Medieval Monday: Game of Thrones and the Real Middle Ages

I will say up front that I do not watch Game of Thrones–I’ve seen enough of it from my husband’s binge-watching sessions to know that while the storyline is good, the visuals are just way too graphic for me. I found this article interesting anyway, because Game of Thrones is not the first book, movie, or TV series to paint an overly dark picture of the Medieval era.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of brutality and tragedy (as there is in any era), but there were also many peaceful days in between during which ordinary people lived out their lives, working the land, learning skills, plying trades, and raising families. European culture flourished, bringing us incredible architecture, art, music, scholarship, and other worthwhile things that have endured to the present day. With so much focus on the dark aspects of this time in history, it is my hope that in some small way I’m helping to bring a more complete picture into the light with my Medieval Monday series.

Anyway, enjoy the article, and don’t hesitate to browse the Medieval Monday Index while you’re here.

What The New Footage From Game Of Thrones Can Teach Us About The Real Middle Ages by Matthew Gabriele

HBO just reminded us that Winter is here. In its new trailer for 2019, fans of Game of Thrones were only offered a few seconds of what will happen in the coming season, the show’s final one. We see a meeting of fire and ice, dragons and wolves, as Daenerys Targaryen with Jon Snow meets Sansa Stark at Winterfell. From last season, we know what’s to come: the wallas with all walls, didn’t work and the great war between the living and the dead approaches.

Although none of us fans can know for certain what’s to come, it’s probably fair to guess that the season will be dark, that Westeros will be filled with violence, that there will be tragedy. How do we know this? For one, we’ve watched the show. But for another, the show plays off a popular conception of the medieval world as dark, treacherous, and violent. In other words, it uses our assumptions about the Middle Ages to help tell its story. And as a medievalist, and having taught a course on Game of Thrones at Virginia Tech since Winter 2015, I fight against these preconceptions whenever I teach.

How – and even if – to teach the relationship between a fantasy world such as Game of Thrones and the historical European Middle Ages has admittedly caused controversy among scholars. But to my mind, the fact that the show both reinforces and at the same time challenges our assumptions about the period is precisely what makes Game of Thrones so interesting.

The Middle Ages are known as the “Dark Ages” for a reason. It doesn’t have anything to do with the 12th century though. Instead, the idea came much later. During the Enlightenment, the medieval came to be known as the antithesis of the modern, a repository for whatever we considered “bad.” These thinkers built themselves up by tearing their medieval predecessors down. Basically, what they created was nostalgia, which can take 1 of 2 forms. First, it can believe that an ideal past has been lost and needs to be reclaimed. Second, it can say the past has no value and should be wholly discarded. The first is the friend of authoritarianism, while the second excuses modernity by placing all its sins in the past.

Game of Thrones relies upon that second kind of nostalgia, the one that my students so often bring with them to my courses. They have a set of preconceptions about what they’ll find in the Middle Ages…

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Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover other topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.