages. Two of those three films, coincidentally, starred Orlando Bloom: in Kingdom of Heaven he stars as Balian, a blacksmith who goes on Crusade and ultimately leads the Kingdom of Jerusalem in its final clash with Saladin. And in The Return of the King, of course, he plays Legolas.

To say that the participants disliked Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven is a bit of an understatement.

First of all, students did not feel that the plot of the film, with its rags-to-riches narrative, was at all realistic in a medieval context. But students also rejected Orlando Bloom’s masculinity. They complained that he did not match their expectations of heroic medieval men. One participant said:

Orlando Bloom is known as a celebrity and a bit of a dish […] a little bit too glossy […] you see Orlando Bloom and you make a snap decision that he’s a pretty boy.

Other participants in the groups reiterated this discomfort: “[he] just seemed a bit… wimpy,” or “he doesn’t have the voice for it, he doesn’t have the gravitas for it,” or, “[he] didn’t seem to have the power behind him to suggest that he could lead people.” When they were asked who might be a better medieval hero, several pointed to Liam Neeson (who plays Balian’s father in the film). He, they said, had the age, the gravitas, and the power to be truly medieval.

The fact that several individuals across the groups flagged Bloom’s masculinity as “anachronistic” lends credence to the idea that this was not only one person’s perception. Rather, it points to a wider cultural perception of medieval masculinity. These students expected medieval heroes to be butch and aggressive, first into the fray. Leadership ability was signaled by a deep voice and the impalpable quality of “gravitas.” And perhaps most telling, their use of the word “dish,” “glossy” and the phrase “pretty boy” imply that Bloom’s youthful features makes him attractive to the wrong sort of people: young women and gay men. To them, Bloom was more boy-band than battlefield.

Ray Winstone in his performance capture suit, flanked by Beowulf, on his left, and the "golden boy", on the right. He plays both characters in the film Beowulf (2007).
Ray Winstone in his performance capture suit, flanked by the characters he plays in Beowulf (2007).

By contrast, I also subjected participants in my study to the 2007 CGI version of Beowulf. Beowulf was played by Ray Winstone, who himself does not have a body type typically associated with Old Norse heroes. But, thanks to the magic of CGI, the filmmakers digitally stitched Ray Winstone’s voice and performance onto two other bodies—those of actor Alan Ritchson and fitness model (and alleged #metoo scumbag) Aaron Stephens.

Alan Ritchson, one of the two actors who provided the face, body, and presumably oiled abs, of Beowulf.

In effect, they digitally Frankensteined a “perfect” medieval hero out of a voice, a face, and a body that they chose.

And despite the high-tech, artificial nature of Beowulf’s medieval masculinity, participants had none of the same negative reactions to his character that they did to Orlando Bloom’s Balian. The stitches were invisible, but the expectations of authentic medieval masculinity were as plain as day.

A High-tech Middle Ages

Despite their acceptance of Winstone/Ritchson/Stephens’s medieval masculinity, study participants had other problems with the movie Beowulf. For instance, everyone is filmed in motion-capture, and every object, stitch of clothing, and piece of scenery is rendered by a computer. Beowulf wasn’t even filmed (if you can even call it that) using traditional cameras; dozens of infrared sensors bounced light off the actors and reconstructed them as wireframes in computers.

For filmmakers into tech, it’s very cool. But for the viewers of these groups, it was creepy as hell.

Participants thought the movie felt like a video game (it does), and that characters fell into the Uncanny Valley (they do). Several also contrasted this specifically against a familiar medieval aesthetic. For example, one participant noted:

Whenever I think of medieval, I always think of Robin Hood and crappy, really crappy effects. And, I don’t know, that kind of vibe about it makes it seem more medieval. Whereas if it’s computer generated and all sparkly and polished, it’s too new.

Another then added, “It’s not a very sparkly and polished time, is it?” Interestingly, co-writer on the film Roger Avary agreed with them, writing: “It was a strange way to be making a film that should be dirty and muddy.”

