Film and TV

Delving deep into film and TV depictions of the past.

Film and TV

Were the Middle Ages Really “The Good Place”?

Content notice: Here be sex and spoilers! This article includes spoilers for Season 3 Episode 8 of The Good Place, and a frank discussion of medieval people’s ideas about sex. If you’re not into either of those, maybe give this article a miss.

NBC’s The Good Place is one of the best and most innovative comedies on television right now, not least because of how it mixes being profoundly silly with its consideration of some of the biggest questions in human existence. At its core (without offering too much in the way of spoilers), the show follows four self-admittedly terrible human beings as they adventure through the afterlife. Their collective goals lurch from episode to episode, but at the core lies a consistent question: how to be a good person? 

We are told in the show that the afterlife consists of a boiled-down off-brand secular(ish) version of Dante’s Inferno cosmology; the afterlife is split into a Good Place and a Bad Place, and where a human soul goes after they die is dependent upon their actions on earth. The way this is done is much like ancient-Egyptian mythology, where the heart of the dead is weighed against a feather. But The Good Place adds a truly diabolical twist: Excel spreadsheets. The ineffable Accounting Department decides, with exacting numerical precision, how many points a soul gains or loses for each and every action they take while on Earth. The Good Place shows us a strictly utilitarian cosmos. A person’s worthiness is directly related to how their actions benefit or harm other people. Do a good thing, get points. Do a bad thing, lose points. Come out positive: go up. Come out negative: go down. Simple as that. 

All of this seems a little fishy for the protagonists, who spend Season 3 cracking open the egg of The Points System. And in episode 8, they discover its great flaw. No-one, they discover, has actually made it to the Good Place for 521 years. This is because, as reformed-demon Michael reveals:

Life now is so complicated it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for the good place.

There are simply too many unintended consequences for anyone to live an above-average life. Every decision is loaded with moral dilemmas. Modern life is a no-win situation.

But as a medievalist, that date got my spidey-sense a-tinglin’. 521 years ago is 1497 CE (Jeremy Bearimy time notwithstanding). It’s smack at the tail end of the Middle Ages. That means that when the Middle Ages came to a close, the heavenly gates slammed shut. Forever.

So that raises a question: were the Middle Ages really such a Good Place?

The Good Ages

It doesn’t take great prophetic powers for me to know that when I ultimately publish this article, the comment thread will be full of people saying “No! The Middle Ages were not a good place—it was full of plague, war, Crusades, and oppression!” These folks likely won’t have read the article at all. If you saw them on your way in, feel free to say “hi.”

Because of that assumption, The Good Place’s way of looking at the Middle Ages is refreshing, in a way. The idea that the Middle Ages were “the Dark Ages” (in full or in part) is an idea that has deserved the dumpster for decades. We here at The Public Medievalist have been doing our part to get rid of it, but I am not at all confident that I will outlive this term. 

A brief recap of the problems with it: just about every bad thing you find in the Middle Ages, you can find just as much (if not more!) in the supposedly “Enlightened” periods before and since. War, plague, poverty, religious violence, torture, discrimination, anti-scientific superstition; all of them are features of the modern world. If you think about the world today, you can see they are still with us, often in forms much worse than would have been possible during the Middle Ages. Mechanization and technology has given us horrors beyond anything a medieval person could conceive: the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear Armageddon,  and season 8 of Game of Thrones

That’s not to say that the Middle Ages were a paradise, either. There were plenty of ways to die in the Middle Ages. People found plenty of ways to be cruel to one another. Their WiFi coverage was dreadful. But I appreciate The Good Place offering a counterbalance to the idea of the infinite “March of Progress”—in balance, it is important not to think of the Middle Ages overall as either “The Dark Ages” or “The Good Place.” The Middle Ages, like all eras—including our own—was more complex than that.

The Medieval Points System

Where I differ from The Good Place’s concept of history is in their assertion that modern life is more complex, with more profound unintended consequences, than medieval life. In the show, the example that they give involves commerce. Michael offers two examples, drawn from the “Book of Dougs”:

In 1534, Douglass Wynegarr of Hawkhurst, England, gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her, she was happy—boom, 135 points.

By contrast, he says:

In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points. Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away — which created a massive carbon footprint — and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals…

In other words, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.

But who is to say that Douglass was really more ethical than Doug? Growing roses in your garden in 1534 surely incurs the opportunity costs of time and land use—surely Douglass, likely a member of the landed gentry, should be using his land for the benefit of his community rather than for something as seemingly frivolous as a rose. Late medieval Europe saw regular famines; in that very year, Italy was wracked by famine. Will no one think of the Italians? Come on, Douglass! 

And the act of growing roses also has an ethical class-based dimension. Roses, perhaps even more then than now, were symbols of luxury and conspicuous consumption at the end of the Middle Ages. Roses were grown in huge quantities, not just because they were pretty, but to meet the incredible demand among the aristocracy for rose water (used, both then and now, as perfume and to flavor food). Mia Touw, in her article for Economic Botany, “Roses in the Middle Ages,” notes that in medieval Persia, an extensive rose industry sprang up to meet the incredible demand of rich people’s noses and tongues. This was big business—rose water was exported en masse reaching as widely as Spain and China. So if roses were such an in-demand luxury, wouldn’t it be better to sell the roses and give the money to the poor? Come on, Douglass!

Also, roses weren’t just used for their flavor and smell. Rose products, like powdered roses, rose honey, rose sugar, and rose syrups were also used in medieval medicines to stop bleeding, reduce fevers, and kill pain. So while it’s all very nice that Douglass elected to give a dozen to his grandmother, wouldn’t they be better used healing the sick? Come on, Douglass!

And even discounting this, who is to say that Douglass did not exploit labor? If Doug is wealthy enough to own a pleasure garden with roses in it, it is absolutely likely that he has tenant subsistence farmers laboring on his lands.  Come on, Douglass!

All I’m saying is that Douglass, like modern Doug, is also forking piece of shirt who deserves to go to hell for giving his grandmother roses. 

Or maybe, I am saying that historical people’s lives were complex too. We imagine the Middle Ages as a time of agrarian simplicity, but there was no time on earth when growing a rose was simply growing a rose. Yes, there is no such thing as fully ethical consumption under late Capitalism. But then and now, it is important for us to do our best and remember there have always unintended consequences throughout history.

If You Can’t Do the Time…

And medieval people knew all about consequences. If anything, medieval people were even more obsessed with the consequences of their actions than we are. For those of you familiar with Catholic practice, you’re familiar with the ideas of sin, confession, and penance—that when you do (or even think) something bad, you are expected to confess your sins to a priest, who then gives you an activity to do in order to make up for the transgression. This is different than some Protestant practice, which dictates that the keys to absolution are faith and asking God for forgiveness. 

The 16th-century chantry chapel of Bishop Edmund Audley, in Salisbury Cathedral, England. Photo credit: David Nicholls, (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Medieval Christian cosmology was ordered according to a sort of points system. The sins you committed on earth earned you a temporary spot in purgatory (unless you were bad enough to go immediately to hell), where you would wait until your time was up. People praying on your behalf would earn you a shortened sentence—so, of course, rich people figured out how to game the system.

Wealthy medieval European Christians would often donate enough money to the Church to buy and decorate a small section of a church or cathedral (called a “chantry chapel“). This chapel would be used by priests hired specifically for the purpose of singing masses for the dead in an effort to allow them to jump the heavenly queue. This was one of the ways in which the medieval Catholic church was able to accumulate huge amounts of wealth.

But even if you were not wealthy enough to buy that particular heavenly Fastpass, there was another way. If you visit a medieval Cathedral in Europe, you’ll find the floor is often paved with grave markers (called Ledger Stones)—many now blank from the wear provided by centuries of feet. The placement of these stones was not just for spiritual bragging rights, though. If your grave marker lay underfoot in a popular pilgrimage route, it’s likely that you’ll get at least a few pilgrims including your name in their prayers as they walked. That meant that prime real estate was as good as a get-out-of-purgatory free card—and those ledger stones that survive reveal that they were purchased by merchants and craftspeople all the way up to the aristocracy.

But there also was a way to shorten your time in purgatory before you died. We know what the medieval “points system” looked like in practice, by looking at a genre of literature called “penitentials.” 

A penitential is, in essence, a manual for priests hearing confession, so that they can offer an appropriate penance to absolve a person’s guilt. Knowing this was incredibly important—if, as a priest, you are a bit too light-touch with your penances, it may mean that your parishoner’s heavenly Excel spreadsheet would not be set to rights! But if you were a bit too heavy-handed, you might find your parishioners not doing their penances, or seeking out priests who were a bit more lenient.  

By the end of the Middle Ages, penitentials were incredibly popular. They were among the first international best-sellers in the post-printing press book trade.

These books are very medieval indeed. The first penitentials were developed in sixth century CE Ireland. And wonderfully, they offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of medieval people. While some penitentials may have been embellished for the sake of being thorough (or because of a particular writer’s personal obsessions), in their broad strokes, they can show us what medieval people were doing, and what they were feeling guilty about. 

