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

This series is now available in an audio format; the entire playlist can be listened to here.

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 is 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: διοίκησις). 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, βασίλισσα (empress), but was known to use the masculine form βασιλεύς (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?

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

  1. This mentions Martin, but it’s worth noting that on religion the show Game of Thrones and the books A Song of Ice and Fire take very different paths. In the latter noble characters are sometimes shown strongly believing in their faiths, the Lannisters are on the bad side of the first High Septon we see specifically because Eddard Stark was executed at Baelor’s Sept, and the third High Septon is very clear that the Red Wedding was a horrible sin (and virtually everyone outright despises the Freys for it).

    So in jump from books to show the (admittedly still simpler) religions in ASOIAF almost completely disappear except for when the show’s writers have to have them in there because of something big in the books.

  2. I know you mentioned in the first article that you are choosing to focus on Game of Thrones the show not A Song of Ice and Fire the book series, but like the previous commenter above said, the show significantly deviates from Martin’s books/world-building when it comes to religion and the gods.

    For one, the destruction of the Sept of Baelor hasn’t happened in the books, but if it does happen in a way that Cersei is responsible, it would spell her political (and possibly literal) end. The show completely botched this because – SPOILERS FROM ASOIAF – in the books there is a character named Aegon (described as Rhaegar’s son who was saved from the sack of King’s Landing by Varys, different to Jon Snow) who’s supposed to be Daenerys’s rival for when she arrives to Westeros. However, the show didn’t introduce him and so the showrunners needed Cersei to remain as the final villain with enough political and military power to keep her as a viable threat to Daenerys, thus completely nullifying any effects of the explosion of the Sept.

    As far as the role of religion in Westeros goes, Martin invests a lot more time in describing the social contract between the Church and State. The Faith caused a significant rebellion early in the reign of the Targaryens when they refused legitimacy to Aegon the Conqueror’s sons Aenys and Maegor – both being abominations born of incest. That rebellion caused widespread destruction and continued until Aegon the Conqueror’s grandson Jahaerys I concluded a peace with the Faith, with the Sept formally acknowledging the Doctrine of Exceptionalism (that Targaryens are different to common men and that incest for them would be permitted as they are Valyrians). Furthermore, when Stannis Baratheon makes his claim for king, he never gains significant support and there is ample talk across Westeros by common folk and nobles alike for his heresy in abandoning the Faith for Melisandre of Asshai’s religion of R’hllor.

    I just wanted to comment on this because I’ve always found the relationship between Church and State to be historically fascinating – and I do think Martin has done a pretty great job in worldbuilding when it comes to faith and religion in ASOIAF. Especially having read Caliban and the Witch by Sylvia Federici recently, I found Martin’s works to be a lot more truthful to High Middle and Late Middle Ages institutions of religion than the show presented.

  3. Hello,
    I really enjoyed these three blog posts, but wanted to comment on something that I found missing. In all three you never once mentioned the maesters. Their role in westeros seems pivotal in at least two significant ways: firstly, they provide at least a veneer of organizational capacity to each Castle, town or holdfast large enough to justify one (though I certainly would have liked to see some of the maesters supporting large Lord’s and cities have a correspondingly larger staff. Neither the books nor the show suggest this. Secondly maesters seem to perform many of the secular tasks that in our world priests performed, in many cases simply because they were the only literate and educated people in the area. How would Charlemagne’s view of religion have changed if the church only “happened on Sunday” and he had an independent source of literate advisors, neogiators and educators at his disposal?
    I also really appreciated your discussion of authors who, living in the modern world and lacking any true convictions themselves, find it very difficult to imbue their stories with people who actually do things because of their actual beliefs. I suppose Tolkien and CS Lewis could have added truly layered medieval style Catholicism to LoTR and Narnia respectfully, but chose not to for many reasons, some of which I can imagine, and some of which must be deeply personal.

  4. Why not assume Game of Thrones was intended to be early modern instead of being a failed attempt at being medieval?
    I mean, we have a pretty overt Wars of the Roses inspiration, Melisandre’s religion smells a lot like Protestantism, and as you note there are hints of nationalism.

