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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The Middle Ages weren’t as sexist as <i>Game Of Thrones </i>would have you believe

The Middle Ages weren’t as sexist as Game Of Thrones would have you believe

Photo: Game Of Thrones (HBO)

As a medievalist, I was and am all about Game Of Thrones. A TV show set in a world that draws heavily from the Middle Ages, but with dragons? Yes, please. And while early seasons saw Game Of Thrones’ female characters badly mistreated by men, later seasons felt on the brink of telling a story of women coming into power as Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa Stark—and to some extent more minor characters like Brienne Of Tarth and Yara Greyjoy—took over and gained agency. Unfortunately, that’s not the story Game Of Thrones ended up telling.

I, like many, found Daenerys Targaryen’s transformation from fierce-but-fair dragon queen to power-crazy city destroyer to be a bummer for a lot of reasons, not least of all because her season eight arc mirrors the way ambitious women are demonized out in the real world. It’s especially troubling here in the U.S. as we rev up to a presidential election with plenty of women vying for the Democratic nomination, and all the sexist coverage and reaction that entails. The patriarchal world of 2019 feels, in many ways, not so different from the world of Westeros, where an ambitious woman seeking the throne is depicted as insane and power hungry.

As for the general sexism of the Game Of Thrones world, criticism on that front has been met with a standard response when critiquing mistreatment of women: a shrug and a “Well, it’s historically accurate for the Middle Ages.” Game Of Thrones, as the most popular pop culture offering drawing heavily from Middle Age history, has frequently been heralded as portraying “the real” Middle Ages, and the misogyny and violence of Westeros shows what “the Middle Ages was really like.”

While it’s true that women in the Middle Ages could not vote or run for public office, there are many scholars (myself included) that see the position of women actually worsen after the Middle Ages. As medieval scholar Joan Kelly-Gadol argues, women did not have a Renaissance; only men did. During the Middle Ages, women could be found in positions of power—and not once did any of them burn an enemy city to the ground, literally or metaphorically. By and large, there were far more good female rulers during the Middle Ages than Dany-esque tyrants or sept-destroying Cerseis. Beyond just good female rulers, the Middle Ages was not nearly as sexist or misogynistic as Game Of Thrones would lead us to believe. Medieval women had a lot more power and freedom than the women in Westeros.

Medieval women and land

The feudal system that dominated Medieval society was centered around land. The more land you had, the more power you wielded in feudal Europe. In order for land to remain within a family, women could inherit property or acquire land through marriage. In fact, it was often left to the wife, mother, or sister to manage the property when her husband, father, or brothers were called away to war. And, when that husband, father, or brother died fighting in the Crusades, for example, the land would often be left to the women who had stayed behind.

Scholar Brigitte Bedos-Rezak found that unmarried female landowners in France would often seal acts in their own names. And if a woman from this class was married, she signed her name alongside her husband’s. These women mattered. They had power over the land, and therefore their seal was needed in order to make decisions about that land. Women’s power over the land during the Middle Ages was largely thanks to the emphasis on family. Power, like land, was inherited. It was in the interest of landowners for their daughters to inherit land if no son could.

This all disappeared after the Middle Ages. As medievalist Martha Howell has pointed out, the rise of cities during the Renaissance meant the collapse of the family power unit and rise of individual power. Guilds formed, organizing power into private clubs, and men pushed women out of participation. Power was no longer based on the land, but took on new forms with the rise of new industries.

Medieval women and religion

Power, as Game Of Thrones has often demonstrated, takes many forms. Economic, legally sanctioned power is only a small piece. Think back to the rise of the High Sparrow in seasons five and six. Religious institutions can be a very real threat to secular power. The Middle Ages certainly had religious institutions, namely the Catholic Church. And it was through such institutions like the church that medieval women found other forms of power.

Illustration for article titled The Middle Ages weren’t as sexist as Game Of Thrones would have you believe
Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO

The Church was a big deal in the Middle Ages. The 13th century especially marked a height of female piety and sanctity. New religious movements, like the Beguines, opened up spaces for women to enter religious life. By 1230, James of Vitry and Thomas of Cantimpré wrote books exclusively about the lives of female saints. During the 13th century, there were more women sainted than during any other period of the Middle Ages.

Then, a hundred years or so later, women were being burned at the stake during the European witch trials. It’s hard to come up with a more incendiary (pun intended) example of female power attained so completely in the 13th century and then taken away so dramatically. As many scholars have pointed out, the line between saint and witch is a tricky one to distinguish. The same visions and voices that led to St. Catherine of Siena’s canonization could have very well have been signs of the devil and led to her execution if she had been born a century later.