These penitentials were just as concerned with unintended consequences as The Good Place’s Points System. Take, for example, in The Penitential of Theodore. This penitential was written around 700 CE, and based upon the judgements of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury. Incidentally, this Theodore is Theodore of Tarsus, the Greek bishop from what is now Turkey that Sihong Lin discussed as a prime example of cultural diversity in early medieval England. 

But back to his penitential. It says:

If one, without knowing it, permits a heretic to celebrate the Mass in a Catholic church, he shall do penance for forty days.

Just because you didn’t know they were a heretic doesn’t mean you’re not going to lose points! Sorry, Douglass! 

Or another in A Book of David:

He who enjoys the fruits of robbery or fraud, half a year.

You didn’t know those goods were stolen? Too bad, Douglass, six months for you! 

They also punished what may have been accidents, like in The Preface of Gildas:

One who has broken a hoe which was not broken before, shall either make amends by an extraordinary work or perform a special fast.

Accidentally broke that rake? Too bad, Douglass—no supper for you! 

Or maybe the harshest one of all:

One who unwittingly eats carrion, forty days.

Seriously, Douglass. 

The Precise Utilitarian Morality of Butt Stuff

In The Good Place, the most put-upon accountant in the whole Accounting Department is Matt—who is in charge of judging “Weird Sex Things.” Now, there’s no kink-shaming here at The Public Medievalist—if anything, the idea that “Weird Sex Things” among consenting adults is liable to lose you morality points is practically medieval. And if the penitentials have anything to say about it, Matt was very busy being a judgey ash-hole during the Middle Ages. 

First off, the obvious ones. There are medieval judgements against those things which are still sins under Catholic dogma: adultery and homosexuality are given harsh punishments. But, contrary to those who might (wrongly) argue that homosexuality is only a modern-day phenomenon, Theodore gives same-sex desire a very thorough going over. He gives different punishments based upon the gender of the participants, their ages, the specific sex acts, and who is the penetrating versus the receiving partner. Theodore was very interested in this. 

Obviously same-sex desire has been commonplace throughout history, as has been some clergy members’ deep obsession with it. 

Theodore also considers sex acts that we consider pretty beyond the pale today—incest is fobidden (including among brothers and among mothers and sons, but oddly not fathers and daughters or between sisters). 

Bestiality is right out. Can’t say I disagree. Consent is paramount.

But the Penitential of Theodore is more thorough than that—including bans on several things that are not necessarily considered immoral today.  It says that anyone who fornicates with a virgin gets a year of punishment (whereas fornicating with a married woman gets you four).

Masturbation, for men, (“if he defiles himself”) gets forty days. But for women (“If she practices solitary vice”) gets three years! Someone “who amuses himself with libidinous imagination” also gets a slap on the wrist. And even someone who “loves a woman in his mind”—and who, after approaching her about it, is rejected—has to do penance. 

But I bet you can’t guess the one act in this catalogue of smut that gets the worst condemnation. The one act called “the worst of evils”, which carries a penance “to the end of life”: 

Qui semen in os miserit

In other words, taking semen in the mouth. 

Clearly, our ideas about what is and isn’t okay in the bedroom are more than a little subjective.

The Problem with the Points System

I’m excited to see where The Good Place is going to end up in its final season. But ethics and morality cannot—should not—ever be boiled down a simple answer of right and wrong. It certainly should not given the veneer of mathematical precision, no matter how many ineffable accountants agree. Goodness is fundamentally subjective, qualitative, and human.  

If there has been one big universal truth that has come out of the show, it is that yes, life is complicated. It always has been, and hopefully, it always will be. That complexity means that living a “good life” is not easy. There is no such thing as completely good, no world without unintended consequences. Pobody’s nerfect.

And nerfect changes. Neither medieval penitentials nor The Good Place’s accountants seem to accept that morality changes over time. In Theodore’s time, some sexual acts were beyond the pale that are considered pretty tame today. It is likely that in another thousand years, some of the things we consider tame may be taboo again—or maybe some of our taboos will become shrug-worthy. In the Middle Ages, growing roses was maybe not as simple as we imagine it to have been. But in the same breath, that does not excuse us from considering the ethical implications of our actions. Otherwise we turn into M&M-Peep-chili eating nihilists.

The best that can be expected of humanity—whether medieval or modern—is that we take the time to consider the impact of our actions on other people. We have to be good, not just for ourselves, our families, and for people who we have been told are like us, but for those beyond our tribalistic impulses. We have to lift up those outside our communities, those who we have been told are not like us, or more, those who our society brands as undeserving. We have to do the best we can while understanding that there will always be a better way. We have to make genuine efforts to fix the things we break, to heal the people we hurt, and to earn forgiveness for our mistakes. And mostly, we must never, ever be a Brent. 

And if that is not enough for the cosmos, then fork ‘em. 

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Game of ThronesGender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

How Medieval are the Eunuchs in Game of Thrones?

This is Part 14 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Jes Battis. You can find the rest of the series here.

Castration is a spectre that looms large in Game of Thrones. Three of the principal characters in the show—Varys, Grey Worm, and Theon Greyjoy—have undergone various forms of castration. A core of Daenerys Targaryen’s army, “the Unsullied” (a title that itself bears unpacking), is made up entirely of castrated men. But how common were eunuchs in the actual Middle Ages? Does Game of Thrones exaggerate their importance to medieval culture, or simply reveal how central they were? Eunuchs were actually quite a vexed subject in the Middle Ages. Some medieval eunuchs became so voluntarily, but many did not. Not all Eunuchs defined their gender in a fixed way: some, like Peter Abelard, identified as male, while others identified (or were read) as belonging to a gender spectrum. We see a lot of Eunuch-phobia in medieval texts, which were trying to grapple with people who didn’t adhere to strictly masculine or feminine roles. But the religious chastity of some eunuchs was also valued. This made matters even more complicated, since eunuchs were both celebrated and attacked, often in the same sentence.

Eunuchs and Orientalism

A depiction of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a biblical figure from the New Testament. Detail: The Menologion of Basil II, MS. Vat. gr. 1613, 1000AD.

Eunuchs were often considered a “foreign problem” within medieval Europe, in much the same way that gender diversity has often been read as “foreign” by European colonizers in the post-medieval world (and even today). Eunuchs always seemed to be coming from elsewhere, bringing their unwelcome cultural politics along for the ride. In his book The Manly Eunuch, historian Matthew Kuefler notes that early medieval theologians would have been accustomed to “the visible presence of eunuchs all around in the households of the wealthy.” They criticized what were, essentially, migrant workers, while acknowledging the stereotypical qualities that would have made them excellent bureaucrats and managers—there was a widespread belief that their supposed lack of desire made them focused on their jobs and “safe” around women. Ancient historian Piotr Scholz, in his book Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History notes that eunuchs “generally came as slaves from Byzantium, where they had been castrated for psalmody.” China also had a community of eunuchs who worked as bureaucrats and archivists. As a workforce, they were primarily fashioned beyond the borders of continental Europe, which meant that they were framed according to stereotypes about the East, or the “Orient.” This is central to understanding medieval eunuchs as well as their depiction in Game of Thrones, as is the concept of Orientalism.

Orientalism is a term coined by Edward Said in 1978 to refer to the way the “West” views the “East”—as exotic, alluring, inscrutable, and threatening; this view continues to be perpetuated in popular culture. As a result of their perceived origins, Eunuchs often become shorthand for “exotic” in medieval texts. For example in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century Arthurian romance Parzival, a “foreign” (Italian) eunuch named Clinschor reacts to love in much the same way that the Grinch reacts to singing. Since many medieval European countries had laws forbidding the creation of eunuchs, their presence was seen as a kind of creeping foreign influence. But they also provided an essential service—the word eunuch literally means “bed guardian,” and eunuchs, in addition to being archivists and bureaucrats, were often confidantes and what we might now call hospitality managers.

Eunuchs had a shifting place in the medieval gender spectrum. The most popular forms of medieval literature included bodies of all kinds. The thirteenth-century French adventure story Silence features a central character who is gender non-conforming—as Gabrielle Bychowski explored in her article “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” But it is not just Silence themself who embodies this: in the poem, there is a character who is the personification of Nature (and who argues, at length, with “Reason” about Silence’s gender). Nature is personified as having “at least a million molds” (l. 1887) for different people. This implies that medieval readers were primed to see humanity as full of possibilities, including gender diversity—even if medieval society overwhelmingly was constructed around male privilege. Chaucer even describes one of his pilgrims, the Pardoner, as a “gelding” (eunuch), but also as a “mare” (which could mean many things!). Medievalists like Carolyn Dinshaw and Kim Zarins have read the Pardoner as queer, nonbinary, and intersex, while pointing to ways in which the medieval gender spectrum was broad enough to admit many identities.

Gender was complex in the Middle Ages, as it still is today. In his book Making Sex, Thomas Lacqueur discusses how philosophers like Galen (CE 130–210) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) supported a one-sex model in which men and women were essentially inversions of each other. Galen writes:

All the parts, then, that men have, women have too…[turn] outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man’s, and you will find them the same in both in every respect.