    1. Some clues hint at authorial intent (like Martin’s stated historical inspirations including definitively medieval ones, set designs including elements from earlier in the medieval period, talk of calling the banners rather than a centralized army), and you could point to “anachronisms” which would be present if we assumed an early modern timeframe…but the fact that the typical viewer will lump GoT in with quasi-medieval fantasy rather than anything associated with the early modern period is reason enough.

  5. I’d like to second the previous comments on the wide gulf between the show and the books, and also add that in the books the Sparrows are a genuinely populist mass movement, much more concerned with justice and peace for the common folk (as well as genuinely pious) than on sexual puritanism as in the show. (They are sexually puritan too, but it’s far from the main thrust.)

  6. Just found this, did want to comment. One of the odd things going on with Walder Frey is that he has never divorced any of his wives. Instead, there is a ridiculously high rate of death in childbirth in Westeros. This seems very off-kilter to me, but I’m not a medievalist and certainly that Madonna complex means that death in the pursuit of producing sons is going to be over-romanticized in the literature. Losing eight wives in a row to death in childbirth seems absolutely nuts to me.

    1. While childbirth absolutely was dangerous in the pre-modern world, it wasn’t anything like that dangerous. Maternal mortality rates in pre-modern societies (as far as I know the demographics tend to hover around 2-5% per live birth. Walder Frey has had 29 children by his wives (sidenote: his wife-survival rate is preposterously low, but his child survival rate is preposterously high), so statistically, he ought to have c. 0.725 dead wives from childbirth.

      Him being very old is no help, since statistically one (or many) of his wives would have survived past child-bearing age, presumably living with him for decades. Two wives who made it to Roman life expectancy at adulthood (which was around 50 – the very low ancient life expectancy is mostly showing the impact of infant and child mortality) would be enough to take up his entire adult life.

      So in practice, I’d expect everyone to consider murder after the second dead wife, and assume it after the fourth, with the Church profoundly losing patience somewhere in there (and also – what idiot highborn would bethroth their daughter to him? If they all drop like flies, there’s basically zero value in that political alliance. And also, just to be clear: people in the past cared about their daughters. Read Cicero’s lament for his own beloved daughter Tullia.)

      Honestly, one more example of Martin cranking up the grim-dark for story texture (to signal that Walder Frey is a bad person) and too many people taking it as somehow true or representative of the past, when it is every bit as silly as magic rings or dragons.

      1. I don’t think anyone takes Walder Frey as representative of anything. He is definitely considered an abberation in the books as well. No one on the whole continent has had as many wifes as him in living memory.
        What keeps him in power despite being hated is that he has a supposedly very defensible fortress that also doubles as the only bridge between North and South. So he has a stranglehold on trade.

        1. I wouldn’t be surprised if people thought Walter Frey was representative. If you look at Game of Thrones reaction videos on youtube, there are a bunch of people who assume that the sibling incest from both the Lannisters and Targaryeans is “how things were back then.” There are of course a handful examples of such practices, but people seem to assume that it was common in pre-modern times.

          Game of Thrones’s reputation for realism is such that many people assume that literally everything that isn’t obviously fantastical is realistic.

      2. It’s been a while since I read the books, and it was in translation, but the books are somewhat more realistic.
        First, it is implied that Walder deliberately denied his wives perinatal care. One can reasonably expect that to dramatically increase maternal death, perhaps by a factor of five. However, it does not seem to count as murder in Westeros.
        Second, while his early wives were his social equals, the recent wives are of much lower rank. They – and their fathers – are really not in a position to refuse Walder, just as Jane Seymour, Catharine Howard and Katharine Parr were not in a position to refuse Henry VIII.
        Third, people do suspect him, he just managed to keep on the good side of power and maintain just enough plausible deniability.

        1. In fairness to Henry VIII Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard both very much wanted to be queen of England and deliberately angled for the job. Catherine Parr was in love with another man but turning down such an incredible match was just not something any 16th century noblewoman would consider.

    2. I can think of one flimsy possibility – that the riverlands around the Twins are riddled with an endemic illness, perhaps mosquito-borne, to which the locals have an inherited resistance, and that the fresh young wives Walder acquires from elsewhere routinely succumb to it within a few years.

