A Medieval ‘Game of Thrones’

An article did the rounds a couple of weeks ago by Benjamin Breen called ‘Why Game of Thrones Isn’t Medieval – and Why That Matters’. Breen is an early modernist who has taken offence at people thinking that Game of Thrones is medieval when really it is early modern. He comments that:

A world that actually reflected daily life in the High Middle Ages (12th-century Europe) would be one without large cities or global networks. A diversity of religions would be inconceivable. Many aristocrats wouldn’t be able to read, let alone maintain large libraries. And no one would even know about the continents across the ocean.

As a medieval historian, you come across statements like this on a regular basis. Often they simply reflect a lack of reading on behalf of the person characterising the Middle Ages. (At least Breen has narrowed his ‘Middle Ages’ down to the twelfth century, rather than make 1000 years of history homogenous… despite also admitting that Game of Thrones is largely inspired by the later period). Sometimes such comments reflect issues about scale and quality which are difficult to process.

Take the comment about ‘large cities and global networks’. Palermo in the twelfth century had a population of c. 400,000 people and was plugged into a Mediterranean-wide trading network which involved Christians, Jews and Muslims in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East working together. It wasn’t all happy-happy, but that’s what it was (go and read Ibn Jubayr’s account of his travels). Now, population-wise, 400,000 is a little bigger than modern-day Stoke, possibly just smaller than Bristol. It was not HUGE but we are talking 800 years ago. So then it depends whether you are impressed with the size of such a city relative to technologies etc. I am; Breen clearly isn’t. Medieval cities just aren’t big enough to be impressive to an early modernist. Size does matter.

Let’s take just how inconceivable the diversity of religions would be. Well, firstly, if you read the Song of Fire and Ice novels, you will know that everyone is deeply suspicious of Melisandre, the Red Woman, for not believing in the Faith of the Seven, so the point is a little wrong-footed at the outset. At the same time, we should not think that because there was religious intolerance (pogroms, Crusades, all real, nasty and morally objectionable to myself), there was no tolerance. One thing you often notice when you deal with religiously-motived outbreaks of violence is that they follow periods of relatively harmony. Notice just how long it took between the Arab conquest of the Middle East and the launch of the First Crusade – over four centuries! In that time there were plenty of pilgrims who travelled around, plenty of merchants who crossed worlds, plenty of peaceful diplomatic exchanges. Don’t forget, many Muslims preached tolerance of Christians and Jews from the beginning. I have an article in the next volume of Studies in Church History on this subject, by the way, so there will be more on this theme in future. Again, I stress, it is not that intolerance and violence was negligible, but that diversity was conceivable. In that respect, the Middle Ages was not the perfect antithesis of secular modernity that is suggested.

So, onto ‘many aristocrats wouldn’t have been able to read’. Since it’s Charlemagne year, the cheap pre-1100 response is: Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, a biography of a literate emperor written by a literate aristocrat in the 820s. Okay, that’s only one example, but there is no shortage of literate secular figures if you go looking for them. I’m not actually that up to speed on the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, but I would be surprised if it had a negative effect on lay literacy compared to the earlier period in which it definitely present. In the books, the thing about literacy is that it is a court thing. The obvious story concerns Davos Seaworth, the low-born ‘Onion Knight’, who learns to read so he can deal with diplomatic missions, but who had not learned to read as a smuggler nor had he been taught as a matter of course after being raised by Stanis Baratheon. That sounds rather in-keeping with ‘medieval’ sensibilities to me, except I’m surprised at his near-complete lack of literacy as a smuggler. Some traders definitely kept records – I remember James Campbell stressing this in a paper on the Novgorod Birch Bark Letters.

Lay libraries are another issue. Often, we just don’t have information on them. We know that some aristocrats had libraries and read (see again Einhard). We often do not know the extent of these private libraries, because the ones that survived were based in religious institutions rather than private settings. In A Song of Fire and Ice, most big libraries are maintained by maesters anyway, rather as we might expect at medieval courts. But maybe Breen’s point is again about scale. He doesn’t mean that there weren’t private libraries and there wasn’t lay literacy, he means that it is not as pervasively evidenced as he would expect for the period that knows about. He can make that call if he wishes. There are plenty of medievalists who are sufficiently impressed by the evidence to think otherwise.

Finally, ‘no one would know about the continents across the Ocean’. What he probably means is that people (excluding a few Vikings) did not know about America. Long-distance communication in the Middle Ages was slow and problematic, but mappae mundi exist and travellers travelled long distances. The European medieval world was still pretty big, even without America. But is ‘knowledge of America’ a defining feature of our modernity? Yes in a sense, but surely not to the extent that it is worth dismissing the whole of the period beforehand as somehow ‘other’.

Breen tries to make a very nice point in his article. A crucial reason why Game of Thrones/ A Song of Fire and Ice is so popular is because of its underlying modernity, in the sense we can identify with elements of it, while at the same time recognising that it is ‘different’. That is how fantasy works: it is a mirror with tricks. At the same time, his use of ‘modernity’ is unfortunate’. As a medievalist, I think Game of Thrones is actually pretty medieval in lots of ways. That doesn’t make it alien to me. There is lots of human drama and there are characters, good and bad, we have got to know very well. I don’t think it is the modernity of the series that matters. I think it is how recognisably human it all is.