But scholar Michelle Sauer, in her book Gender in Medieval Culture, is quick to point out that

the one-sex body is never an egalitarian one; instead, it is slanted in favour of the idea that the male is the primary form, and that women are in some way inadequate.

An illustration of a 1150 edition of the Ancient Roman play “The Eunuch” by Terence. The Eunuch himself is wearing the jaunty cap in the center. Bodleian Library MS. Auct. F. 2. 13, 47r.

Nevertheless, for some medieval thinkers, there was a certain amount of play. The Galenic model saw bodies as containers full of “humoral” substances—as in, the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These were each assigned attributes: hot and dry, or cold and wet. Too much of one or another could create physiological changes. In Humoring the Body, Gail Kern Paster describes bodies as leaky vessels full of unstable materials sloshing around. This instability meant that bodies were always transitioning, never simply one thing. Eunuchs were often seen as combining both masculine and feminine characteristics, mixing humors, in ways that could be both beautiful and dangerous. They endured public scrutiny and criticism, but could also be folded into the structure of societies like medieval Byzantium, as singers, guardians, and vital bureaucrats.   

Eunuchs and Byzantium

Several medieval literary figures provide parallels to Varys and the other eunuchs of Game of Thrones. They show that there was a broad scope of treatment of eunuchs in various positions—secular, religious, and literary—in the Middle Ages. For a thousand years, Byzantium was one of the cosmopolitan centers of the world. In The Perfect Servant, her book on Byzantine eunuchs, Kathryn Ringrose describes eunuchs as an indelible aspect of Byzantine culture:

Accepted for centuries as a functionally legitimate group, eunuchs were a feature of Byzantine society throughout its history, a history that traditionally extends more than a thousand years from the founding of Constantinople in 324 to its capture by the Turks in 1453.

Eunuchs were also prized for their voices, and Ringrose mentions “the chorus of eunuch singers who provided music both at [Byzantine] court and in the church.” Even beyond the Middle Ages, the seventeenth-century craze for opera ensured that eunuch performers (like the famous soprano Farinelli) continued to dominate the stage.

Narses the Eunuch, detail from Justinian’s Mosaic, made in Ravenna, Italy, in 547 CE.

Beyond singers and courtiers, eunuchs could also be warriors. For example, Narses was a general and politician who served two Byzantine emperors from 478–573 CE. His early life is shrouded in mystery. Historian Michael Edward Stewart notes that:

most of what we know of his life before 530, and in particular, how and when he became a eunuch, is based on conjecture rather than concrete evidence.

Much like Grey Worm from Game of Thrones, Narses controlled an army. But he was also the imperial treasurer, putting him on a more equal footing with Varys. At one point, he governed much of northern Italy. The Empress Sophia—wanting to put him in his place—apparently sent him a distaff (a yarn spinning tool) and told him that he ought to be weaving with the ladies. Narses replied:

I will weave such a web around you that you’ll not be able to break through it as long as you live.

That’s some shade from a powerful eunuch.

Some Byzantine writers defended eunuchs. Theophylact of Ohrid was an eleventh-century rhetorician, who left us with biblical commentaries and over 100 detailed letters. His brother, Demetrios, was a eunuch. Theophylact wrote Defense of Eunuchs for his brother’s sake—the first two lines are: “My brother is the reason for this treatise / he is a eunuch, a model of honest life.” This remarkable text takes the form of an overheard argument between a person (possibly a courtier) and a eunuch, whose nephew has just been castrated. The courtier disapproves of what he sees as lax morals, and criticizes the older eunuch for passing these on to his nephew. But the eunuch—“a living refutation of the accusation”—responds that only foreign eunuchs are immoral. Local eunuchs from Greece, like himself, are upstanding citizens! Here was can see exoticism at work on a number of levels, as different countries tried to justify their treatment of eunuch citizens.

There are two important details to take away from this dialogue. The first is the older eunuch’s refutation of criticism: “No matter how much you call us criminals, vice does not reach us.” Eunuchs, he claims, aren’t the ones to be afraid of in this hostile world. The second detail occurs in the epilogue, when both the eunuch and the other speaker embrace and kiss each other civilly. The nephew—a eunuch child—has been there the whole time, listening silently.

The eunuch took into his arms the child, his nephew, who was sitting nearby them and listening attentively, and gave him numerous kisses, since he was happy about the debate concerning the child, which had unfolded without harm.

In the end, the eunuch child is loved, held, and valued.

Catholic Eunuchs

Peter Abelard, from a 14th century edition of “Romance of the Rose.” National Library Wales MS 5016D, 28r.

The western Catholic Church had extraordinarily mixed feelings about eunuchs. This can be seen in the life of Peter Abelard, the twelfth-century philosopher and theologian who was castrated as punishment for his affair with Héloïse d’Argenteuil. Abelard describes his downfall in a letter, often called the Historia Calamitatum [“Story of My Misfortunes”]. In the Historia, Abelard recounts how Fulbert, the uncle of Héloïse, hired men to sneak into their bedroom and castrate him: “They cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.” In Part XIV of the letter, Abelard discusses positive representations of eunuchs, including:

that eunuch of great authority under Queen Candace who had charge of all her treasure, him to whose conversion and baptism the apostle Philip was directed by an angel.

But how did other medieval religious thinkers conceptualize eunuchs more generally? There was a distaste for any bodies that weren’t “virile,” but at the same time, philosophers celebrated chastity as an ideal. In his influential Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas notes that “it is not lawful for a man to maim himself for the sake of the soul’s welfare.” Here, he’s speaking of Christian saints like Origen, who castrated themselves to become more chaste. But, always the contrarian (since debate was at the core of medieval education), he also adds:

It may happen that although the removal of a member may be detrimental to the whole body, it may nevertheless be directed to the good of the community.

Intimate Eunuchs

Grey Worm, from Game of Thones, season 4 episode 8. Credit: HBO.

Eunuchs are larger-than-life characters in Game of Thrones. Varys commands an army of child-spies to do his bidding. He shamelessly manipulates the politics behind the Iron Throne. Grey Worm is a perfect soldier because he (supposedly) lacks worldly desires. Grey Worm both plays into, and disrupts, Orientalist fantasies around what a eunuch could be. He is “Eastern,” and comes from a cultural context not widely understood by other protagonists from Westeros (like Tyrion, who often seems turned off by the “excess” of the Eastern courts). Unlike Missandei, who has mastered a number of languages, Grey Worm has to slowly, painfully learn the dominant language used by Daenerys and her companions. He exerts physical power, rather than political influence. He’s much closer to the general Narses, or even to Demetrios, the eunuch brother of Theophylact. When Demetrios died, Theophylact mourned him in a letter:

[He was] the brother on whom my breath depended, who was really everything to me, who would throw himself into the path of fire and swords so that I could live relaxed and free from pain.

Grey Worm prepares for the Battle of Winterfell in Season 8 of Game of Thrones. Credit: HBO.

Grey Worm also throws himself into the path of fire and swords—proving that a eunuch in Westeros can be a warrior, a strategist, a lover, and a politician. He short-circuits the “scheming eunuch” narrative. Even if his home in Essos is often full of Orientalist trappings, Grey Worm himself manages to emerge as a singular character.

By contrast, Theon Greyjoy is castrated (in the show) by the psychopath Ramsay Bolton as part of a torture that seeks to strip him of personhood—Ramsay forces Theon to become a new person called only “Reek” in the process. But Reek/Theon continues to be a positive force in the show, even as he works to overcome the after-effects of his trauma. In the finale to season Seven (“The Dragon and the Wolf”), Theon wins a fight after his attacker, Harrag, kicks him between the legs—only to find that he is immune. Theon wins not because he’s stronger, but because he is more resilient—especially because his opponent can’t quite reckon with his nontraditional male body.

In another example, in the Season One episode “Fire and Blood”, Varys verbally spars with consummate schemer Littlefinger before the Iron Throne. Both characters use words rather than weapons. And more, both characters are linked to sexuality: Littlefinger runs a brothel and manipulates his victims through sex; by contrast, Varys knows everyone’s sexual proclivities, though his own remain a mystery. Littlefinger tries to dehumanize Varys by speculating on what might lie beneath his robes. Varys responds, playfully: “Do you spend a lot of time wondering what’s between my legs?” Littlefinger tells Varys what he pictures, and Varys responds: “I am flattered, of course, to be pictured at all.” He refuses to play this game and retains the dignity of his private body.

This scene is about power. These two political instigators stand framed by stained-glass windows, their position equal. Varys remains unmoved by Littlefinger’s taunts, telling him: “You can do better.” We get a sense of how someone like Varys—who can be read variously along a gender spectrum—could have dealt with people’s aggressive curiosity. Varys uses male pronouns, but his clothing and aesthetic is nonbinary, and as a trained actor, he can take on a variety of tones and appearances. We know little about his own desires, or how he experiences his gender, since his perspective is limited (probably because he knows too much!).

Game of Thrones wants us to underestimate characters like Varys, Theon, and even Grey Worm. But then, it pulls the rug out from under us again and again. Ultra-masculine characters like Sandor Clegane and Euron Greyjoy are presented as figurative or literal monsters; this also suggests that Martin, and by proxy showrunners Benioff and Weiss, has something interesting to say about masculinity in general. And while eunuchs were (and are) sometimes regarded by society as less-than-men, it is telling that the final line Bran Stark says, to thank Theon for sacrificing his life, is “You’re a good man. Thank you.”

