Game of Thrones and Medieval Studies – Ten Years On

By Carolyne Larrington

When Game of Thrones hit our TV screens ten years ago, we had never seen anything quite like it. Its world was a fantasy world, of course, but it was one whose building-blocks were largely derived from medieval history, literature and legend.

We recognized its knights and castles, its dragons, bowmen, raiders, queens and merchants, and there was a lot of pleasure in identifying possible sources and parallels. Beyond George R. R. Martin’s slightly misleading citation of the English fourteenth century as his main inspiration for the War of the Five Kings, medieval specialists who watched the show seized on the ways in which it could be harnessed to illustrate real-world phenomena.


Early in Season One, Joffrey complains about the lack of a unified standing army: ‘Why should every lord command his own men? It’s primitive!’ Maintaining large forces in peace and war is expensive; only the Lannisters can afford to keep a host of fighting men on call while the North depends on an earlier system, in which military forces can be called into the field to support the Warden only with their lords’ agreement. Put to them in these terms, students could easily grasp that distinction – along with the pros and cons of both methods for resourcing military power.

Like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings before it, Game of Thrones acted as a kind of generational ‘gateway drug’ for medieval studies. If you fell in love with the complex ways in which medieval-type societies, from the nomadic Dothraki khalasars roaming across the centre of Essos to fierce sea-raiders, the Ironborn, to the nascent capitalist systems of the Free Cities, or the prehistoric clans from Beyond the Wall, you could be tempted into academic study to find out more about real-life models: the Mongols, the Vikings, fourteenth-century Italy, or panarctic peoples, such as the Inuit or the Ainu.


The show’s varied and complex social structures and institutions: the monarchy, religious beliefs, the Order of Maesters, all produced, as Zeynep Tufekci has argued, a kind of story-telling that – in the earlier seasons – went beyond the usual Hollywood clichés about the hero’s psychological journey. Rather, Game of Thrones showed clearly how characters were trammelled precisely by institutional misogyny, ossified aristocratic traditions, rigid hierarchies, and the different sites where power inhered across the storyworld’s cultures. Importantly too, these parameters all changed drastically once the characters crossed the Narrow Sea into Essos. At its best then, Game of Thrones facilitated scholarly discussions about how different past societies work, the constraints and pressures that drive social change, and the effect that rigid social structures have on individual fortunes and life-chances.

Many medievalists leapt at the chances that Game of Thrones offered to open up medieval studies to people who had never given it much thought before, or who had assumed that the medieval world – particularly the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – was irredeemably gloomy and dull. But the show also brought into the open some key debates within the medieval field. Some were already underway when the show was first broadcast in 2011; others developed in parallel with arguments within fan-communities and among online commentators.

These issues came into clear focus as I was writing my new book on the TV show, All Men Must Die, debates revolving around gender, violence (in particular, sexual violence), race, and the concept of a ‘global Middle Ages’. Over the show’s eight years, its own attitudes towards these questions changed markedly, sometimes growing more nuanced, sometimes tending towards crude over-simplification. The showrunners, David Benioff and Daniel Weiss, along at times with Martin himself, swung between claiming a kind of realism for the show: that medieval culture really did practice some of the horrifying things that Game of Thrones depicted or, contrarily, arguing that the whole imagined world, in which dragons, the undead and ice-giants co-existed with quasi-medieval societies, should not be interpreted as relating to our actual world at all – that it was, in fact, all made up.

Importantly too, much of the show’s nuance and depth, exactly that sense of a densely imagined world that had really captured the audience’s imaginations in the earlier seasons, was jettisoned in the final seasons as the narrative went ‘off-book’. Lacking detailed information from Martin, and with their eyes on the finishing-line, Benioff and Weiss axed storylines, simplified ethical dilemmas, closed down possibilities and brought the show to an ending that many viewers struggled to reconcile with the original appeal of the worlds of Westeros and Essos.


The arguments that raged at times around particularly provocative storylines or scenes in the show found clear counterparts in contemporary medieval studies. The study of medieval queenship has moved a long way beyond the simplistic idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ queens; the stereotype of the over-emotional woman who makes poor strategic decisions driven by her feelings has long been discarded. Thus the ways in which Daenerys and Cersei practised their queenship provoked controversy about the depiction of female power. As Daenerys’s instability became more apparent and Cersei’s lack of interest in her people’s wellbeing threatened the lives of the citizens of King’s Landing, the show seemed guilty of making them not only conform ‘to negative medieval stereotypes’ about women rulers, but insisting ‘on incorporating all of those stereotypes at once’.

Debate about gender became lively, with medieval scholars often intervening to highlight the damage done to both men and women by the show’s model of ‘toxic masculinity’, usually underpinned by sexual violence. Chivalry came in for consistent critique in the show; this connects in part with historians’ discussion of the terrible injuries chivalric practices could wreak on male bodies and the contradictions inherent in chivalry’s attitudes towards women, the weak and the powerless. The show however refused to see any virtue in the positive civilising effects that chivalry had on aristocratic men, nor did it allow any space for its idealised ethics as expressed in romance. These values were replaced by unrelenting displays of sexualized aggression, provoking discussion about how far sexual violence was endemic in medieval Europe.

