New Acquisitions: How It Wasn’t: Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages, Part II

This is the second post in a three-part series where we look at the question “how accurate is Game of Thrones to the European Middle Ages” – and if not the Middle Ages, what periods of history does it most resemble? This post will look at this question with respect to cultural norms (especially norms connected to gender and the family) and religion, which, as we will see, are closely intertwined.

Part I of this series, which looked at this question from the perspective of military affairs, is here. Part III (when I write it) will be linked here, and will look at the political institutions, norms and structures of Westeros and see how well they map on to the European Middle Ages. As before, we are primarily interested in the High and Late Middle Ages (in total, the period from c. 1000 to c. 1450), since this is the period that the show seeks to evoke.

Of all of the posts I make, this one is perhaps the furthest ‘stretch,’ and so I have relied more heavily on the expertise of others. In no particular order: I want to recommend to you this article on how the misogyny in Game of Thrones owes more to the Victorians and the Renaissance than it does the Middle Ages. I should also certainly thank my colleagues Peter Raleigh and Elizabeth Hassler, whose expertise I have here relied upon, and my wife Diana, whose bookshelves are more stuffed with books on the medieval Church than mine! Any errors are, of course, mine.

So, without further ado, onward!

Belief and Institutions

We should start by charting the broad outlines of the place of the medieval church in Western Europe. I should start off by noting that this is a huge topic – as will swiftly become clear, there was almost no part of society in which the Church did not play a significant role – and I will only be offering a broad-strokes overview here, sufficient to provide a basis of comparison for the show. Most of this discussion will principally concern the Latin Church (what today is the Catholic Church) in the West. Since this discussion is – importantly! – about the state of affairs before the reformation, I will tend to refer to the Latin Church simply as ‘the Church’ for brevity’s sake.

The very first thing to note is that the Church (in this case, both the Latin West and the Greek East) pre-dated the Middle Ages themselves. The Church arrived in the Middle Ages as relic of the Roman Imperial past. It inherited Roman Imperial organization – the diocese, for instance, derived from the boundaries of Roman super-provinces called dioceses (Greek: ?????????). Unlike the new medieval aristocracy, which tended to rule from fortified estates in the countryside, the Church remained centered in towns and cities, many of which had been major centers under the Romans. As the Roman provincial administration collapsed, it largely fell to the Church – as one of the few surviving literate institutions – to replace some of the core functions, like record keeping and the preservation of literature and learning. This was less true Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, places where the Church was a relative late-comer, but for most of Western Europe, the Church was not some new institution grafted on to a pre-existing society (as it had been under the Romans), but rather part of the bedrock cultural foundation upon which that new society was constructed (fellow pedants! – please note carefully the phrase part of in the previous sentence; I am aware there were other things).

That said, the institutional power of the Church (and here we really do mean what would be the Roman Catholic Church) begins to change dramatically in the 11th century, right as we enter the High Middle Ages, and continues for the next several centuries (keeping in mind that Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire really evoke the High and Late Middle Ages, rather than the Early period). In short, the institutional heft of the Church grows dramatically. Quite a few things begin happening which are linked together: the Popes begin trying to wrest control over the Church’s hierarchy (specifically, the investiture of bishops) from secular rulers. Clerical celibacy was more stringently enforced. The Church intruded into warfare (as we’ve discussed with the Peace of God / Truce of God movements). It began to more directly attempt to regulate marriage, especially among the powerful (marriage was a made a sacrament in 1184). By the 1300s, this included keeping detailed records in many parts of France about births, deaths and marriages, in part to ensure no one married a close relative.

(And, of course, for those of you thinking, “wait, isn’t this also the period of the Crusades – military expeditions called by and at least nominally (but not in practice) under the auspices of the Pope?” Yes, it is, and that’s not an accident either).

In my experience teaching this, it is the next step that baffles my students the most. This vast increase in the institutional power of the Church was made possible, not by armies or shrewd real-politic (though both were involved), but by belief. The primary weapon wielded by Popes in this effort was the threat of excommunication, which (under Catholic doctrine) cut off the excommunicated individual or community from salvation, potentially damning them for all eternity. But of course that threat is only real if you believe the Pope has that power. And therein is the key point: most of Europe did believe. As I tell my students, it is safe to assume, as a general matter, that people in the past believed their own religion. Of course there are exceptions, but the general rule remains.