While the show plays with stereotypes about eunuchs, it also taps into a rich discussion of their complex role in the Middle Ages. They were politicians, generals, and philosophers. They frustrate our assumptions, while arguing for the sovereignty of their own bodies.

If you enjoyed that article, please share it with your history-loving friends on Facebook, or on Twitter! And be sure to subscribe here to receive every new article from The Public Medievalist the moment it launches.

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Game of ThronesThe Public Medievalcast

The Public Medievalcast: Episode 1

Click here for a transcript of this episode.

Introducing a brand new podcast from The Public Medievalist! The Public Medievalcast is going to be all the content you know and love from us here at The Public Medievalist in a new format: stories that connect the medieval and the modern, and that delve into the ways in which the medieval world– for better and for worse– still has a place in modern culture, politics, and more.

For now, this is an experiment. So, we would love your feedback! And if you are interested in helping us with this new adventure, get in touch at

Ep. 1: A Conversation of Ice and Fire (with Kinitra Brooks, Shiloh Carroll, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas)

Our first episode is a post-Game of Thrones group discussion with three scholars who have a lot of thoughts about how the show came to a close. They are: Kinitra Brooks (Michigan State), Shiloh Carroll (The Public Medievalist), and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (University of Pennsylvania). They discuss how David Benioff and D. B. Weiss “sh*t the bed” with the final episode “The Iron Throne”, and how their depictions of women and people of color disappointed to the very end. George R.R. Martin might not be comfortable with it too, though he may be uncomfortable all the way to the bank.

But our panelists didn’t stop there– these scholars dissect the necessary questions about why representation matters in medieval fantasy and event TV, and about what other works of fiction are doing it much, much better.

Books by our Panelists

The Lemonade Reader: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

The Lemonade Reader, edited by Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin.

The essays, written by both scholars and popular bloggers, reflects a broad yet uniquely specific black feminist investigation into constructions of race, gender, spirituality, and southern identity.

Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones

Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, by Shiloh Carroll.

Game of Thrones is famously inspired by the Middle Ages – but how “authentic” is the world it presents?

The Dark Fantastic

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.

Reveals the diversity crisis in children’s and young adult media as not only a lack of representation, but a lack of imagination.

Recommended by our Panelists:

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (and everything else she’s written)

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor (and everything else she’s written)

Show Credits:

Host: Paul B. Sturtevant

Panelists: Kinitra D. Brooks, Shiloh Carroll, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Transcription by Samantha Mcdonald

Show Music: “Medieval Joy” by MusicHook

Special thanks to the Medieval Academy of America

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Game of Thrones

Who Won the Game of Thrones?

Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for the series finale of Game of Thrones.

“History is written by the victors.”

It’s a pithy, if often incorrect, phrase. History is often not written by the winners. It’s written by the writers. And those writers, no matter what side of which conflict they found themselves on, always brought themselves, their biases and their prejudices to the histories they wrote. Many a conquering hero has been rendered a villainous tyrant by an historian. Many rebellious rabbles have been reframed as a glorious revolution with the stroke of a pen. Every nation that exists was built by stories well before they were built by laws.

In Game of Thrones you could rightly say that, as the show came to a close, racism, sexism, and ableism are certainly candidates for the title of the ultimate winner of the Game. But in the final denouement of the series, the show meditates on history and history-making in a way that shakes up the traditional narrative that history is written only by the winners. It shows us three characters making, and remaking, history in their own image and for their own purpose. The histories that they make tell us as much about our contemporary ideas of how history is (and should be) made as they do about the world of Westeros.

 So, who wrote the history in Game of Thrones?  Who won?

Archmaester Ebrose

Tyrion and the new Small Council meet. Season 8, episode 6. Credit: HBO.

First, the obvious answer. In the small council meeting we are shown in the flash-forward, Tyrion, hand of the new king, is given a book by Samwell Tarly, who proudly proclaims it to be: “A Song of Ice and Fire. Archmaester Ebrose’s history of the wars following the death of King Robert” (in an obvious wink-and-a-nod to the A Song of Ice and Fire books upon which the show is based).  Tyrion then scours the pages, inquiring whether the Archmaester has treated his legacy kindly or not. Sam can only say, diplomatically, “I don’t believe you’re mentioned.”

It’s meant to be a laugh line. But a sad one. It’s funny because Tyrion’s ego can’t really accept his obscurity. But that obscurity, and our ego in the face of it, is something almost everyone can share with Tyrion. In that moment, the audience is forced to accept that, while people famously see themselves as the protagonist of their own story, few (if any) of us will even be footnotes in future histories. This is a brutal fact of life, no matter what mountains we may climb, or trials we may face in our lifetimes.

But we in the audience know this to be a kind of injustice. Tyrion, despite his seeming inability to make a good decision after season 5, was a major player in the events of the show. To see him written out of the official history requires some explanation. Was it because his actions were often in the private, rather than public sphere? Was it because he was an administrator and dealmaker rather than a king of a commander? Was it because he is a dwarf?

Writing history is a violent act. For all of the threads that even the most judicious of historians uses to weave their tapestry, other threads are cut or left behind. And all of it is at the mercy of the prejudices and priorities of the historian, who ultimately decides not just the “simple” matter of who is right and who is wrong, but who is worthy of being remembered and who is not.

This is especially—though by no means exclusively—true of medieval chronicles. Part of the work we have been doing here at The Public Medievalist is recovering and presenting the voices of people who were disregarded by the major medieval sources, or worse, were disregarded by later historians. Those later historians were the very ones who decided which sources were “major” and which ones were not—which stories were worth retelling and which were not. But there are also those whose stories will never be recovered—disproportionately the stories of those who are poor, are disenfranchised, are women, are black, brown, indigenous, or people of color, are LGBTQ+, or are people with disabilities.

People like Tyrion. People like you. People like me. What was done to them was a violence that cannot be undone. So while we may laugh at this pot shot against Tyrion Lannister’s ego, we should remember that we are also laughing at ourselves, or, at the worst, at those who have been relegated to the margins of history.

Brienne of Tarth

Brienne of Tarth rewrites Jamie’s history. Season 8, episode 6. Credit: HBO.

The second history writer we see is Brienne of Tarth. We find her as a newly minted Lord Commander of the Kingsguard; she is adding to Jamie Lannister’s entry in The Book of Brothers that chronicles the heroic exploits of every member of the Kingsguard throughout its history. Medievalists on twitter snarkily lost their minds over her poor scribal technique (she closed the book before letting the ink dry—a rookie mistake that will smear Jamie’s life story all over the facing page!!!). But in her work is something more important than a scribal mistake.

Image result for jaime lannister season 1
Jamie Lannister, circa season 1. Remember season 1? Yeah, neither do I. Credit: HBO.

One of the questions shot throughout the show is whether or not Jamie is a hero. He, especially in the first few seasons, cuts the image of the chivalric hero: chiseled jaw, gold armor, prowess, and swagger for days. But the show also begins as a grimdark satire on chivalric fantasy: the knight seemingly best suited for King Arthur’s court is shown to be cruel, deceitful, and, icing on the cake, in an incestuous relationship with his twin sister (which is perhaps the only answer to a weird joke about what if Oedipus and Narcissus had kids).

But as the show goes on, Jamie lurches from villain, to anti-hero, to sort-of hero, to tragic figure. He is shown to not always be an amoral monster, and is revealed to have made great personal sacrifices for the good of everyone when he assassinated the Mad King. He defects from his sister’s army to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with people who hate him against the army of the dead because he knows it is the right thing to do. But once that is done, he loves-and-leaves Brienne and defects back into the arms of his evil sister, where he dies.

So, all in all, Jamie’s complicated. He’s an especially complicated depiction of knighthood. He is neither the stereotype of gleaming chivalry nor just the counter-stereotype of the brigand-in-fancy-armor that contemporary audiences have come to expect.

But when Brienne sits down to finish Jamie’s story, all of this falls away. We know Brienne’s feelings about Jamie are complicated; she looked up to him. She loved him. And, just after consummating their love, he callously left her behind to go die with his sister. If anyone is going to be objective about Jamie Lannister, Brienne of Tarth is not that person.

But she is.


The Book of Brothers. Season 4, episode 1. Credit: HBO.

But Brienne seems to understand that The Book of Brothers is not about the reality of the person, but about the legacy and honor of the institution of the Kingsguard. The Kingsguard is reflected by the text. The book is history-as-mythmaking, and the scene shows the viewer, in real time, the sausage-making of history. Even—especially—historical authors who were anonymous, and wrote with as much dispassion as Brienne did, are ultimately not necessarily telling the objective truth. It is easy to get suckered into believing that a text presented seemingly without emotion is closer to the truth than one that wears its biases on its sleeve. But that simply isn’t so.

In the immediate aftermath of the episode, that moment was thoroughly meme-ified on social media. My favorite version was the meme that simply added to the end: “Also a fuccboi.” Because that is much closer to Brienne’s truth than what was ultimately committed to the annals of Westerosi history.