Again, this has nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages. Travel to the countryside or even a park after a rainstorm and you’ll see just how muddy and dirty our contemporary world can be. Instead, this idea comes from a combination of our perception of medieval people as being filthy and plague-ridden, exacerbated by some of the most successful films and TV shows set in the Middle Ages. Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail is a classic of both the muddy and the aggressively badly-made (but wonderful) Middle Ages.

Beowulf didn’t have that “medieval” feel. That’s not because Beowulf was set in a pristine, gleaming version of the Middle Ages—Beowulf gets plenty dirty. But the fact that the mud is not real (and that, in fact, nothing in the film really is) makes it unsatisfying, unsatisfactory. The CGI, while enabling the filmmakers to do whatever they wanted, became an interfering layer for an audience hungry for a more low-budget, “authentic” medieval experience.

Medieval Orcs and Elves

Scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King drawn in a quasi-medieval style, by Jian Guo: https://breath-art.deviantart.com/gallery/

On their final meeting, each group viewed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I wondered whether they would see this film as “medieval.” Obviously, a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings isn’t “medieval” if you think of that word only in reference to a period of real history. But Tolkien was drawing on medieval mythologies, social structures, technologies and aesthetics when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and the filmmakers followed suit. Would the average viewer pick up on that?

As it turns out, there was disagreement on that point. Some felt that because Return of the King depicted a fantasy world, comparing it to actual history was ludicrous: “It’s too much of a fantasy to learn anything historical about medieval times from it.”

Others took the opposite tack, with one saying that it “probably depicted medieval England better than Beowulf did.” Importantly, he added, “I don’t know if it did, but in my mind it seemed to gel.”

The most interesting part, to me, is the way the second participant talked about it—speaking from the level of intuition and inductive reasoning rather than as a simple recollection of facts. Many of the participants talked this way—with hesitation and groping for their answers—because these were subjects that they had learned long ago and by consuming popular culture.

But that was not the same as not knowing anything. My study showed me that these students knew quite a lot about the medieval past, but that they did not have much confidence in their knowledge. The participants had fairly wide-ranging knowledge, and a remarkable amount of expertise in particular subjects that they were interested in. For example, one participant was very knowledgeable and interested in medieval social dynamics and material culture as a result of her being a fan of historical novels. Similarly, several others were well-versed in the technology of medieval warfare as a result of being connoisseurs of medieval war games. Moreover, most participants were fully aware of the gaps in their understanding, and aware that some of the things they did know were derived from sources—like films and other popular culture—which are not to be trusted.

That could be seen in the way that others talked about Return of the King. Though many did not label the film “medieval,” they were more than happy to compare it with the other, genuinely-medieval, films they had seen (as well as their experience with the Middle Ages in other pieces of pop culture). The battle of Pellenor Fields, for example, was cited as an excellent example of a medieval battle, and the quest for the ring was productively compared to a crusade. So while Middle Earth is not the Middle Ages, in many ways it was very, very medieval indeed.

You Know More than You Think

Despite what the newspapers tell you, everyday people know a lot about the Middle Ages. Yes, many people harbor incorrect ideas about the Middle Ages, but those frequently have nothing to do with an inability to remember dates and names of famous men or battles. Instead, misconceptions came from incorrectly applying knowledge too broadly.

Sometimes scholars pick on people for making grand pronouncements that the medieval world was an objectively terrible place, or projecting their understanding of the world today backward onto the Middle Ages. This certainly happened during my study—for example, several participants assumed that the Crusades played out similarly to the war in Iraq, and assumed that the conflicts that exist today in that region must have been the same in the Middle Ages.

These mistakes are a natural part of how our minds fill in gaps in our knowledge—not just of history, but any subject. But identifying and complicating these mistaken assumptions is an essential part of the learning process. Because, as we have sought to explore here on The Public Medievalist, medieval people were more like us in some ways than we might like to admit. But in other ways, they, and the world they inhabited, were fundamentally different from ours. The trick is in learning which is which.

