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 wall, as with all walls, didn’t work and the great war between the living and the dead approaches (footage starts at 0:38).
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 believes that an ideal past has been lost and needs to be reclaimed. Second, it can says 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. They know that culture, politics, and society “disappeared” after Rome, only suddenly to reappear a thousand years later (once again in Italy).
And Game of Thrones meets all those expectations. For example, one of the course’s sections involves understanding women in the show. In Season 1, Sansa and Daenerys are married off as children, used as pawns to cement alliances — all to benefit the men of their families. But by Season 7, those women are rulers in their own right. Daenerys is the mother of dragons, commander of armies and destroyer of the Lannisters. Sansa is in charge of the North, ruling Winterfell on her own, symbolically (and literally) ridding herself even of “protectors” like Littlefinger. This fits the students’ expectations. Things were “worse,” then they got “better.”
But then I make my students read Joan Kelly.
In her 1977 essay (since challenged, revised, and expanded upon by other scholars), Kelly argued using a variety of sources that as we emerge into modernity and out of the Middle Ages, European women’s access to political power decreased, they had less say in cultural production, were portrayed more negatively in ideology, and lost control of their sexuality. In other words, women did not have a “renaissance.” Things, in fact, got worse for them.
It’s not a perfect essay but it is a brilliant one. It troubles our ready-made narratives about progress, particularly when paired with sources from the actual Middle Ages themselves.
We contrast the portrayal of Sansa and Daenerys with the 11th-century medieval Countess Matilda of Tuscany and the 16th-century “Renaissance” courtesan Veronica Franco. We see how politically powerful Matilda was, even as she was severely limited socially. We marvel at Veronica’s cultural production, even as she was kept from formal political power. Simple stories about how, seemingly inevitably, we got from then to now dissolve when confronted with the real complexity of the past.
We look to Season 8 and hope that we’ll emerge from its unrelenting bleakness. The work of the historian though is to remind us of the questions we don’t want to think about, to see that the past can only really be grasped by confronting it in all its messiness, both its beauty and its horrors. Progress for whom and at what expense? That one question might trouble us but it’s also the question that helps us wash off black and white grime and grit of Westeros’ Winter, and see the medieval world in all its vibrant, competing colors.