In the conflicts that arose – because, as you might imagine, secular rulers were unwilling to give up their prerogatives – it did not actually much matter if the king or emperor believed in the power of excommunication, because no one rules alone. Thus when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in 1076, the audience for this act wasn’t Henry himself (who had already declared Gregory illegitimate anyway). It was directed at all of Henry’s vassals and supporters, releasing them from their oaths of allegiance and essentially saying, ‘stick with this guy, and he’ll take you to hell with him.’ It worked, sparking a major rebellion and forcing Henry to humiliatingly apologize the following year.

Henry IV asking Matilda, Margrave of Tuscay (and Significant Female Medieval Ruler – a point we’ll come back to) to intervene on his behalf to have his excommunication lifted. The Pope, Gregory VII, would in the end let Henry sit outside in the snow for three days before answering his request. Just to make it clear who ‘won.’

(History note: this would be ’round 1′ in a multi-round fight that wasn’t settled until 1122 with the Concordat of Worms; in the end the Papacy mostly won, sharply limiting the Holy Roman Emperors’ power over their bishops).

Disbelieving Their Own Religion

And here is where we head to Westeros and get a look at the root of the problem: no one appears to believe their own religion, at least in the South. Thus while the Faith of the Seven seems to have much of the apparatus of the medieval church, it has almost none of the power of the original; the engine is there, but the fuel tank is empty (this problem, it seems to me, is common in many efforts to create doppelgangers for the medieval church – one is put in mind of the Magisterium of His Dark Materials, which somehow both commands intense faith, yet is reduced to kidnapping children rather than just, you know – asking for them. Like the actual medieval church did to fill its monasteries with novices. People who fervently believe in a religion are generally happy to send their children on what they are told are holy missions of salvation).

Of course we are assured that the common people (you know, the rubes) believe in their own religion, but consider the actually named characters of King’s Landing – none of them, save the High Sparrow himself, are even remotely pious (Tommen is merely young and impressionable; Lancel is reacting to trauma and seems brainwashed). Note here that I don’t mean ‘do these characters respect the potential political power of the Faith’ – I mean ‘do they act like they believe there are seven divine being that govern an eternal afterlife.’ None of the Lannister-Baratheons do, nor do the Tyrells, nor any of the rotating members of the small council. We see no signs of piety among the soldiery either – the Ser Meryn Trants, Loras Tyrells, Bronns of the Blackwater, etc. There appear to be plenty of atheists in foxholes in Westeros. Even innocent Podrick is not morally scandalized (even though he is embarrassed) to be dropped in a brothel, despite it being made quite clear later by ‘Brother Lancel’ that the Faith severely disapproves of such things.

What I think this show has fallen into is the assumption – almost always made by someone outside a society looking in – that the local religion is so silly that no one of true intelligence (which always seems to mean ‘the ruling class’ – I am amazed how even blue-collar students will swiftly self-identify with knights and nobles over commoners when reading history) could believe it. This is the mistake my students make – they don’t believe medieval Catholicism or Roman paganism, and so they weakly assume that no one (or at least, none of the ‘really smart’ people) at the time really did either. Of course this is wrong: People in the past believed their own religion.

It is an old mistake – Polybius makes it of the Romans, writing in c. 150 BC. Polybius notes that Roman religion was ‘distinctly superior’ for maintaining the cohesion of the Roman state, but that “they (= the ruling class) have adopted this course for the sake of the common people” (Plb. 6.56.6-8), by which he means for the sake of the ‘fickle multitude’ which must be ‘held in invisible terrors and pageantry.’ Polybius, I should note, immediately contradicts himself – one benefit of this religion, he says, is that Roman magistrates (read: elite Senators) do not steal from the public treasury even when they are not watched, which would seem to imply that even many very elite Romans believed their own religion (also, irony alert: those famously incorruptible Romans…). Poor men, after all, are not elected to watch the treasury.