But that is a far cry from not knowing anything at all. So, the next time someone tries to tell you that people know nothing about the past, you have my permission to tell them to stick it in their ear.

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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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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones’ Medieval Crap

Content warning: minor spoilers for Season 7 Episode 1 of Game of Thrones.


Talk about “Same Shit, Different Day”. In the Season 7 opener of Game of Thrones, poor Sam learns the hard way—in a stomach-turning montage—that manure is serious business in Westeros. This is just as it was in the Middle Ages, and, interestingly, continues to be to this very day.

A medieval chamber pot, held at the Yorkshire Museum. ref.1992.69

Just as it does in hospitals and nursing homes today, care of the sick and elderly in the Middle Ages involved bedpans. And just like twenty-first century bedpans, medieval bedpans needed to be emptied and cleaned, as we see Sam doing over and over. At least Sam doesn’t appear to also be on diaper duty as well, as medieval wife Margery Kempe was during her husband’s long illness. Lucky Sam.

Without widespread indoor plumbing, handling the necessaries is a constant challenge, and not just in the Middle Ages or in medievalesque places like Westeros. Many homes in some US cities were not connected to city sewers until the 1950s and ‘60s; some parts of rural America (like rural Alaska) still do not have indoor plumbing. Whether in medieval England, Westeros, 1930s Philadelphia, or 2017 outside Chicken, Alaska, wherever chamber pots and outhouses are a reality, somebody’s going to have to empty and clean them out.

But where to put all this crap?

While Sam might not see it that way, since the Citadel doesn’t quite offer deluxe accommodations, he’s got it relatively easy. Why?: he can dump the bedpans into a toilet. Toilets have not changed very much over the centuries, though the plumbing attached to them certainly has.

The earliest surviving wooden toilet seat dates back about two thousand years and was found at a Roman military installation in northern England. While the Roman toilet seat looks a lot like what Sam had to work with, the Roman toilet flushed using a rainwater system. If Sam were to have walked a bit further, he might have found public privies like those mentioned in Lincoln in the Canterbury Tales. Similar public toilets existed in most medieval English cities, some constructed directly over rivers, others over open cesspits. These could be lethal—literally. Toilet seats occasionally rotted and broke, leading to a rather ignoble end, as happened to Richard le Rakiere in 1326.

People longed for private flushing toilets in the Middle Ages. Some Londoners got quite creative in rigging up indoor plumbing. This included one Alice Wade, who was forced to dismantle her home-made flush toilet in 1314 when neighbors complained to the city that her scheme had blocked a gutter.

If Sam were in a large medieval city, an alternative might have been for Sam to walk the pans outside, or to an open window, and dump them into the drainage ditch running down city streets. But one had to be careful about dumping chamber pots—they could definitely annoy one’s neighbor, as Maud Frembaud did in 1369. Even the Tower of London placed its royal privy on the side secluded from public view: no one wanted to see that.

A man relieving himself, from an unknown medieval manuscript.

Even though medieval people did not fully understand the disease vector presented by all this excrement, they understood it to be a public nuisance and made efforts to rid themselves of it. Rather than allow such sewers to stagnate, medieval city officials made every effort to flush ditches with channeled rainwater and through carefully controlled local streams, including some of London’s “hidden rivers.”

By the late Middle Ages, London and other English cities had a range of city officials in charge of waste removal to protect citizens’ health and safety. Medieval waste gutters, and even twentieth-century sewers in cities, often emptied into rivers. This raised the risk of contaminated drinking water. The very well-paid waste officials in London and other, smaller, medieval cities worked together with a host of entrepreneurs to clean the streets, gutters, and cesspits that ran around and under public toilets. These workers carted the collected human and animal waste of the city outside the walls where manure and other rubbish could be sorted by type and dumped on mandated piles. From here, manure could be used for a range of purposes: as fertilizer, fuel, an ingredient in making saltpeter, or other things. (Though it was not safe fertilizer unless it was properly processed.)