Nicely played, @BOGO4Corduroy. Note: It’s unclear if this is the original author of the meme; if you know who is, send me a link so I can credit them.

So, as in Game of Thrones as in actual history, objectivity is an illusion, as often as not hiding the truth by erasing the author’s subjectivity as revealing it. Which brings us very neatly to:

Brandon Stark

Bran is elected king. Season 8, episode 6. Credit: HBO.

Interestingly, the reason for Bran’s election as the new King of the realm is, in part, based upon his history. When Tyrion proposes choosing Bran, he begins:

I’ve had nothing to do but think these past few weeks, about our bloody history, the mistakes we’ve made. What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story… than Bran the Broken?

Immediately, Game of Thrones fans on Twitter cried foul, and not just because the moniker “the Broken” is eye-rollingly ableist. Several others in that council had stories that were as good or better. Bran’s story, especially as Tyrion characterized it as “he knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly…” can be read as the apotheosis of inspiration porn. Bran had shown no interest in or aptitude at leadership and, since becoming the supernatural Three-Eyed Raven, had shown a callous disregard and total disinterest in the people around him. Not exactly leadership material, especially when compared to his sister Sansa, who had survived incredible abuse and became a competent and capable Queen in the North.

Sansa Stark, Queen of the North. Zero f*cks given. Credit: HBO.

But what seems to clinch it for Team Bran is Bran’s position as a super-historian—or at least, as the public stereotype of the perfect historian. Having taken the power of the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran can enact the fantasy of many historians: he can walk, unseen, any time and place in the past and observe events as they occurred. He has shown that this ability allows him to cut through lies and deceptions, and upend long-held myths. He has even shown a limited ability to rewrite the past, and thus his present.  And because he knows the past, he knows what needs to happen in order for the future to turn out well.

But taking on the knowledge of the entirety of human history renders Bran dispassionate, emotionless. He embodies is the fantasy of the “objective historian”, the best hope of George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Tyrion says as much:

He is our memory. The keeper of all our stories. The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs. Our defeats. Our past. Who better to lead us into the future?

I was immediately reminded of the 1995 film The American President—not just because the small council scene was, as Joe Reid pointed out at Primetimer, very Sorkinesque indeed. I was reminded of this because both Game of Thrones and The American President (wherein the President is a former history professor) imagine a better world that comes when an historian is given the seat of power.

The problem with this idea—that an objective historian can know the way forward—is similar to the problem with Brienne’s flattening of Jamie’s story. There is no such thing as an objective historian. Even someone like Bran, who can see events as they happened, would be left to guess at the inner lives of those involved, and required to editorialize about the thorny questions of who was in the right, and what the future ought to hold.

It also plays into the hands of a wider problem in our culture: the cult of objectivity. “Big Data” is touted as the solution to our problems. STEM education is promoted as superior to other fields. In fringe online communities, especially the self-described “alt-right” or “Men’s rights activism”, there is a feverish rejection of postmodern subjectivity in favor of an “objective truth” that they can reach by way of their “reason” and which they can access by virtue of being “rational” people. This is typically a convenient mask for their position as (typically) white (typically) men; they do not have to confront their prejudice and privilege, because they are the only ones being rational and objective (contrasted with those “irrational,” “emotional” women and people of color).

History doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid. History—even if we could see it played before our eyes—is inherently a subjective interpretation of competing accounts of subjective people interacting with other subjective people in subjective ways. Historians use their subjective judgement to decide what and who are subjectively important and what and who are not. It’s subjective all the way down.

That does not mean that the histories that they write are not true. But it is a folly of our current moment to assume that just because something is subjective, that it is not true—and that because something is objective, it cannot be false.

If Bran Stark did exist, I would not want him anywhere near the throne. That both George R.R. Martin and the showrunners seem to have fallen for this idea of crowning a mythical “objective” super-historian is, for this historian, very disheartening indeed.

So… Who Won?

So, who won the Game of Thrones? In the end, it ultimately didn’t matter much—both within the world of the story and also for the viewers. Because as in actual history, the stories of the wars that were fought and the people who rose to power is often far less interesting than the journeys of the flawed, complicated, and beautiful people outside these grand narratives. It was initially surprising to me that so much of the final episode of Game of Thrones was about history itself. At the end, it was similar to the musical Hamilton, with its recurring theme of: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

Tyrion, Brienne, and Bran all can teach us different lessons about what history is, what it is not, and how to treat historical texts. I can only hope that the next smash-hit historical epic (whether fantasy or not) embraces history in an even better way.

If you enjoyed that article, please share it with your history-loving friends on Facebook, or on Twitter! And be sure to subscribe here to receive every new article from The Public Medievalist the moment it launches.

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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is Based in History—Outdated History

Dr. Finn’s book, Fan Phenomena: Game of Thrones, is available here!

As a medievalist and early modernist, it’s easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of finding parallels between the universe of Game of Thrones (and the book series on which it is based, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin) and our own. Martin has said that he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Crusades. But he also cautioned readers not to look too closely into apparent parallels between his world and ours. In a 2005 interview with Roz Kaveney of The Independent, he explained that he used “a mix-and-match approach” to history and that “anyone who thinks that by identifying my source material they can predict my plot is going to be severely misled.”

That hasn’t stopped anyone from trying, of course, including me. Much virtual (and literal) ink has been spilled on the topic, but my interest in ASOIAF and GoT has more to do with the worlds of Westeros and Essos as refractions of medieval and early modern Europe rather than reflections. Reflections offer a mirror image, a glimpse into the medieval as it was; refractions, conversely, require that we look awry—to use Shakespeare’s phrasing from Richard II—and see not what actually happened but our own skewed perspective that shows us what we want to see. If our goal is to view the medieval as a Dark Age, safely tucked away behind centuries of progress, refraction is how we get there.

The Battle of Barnet, fought in 1471 during the Wars of the Roses. No dragons were harmed in the making of this image. Universiteitsbibliotheek Gent, Belgium, MS 263.

Maybe this is because I came to the books in a roundabout way. Back in the ancient year of 2002, I struck up a conversation at a party that somehow turned to my longstanding obsession with the Wars of the Roses—the civil wars that ravaged England for most of the fifteenth century. He asked if I’d read a book by some guy named George R.R. Martin that was “basically the Wars of the Roses with dragons.” The rest, one might say, is history.

I’ve always had an odd relationship with the story’s purported historicity. Martin’s mix-and-match approach to historical inspiration likely draws on secondary material rather than primary, which means that he is not using sources written down during the Middle Ages; he is instead using modern interpretations of those sources. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it does mean that there are several degrees of separation between the author (Martin) and medieval texts.

A recent edition of Les Rois Maudits by Maurice Druon that uses a quote by George R.R. Martin claiming it to be the “original Game of Thrones“.

In addition to history books and biographies, Martin has also mentioned historical fiction novels, in particular the French series Les rois maudits (The Accursed Kings) by Maurice Druon. This series takes place between 1314 and 1420, covering most of the Hundred Years’ War. But it was written in the 1950s and thus reflects the cultural and social norms of that decade. It also reflects the state of scholarship then, or, since academic knowledge famously can take decades to spread into popular understandings, even older scholarship.

Perhaps even more so than nonfiction, fiction attempts to bridge the gap between medieval culture and contemporary culture. As a result, historical fiction tells us more about the author and their audience than about the period in which the story is set. Druon spins a fantastic story, and he offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of King Edward II of England—surprising for the time because Edward was either bisexual or gay. But his female characters often end up falling into misogynistic stereotypes, and sexual assault is a frequent plot point.

Thus, the “history” behind A Song of Ice and Fire is a distillation of late 20th century popular history and Martin’s own aim to reinvent and reimagine Tolkienesque fantasy. That means many of the problems I have with the books (e.g. questionable gender dynamics, Orientalism) have their roots in what popular history was doing when Martin was writing the early books in the 1990s. This was still a very white, very male-dominated field, and those were the voices being amplified in both primary and secondary sources. While those conversations are getting (somewhat) more nuanced and diverse in academic circles, it hasn’t quite filtered into the popular consciousness.

In short, Martin’s “medieval” world in A Song of Ice and Fire bears little resemblance to the actual Middle Ages in Europe. When the first book was published in 1996, feminist and postcolonial perspectives were relatively uncommon in medieval studies. Most of the available books about these periods privileged the viewpoints of white men, even when other perspectives could be found in primary sources. Furthermore, many of these historians had been trained in a long tradition that was rooted in colonialist rhetoric. As I wrote elsewhere,

Although much has changed in academic medievalism since then, its popular counterpart remains trapped in assumptions born in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and we can see those reflected in the racial and gender disparities at work in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.

Obviously, this isn’t meant to let the author off the hook for problematic content. There’s a disturbing focus on sexualizing very young women throughout the books. Most, if not all, of the non-white characters are presented through an exoticized, Orientalist lens. Orientalism, according to critic Edward Said, represents what the West does not wish to acknowledge within itself, which it then displaces onto an exoticized East. The Dothraki and the inhabitants of Slaver’s Bay are, with a few exceptions (Grey Worm and Missandei, to a lesser extent Irri, Jhiqui, and Doreah), an undifferentiated horde meant to serve as mere window dressing for Daenerys Targaryen’s journey. There are almost no significant female friendships, in contrast to the many examples of male friendship. The closeness between Daenerys and Missandei, for instance, is an exception that proves the rule.