With the Renaissance came Luther and the Protestant revolution, creating a real fear of heresy. Up until this point, the Catholic Church had virtually no internal threat. There was the threat of the Ottoman Empire during the Crusades to some degree—but Muslims were often labeled as “other” and didn’t challenge the Catholic Church’s authority like this new rise in Christendom. Luther, on the other hand, was a threat that sprang up within the Church itself. This represents a moment where power is challenged (in this case the Catholic Church) that results in powerful men closing ranks and excluding women. In the 13th century, the Catholic Church was relatively secure in its own power, so it wasn’t such a big deal for powerful women to rise up in the ranks. But by the Renaissance, Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic Church. Elizabeth I, his Protestant daughter, sat on the throne, and persecuted Catholics—even going so far as to kill her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart. The transition ended with a lot of fear within the Church, especially of female power. Joan of Arc is an encapsulation of the view of women during this transitional time. She gained a monumental amount of power over Catholic France because of her “saintly” visions, even gaining the ear of King Charles, only to be eventually killed by the Church as a heretic. Her execution paints the fear in the Catholic Church of saintly women coming to power and the Church’s need to eradicate them.

So the female religious freedoms and communities of the early and high Middle Ages came and went with the witch trials of the Renaissance and late Middle Ages. Just as men gained power during the Renaissance, women lost theirs.

The 800-year-old tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The 800-year-old tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Photo: Prisma by Dukas/UIG via Getty Images

In addition to founding female religious sects like the Beguines, running estates, and managing property, there were some extremely powerful and competent female rulers during the Middle Ages. One of my favorite is Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was queen of France, then queen of England, and the duchess of Aquitaine by her own right. In the Medieval world, Aquitaine was a big deal. It was the largest and richest province in France (more than one-third the size of modern day France), and throughout her life Eleanor personally oversaw the management of the province. She also went with her husband on Crusade, and there’s even historical rumors of her and her waiting ladies dressing as Amazons. Even if untrue, people certainly thought Eleanor of Aquitaine was like an Amazon.

The popular understanding of Medieval times comes from the Victorians

The Victorians dictate much of our understanding of the Middle Ages. Much of the sex, violence, and misogyny that many believe to be part of the “real” Middle Ages actually has much more to do with the sexual repression, violent colonialism, and sexism of the Victorian period. During the Victorian era, women could not own land, plead their case in court, seal their names in business deals, or go on Crusade. During the Middle Ages, women could do all those things. Queen Victoria ruled England, but she was no Eleanor of Aquitaine. In an 1870 letter Queen Victoria wrote, “Were women to ‘unsex’ themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen, and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.”

For a good long while, people didn’t study or care all that much about the Middle Ages. In a nutshell, the Italian philosopher and poet Petrarch romanticized how nice life was during the Roman Empire, and seeking to create a direct link between his world and the Roman world, deemed everything in between him and the “light” of the Roman Empire as the Dark Ages. (The Dark Ages got rebranded as the Middle Ages, because some people thought “Dark” was a little harsh.)

Throughout the Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century, scholars, philosophers, and artists became really obsessed with all things Roman and Greek. They really loved Aristotle and Plato, and pretended that they had “discovered” them. (They didn’t—Medievals read both those Greek philosophers.) Then the 19th century rolled along and with it the repression of the Victorians.

With the rise of Imperialism during the 19th century, people wanted to develop their own nation’s story, essentially to legitimize why it was just for them to colonize other lands. There was a moving away from the Greek and Roman myths as people started looking to medieval, indigenous stories to craft national identity. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was republished in England and became a best-seller. Alfred Lord Tennyson published his own Arthur story, Idylls Of The King. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth published “The Egyptian Maid” about the quest for the Holy Grail. His fellow Romantic poets also wrote many poems drawing inspiration from the Middle Ages. Artistic movements like the Symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites likewise drew inspiration from Medieval source material for paintings. Gothic architecture flourished. This resulted in a very Victorian lens through which the Middle Ages was understood, which still influences how we understand the period today.

Game Of Thrones did not break the wheel with the storylines of its female characters this season. After staring out a window for most of the season, Cersei dies in Jaime’s arms—not an ending in keeping with Cersei’s character, one of the best villains on television. Brienne wrote the story not of her own knighthood, but that of Jaime’s. Yara Greyjoy, after challenging her uncle and pledging herself to Daenerys, disappeared for most of the season, and lost her previous independent streak by agreeing to crown Bran Stark as king. Arya played no part in deciding the politics of King’s Landing, and is off to do her semester at sea. Dany unconvincingly moved from a good, noble leader to a ruthless tyrant. At least Sansa got a throne… by the grace of Bran’s agreement to the North’s succession.

All and all, the women on Game Of Thrones present a better depiction of Victorian-era gender politics than a Medieval one. Their place in society isn’t in keeping with the “real” Middle Ages, but instead with the imagined Middle Ages created by the Victorians. With the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, child labor, sexual repression, and colonialism, the Victorians turned to the Middle Ages to escape and justify their reality. But in doing so, they created a Middle Ages that in many ways reflects their own historical moment much more than any “true” Medieval past.

The same can be said for Game Of Thrones. While author George R.R. Martin drew from broad swaths of Medieval European history, the series’ gender politics bears witness to the lingering influence of the Victorians on today’s patriarchy. Many of America’s history of sexist laws—and current sexist practices and outlooks—can trace their roots back to the views held by Victorians. Women had no vote, no property, and no identity in the 19th century—and again, this was not the case in the Middle Ages. A question worth pondering is why Game Of Thrones captured the imagination of so many of us living in the 21st century. What does our own medieval creation say about our society?