Sam’s labors in service towards becoming a Maester seem almost monastic. But even he doesn’t consider it work in service to the gods; some medieval people did. Margery Kempe cleaned up after her husband strong in the belief that her service brought her closer to God. Saints, such as St. Catherine of Siena, who took physical care of the sick and dying were revered for cleaning sores and bedpans with (miraculously) glad hearts. Medieval culture even made special room in its spiritual hierarchy for those whose jobs were dirty but necessary for a healthy society, whether that job was muck carter or plowman. As one early textbook young noblemen like Sam, “the plow feeds us all.”

Manure, including human “nightsoil,” remains a grave threat to public health today. Most of twenty-first century America has forgotten the horrors of typhoid and cholera, but there is an ongoing epidemic in Yemen, and one very recently in Haiti. Veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are also well aware of these dangers; believe it or not, the best practices in handling  military latrine waste remains a hotly debated topic. And the looming threat of climate change could even pose a threat; with water tables rising and funding for infrastructure falling, wastewater treatment in the US is threatened. Let’s hope we don’t all end up like Sam, scrubbing shit during endless extreme weather.


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Game of ThronesRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Game of Thrones’ Racism Problem

Part XXVI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Helen Young. You can find the rest of the special series here


This promotional image of the ensemble cast of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones features only one actor of color: Jason Momoa who played Khal Drogo.
This promotional image of the ensemble cast of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones features only one actor of color: Jason Momoa who played Khal Drogo.

Game of Thrones doesn’t just have a “diversity problem,” it has a racism problem. The casting and the lack of well-developed characters of colour that attract most critical attention are the visible tip of the iceberg of racism that lies under the surface of the show. That iceberg doesn’t just reflect the race problems of modern-day America, it reflects white privilege and a racist Eurocentric way of thinking about the world that goes back to the Middle Ages.

The tip of the racism-berg is important, and it’s a good place to start. Game of Thrones doesn’t even pass what Manohla Dargis called the “DuVernay test” (modelled on the Bechdel test). The Bechdel test offers a simple way to gauge whether women are represented as full and complete characters; the DuVernay test (named after Selma director Ava DuVernay) does the same for characters from racial minorities.

Although they didn’t call it “the DuVernay test,” Nadia and Leila Latif outlined what such a test might look like in an article for The Guardian during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy:

Are there two named characters of colour? Do they have dialogue? Are they not romantically involved with one another? Do they have any dialogue that isn’t comforting or supporting a white character? Is one of them definitely not magic?

Missandei and Grey Worm, the only two remaining significant characters of color in Game of Thrones. They are also in (something of a) relationship, and the vast majority of their dialogue is about Daenerys.
Missandei and Grey Worm, two remaining significant characters of color in Game of Thrones. They are also in (something of a) relationship, and the vast majority of their dialogue is about Daenerys.

After six seasons, Game of Thrones has yet to pass. Missandei and Grey Worm, the only remaining notable characters of color (who were called “really deep characters” by casting director Nina Gold recently), are not “deep” enough to cause the series to cross the basic threshold that the Latifs offered. And change does not seem to be coming; they didn’t have so much as a line between them in the first episode of season 7.

Grey Worm, Missandei—and before them Khal Drogo—are some of the most developed characters of colour in the show. But they exist as bit-players in the story of Daenerys Targaryen, the (possibly) last member of a family that Nina Gold, the Game of Thrones casting director, described as “in the books [they are] these white, white people.”

Daenerys’ travels in Essos are the main vehicle for characters of colour to be included in either the show or the books (the Dornish story arc is the other, and it has its own problems). The problem is that her narrative is essentially a “white saviour” plot, a common trope where a white outsider saves a community of colour from some sort of terrible plight, gaining prestige, power, and self-awareness in the process; think the movies Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves, and Avatar.