The friendship between Missandei and Daenerys was one of a very few female friendships portrayed in the entire series. Credit: HBO.

These issues are compounded in Game of Thrones; even the choice to make most of the main characters several years older than their book counterparts doesn’t make the women any less sexualized. And if we want to talk about Orientalism, the Dothraki in Game of Thrones are a textbook case, right down to their hopeless charge in “The Long Night.” This is not to mention the execution of Daenerys’ ally Missandei, the only named woman of color on the show, in chains at the end of Episode 8.04, in sharp contrast to other women such as Lyanna Mormont, who died fighting back against a clear enemy; or, in “The Bells,” the re-emergence of just enough Dothraki and Unsullied forces to massacre the citizens of King’s Landing while Jon Snow and his (literal and figurative) white knights mostly hold back on his orders.

This makes it all the more important for audiences and readers, as well as the showrunners and producers of Game of Thrones and its upcoming spinoffs, to stop making assumptions about the “accuracy” of Martin’s Middle Ages. His sources were steeped in outdated misogynist and colonialist perspectives, and while that isn’t necessarily his fault—he was working with what was readily available—it is vital to amplify the voices of those who have a better understanding of the real history and culture being exaggerated in Game of Thrones. We should perhaps be thinking more about what our fascination with this “grimdark Middle Ages” tells us about ourselves and our relationship to our own histories.

There is nothing wrong with loving Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the vivid, immersive worlds that George R.R. Martin has created. Within the universe itself is a fantastical history full of holes and contradictions, rumors, songs, and stories, and I, for one, find those cultural aspects of worldbuilding to be especially interesting. The show’s unexpected use of a ballad of Jenny of Oldstones—a character and song introduced in A Storm of Swords as a tragic and romantic figure from Westerosi history—for instance, in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” was a beautiful grace note.

What we get is enough that I ache for more, and from a more-diverse range of perspectives. What would Catelyn’s chapters look like if she had a lady-in-waiting or two to give her support and solace during her long journeys with Robb Stark’s armies? What if Cersei had an Escadron Volant (a group of beautiful, accomplished, and charming ladies-in-waiting) to spy on her enemies like Catherine de’ Medici did in sixteenth-century France? One of the signature aspects of A Song of Ice and Fire is that Martin tells the story through the eyes of a range of characters (Tyrion, Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Daenerys, among others). But what if we had even a few point-of-view characters amongst the Dothraki or the citizens of Meereen to learn what they thought of the Mother of Dragons?

The awesome, underutilized women of Dorne in Game of Thrones, season 5, episode 6. Credit: HBO.

The same can be said of the show, which offers too few characters of color. In fact, Game of Thrones cut several prominent characters of color who appear in the books, most notably in the Season Five Dornish mess (I refuse to call it a plotline). What might the show have looked like to see Arianne Martell and Ellaria Sand arguing over whether or not Dorne should go to war with the Iron Throne?  Where are the scenes of Arianne attempting to push Princess Myrcella into conflict against her brother Tommen?

We will never know, sadly. But even if we cannot have these things in the final season of Game of Thrones, perhaps the various spinoff series HBO has commissioned will offer a wider and more diverse sense of the worlds of Westeros, Essos, and beyond. And more than that, viewers and readers can demand more diverse, nuanced fantasy universes. Some of them may offer a better reflection of the Middle Ages; but even if they don’t, they may give us something wholly new and fascinating to capture our attention as Martin’s universe has.

Lastly, for those readers who might be considering writing their own fantasy novels with a medieval-ish setting, try thinking outside what pop culture tells you the Middle Ages is. Use your imaginations and create worlds that reflect not our worst impulses, but our better ones. Fiction doesn’t need to be grim to be realistic. Reality is far more interesting and diverse than that.

For Further Reading on Game of Thones and Medieval History

If you enjoyed that article, please share it with your history-loving friends on Facebook, or on Twitter! And be sure to subscribe here to receive every new article from The Public Medievalist the moment it launches.

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Game of Thrones

Brienne of Tarth is a Heroine for our Age

A couple of weeks ago, surrounded by pizza boxes and Game of Thrones-themed Oreos, my medieval literature students and I held our breath as Brienne of Tarth became a knight in name as she has always been in deed.

How the viewer first meets Brienne of Tarth. Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 3. Credit: HBO.

For both of you out there reading this who don’t watch Game of Thrones, Brienne has always been an example of valor for all Westerosi knights to follow. We first met her when she defeated Ser Loras Tyrell in a tournament, and, as her reward, asked only to be made a member of the Kingsguard. She continued to serve her sworn liege lady, Catelyn Stark, long after Catelyn was murdered with most of her family at the infamous Red Wedding. She fought to protect Lady Stark’s daughters, Sansa and Arya, even when they rejected her aid. She avenged the murder of her king, Renly Baratheon, even though no one was present to see this justice served. She even fought off a massive bear with nothing but a wooden sword! Brienne shows her viewers—especially the legions for whom she serves as a standard-bearer for female empowerment—what a woman can do.

Brienne of Tarth, just after being knighted in Season 8, Episode 2. Credit: HBO.

When Ser Brienne’s eyes glistened with pride at finally becoming a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms in Season 8 Episode 2, I felt that singular euphoria experienced by all women who have watched their personal heroine get the recognition she deserves. It was exhilarating.

Brienne’s prowess reminds me of Penthesilea, the militant woman who defends Troy in Greek mythology and, later, in medieval tales like Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies, John Lydgate’s Troy Book, and, my personal favorite, Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Romance of Troy. By fighting bravely and acting with honor, Brienne and Penthesilea both embody ideal knighthood. Yet despite their obvious prowess, neither Brienne nor Penthesilea fits in on the battlefield.

Queen Penthesilea (center-left) and the Amazons greet the Trojan king in a 14th-century manuscript edition of the 12th-century Roman de Troie. Source: BNF, Français 782, 158r.

When Penthesilea’s golden tendrils escape her helmet and cascade down her armored back in Benoît’s romance, they signal to her Greek opponents that she does not belong to the military brotherhood that unifies the rest of their adversaries. Instead, Penthesilea leads hordes of Amazons—mythical female warriors inspired by the mounted tribes of Scythia and Sarmatia (in Central Eurasia, especially present day Ukraine) and armed by Benoît with the weapons and techniques of medieval knights. When Penthesilea and the Amazons arrive on horseback to defend Troy, their audacious female knighthood makes them the primary target of the Greeks.

Likewise, Brienne is well-schooled in the rituals of knighthood even though those same rituals exclude her on the basis of her gender. In Season 8 Episode 2, she initially dismissed the suggestion of her own knighting, blaming “tradition” for the fact that “women can’t be knights.” We watched, enraptured, as Jaime Lannister knighted her anyway.

We relished Brienne’s newfound knighthood even as an army of the dead formed ranks before launching its assault on Winterfell. Perhaps there was hope?

Queen Penthesilea (center-left) mortally wounded. Source: BNF, Français 782, 164v.

Yet if Penthesilea and her mythical Amazons have taught us anything, it is that all is not possible for the women who fight and die with men. For Benoît’s Penthesilea, fighting the Greeks spells doom: the Greek soldier Pyrrhus cleaves her arm from her body, drags her from her horse, smashes her skull, and dismembers her while her Amazons watch in horror. Pyrrhus answers Penthesilea’s audacity with the most brutal death of medieval romance in any language in an attempt to purge her from the masculine rites of war.

Still, despite its horrifying finality, death does not conclude Penthesilea’s story.

The Greeks refuse Penthesilea an honorable burial, instead throwing the pieces of her body in the Scamander River. Yet this is not the end.

Her allies gather her body from the riverbanks and bury her with honor. Even this is not the end.

Her story concludes with songs that praise her accomplishments as a knight, in a legacy that echoes across the ages.

Such a death is not an end. It is not, as Samwell Tarly proposes in the same episode, while the allied Westerosi prepare for the Battle of Winterfell, “forgetting, being forgotten.” Heroic death is defined by the myths it engenders, the tales that preserve lives of honor for generations to come.

Brienne of Tarth, facing the Army of the Dead. Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 3. Credit: HBO.

My students revel in the valor, transmitted across the centuries, of women who flouted expectations of their gender. They do not immerse themselves in the study of medieval legends just to analyze Game of Thrones, fruitful as the comparisons may be. They pore over the heroines of the past to learn what it means to be a leader. They find inspiration in women who demanded the respect they knew they deserved and kept their vows even when it cost them their lives.

Last Sunday, when my students and I gathered again to watch the next episode, we felt sure we would witness the death of Brienne. We put aside grading, exams, and final papers to watch a woman we admire die for what she believes—to learn how Ser Brienne of Tarth would be remembered.

Yet, she did not die! We watched, spellbound, as she fought with honor alongside other brave women and men. We cheered together as she emerged victorious.

