Medievalists Should Talk About Game of Thrones

Should the fact that Game of Thrones is not set in the Middle Ages in a specific historical way stop medievalists talking about it? In a blog post yesterday, Philippa Byrne argued that, if medievalists do, they run the risk of making medieval history “‘ornamental’, relegating it to the status of fantasy”. Talking about whether or not bits of it are realistic is at best misleading. Games of Thrones “is worth analysing”, she argues, “but as a piece of literature or drama, not as history”.

Part of the problem identified by Byrne is the ‘Dark Ages Problem’: Game of Thrones is violent and dark, so to talk about it as medieval reinforces the cliché that the Middle Ages (or at least the early bit) was violent and dark and therefore not worth studying. I for one don’t have a problem with seeing the period in this way (shock!). It is not that, after reading Gregory of Tours once too often, I believe that the period was uniquely violent and horrible. Most of history is pretty nasty – that is the real issue which is often undervalued. Read Geoffrey Parker’s much-feted Global Crisis on the seventeenth century, or Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent on the twentieth. Sixth-century Gaul does not compete in the nasty stakes. All three centuries provide interesting material with which to discuss ideas about peace and justice too.

Here is where Byrne and I seem to disagree:

Byrne is concerned that it is important to combat the ‘Dark Ages Problem’ and suggests talking more about the excellent and troubled Bede’s World – in other words, focus on building up a positive or nuanced view of the past from proper history. Historians should of course do that. I just also think that historians from all periods should have conversations about violence, peace and justice in their varying forms (and many other things), including both their historical and cultural manifestations. Talking about Game of Thrones is a just part of the game here, because the show evokes ideas of the Middle Ages while being a highly modern cultural product which provokes debates. History informs the ways we analyse literature and drama and the societies that produce them. Medievalists should be part of the conversation – not just to set the record straight, but to engage in informed debate using their knowledge and interpretative skills. That is why medievalists are useful talking about Islamic State and other things too: they bring a different and often valuable point of view to the table.

Medievalists run the risk of being seen as ‘ornamental’ in the present political climate the more they retreat into antiquarianism and away from cultural commentary. This is not a uniquely modern issue: all great history is, in a sense, politically framed.

Medievalists: Do talk about Game of Thrones. And do talk about Bede’s World. Be engaged!