Although Daenerys’ problems governing in Slavers’ bay have been taken as a subversion of the white saviour plot, by the end of season six she had established at least a gesture towards resolution and sailed for Westeros with her dragons and army. It’s here that the structural racism—the part of the ice-berg that’s under water—comes in. Everything that Daenerys has done in Essos is in the service of her goal: claiming the throne in Westeros. The people of color of Essos become her army—a tool to be used in achieving her ends.

A medieval illumination in a manuscript of Guy of Warwick, featuring two armies with knights at their head, facing off.
Guy of Warwick. Illumination in BL Royal MS 15 E v.

The white saviour plot device goes back to at least the crusading romances which emerged in the late twelfth-century. In just one of them, the legendary English knight Guy of Warwick (or Gui de Warewic as he was called in the original Anglo-Norman poem) saved the Christian kingdom of Constantinople from a Saracen army (the real crusaders sacked it).

This is where some white savior narratives might end. But Guy’s story goes on, just like Daenerys’ does once she’s freed the people of Slavers Bay. Guy defeats a dragon and a giant, gaining power in the Middle East before returning home to England to save the nation from invaders from the north (Vikings) and found a dynasty. He begins life as an archetypal ‘squire of low degree,’ unable to win his lady or have any real power in England, but gains both through his adventures overseas.

Is this sounding familiar? Daenerys hasn’t actually saved Westeros from the white walkers (yet), but in the latest episode we found out that she’s literally sitting on top of a mountain of dragon-glass, the only weapon we know of that works against them. Her attention, like Guy’s in the medieval romance, was always focused on “home.” Everything else that happened, and everyone else they encountered on the way, is a tool for getting back there and accumulating power.

I’m not suggesting that Daenerys is deliberately modelled on Guy of Warwick or any other specific medieval figure fictional or historical. The point is that western culture has seen “Other” places and people as a source of power to be used for its own ends for centuries—in the case of Guy, going on a millennium. That perspective is what underpinned European colonisation and imperialism for centuries, with devastating effects that are still ongoing around the globe.

The idea that Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin’s novels depict “the real Middle Ages” is often used to try to deflect criticism for the lack of racial diversity (and high levels of violence, especially against women). But as we have been exploring throughout this series, the idea that the “real Middle Ages” was an all-white affair has more to do with modern fantasies about racial purity than it does with historical reality. If we’re going to look to the Middle Ages to explain race relations in Game of Thrones, it’s medieval literature not medieval history that we should read.

Game of Thrones and Martin’s novels aren’t aberrations, they reflect a way of thinking about the world that centres on Europe and Europeans and sees Others as either tools to serve the needs of a white person and their power, or irrelevant. It’s a way of thinking that is at least as old as the Middle Ages. Game of Thrones has racism problems because the world has racism problems.


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Film and TVRace, Class and Religion

Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds: Bloody Experiments in Impossible History

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is not a typical historical film. It is certainly an historical film—at least by a simplistic definition of what an “historical film” entails: it is set in the pre-Civil-War wild west and deep south, and it has all the detailed and well-researched visual details—set pieces and costumes—which have become a central defining trope of the contemporary historical drama. That said, at a more basic level it does not have the same relationship with history that most other films given the title “historical” do. Instead, Django,[1] like Tarantino’s previous Inglourious Basterds (2009), re-renders history to match the topoi and narrative arcs typified by a particular film genre. It even goes so far as to explicitly and self-consciously create historically-absurd scenarios in furtherance of its cinematic goals. Tarantino deploys those things for which historical films are most often criticized—unintentional anachronism, historical implausibilities and absurdities—intentionally, developing a sophisticated interplay between the expectations of “historical accuracy” and cinematic fantasy. This is a controversial approach that at once bolsters and threatens to derail his intentions: with one hand, to render a compelling vision of the institution of slavery, and with the other, to smash that institution to pieces. (more…)

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FeminismFilm and TV

Modern Rape Culture and BBC’s Banished

by Phoebe C. Linton

Editor’s note: This is a second part of our continuing conversation on sexual assault in the media and in historical realities. As a result, this article includes frank discussions of the depictions of sexual violence.