      1. Malaria is a pretty good example of a real life disease that behaves like this. It kills a lot of kids, but if you survive to adulthood in that environment, constantly getting re-exposed by being bitten by infected mosquitoes. Fresh foreign adult visitors on the other hand also get it badly.

        But given that it’s Walder Frey we’re talking about, I’d believe malice over malaria.

      2. I’d attribute it to some kind of supernatural curse before malaria. The Riverlands don’t seem like they’d have the climate for that sort of thing, no other “outsider” suffers from it, and it would need to be absurdly localized to get all of Walder’s wives (most of whom would presumably be Riverlanders). Sadly, we don’t know much about Freys before Walder, so it’s hard to make sweeping statements about his House without the breech-army he founded.

    3. You’re absolutely correct. It was, I believe, Good Queen Aly on Tumblr who did the math and found that GRRM’s women die in childbirth WAY too often and the children all survive too often as well (unless there’s incest.).

      1. Yeah, it’s ridiculous how Lysa Arryn and Selyse Baratheon each have only one surviving child and a half dozen or more who die in childbirth or early infancy, while it seems all other noble women have three or more children survive well into adolesdence with no early deaths.

  7. The 7 kingdoms are England. The protestation that they should have had a queen at some point because Spain had several seems pretty null to me. From the time that there was an England until the “Early Modern” period that you seem to put about 1500, there was one English “Empress”, Matilda, and she was very hotly contested, in no small part due to her gender.

    (incidentally, the Dance of the Dragons seems to me to resemble the “Anarchy”, the conflict between Matilda and her nephew Stephen, at least as much as it does the War of the Roses.)

    That said, I’m seriously digging this blog.

    Also, blowing up the sept is only in the show and not in the books, and I’m not going to click through a bunch of old episodes, but was it ever conclusively pinned on Cersei that she blew up the sept? I mean, with the war and all there’s a lot of wildfire moving around and sometimes accidents happen… probably one of those skeevy alchemists, amirite?

    1. Since the preparations for the Blackwater, the alchemists have been paid by House Lannister, so if the alchemy connection is made, so too is the Lannister connection. Worse, the destruction happened on her watch, so even if she somehow avoids blame for doing it herself, it’s still clearly a sign of divine displeasure.

    2. Dorne is Spain, the Reach is France, the Vale Wales and the North Scotland; the Seven Kingdoms are the size of South America and have had hundreds of kingdoms for much of their history.

  8. More belated proofreading corrections:
    This was less true Scandinavia -> This was less true in Scandinavia
    there are seven divine being that -> there are seven divine beings that
    some complicated in that elites -> some complications in that elites
    believed to be religious efficacious -> believed to be religiously tone of Martin’s vision diverge somewhat

    1. Not sure what I did to those last two, so here’s what they were supposed to look like:
      believed to be religious efficacious -> believed to be religiously efficacious
      tone of Martin’s vision diverse somewhat -> tone of Martin’s vision diverge somewhat

  9. Thank you for spending time of this basic issue of medieval religion and the fact that these people Believed. I did a dissertation on the First Crusade and even in some of the academic literature there was a lot of searching around regarding why people went on Crusade, looking for social, personal and economic factors which might be persuading these people to take 2000 mile suicidal hikes, in a world where 40 miles away was far. Which was weird, because there was overwhelming evidence that they went because they really, profoundly believed God wanted them to. That’s what they wrote, that’s what they shouted (‘Deus le vult!’) but we seem to have real trouble believing them. Certainly lots of shows set in the period seem to leave out God, even though for those people God was as real as their own lives…realler if they were of a bookish disposition.

  10. Hi, just like to say first off what a fantastic resource this is for those interesting in worldbuilding. Thanks so much for taking the time and effort to construct it.
    That said, I’d like to take issue with the idea that most Mediaeval people believed in their religion. That may be the impression you get from written records, but given the penalties for atheism, few people were going to put their lack of belief in writing. To draw a parallel with homosexuality (and I should say: I’m a heterosexual atheist), there is probably little evidence for that either but that does not mean it didn’t happen. In fact, there’s likely to be more evidence for homosexuality than for a private lack of belief in god since it takes two to tango. In theory, 99.9% of people could have been atheists and we wouldn’t necessarily know, given the penalties. Ditto public action: if you are going to be accused of a lack of faith by not going to church or participating in a (potentially lucrative) crusade, you’lll saddle up. A later date, I know, but Christopher Marlowe’s atheism was perhaps not so shocking in itself, as the fact he admitted it publicly. Of course, people noawadays are still a superstitious bunch, so there’s a good bet many people did believe in their religion, but I’d suggest the number of atheists is not indicated by adherence to religious practices and could easily have been reasonably high.
    In Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, there are not – as far as I recall – any specific public punishments for atheism. So in that context, maybe the Lannisters could afford not to be so pious, at least until they required the backing of the church.

