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?