One of the criticisms of our last article on the topic was that it amounted to “a man writing about men writing about women.” Thanks to Phoebe for offering up her perspective on the topic.

(more…)

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FeminismFilm and TVGame of Thrones

Was Sexual Abuse Normal in the Middle Ages?

Content and Spoiler Warning: The below article contains both spoilers for Season 5, Episode 6 of Game of Thrones as well as frank discussions of rape and sexual violence.

Editor’s Note: This article is significantly longer than usual for The Public Medievalist. I did this because the topic is a very difficult one, and there are a lot of issues explored here that demand a longer form to even scratch the surface. Thanks also to Amy Kaufmann for reviewing this article and offering very helpful suggestions for revision.

Don’t believe it.

As a medievalist interested in popular culture, I’ve been asked by a handful of people to comment on that scene from a recent episode of Game of Thrones (season 5, episode 6). If you saw it, you probably know which one I mean: Sansa Stark is married to Ramsay Bolton—the currently-reigning Worst Person in Westeros (a title always under fierce competition). Predictably—and horribly—he then rapes her on their wedding night. At this point in the show, Sansa is many things, but not so naive as she started out. It is heavily implied that she knew what she was getting herself into, but accepted this fate so that she can get closer to the targets of her vengeance. That doesn’t make it any less horrible though—and obviously does not in any way equal consent.

Since its airing, there has been considerable discussion on the internet about that scene; some accused it of being “gratuitous.” Considering that the show is one of the most popular depictions of the medievalesque in recent years, depicting marital rape in the show this raises a number of questions about the realities of sexual violence in medieval Europe. (more…)

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FeminismFilm and TV

Bechdel Testing the Middle Ages

Recently, I took a brutal, ten-hour transatlantic red-eye flight. And I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, that of the three films I chose in order to pass the time (The Big Lebowski, The Dark Knight and The Muppets), none of them passed the Bechdel Test.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Bechdel test is a basic gauge of female representation in films. The rules of the test are pretty simple. In order to pass, any given film must have:

  1. Two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

There are a few variants to the test. But that the above three rules constitute its most basic form, as invented by Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For“. Here is the strip in which she invented the test [click to enlarge]:

BechdelRule-web

The test in this form intentionally sets the bar for female involvement in films ridiculously low. And yet, it was pretty shocking (or sadly perhaps not shocking at all), how when people first started examining films this way, few passed. (more…)

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Film and TV

Mel Gibson, you Magnificent Bastard.

Note: The following contains spoilers for the film Braveheart.

So let’s talk about Scottish Independence for a moment.

As many of you are probably aware, on 18th of September, 2014, the people of Scotland will take to the polls to answer one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Well, it’s obviously not that simple of a question. And even as an outsider I have some strong mixed feelings on the subject. On the one hand, as an American who loves Scotland and would love the opportunity to work there, I am in favour of independence since that seems quite likely to reverse the United Kingdom’s increasingly draconian policies and attitudes towards immigrants of all sorts. And on a less self-interested note, I would love to see a Scandinavian-style democracy emerge in a newly-minted Scotland, which seems a possibility (if they were not totally bankrupt, that is). That said, Scottish MPs vote in a relatively socially-liberal bloc. If they left, would likely lead to an even-more conservative United Kingdom—not something I relish the thought of.

Setting aside politics though, on a more abstract level I feel as though a separated UK would be worse off. When united, to me the UK is more than the sum of its constituent parts. And separating those parts raises difficult questions of identity for those people living in Scotland who are suddenly made to choose—if not their ethnicity, then their nationality in a way they hadn’t had to do before. For those in Scotland who identify themselves positively as British and Scottish, September 19th would be a profoundly bizarre experience of self-redefinition.

As an historian, it would also be disappointing to see the 300-year experiment, begun with the 1706 Treaty of Union, come to such an end.