    1. I’m not sure how you can look at the historical record unambiguously stating that people believed their religion, say something about how we can’t know one way or another, and conclude that the record is probably lies.

      I’d like to point out that, even in many secular nations exposed to countless belief systems, most people still believe in religion. Even now, when people are aware that most people believe in “wrong” religions, facing all the challenges the modern world puts on faith, continue to believe what they were taught as children. (No disrespect intended to those people, and I wish I could find a better way to phrase that last sentence.) How someone can assume that people in the past, raised under semi-theocratic regimes, almost never exposed to what we’d consider a separate faith, would have a substantial number of non-believers is beyond me.

    2. I wish I could edit past posts: by reading present day trends into past history, you make that history incomprehensible. We have literally no reason to believe atheism was high. We have every reason to believe it was vanishingly small or even non-existent. Heck, Marlowe was not openly an atheist. Given his private writings he was probably not someone we’d think of an atheist at all. He seems to have believed in the Divine, just not the Divine recognised by the English Crown or Church. It is similar to how early Christians were called atheists by their pagan neighbours.

  11. Commenting on a pretty old post, but one book series that tries to draw much more heavily from actual Medieval Europe is the Traitor Son Cycle. Have you read it? If so, any thoughts?

  12. Another Modern period inspiration for the destruction of the Sept occurred to me while I was reading this post: the burning of the church at Trumpan on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. While the locals (belonging to the clan MacLeod of Skye) were inside at worship, a group from a rival clan (the McDonalds of Uist) barricaded the church and set fire to the thatched roof, killing all who were inside except one little girl, and destroying the church.

    1. Which happened in 1578, well into the Early Modern Period and once the power of the Catholic Church had begun to wane. Just more evidence for OGH’s conclusions.

  13. Reading from the more recent posts – and noted a missing comment: Dorne has female “princes” (I think they rule as “princess”), since the ruling family (and at least a good chunk of the higher nobility there) practice straight primogeniture. (The current prince’s eldest child is a daughter – and she is the heir, though in the books she has concerns her father is trying to give the title to her younger brother. That ends in several tragedies, as A Song of Ice and Fire is want to.)

  14. As some have commented above, I think this is something which is much better handled in the books than in the show.

    Regarding the faith of the Seven, as has been noted, the decline of the church goes back to the time of the early Targaryen kings. The church objected to both the polygamy and incest which the Targaryens took for granted, and this erupted into a major war which lasted for the last part of Aenys’s reign and all of Maegor’s. Maegor broke the power of the church on the battlefield and eventually his successor Jaehaerys thrashed out a deal in which the Targs got almost everything they wanted: the church allowed a divine exemption for the Targs to continue with incest, and gave up its military orders, in exchange for the royal family abandoning polygamy.

    The flaw in this arrangement was that it implicitly linked the divine authority of the king to their ability to ride dragons. Daeron I, the first dragonless king, was challenged on the basis that he had no dragons, although won round sceptics through military brilliance. His successor and brother, who was not a warrior, made extravagant shows of piety to try to reaffirm the relationship. Nevertheless, as the dynasty continued to decline, the kings were plainly aware that their religious authority was weakened by the lack of dragons. Some of them attempted to rectify this directly, which led to disasters like Aerion’s self-immolation, Aegon IV’s dragons on wheels, and the immolation at Summerhall which nearly wiped out the dynasty. More cautious kings like Daeron II sidestepped the issue of divine exemption by marrying outside the dynasty and therefore not invoking charges of incest (although ironically that did lead to challenges on a dynastic basis).

