Muscular Medievalism

Muscular Medievalism

By Amy Kaufman

The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol. 31 (2016)

Queen Elizabeth II meets cast members Lena Headey, Conleth Hill and Kit Harington on the Iron Throne set of Game of Thrones in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. Photo: Northern Ireland Office / Flickr

Introduction: Just how patriarchal were the Middle Ages? Ask any combination of creative producers of medievalism and you’re liable to learn that no matter how bad you think things were in medieval times, history was probably even worse. The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination, rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became “enlightened.”

Take, for instance, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which holds such a revered place in contemporary American popular culture that it’s treated to weekly recaps in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. The author of the epic fantasy series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, claims to be delivering an unapologetically ‘real’ version of the Middle Ages in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin says he was inspired to pen his particularly brutal portrayal of medieval times because other writers “…were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.”

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And if Martin’s novels are any indication, getting it right means saturating the faux-medieval world with rampant misogyny and rape. The words “rape,” “raped,” “raper,” “rapist,” or “raping” combined appear at least 171 times in Martin’s books, and that’s not counting the frequent uses of “fuck” and other supposed synonyms for rape. However, Martin explains away the sexual violence in his novels with his vision of history: “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex,” he clarified to one interviewer. “It’s medieval.”

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