Recently, I got around to reading some of the reviews that came out about Game of Thrones Season Two. Despite being one of the best shows on television, the reviews I saw where rather mixed. Much of this can attributed to the “frustrated-English-grad-school-casualty” philosophy that tends to dominate a lot of critics in this day and age. Critics, especially critics in New York, seem to see their role in life as being to attack everything, well everything but Sex in the City, and write in a sort of preening/whining Village Voice-esque tone. In addition, Fantasy has always been a denigrated genre in American literary circles and I suspect the same goes to for the world of TV. But what I can’t stand is when critics are just simply wrong about historical fact and use their ignorance of history as a way of attacking a TV show. Emily Nussbam took a typical stand in her review in the New Yorker:
Leaving aside the fact that all TV shows are “scentless”, that is they are a visual and audio based medium not an olfactory one, what struck me was that last sentence where open sexuality is described as “not especially medieval.” This is utter nonsense.
To begin with the books the TV show was based on was heavily based in medieval history. Most fantasy, especially stuff that comes from Tolkien, creates a world where technology might resemble the Middle Ages but human behavior seems to have for more in common with Victorian norms and mores. Romance looks a lot like it does in Withering Heights with distant lovers constantly pining away for each other. The world Robert Jordan created in his “The Wheel of Time” series has no swear words stronger than “blood and ashes” and no one is ever dirty. George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books, deliberately set out to create a world that resembled life in the Middle Ages, and did a huge amount of historical research before he began writing. Accordingly, the show maybe set in a fantasy realm but it does resemble the period in history it was based on, even in the portrayal of sexuality that seem to get Nussbam all in a tizzy.
Life in the Middle Ages was nasty, brutish and filthy. Violence and cruelty were regular parts of life and ever present, much as it is in the show. Common games played in that era by villagers included one “sport” which consisted of a group of men chasing a pig around a fenced in area, such as a village square, armed with clubs beating the pig to death while spectators cheered them on. Another one popular with young men in France was to take a cat and nail it to a tree through its abdomen. Participants then take turns standing in front of the dying cat with their hands behind their back trying to beat the cat to death with their face and forehead. You proved you manliness and skill by killing the cat without it managing to scratch out your eyeballs. These types of cruelties seem shocking to our modern sensibilities but they were rather tame compared to what people did to other people in that age. A common problem you would face as the host of banquet or feast was people getting drunk and stabbing each other to death with their daggers at the dinner table. French nobles solved this problem in later centuries by introducing the practice of hosts providing silverware for attendees, as is the modern custom, with knives with rounded off tops to make it harder to stab someone to death. This is why your table knives have rounded off tops. Even this level of violence was relatively tame compared to life during war time, where most tactics involved slaughtering your opponent’s peasants and burning his lands to the ground to reduce his incomes and prove he was unable to defend his friends and subjects. Raping and pillaging was seen as a normal and effective way to reward your men for the hard work of taking a town or city. Witnessing a town being "put to the sword," that is the methodical killing of all of its residents, was probably a “jarring” experience as well. All of this is recorded fact, but I’m sure if it was put into the show-especially the cat game-it would be dismissed as “unrealistic” or “outrageous” by people like Nussbaum.
Sexuality and gender relations were also very different from contemporary American customs. Medieval life was a bawdy and social affair, every day-especially for the nobility-was never ending parade of social customs and rituals done with others. Hypocrisy and contradiction was built into all forms of life. The entire ideal of courtly love seems so foreign to how we live today it seems to have come from another civilization. As Barbra Tuchman points out in her great book about the 1300’s A Distant Mirror:
In no way did people in this time act like well to do New York professionals without computers and wearing goofy tights and they were not “prudish” compared to modern American sexual customs. In the crowded dense world of the medieval city numerous people would sleep in the same room. A common practice would be for the master to sleep with his wife in a bed in a small room with his servants sleeping on the floor only a few feet away, obviously being personal witness to whatever would occur. One English King fathered 16, yes 16, children out of wedlock, another age 29 married a six year old for a variety of political purposes. He fell ill and died before the holy wedlock could be consummated. A popular story of the 14th century began with the line “a Priest and his lady went off to bed.” There are records of the building of a Cathedral in Italy that document contributions from all aspects of medieval society including wealthy merchants, local guilds and “Rafela, a prostitute.”
This is how people lived for centuries, but put a scene like that in the show and no doubt critics would complain about its lack of “realism.” But this is because of their ignorance of history, not poor production choices. Their world was simply very different from our own. Thus Joffrey’s cruelty might shock modern critics like Nussbaum but in no way was it “not medieval.” Patriarchy and male superiority were hallmarks of medieval life, Joffrey as a king could do as he pleased and he never would have to worry about being arrest by the NYPD after being accused of sexual assault by a chambermaid, unlike modern political figures. Indeed history records a French nobleman, Gilles de Rais, who acted like a modern serial killer before finally being caught and burned at the state. The legend of Count Dracula is based on the myth of a Romanian noble “Vlad the Impailer” who was famous for impaling captured Turkish soldiers on large spikes. These examples might be extreme but they give a picture of Joffrey’s behavior being quite possible.
What we see here is an attempt to distill all of the ways that people can look at life through the narrow lenses of early 21st Century American rich people. When something comes along and points out that in no way is our own culture and ways of living “normal” or “natural” some people seem inclined to push back. But this is wrong. While the world of Westeros may be a fictional creation of one man’s imagination, it’s a powerful reminder of the different possibilities for how people can live and interact. And we shouldn’t dismiss it because the possibilities, both good and bad, for change in our own society can seem quite unsettling.