    I think there is certainly a reading that by finally overthrowing the Targaryens, Robert – without intending to – fundamentally weakened the innate authority of the kingship by removing the foundation for its divine right, and instead instated a more contractual relationship between the king and his principal bannermen. This may also go some way to explaining some of the cynicism we see (in the books as well as the show) by characters towards the Seven: the destruction of the Targaryens hasn’t been met with any divine judgement, and that has caused a crisis of faith. Though characters in the books are generally more devout than in the show anyway.

    Also worth noting that this only applies to the Seven itself. There is no doubting the piety of the Rh’lorr followers, and the Drowned God forms a major part of Ironborn life which the characters take seriously. When Robb becomes king of the North by acclaim, Catelyn notes that his core of supporters are Old Gods followers – including lords from the Riverlands with no previous political association with the North. Their support for him (which brings along the Seven-aligned Riverlanders) derives from a religious affiliation more than a political one.

    So while there is probably (as always) room for Martin to do better, I think this is something he has at least thought about and has put some effort into portraying. The show, both for reasons of inevitable adaptation decay and because it tends to oversimplify character motives, brings very little of it across.

    1. I think this is an interesting run through. The counterpoint (and I steal this from a recent Rest of History podcast) is that e..g JRR Tolkien’s work is *more* religious and medieval than that of Martin, even though in the Lord of the Rings there’s virtually no formal religion and in A Song of Ice and Fire there’s lots, as you’ve shown well. And the reason for that is that many if not most of Tolkien’s non-Orcish characters have a profound sense of Right and Wrong, or Good and Evil, and many of them are clearly willing to make profound sacrifices on behalf of Right (rather than personal vengeance, personal loyalty etc). I’ve not read all of ASOIAF but that is pretty clearly a minority view in that universe. People do have an ethical sense but it’s much more messy and inchoate, where it’s not absent entirely (e.g. most of the Lannisters). And that’s why it comes across as Classical or Modern morality, because most people in the Medieval period spent a lot of time both talking and apparently thinking about this kind of thing in relatively black and white terms.

      Separately I don’t think it’s realistic that generalised religious belief in Westeros is so dependent on the specific actions of individual kings. Until recently most ordinary people needed to believe *something* (they still do, except now in Europe it’s typically a mish-mash of Christian-inspired stuff like human rights, ‘fairness’, ‘justice’ etc rather than a coherent system ). Although kingship was more or less sacralised in most of European history prior to quite recent times (at least the 18th century), I don’t think overall religiosity was driven much by individual monarchs. Perhaps Chinese history provides good examples, though, given the centrality of the Emperor in the Confucian system.

  15. As others have said, the books handle it far better than the show does (and especially during the Dance of the Dragons, which is the premise for the new series coming out soon.), but I wanted to say that I believe part of the reason this happens is because almost all depictions of both aristocracy and the medieval clergy in media show them as incredibly corrupt (and to be perfectly honest, I find it hard to believe that they weren’t.). Or at least, clergy that was highly placed. Local religious authority is shown as often trustworthy and important members of the community, but cardinals and the pope and whatnot…well, no one would watch it if it wasn’t dramatic. And a lot of that is based on real people…it’s hard to believe that Rodrigo Borgia actually believed in catholicism, even if none of the depictions of him are strictly accurate. It would be difficult for a piece of media to show a faithful king when audiences are used to Henry VIII, who created the Church of England so he could get a divorce (I’m being glib, I know it was more complicated than that.). And in the modern day we’re so used to our leaders all being corrupt that we assume leaders in the past were, too. So the fact that the Targaryens, especially the early Targaryens, don’t actually believe in the faith of the seven and only converted to assimilate into their new nation, isn’t all that unrealistic. How many vikings converted to christianity and then just added the christian god to their polytheistic worship? So, SO many. That’s literally the basis for cargo cults, santeria, vodun, etc. They’re the religious version of patois.

    The faith of the seven was, in the books, specifically knee-capped in power by the Targaryens. It’s actually why Cersei arming them is a major plot point (and the history there was entirely left out by the show.). The second Targaryen ruler faced a rebellion from the faith, as did his successor, and he’s the one who disbanded the military faction of the fact and outlawed the carrying of weapons by the faith. So it has not been problem-free for the Targaryens, but all of that is left out of the show and the role of the faith is severely reduced. As is the role of the faith of r’hllor (the red priests.). Hell, they even removed the phrase that tells you what they swear by: the old gods and the new. Well, in more casual situations anyway.