Fortunately, Polybius is not our only source on Roman culture, so it is possible to say – and I want to be clear here – Polybius is wrong (on this point at least). Roman elites took their religion very seriously. There are exceptions, of course – Julius Caesar was an Epicurean philosophically, although this does not seem to have altogether disrupted his performance of the duties of Rome’s highest priesthood (he was Pontifex Maximus). Nevertheless, such philosophically minded men were generally regarded with scorn by even the Roman elites (Cicero heaps such scorn on Cato in the Pro Murena in what were clearly intended as friendly ‘ribbing’ before a mostly elite audience), who nevertheless greatly valued religious character (in contrast, Cicero is quick to accuse his hated enemy Catiline of irreligion before the Senate). Roman leaders vowed temples and sacrifices in duress, and built and gave them in victory. Lavish dedications to the gods from all levels of Roman society confirm the overall picture: the Romans believed their religion. Yes, even the elite Romans (there is, I should note, some complicated in that elites tended to separate what they viewed as religion from common ‘superstition,’ but that’s a topic for another day.) And, if anything, the evidence for elite ‘buy-in’ to Medieval religion is far more voluminous.

Yet none of the main characters of Game of Thrones, apart from perhaps Catelyn Stark, is devoted to their region’s traditional religion in any private sense. I cannot recall at any point any character protesting an action on account of religion – no marches held up by high holy days (a regular occurrence in ancient and medieval literature), no groups, individuals or places religiously exempt from violence. The Faith has certain rules about sexuality, but they’re rules that are not only flouted privately by individuals in the show, but also quite publicly by the last ruling dynasty for centuries.

Moreover, none of the ruling characters seem to have any religious functions – or if they do, they simply ignore them most of the time. Keep in mind, these people believe that their gods – be it the Seven or the Old Gods – are powerful divine beings who are directly and immediately interested in the world and who act on that interest. Keeping such beings happy is vitally important – it is not an afterthought. No society, so far as I can tell, has ever believed there is enough gold or enough armies to save you if you have enraged the gods. There is simply no off-setting an angry divinity (and before the smart guy asks, “what about a favorable divinity?” the Greeks had an answer for that – go read Euripides’ Hippolytus. It ends badly for the mortals).

The lack of religious duties or functions for characters who are kings is particularly surprising. Kingship has three core roles in almost all human cultures where the institution appears: kings are 1) chief judge, 2) chief general, and 3) chief priest. That third role appears more or less prominently in almost all societies. In ancient Egypt and (at times) in Mesopotamia, kings were held to literally be either earthly incarnations of major gods or minor gods in their own right. Roman Emperors held the office of pontifex maximus, and took over as the chief priest of the state, before becoming gods on their deaths. The Chinese emperor was the ‘Son of Heaven’ and was tasked with maintaining the right relationship with the divine (the ‘mandate of heaven’). The emperors of Japan are purported to be direct descendants of the goddess Amaterasu (and they have a family tree to back it up).

The relationship between medieval kings and the Church was more complicated, because of the existence of a clear religious head (the Pope) outside of secular authority, but medieval kingship retained a strong sense of religious purpose. Coronation rituals often involved the clergy and were essentially religious rituals, because kingly power was still thought to be bestowed by God. Kings, in turn, had a special role in keeping their kingdom in right relationship with the divine, both through just rule (which included protecting the Church) and through the performance of religious rituals. Those rituals, of course, worked both ways: both believed to be religious efficacious (as in they helped bring about God’s good favor), but also valuable tools of building royal legitimacy (hat tip to my colleague Elizabeth Hassler’s excellent dissertation on the topic of holy kingship). In some places (England and France most notably), kings were thought holy enough to be able to heal certain diseases miraculously by touch – a king who couldn’t was clearly insufficiently pious.

What is the point of investing this much time and money in maintaining such a structure if you neither 1) believe following the rules these gods laid out is important or 2) intend to use this place as a stage on which to perform royal legitimacy?

Those rituals – both in the North and in the South – seem far less important in Westeros. Robert Baratheon and Joffery are both temperamentally unsuited for such, and no one seems to care. None of the claimants to the throne seem to go through the effort of establishing their legitimacy this way. And no one seems to care. Which is a good lead into:

Sacrilege or “How Many Hail Marys for Blowing Up a Church?”

There are at least two major moments of absolutely jaw-dropping religious violations in Game of Thrones, and yet neither comes with any meaningful consequences because of that (both produce some very secular vengeance, but I’m interested in the religiously motivated sort). Of course, I mean the Red Wedding, and the destruction of the Sept of Balor.

A number of historical parallels have been offered for the Red Wedding: the Black Dinner of 1440 and the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, both in Scotland. Both events were gross violations of truce and hospitality customs in English and Scottish society, and remain infamous, but notably neither occurs at a wedding – and that’s a big damn (and I use that word very deliberately) difference.

