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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

How does Game of Thrones compare to medieval history?

URI history professor uses ‘Game of Thrones,’ other fantasy stories to help students understand medieval history
windy game of thrones GIF“You will never find a medieval historian who has not read fantasy,” says medieval historian Joëlle Rollo-Koster.

The University of Rhode Island history professor shares that interest.

In her narrow third-floor office in Washburn Hall, a “Star Wars” X-wing fighter and a Darth Vader figure decorate overflowing bookshelves. “I love ‘Star Wars,’” says Rollo-Koster, of South Kingstown. “‘Star Wars’ is mythology. I used to teach King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, using Luke Skywalker.”

And of course, she’s a fan of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” – the mammoth medieval fantasy, which returns April 14 for its final season.

In its eighth season, “Game of Thrones” is a favorite of millions, especially among medieval studies scholars, its global reach credited with energizing the field, inspiring scholarship, courses, and enrollment.

Like “Star Wars,” Rollo-Koster has used “GOT” in class to explain aristocratic feuds of 12th and 13th century France and England, including this semester in Western Europe in the High Middle Ages. 

Simply, she wonders if students’ ability to follow the labyrinth of shifting alliances in “Game of Thrones” can be transferred to following the dynastic intricacies of medieval Europe.

“Who’s married to whom, why they are married, why alliances are created, who’s allied with whom against whom,” she says, “this is the juice of history.”

But beware. Despite author George R.R. Martin’s liberal use of the Middle Ages as a touchstone, “Game of Thrones” is not a mirror image – there are dragons after all. It’s a work of medievalism, depictions of the medieval world influenced by the time in which it is created. “It’s not the work of historians but of fantasy writers,” she says.

To help students separate fact from fiction, Rollo-Koster offers examples of the show’s historical hits and misses:


Power of property. Chief among the show’s successes is the dynamic that all social interaction is based on conflict and linked to power, she says. Along with that, a medieval king was dependent on lords who held the power of the state – the power to make laws, levy taxes, enlist an army – over their lands.

“What ‘Game of Thrones’ does is show you all of those entities,” she says. “You have that idea of a bunch of independent states still owing their allegiance to the king of the Iron Throne.”

Power of widows. Widows of nobility were very important in the Middle Ages, such as Blanche of Castile, the widow of King Louis VIII of France in the early 13th century, who was a regent during the reign of her son Louis IX; and Isabella of France, a.k.a. the She-Wolf of France, who ruled after overthrowing her husband, Edward II (who was eventually murdered), and while her son Edward was coming of age.

“She would be a good Cersei Lannister,” says Rollo-Koster. “Widowhood was the best moment for women in medieval times. This is when women had the most freedom.”

Power of the heir. Primogeniture, inheritance by the oldest son, was created in the Middle Ages. With property being a chief source of power, primogeniture prevented the family land from being disseminated.

But also … In “Game of Thrones,” as in the Middle Ages, illegitimate children could also rise up. A good example, she says, is William the Conqueror – the Jon Snow of his day – who conquered England in 1066 and was known as William the Bastard. William’s father, Robert of Normandy, kept him at court. Henry I of England did the same, recognizing his numerous illegitimate children, many of whom were married off well.

“We have tons of stories in the Middle Ages where there was primogeniture,” she says, “but if the oldest son died, the bastard could do very well for himself.”

Power of honor. The show presents a world of loyalty to oath and homage to a king, who can confiscate the land of nobles who go against him – all very medieval.

Also, while “GOT” portrays a violent world, much of the violence is codified – think the capture of Jaime Lannister. “In the Middle Ages, you don’t kill a knight who surrenders because you’re going to make money ransoming him,” says Rollo-Koster. “There is a code of chivalry and when you are knighted you are supposed to follow that code.”


Where is the clergy? While the show includes religious leaders (the septons) and a weird religious sect (the Sparrows), neither play a large role in the society of the Seven Kingdoms. In the Middle Ages, the clergy structured society, says Rollo-Koster. “It does not mean that people believed it, but every ruler had a council of clergymen. Clergy were everywhere.”

Where are the tears? In the Middle Ages, everyone was crying. A good sermon brought tears; that’s how a minister knew it was good, she says. “It’s the tears of compunction. In Christianity, tears are good, tears are cleansing,” she says. “I think what ‘Game of Thrones’ did is take a modern view. Modern people would hate to know that knights were always crying.”

Where at the moats? As a true medievalist, she says, you get upset when you see castle walls but no moat.

Where in the world …? While the map of fictional Westeros and the world around it closely resembles maps of the Middle Ages, Westeros has defined frontiers. “You can only have designed frontiers if you have nation states,” she says. “You don’t have nation states in the Middle Ages.”

Where’s the change? The Seven Kingdoms seemingly are unchanging for millennia. No technological advances, no social advances, little political change (example: the Starks have ruled the North for thousands of years).

“I think what is interesting is that in the world of fantasy there is a kind of idolization for a world that doesn’t change,” she says. “We are a society which runs very fast and here we are admiring a TV show and a book with a world stuck in immobility.”