And if that were to come to pass, I think that at least a small portion of the blame or credit could be laid at the feet of one anti-Semitic, misogynistic Australian: Mel Gibson.

When it was released in 1995, Braveheart was a huge success, both critically and financially. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture. Its release also resulted in a significant uptick in tourism for Scotland, and perhaps most importantly in our discussion here, the Scottish National Party jumped in the polls almost overnight. As Colin McArthur wrote in his book Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots: Distortions of Scotland in Hollywood Cinema, Braveheart’s effect on Scotland was “seen by some as manna from heaven and others as an unmitigated curse.”

Among medieval historians, Braveheart is a joke.

Its inaccuracies are legion—and not just in the little incidental ways that are easy to ignore. To recap briefly:

But all of these other inaccuracies must bow and scrape before two others which have a profound effect on the messages in the film. They work by tapping into something deep within the Scottish identity that has given Braveheart such a powerful ability to shape Scottish self-conception and Scottish politics.

Major inaccuracy #1: The Scots are different.

Braveheart goes to great lengths to promote a single idea of what it means to be Scottish. In the film, the Scottish are a people on the edge of the world, wild, unkempt, barely civilized. Take Wallace’s character, for example: instead of reality, where Wallace was a local gentryman, in Braveheart he is remade as a peasant-warrior with education provided by a rich uncle. Wallace’s secret marriage in the woods connects with an idea that the Scottish are more connected to the land than their English counterparts, and his doing so in the forest before a stone cross rather than in a church are a reference to ideas of Celtic-druidic-mystical tradition which, though historically dubious, were very popular in the mid-90s.

This “mystical” connection to the land is only reinforced in the many scenes with lengthy shots of endless green mountains, such as the opening scene which is simply of the vast, craggy scenery (backed by mournful bagpipes) or the montage of Wallace climbing through the mountains. This seeks to equate the Scots with their unique landscape (though obviously not so unique—as those shots were filmed in Ireland). In battle, the difference between the Scots and English couldn’t be starker. In Braveheart the warriors fight with weapons typically associated with “barbarians” – axes, clubs, hammers, cleavers and sharpened stakes—against English swords, lances and longbows. The Scots taunt their enemies, lifting their kilts at them and screaming for their freedom in the face of armoured, uniformed English discipline. It is a war not just of English versus Scottish but of individuality versus conformity. The Scots fight not just for the right to be independent, but for the right to be Scottish.

But despite their barbarity, the Scots are shown to be far more noble than their English counterparts. The English occupiers are depicted as universally cruel, and Gibson himself described the character of Edward I in his film as a “psychopath”. One of the chief sins of the English, a surprisingly-common trope in epic films, is sexual deviancy (think of the sexually-deviant villains in 300, or Gladiator, or Spartacus or even, perhaps, The Matrix). Not only is there the previously-mentioned Jus Primae Noctis, but Wallace’s rebellion begins as three English soldiers attempt to rape his wife (the old, gap-toothed one even licking her face to add that extra creep-factor). Edward I’s son is show to be weak and ineffectual either because of or as part of the fact that he is a homosexual**, and his father seems all-too-interested in bedding his son’s young bride.

By contrast, Wallace and his pack of “noble savages” are shown to be remarkably erudite and completely chastely-hetero. Wallace, despite his rough exterior, impresses his wife and later shocks Princess Isabelle with his command of French and Latin. Wallace himself is willing to endure unspeakable tortures at the hands of the English rather than betray his principles by begging for mercy.

All of this goes some way towards painting the English and Scottish as fundamentally different people. Certainly, there are some ethnic and cultural differences between the English and the Scots, though the cultural differences are, in some ways, more pronounced today than they were during Wallace’s 13th century. This is due to the nationalist movements in the 19th century which successfully wrought Scottish and English identities, often out of whole cloth. Literally.