    By the by, to be equally as pedantic, both the red and purple wedding murders occurred after the sacrament during the party.

  16. Given the perils of death in childbirth (and the popular misconceptions about medieval life expectancy in general), I thought we were supposed to assume that Walder had in fact outlived all his wives.

  17. the blown up of Sept of Baler isn’t just a profound religious sacrilege as Professor Devereaux pointed out, it is also dumbest and most suicidal realpolitik move Cersei could do.

    yes, the high sparrow was dead, but there were enough smallfolk members of sparrow facton in capital to cause some real disturbance. the news of what happened would certainly enrage them to immediately riot. and don’t forget the newly-reminted Faith Militants, they can’t storm the Red Keep, but they possess superior morale and number (gods and angry mob are on their side simultaneously), so they certainly can defeat and kill every Gold Cloak sent by Cersei to supress them, roaming in the countryside afterward, making the already devastated central westero more of a living hell.

    yes, the main bloodline of house tyrell was wiped out, but everyone knows the real power behind the fat dumb-dumb and gorgeous queen and gay warrior was the old tyrell matriarch, the famous queen of thorn Olenna. she was also quite capable of arranging royal assassinations. a true machiavellian ruler eliminates his/her opponents by Eliminating them, not by killing opponents’ children and grandchildren. that’s called provocation, not elimination.

    the most idiotic stroke was incinerating kevan lannister. he was the most high-ranking lannister army officer remain in capital, goldenhand jaime was on his way returning from riverrun. even in a professional hireling military, the sudden lost of most high-ranking (thus commanding) officer would royally (pun intended) mess up chain of command and morale.

    if said military functions as de facto royal praetorian guard and everyone know it’s their protectee who done the deed. well………in almost every real history precedent on every continent, the protectee would cease to be the soldiers’ employer and became the soldiers’ merchandise in various political bidding.

    so the most logical and Realistic result would be: lady olenna pays and arms the Faith Militants, asked them looting the countryside to stress jaime lannister’s logistic line, thus delaying his return, also got a reserve military man-pool. tyrion lannister offered the same deal to vale mountain tribes in the books, got satisfying result. in the same time, olenna brides the lannister garrison remain in capital, ask them to “handle” certain blondie and her zombie bodyguard discreetly.

    whether the blond boy king jump from his window or not doesn’t matter anymore. even he was alive, there would be a power vacuum in the capital. olenna would certainly invite any contender to fill that vacuum immediately. as it happens, there was a more than suitable one named Daenerys Targaryen the Mouthful Titles. she had a battle-tested army, three dragons, right family name and fame, and shared hate of lannister family.

    so the show isn’t pious enough in a real medieval sense, and isn’t treacherous and cunning enough in a real machiavellian sense: any high power struggle (the proverbial “Game of Throne”) need to be deal with utter precision, swiftness and ruthless, not just kill a bunch of offending persons. the latter is a toy-smashing temper tantrum writ large, not a viable coup.

    but, hey, even the plot is naive and dumb, enough bombs shots and action scenes and Natalie Dormer scenes will always make me smile.

  18. You mention a work on “Holy Kingship” by Elizabeth Hassler – is there any way to read that?

  19. From reading the books I feel like the lack of belief in the Seven on the part of the ruling classes in ASoIaF might be due to better information access and the Seven not doing much. Also note the lack of belief is isolated to the Seven. For example, the previous kings very obviously were true believers of THEIR faith. I remember North characters believing in their gods and their trees. The Lightning Lord seemed like a true believer.

  20. In the show, for sure, the religion is a shadow on the wall. In the books it’s more clear that this is the result of the moral decay of Westerosi society-the Targaryen invasion and subsequent centuries long war against the Church deliberately and clearly eroded the power of the Church on every level. Hence saying that Westerosi religion fits only with the Early Modern period is the point-it’s the way it is after significant decay of privileges and powers, equivalent to those that occurred after various schisms and *victorious* royal power mongering.

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