Brienne of Tarth celebrates victory with her comrades-in-arms. Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 4. Credit: HBO.

This week, in Season 8 Episode 4, Brienne stood alongside the grim-faced survivors of the Battle of Winterfell to commemorate the dead. With the pyres lit, Brienne shared in the celebrations of survival denied to Penthesilea: she drank with her comrades in arms and slept with Jamie Lannister, the man she loves; she called him to act with honor and, when he refused, she wept in despair.

Brienne is not, like Penthesilea, a tertiary character brutally sacrificed to build viewer sympathy by illustrating the ignominy of her opponents. Brienne does not exist merely to facilitate the progression of her narrative or anyone else’s.

Brienne dominates this final season of Game of Thrones. Depicted in the fullness of her humanity, Brienne’s emotional depth is matched only by her moral rectitude. Brienne is a heroine for our age, a testament to a generation demanding that women’s stories be told with passion and complexity.

This generation insists that our heroines no longer be punished for their audacity. This generation clamors to celebrate rather than condemn women’s excellence. A hunger for heroines is driving change in our society and forging paths for women—in all the imperfection and humanity that we now claim as our own, just as male leaders have for millennia—to take the reins.

Now that is exhilarating.

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Game of Thrones

You Know Nothing about Medieval Warfare, Jon Snow

Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones, Season 8 Episode 3: “The Long Night.”

In this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night,” viewers were treated to one of the most intense medievalesque battle sequences since the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The battle was plenty bloody (though surprisingly few main characters bit the dust—“plot armor” seems very tough to defeat indeed). But watching the battle unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder… why is everyone being so dumb?

Before you cry foul and mark me as yet another historian trying to “ruin” fantasy, I know that we’re not dealing with actual reality here. But even if you take the show’s universe at face value—wights and all—the tactics seen on the field of battle leave a lot to be desired. In fact, had they learned even a little bit from actual medieval tacticians, the battle could have gone a lot better for our heroes.

Probably the greatest, and most widely used manual of battle is the late-Roman book Epitoma Rei Militaris (The Epitome of Military Affairs). Over four volumes, author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (known commonly as, simply, “Vegetius”) lays out everything an aspiring commander needs to know: how to raise, equip, and train an army, how to construct fortifications, and crucially for us, how to win or resist a siege. The army of the living follows none of his advice.

A good place to start is one of Vegetius’ key maxims:

“what benefits you harms the enemy, and what helps him always hinders you.”

So let’s take stock of the advantages of each side—discounting any and all plot armor:

The Army of the Dead

1)      Already dead

They’re only mostly dead. Image: HBO.

Yes, it’s a bit obvious. But this is actually their chief advantage; the Army of the Dead are, as the name would imply, dead. They’re in no hurry. They have no need to eat. By contrast, supplying a medieval army was of the utmost concern to medieval commanders, as armies lived or died on their stomachs. Vegetius writes at length about protecting the supply chain, and implores commanders to have their men eat before a battle. The attacking English armies in the Hundred Years war went to great lengths to scour the countryside (in a tactic they called chevauchée) for food and supplies. They did this to feed their people (as they were essentially cut off from supply lines) and to weaken their French opponents.

Also, the army of the dead don’t, so far as we know, catch diseases. “Camp diseases” like typhus could devastate both sides during a long siege. During the siege of Baza in 1489, for example, the attacking forces lost about 3,000 people fighting the enemy, but a further 17,000 to typhus.

2)      An unfathomable number of light infantry (horde of surprisingly spry undead zombies)

There were no standing armies for the vast majority of the Middle Ages. Medieval light infantry were often conscripted from the local populace, and were therefore only rarely effective on the battlefield—at least by modern standards. Perhaps if they had been bestowed with an unrelenting hunger to rend the flesh of the living from their very bones, they might have been a bit more effective.

3)      Around 100 heavy infantry with javelins (White Walkers)

Next, on Wight Rider… Image: HBO.

We’ve only seen the White Walkers fight on foot, though we have seen them on undead-horseback; clearly that means they must fight like the Anglo-Saxons did at the battle of Hastings in 1066—riding into battle on horses, but dismounting to fight on foot.

4)      One undead giant

Elephant armour (bargustawan), Indian, Mughal, c. 1600. On display at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.

Vegetius had very little to say about undead giants, but he did talk at great length about how to use, and to defeat, the closest thing their world saw: War Elephants. He said:

“Elephants by their vast size, horrible noise and the novelty of their form are at first very terrible both to men and horses.”

He does not recommend deploying Mormonts against them (no matter how effective)—instead, they should be engaged by swift horsemen, infantry with ranged weapons, or ballistae (essentially giant siege crossbows). Since Cersei (and perhaps the showrunners) bemoan the fact that that she did not get her elephants, this is probably the closest we’re going to get.

5)      Total disregard for their own safety

Morale in battle is incredibly important to Vegetius—as he wrote:

“There are innumerable instances where the party that gave least way to despair was esteemed the conqueror.”

As a rule, even the best trained warrior will look askance when asked to lay down and die on a fiery trench so that their compatriots can walk over them. Some medieval stories, like the Song of Roland, include characters who seem to have total disregard for their safety, but I take heroic narratives like that with a grain of salt.  So for that, advantage: team dead.

6)      One nigh-unkillable lich king with a world-class throwing arm and a pet undead dragon.

Sadly, Vegetius does not have much to say about either Night Kings or dragons, though he does praise the effectiveness of javelineers. So, that’s something?

7)      Attacker chooses the time and season of battle

Mr. The Impaler himself. Portrait of Vlad III, held by Portrait Galerie, Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, Austria.

Battles in winter were rare in the Middle Ages, since, as a rule, the combatants were not fighting ice zombies. And the show illustrated why: fighting in wintry weather is awful for anyone not already dead. It makes battlefield communication—already a difficult task—nigh impossible, it means there were fewer supplies to sustain an army to be found across the countryside, roads became difficult or impassible, and morale plummeted. Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne famously planned his campaigns for the warmer months after a winter’s rest. So, advantage: dead.

Night battles were also extremely rare in the Middle Ages, due to some of the same frustrations viewers had: it’s damned difficult to tell what is going on and to differentiate friend from foe.  One notable exception was the Night Attack at Târgoviște in 1462, in which Vlad the Impaler (yes, that Vlad the Impaler), successfully ambushed the forces of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, at night. For Vegetius, nighttime is meant for resting your cohort, or spying on your enemy.

8)       Zombie attrition

Until the Night King dies, he can add any casualty from the Army of the Living to his. Even Vegetius might have been flummoxed by this one.

Key Disadvantages:

1)      Chess rules

Moorish women play chess. Miniature from the Libro de los Juegos, Escorial manuscript, f. 18, 1283 CE.

If the Night King dies, his entire army crumbles to dust. Game over. While that is a core mechanic of chess (a game played widely across the Middle Ages), it is not usually not the case in reality. That said, several medieval monarchs did die in battle. Those monarchs who did meet their end at the end of an enemy’s weapon very, very rarely won that battle posthumously—despite what Hollywood may tell you, Kings rarely led their forces from the front; if the king is forced to engage in combat, things are not going well. If they are in combat, it quickly becomes very difficult to maintain morale, cohesion, and battlefield communication.  One of the very few who did win after their death is Richard the Lionheart of England, who died while laying siege to a castle in France, and who, according to the chroniclers, pardoned his killer before he died. And then they were killed anyway.

The Army of the Living

The army of the living arrayed in front of Winterfell. Image: HBO.

1)      Defender chooses the field of battle: Winterfell

Being able to choose the place of a battle is no small matter. As Vegetius says, “The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.” Medieval people built castles like Winterfell for a very good reason—they were one of the most effective pieces of military architecture ever constructed. Vegetius devotes a whole volume to the defense and assault of fortifications like Winterfell.

Most castles built never fell to an enemy. Those that did, did not often fall due to direct assault; they much more commonly did because of starvation, negotiation, or subterfuge. Well-designed castles are engineered to force your opponent to fight at every possible disadvantage: weathering volleys of arrows from high walls, covered in streams of burning tar, or fruitlessly pushing through narrow gate after narrow gate. This should put the Night King on the back foot.

2)      100,000 light cavalry (Dothraki Screamers)

Note, all these numbers were drawn from this article on The Verge which pulled them from Reddit, so they—just like medieval chroniclers’ counts of army sizes—should be taken with a big grain of salt.

The Dothraki, before their final fatal charge. Image: HBO.

George R.R. Martin said that

“The Dothraki were actually fashioned as an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… Mongols and Huns, certainly, but also Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy.”

Leaving aside just how very racist it is to amalgamate those vastly disparate cultures in this way, many steppe and plains cultures were famous for their light cavalry, about which Vegetius has quite a lot to say:

“The light cavalry, consisting of the archers and those who have no cuirasses [i.e., chest armor], should be placed at a greater distance. The best and heaviest horse are to cover the flanks of the foot, and the light horse are posted as abovementioned to surround and disorder the enemy’s wings. A general should know what part of his own cavalry is most proper to oppose any particular squadrons or troops of the enemy.” 

In summary, light cavalry should be used primarily to harass the enemy’s flanks and fill them with arrows.