Let’s back up: in the Early Middle Ages (c. 450 to c. 1000) church weddings, as we might understand the term, were actually quite rare. But starting in the 11th century, the church began to get more involved. By the late 11th century, advice for priests in France instructed that a mass should be part of the wedding ceremony (something that had been introduced for royal marriages some two centuries earlier, but had been uncommon for the rest of society even just earlier that century). By the early 12th century, we have surviving liturgies and the entire ceremony now occurred at the Church and was done by the priest (see G. Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest (1983), trans. B. Bray, 149-153 for specifics). Finally, in 1184, marriage was formally confirmed to be a sacrament at the Council of Verona.

This process has clearly happened in Westeros, as every wedding in the South is officiated by a Septon. If the Faith of the Seven really worked like the medieval Catholic Church, this would create some real additional problems for Walder Frey. Breaking an agreement is one thing (though there is another entire post’s worth of complaining about how the show treats oaths – characters are forever being asked to swear, without swearing by anything, which isn’t how oaths work), but violently disrupting a sacrament being administered by a cleric and profaning it with murder is something very different – a crime against God, potentially bringing eternal damnation (and almost certain politically damaging excommunication).

Note center back: the Septon. Now did Walder Frey lie to him in a holy oath, or was the Septon totally OK being sent to the Seven Hells for all eternity? Remember this religion has seven hells for all eternity.

That said, there is an example of this happening historically, and it is illustrative: the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, where large numbers of French protestants were lured into an ambush by way of a royal wedding between the king’s sister Margaret and Henry of Navarre. What makes this quite different from the Red Wedding is the religious context: the massacred men were Huguenots (French Protestants) and thus implicitly outside of the protection of the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Pope at the time had refused to recognize the marriage in advance, so any pretense of religious protection was gone.

But – critically – notice the date. Something like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre could only happen in the Early Modern Period, because it requires one of the defining events of that period (the Protestant Reformation) to have occurred. Of course, the same can be said of our Scottish ‘Red non-Weddings’ as well – 1440 is on the doorstep of the early modern period, while 1692 has walked in the door and is now lounging in the parlor. It does not seem like an accident that the most notorious of these massacres occur in the period where the authority of the Church and medieval norms are in decline.

And then there is the destruction of the Sept of Balor. We’ll actually return to this again in Part III, so I’ll be brief here and simply note: it does not matter if all of Cersei’s enemies were in the Sept when it exploded. She lives in a society where the Seven Gods the Sept is consecrated to are believed to be real and directly involved in society. By the religious logic of every pre-modern society I know, doing something like that invites divine wrath on the entire community. The political cost would be extreme – for a woman who was already politically marginalized, almost certainly fatally so.

Pictured: Several Hundred, if not Thousand Mortal Sins, in a society that, we must stress believes in that (or something rather like it).

The nearest parallel I can think of was the Sack of Rome, carried out by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527, which had left the Pope (Clement VII) alive but effectively imprisoned in his own castle. Charles at least had the fig leaf that while he had marched against the Pope, the sack was the result of a mutiny in his army and the imprisonment of the Pope was not his goal (he had intended to win a battle and then negotiate a peace, not sack the Eternal City). But again – note the date. The very army that made this possible – the sort of professional ‘we are paid not to ask questions’ army that might mutiny due to arrears in pay (see the last post in this series) was a creation of the Early Modern period. Indeed, the army that Charles had raised for the campaign included significant numbers of German protestants, who could sack the city without religious fear.

Medieval Families and the Church

It has already been pointed out that view of Westerosi gender relations is even more sharply patriarchal than the already quite patriarchal norm in must of the European Middle Ages and that the patterns Martin has replicated instead belong to – wait for it – the Early Modern Period (noticing a trend?), as well as 18th and 19th century simplifications of the Middle Ages. I especially encourage you to read the article linked there for the sections about the spiritual authority and influence women could often wield – as I hope I’ve communicated, spiritual influence could be a very real thing. I don’t want to beat a dead horse and the linked article does this topic far more justice than I can, but I will add a few things:

At the start of Game of Thrones, before the upheaval of the War of Five Kings, Westeros appears to have only one female ruler anywhere: Maege Mormont, the Lady of Bear Island (Lyanna Mormont’s mother). Westeros itself has apparently never had, before the War of Five Kings, had a Queen Regnant (that is, ruling in her own name) of any kind. For comparison to actual Europe, I encourage you to consult this really quite long list of Queens Regnant who ruled in Europe. Spain alone had seen fourteen such ruling queens between 550 and 1550 (including the rulers of Navarre). My personal favorite out of medieval queens regnant is Irene of Athens (752-803), the first woman to be Emperor of the Romans (that is, ruler of the Byzantine (= Roman) Empire).