In reality, particularly among the upper-classes (like Wallace was), during the Middle Ages the English and Scottish were practically indistinguishable. Sometimes they were literally indistinguishable, especially along the Scottish borders; many aristocrats—both Scottish and English— held lands on both sides of the border simultaneously. However, it is a truism in life that in order to truly hate someone enough to kill them, you have to first see them as fundamentally different to you. They must not just be people with different ideas and goals, but different sorts of people entirely— or worse, sub-humans. I don’t need to go into detail to explain how dehumanizing your enemy can result in horrific atrocities.

And thus in Braveheart we see a clash not just of people, but of cultures and civilizations. The Scots are the rough-and-tumble underdogs, simultaneously noble and savage—which is, not incidentally, a way that Americans like to fantasize about their own revolution against the English. The English are conformist, abusive, deviant psychopaths. If you believe this vision of the past even a little, it is easy to see how you might not want to be in the same nation with those people.

Major inaccuracy #2: The English have always oppressed the Scots

When William challenges the English parley at Sterling, he makes a bold request.

“Lower your flags and march straight back to England, stopping at every home you pass by to beg forgiveness for a hundred years of theft, rape, and murder. Do that and your men shall live. Do it not, and every one of you will die today.”

In reality, the English, under Edward I, had invaded Scotland only the year before Wallace’s rebellion had begun. Prior to that, Scotland was a fully independent kingdom. The notion, repeated during the film in earnest tones, that their fight for independence is one of creating a new nation for themselves after countless years of oppression is ludicrous.

But while it may be ludicrous, it is powerful. Viewing the past in this way—where even the “time immemorial” of the Middle Ages carries its own long memory of oppression—grants an ancient precedent to Scottish nationalist movements. Moreover, it reconfigures the map; England is the centre, and Scotland is the periphery. Edward I’s England is reconfigured as a proto-British empire, and the Celtic peripheries are proto-colonies. In the film, the English do what they have always done, and what they continue to do: oppress those across their borders unless they are fought.

This relates clearly not only to the aforementioned American ideas about their past, but to the current Scottish concept of their relationship with their neighbours to the south. When focusing on the Scottish Wars of Independence, it becomes easy to see all of history as oppression by the centre upon the peripheries. The Act of Union which brought together the two countries was not achieved by conquest, but by a union of the crowns as the Scottish king James VI became the ruler of both Scotland and England, as James I, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

That is not to say the Scots do not have grievances against the English, both in contemporary politics and during the 13th century. But the way that Braveheart figures itself as the once and future story of Scotland asks the Scots to see themselves as the aggrieved party in their relationship with England not just today but for all time.

So, I’ll be blunt: Braveheart is a terrible history.

It’s terrible not just because of its myriad little historical inaccuracies, but because of the major ways in which it tried—with some success—to reshape the debate about what it means to be Scottish, both outside Scotland and within it. That debate has continued apace, and will come to a head on the 18th of September.

But allow me to be controversial here. In some ways, Braveheart is a truly great history.

Let’s ignore the historical content. Let’s even ignore the messages in the film for just a moment. It’s a good film. Despite being ludicrous, perhaps even because of it, it is emotionally engaging and moving. The simple fact that an historical film such as this may have had a small or large effect on the self-conception of an entire people, as well as the fate of their country is unprecedented. Whether it’s done in a dubious way, and to good or ill effect, as a public historian it is difficult not to respect that kind of public impact. It shows historians what can be gained—and also possibly what can be lost— from working together with Hollywood.

I say this half- with loathing and half- with awe: Mel Gibson. You sir, are a magnificent bastard.

The author in an HMV store, Sterling, Scotland. June 2014
The author in an HMV display in Sterling, Scotland. June 2014

 


 

* Sure, some medieval Lords got up to all manner of shenanigans mistreating those beneath them. But the rich taking advantage of the poor is hardly unique to the Middle Ages.

** The homophobia rampant in this film is a whole other can of worms, and the topic for another post.


Head Image Credit: © Copyright Paramount Pictures, 1995.

 

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