3)      8,000 elite heavy spear infantry (the Unsullied), 10,000 heavy infantry (Knights of the Vale) and 10,000 light infantry with bows (Northerners)

Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) leads the Unsullied. Image: HBO.

Visually, the Unsullied most closely resemble the armies of Alexander the Great. They are incredibly disciplined, packed blocks of spearmen with large shields acting in a phalanx formation. These tactics were much more common in the ancient world of the Sumerians, Seleucids, or Greeks than on medieval battlefields. However, despite their ancient pedigree, they could be potentially very effective at staving off a horde of undead. A key part of phalanx tactics was creating a massed wall of spears and shields that was incredibly difficult to penetrate. It was designed explicitly to push against the enemy formations arrayed at them, and resist whatever was thrown at them.

Detail of a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures, recording the first known phalanx formation in circa 2450 BC, Sumerian archaic dynasties. Held by the Louvre Museum.

By contrast, medieval men-at-arms like the Knights of the Vale or the Northerners, armed as they are with shorter weapons and smaller shields, would probably be less effective in the field against a zombie horde. These were often the backbone of medieval armies and, when well-equipped and trained, could be incredibly effective—though not necessarily against a tsunami of the dead.

4)      Catapults

The war machines of the army of the living. Image: HBO.

Vegetius calls these engines of war “mangonels” or “onagers,” but you know exactly what he means when he says:

“the mangonel shoots stones, and throws various weights in proportion to the thickness of the sinews and size of the stones. The larger the machine, the bigger the stones it hurls like a thunderbolt.”

These weapons were not limited to bringing down castle walls (though they were used for that), but commonly used by the Romans and people across the medieval world as field weapons to break enemy formations and terrify opposing forces.

5)      One all-knowing Three Eyed Raven.

Vegetius would look very approvingly on an omniscient supernatural being, as military intelligence is of utmost importance: “It is difficult to beat someone who can form a true estimate of his own and the enemy’s forces.” I suspect he might look less well on using your entire military intelligence service as bait.

6)      One 5’1” unstoppable assassin.

Arya Stark joined—and left—the Faceless Men of Braavos, an order of assassins clearly based on the group of Nizari Ismaili Muslims who were the basis for the “assassin” legend. This group was a religious minority who were able, for sixty years in the 11th and 12th centuries, to resist conquest by their vastly more powerful enemies by carrying out daring public assassinations (though contrary to the popular legend, never for money). Legends grew about their abilities, particularly because they had a flair for the dramatic. For example, one tale recounts that the Seljuk Sultan Ahmad Sanjar, one of their opponents, awoke one day with a dagger stuck in the floor of his tent. To the dagger was attached a message, roughly: had I wished the Sultan harm, instead of this dagger being stuck in the hard ground it could have been in his soft breast. The Sultan, allegedly, came to an understanding with them soon thereafter.

Their daring helped them survive. Though they obviously did not have the magical abilities Arya has, they were happy for their enemies to think they did. 

7)      Two Oedipus complexes riding attack helicopters with teeth (Jon and Daenerys).

Though Vegetius has little to say about dragons (or about sleeping with your nephew, for that matter), he does advise defenders of a siege to “procure bitumen, sulphur, liquid pitch and the oil which they call ‘burning-oil’, for burning the machines of the enemy.”  I suspect that he would approve of that being delivered from a reptile the size of a train.

8)      One Lyanna Mormont.

Lyanna Mormont, as inimitably played by Bella Ramsey. Image: HBO.

Enough said.

What the Army of the Dead Should Have Done

Waited. They should have just waited.

For a legion bound together by ice magic, the Army of the Dead really had no chill. Aside from the fact that, had the Night King waited just a few more years to breach the Wall, everyone in Westeros would likely have all killed each other in their sleep anyway, he had no reason to assault Winterfell. The best way for any attacker to resolve a siege is without much fighting at all: simply surround the castle, cut off all exits, and let starvation and disease set in. Vegetius devotes more of his book on siege warfare to this than to any other topic; he said:

“It is preferable to subdue an enemy by famine, raids and terror, than in battle where fortune tends to have more influence than bravery.”

For a medieval commander, a castle with ample supplies can last forever, but one ill-prepared for a long siege will fall without a fight. And as soon as you choose to fight, you open yourself to the possibility of failure despite having all the advantages. So, I can think of no more appropriate way for an army of the dead to behave than to entomb their enemy and simply wait. Winter is here, after all.

What the Army of the Living Should Have Done

Detail: Saul assaults a fortress of the Ammonites. Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v.

First things first: defend. The entire portion of the battle held outside the walls makes little sense outside of a dramatic, theatrical context. Knowing fully well that every individual who falls to the undead’s blades can immediately be raised as a member of their horde makes it critical to fight defensively and ensure that ten wights fall for each member of the living. As Vegetius recommends:

“When however a violent assault is prepared against forts and cities, deadly battles are fought with mutual danger to both sides but greater bloodshed for the assailants.”

That means staying in the walls of Winterfell; filling the battlements with archers and heavy infantry. If the undead wanted to, as they did, construct a human pyramid, World War Z-style, to reach the battlements, fine—treat them as Vegetius recommends:

“shoot from the larger catapults lighted fire-darts and fire-spears so that […] the flame may be planted inside it.”

Fresh warriors should always be at the ready in the courtyard to relieve those on the walls and to take the place of any who fall, so that holes in the defenses don’t develop. And if that pesky giant or dragon were to break down the gate or blow up a wall, Vegetius has a recommendation for that too:

“Countless examples demonstrate that enemies have often been slain to a man after they had invaded a city. This is the certain result, if the citizens hold on to the walls and towers and occupy the higher ground.”

Though this is also where the phalanx formations of the Unsullied would come in handy. Instead of dying valiantly in droves to cover the retreat of their white counterparts, their elite discipline could keep the dead from the city entirely.

And finally, their decision to place their catapults in front of the city walls where they could be put out of commission within the first twenty minutes of the battle is utterly unexplainable. Catapults should be placed on the walls, in the towers, and in the courtyard; an able commander wants those engines protected and working hard from the moment the battle begins until it ends. Vegetius praises the utility of catapults when defending against a siege:

“Catapults and mangonels, provided they are tuned very carefully by experts, surpass everything else. No amount of courage or armour can defend soldiers from them. For like a thunderbolt they generally either smash or pierce whatever they hit.”

Undead giant? I’ve got a catapult for that. White Walker with a javelin? Catapult. Uppity undead dragon? Catapult. When a problem comes along, you must catapult it. If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it. Check out my catapult while the DJ revolves it.

But what about the Dothraki?

What, indeed. The show showed us, with mournful music and beautiful cinematography, the great Dothraki horde charging headlong into the army of the dead. This was the opening gambit of the Army of the Living, and predictably, the Dothraki were swallowed without a trace. I was reminded of that other famous, doomed light cavalry charge—the “Charge of the Light Brigade” in the Crimean War of 1854 in which the British light cavalry were led in a suicidal charge against the Russian artillery. Alfred, Lord Tennyson rendered the doomed British cavalrymen into stoic heroes in his famous poem of the same name. But the best summation of that charge—and of the charge of the Dothraki in this episode, was uttered by French general Pierre François Bosquet:

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie. (It is magnificent, but it is not war: it’s madness.)

But what should they have done? Winterfell is surely far too small to hold a hundred thousand horsemen, and cooping them up behind the walls seems like a wasted opportunity—you can ride out to attack an army trying to starve you, but they are not much use against one assaulting the castle.

So instead, they should have done what they do best, and what Vegetius recommends light cavalry do: stay outside the walls. Harass the enemy flanks, shoot from afar, and use their horses’ mobility to outrun even the most determined ice-zombie. If they can pull the attention of a giant, a white walker, or even the Night King himself away from the castle, all the better. But their goal should have been the goal of any skirmishing force: damage, disrupt, and live to fight another day.

In laying this out, I may seem like another smug historian playing Monday-morning epic fantasy general. Fair enough. But the pointless deaths of the Dothraki and The Unsullied (except perhaps to heighten the tension and blunt Daenerys’ advantage going forward) are not just historical quibbles. Their deaths represent yet another instance where film and TV portray people of color—even those from warrior cultures—as so much cannon fodder. Whether fighting in service to, or against white people, they die in droves in Glory, Zulu, 300, The Alamo, and practically every western ever made. Princess Weekes put it well at The Mary Sue:

Watching them [the Dothraki] get slaughtered, and then the Unsullied basically holding down the line and staring into the face of an endless death so that the retreat can be protected, made me feel both proud and sad—proud because they died as warriors, which is how they were in life, but sad that, once again, the way to prove the strength of magical baddies was to put them up against POC and have those POC get slaughtered with prejudice.

Most of my concerns are admittedly quibbles, but it is on this front—where Game of Thrones already suffers from a lack of strong representation by characters of color, and where Daenerys’ story arc represents yet another racist “white savior” trope—that Game of Thrones and its inevitable legion of spin-offs, prequels, sequels, and imitators, needs to do better.

Thanks to Dr. Nick Dupras of Northern Michigan University for lending his expertise as a special editor of this article.

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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:

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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