Irene of Athens (752-803, r. 797-802), rocking out on a coin. Irene typically used the feminine form of her title, ????????? (empress), but was known to use the masculine form ???????? (emperor) with a female pronoun when she might need to stress that she was not the wife of the sovereign, she was the sovereign.

I also want to return for a moment to Walder Frey. Walder Frey, at age 90, has had 9 wives, we are told, and numerous mistresses (and thus has a huge number of descendants). It seems terribly unlikely that Walder’s wives have a natural life expectancy of 10 years, so one assumes he divorces regularly for younger women. To which I want to note that an attempt at this behavior was the exact cause of the excommunication of Philip I of France in 1094 – his attempt to marry his mistress Bertrade and put aside his wife, Bertha. The excommunication seemed to cripple his reign and contemporary sources indicate that what held the crown together was looking forward to his heir. The church never acknowledged Philip’s second marriage to Bertrade, and thus Philip was succeeded by Bertha’s son Louis. Even at this early point, the Church was generally adamant – the divorced ought not be able to remarry.

Pictured: An actor playing a human pile of rubbish.

One assumes Walder Frey, had he lived in France and not the Riverlands, would have been promptly excommunicated (essentially an invitation for any one of his sons to depose him or for the Tullys to dispossess his entire family), just like Philip. Decades before the Red Wedding.


I want to start by repeating a point I made in the last post: these criticisms do not necessarily mean that Martin has failed at world-building. I cannot know, but I strongly suspect that part of what he aims to show us is exactly what happens when you remove moderating historical norms from a fantasy world: this spiral of violence and cruelty that is Game of Thrones. I’m not sure if he realizes it, but the fact that doing this requires knee-capping the medieval Church stand in says something about the complicated nature of the medieval Church.

Martin has, to a degree, invited these comparisons by openly noting that he based the Faith of the Seven on the Medieval Catholic Church. I cannot speak to his intent. But what he seems to have done is replicated something like some of the institutions of the church, but robbed them of the intense belief (by the rest of society) that gave those institutions their power. The result looks more like an 18th or 19th century Catholic Church, having largely lost the power to sway rulers who no longer feel the need to listen. It is also possible that as the books develop, we may see the tone of Martin’s vision diverse somewhat from the sometimes bitter nihilism of the show, to the benefit of a more verisimilitude portrayal of a fantasy version of the medieval Church.

In either case – while the Middle Ages is a vast time period with many variations in it, it seems safe to say that the Europe of the High and Late Middle Ages was quite a bit more religious, and even a little bit less misogynistic (although still very misogynistic, let us not fool ourselves) than Westeros. I do not want to overplay this point though, and I also do not want to pretend that there was nothing ever wrong with the medieval church. Just because Game of Thrones is quite a bit grimmer than the real Middle Ages doesn’t mean that everything in the real Middle Ages was peachy; the medieval church was still capable of exceptional brutality – look back to the last post on what was done to the Cathars of Southern France.

But the viewer who comes away thinking they have seen in Game of Thrones something like how the Middle Ages ‘really were’ now knows worse than nothing. In particular, the show seems calculated to lure people into some of the very mistaken preconceptions I find I have to labor so hard to disabuse my students of: that people in the past couldn’t possibly believe their own religions, that their religions were so inherently ridiculous as to be unbelievable in the first place and that the patriarchy of the past looks more like the easily spotted cruelty of grimy old Walder Frey, rather than the far more difficult to see – but far more insidious – generations of individuals to whom it simply never occurred to question the limits society placed on their horizons (or the horizons of their friends and families). Embedded with that is the dangerous assumption that this patriarchy is far further away – living in the depths of the Middle Ages rather than in the industrial back-alleys of the Victorian period (or the back corners of our own minds) – than it really is.

Next time, we’re looking at politics. How well does Westeros model politics in systems where military and political power depend on personal politics and the management of vassals?

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