Here there was considerable polarisation in the medieval community: many argued rightly that sexual crime was taken very seriously,  attracting severe punishment and that threats of sexual violence were not regularly employed to keep aristocratic women under control. Others conceded those points as relating to noble women, but highlighted chronicle accounts of women’s suffering in times of war: the fates of the show’s smallfolk during the various military campaigns in the Riverlands chimed closely with accounts of the seasonal harrying – burning, raping, looting – in France during the Hundred Years’ War.


The show was widely criticized in the early seasons for gratuitous displays of nudity; this too opened up interesting discussion about nakedness, gender and social status. No Christian medieval society would have tolerated Cersei’s stark naked ‘Walk of Atonement’ – not that women who transgressed did not deserve to be shamed – but the danger that the naked woman posed in terms of inciting lust in the men who beheld her outweighed its punitive effects. We don’t know much about what went on in medieval brothels, but manuscript illustrations offer evidence to suggest that the cavortings of Petyr Baelish’s employees were not very different from the services that could be purchased in the stews of London, or Paris.

Interaction between show and the academy was more far-reaching in relation to the fierce debates about race in Game of Thrones and the parallel moves to expand scholarly understanding of medieval studies beyond Europe and the Middle East to encompass Africa, Asia and the Americas. The show at times bought into, but finally dismantled, the imperialist stereotype of the ‘white saviour’: Daenerys arrived in the east with a mission to end slavery, but also to acquire military resources to make credible her bid to claim the Iron Throne back in Westeros. Season Three ended with the very disturbing scene in which hundreds of Moroccan extras bore the blonde actress on their shoulders, crying ‘Mhysa! (mother)’, after Daenerys had liberated their city.

Yet in subsequent seasons the insoluble ethical dilemmas generated by westerners trying to enforce large-scale social change through superior military power became clearer and clearer. Daenerys failed to capture the hearts and minds of the population of Slaver’s Bay. Renaming the area ‘Bay of Dragons’ shortly before withdrawing and leaving her former subjects to their fates, underlined the colonizing reading of Daenerys’s presence in the East. By the show’s end it was clear that the ‘white saviour’ had developed a full-blown Messiah complex, and that she had to be destroyed.

Those plotlines set in the East and in Dorne, the southernmost kingdom akin to Moorish Spain, were mercilessly axed in the ‘race to the finish’. This raised questions about how far Dornish and Essosi characters – more often played by actors of colour – had been given diminished roles with less dialogue, and were depicted as untrustworthy, wily, hypersexual and over-emotional – all the familiar tropes of Orientalism. This was a problem already present in Martin’s books, where readers are given almost no access to the interior thoughts and feelings of Essosi-born characters. Admittedly, the show enhanced the storyline involving Grey Worm and Missandei, giving them a touching romance – and provoking a storm of outrage when Missandei was executed at Cersei’s behest. In contrast to earlier fantasy franchises Game of Thrones did expand beyond an all-white civilisation surrounded by hostile ethnically different peoples, and it did elaborate the unique characteristics of eastern societies in ways that went beyond a simple characterization as barbaric. Nevertheless, none of the main characters was played by a black or minority ethnic actor.


Meanwhile, in the academy, the question of ‘Whose Middle Ages?’ has been gathering momentum. Outside Europe the period 500-1500 is not a ‘Middle Ages’ at all, for it does not necessarily fall between distinct eras that could be comfortably mapped onto the European late-classical and the early modern. Work showing how extensive global trade routes were, even in the early medieval period, has been gathering pace – Viking-age women living in Birka in Sweden wore silk manufactured in China, Scandinavian artefacts were traded from Greenland to North American Inuit peoples before the Greenlandic colony died out. This has opened up a powerful new understanding of cultural interconnectedness that goes beyond exceptional figures like Marco Polo.

The medieval Mediterranean has a shared culture that stretches from Gibraltar to Tyre, from Sicily to Tunisia and Alexandria; pilgrims regularly journeyed to the Middle East and traders headed east along the Silk Road, or south through the Red Sea in pursuit of the lucrative spice trade. The fantastic tales of the fictional late-medieval traveller Sir John Mandeville, who journeyed, he claimed, to the very walls of the Earthly Paradise have given way not only to a global conception of the medieval, but also to an understanding that medieval Europeans included men and women of many different races, living side by side in the great cities and travelling along the same roads to pilgrimage sites and trading entrepots.

Game of Thrones cannot be directly credited with these developments in medieval studies. Nevertheless, it tapped into an enormous global audience, watched in China and Chile, in Iceland and Kenya, and it stimulated fascination and engagement with an imagined Middle Ages. The wider issues that the show raised – about gender, violence, race and imperialism – were also, not coincidentally, those that the global community was also talking about, and the world of medieval studies has responded imaginatively and enthusiastically to the questions asked. If the prequels to Game of Thrones currently being cast and soon to go into production feature, as seems likely, a much more racially diverse cast of actors, and give more weight to cultures beyond the Six Kingdoms, this will both reinforce and reflect the work that has been going on the world of academic medieval studies.

Carolyne Larrington is Professor of Medieval Literature at University of Oxford. Her latest book: All Men Must Die: Power and Passion in Game of Thrones is now available from Bloomsbury Academic. 

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