Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple weeks, my wife and I have been devouring the first season of Game of Thrones.  Yes, yes, we are behind the times.  I know the fourth season is currently on HBO.  Please forgive our pop culture delay, and don’t give any spoilers in your possible comments to this post. Thanks much.

Now, most everyone has heard of Game of Thrones by now, and realize that the series is a melange of fantasy/action/drama/political thriller.  The series is set in an imaginary land and time that is inhabited by 1434624mysterious creatures such as dragons and ‘white-walkers’.  But, the show does not revolve around magical beasts. There are no main character elves or dwarves, like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Hutts and droids like in Lucas’ Star Wars.  In Thrones, all the characters are human, and the emotions, the drives, the beliefs are all too recognizable. For a fantasy series, Thrones is strangely, and brutally familiar.  However, this familiarity stems from more than just the characters; the setting, though a make-believe land, feels like earth. The imaginary time period seems like a ‘real’ era of human history.

Game of Thrones takes place in a bizzaro European Middle Ages.

Everything in the show has the feeling of the medieval world; the clothing characters wear; the weapons that they use.  The castles, and/or hovels, characters inhabit.  The social hierarchy that exists, with lords, ladies, priests, warriors and peasants (this is even the terminology.) The political factions that are constantly scheming for power.  All of this, and much more, makes Game of Thrones seem to be a strange fantastical attempt to relive a ‘true’ past. The series is a sort of Renaissance Fair writ large; and writ bloody; and writ sexualized.


A typically medieval scene from Thrones

Game of  Thrones‘  medievalism is not unique. References to the world of the Middle Ages are a common aspect of twentieth century fantasy tales.  The most famous example is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though mentioned previously that Rings was more fantastical than Game of Thrones, what with hobbits, wizards, orcs, etc, the overriding aura of the two stories are more similar than different.  Like in Thrones, knights, steeds, magic and castles are all a part of Tolkien’s fantasy land of Middle Earth.  Tolkien’s fantasies are not alone. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and George Lucas’ Star Wars, though less obvious than Thrones or Rings, has the Medieval touch as well. Seemingly set in modern Britain, the Potter tales transport readers to the more magical, hidden ancient world of wizards, trolls, castles and ghosts just out of sight of the muggles.  Taking place in a galaxy far, far away on the other hand, the plot of Star Wars revolves around a brave knight (Luke Skywalker) utilizing magic and rare sword skills (only Jedis use the lightsaber) struggling against the forces of pure evil.  To defeat this evil, Skywalker must fulfill seemingly impossible quests. It is an Arthurian legend with a space cruiser. 

Why do these modern fantasy tales so readily depend upon medieval tropes ?  If this question never occurred to you, it is probably because you have always been inundated with these cultural themes.  After a lifetime of fantasy medievalism, we now simply accept the utilization of the historical era’s ideas, language, clothing and notions as a natural part of fantasy tales. It seems so natural in fact, that to plunk down such a tale in a different historical era seems odd, if not absurd.   Imagine if Game of Thrones depended upon Ancient Greece for its influence. Picture in your mind’s eye the Starks, Lannisters, and Baratheons wearing togas. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

The reason this seems absurd has much to do with our understanding (or stereotypes) of the Middle Ages. Whenever covering the period my history courses, I tell my students to think about what terms and ideas they associate with the Middle Ages. They respond as you might suspect.  My students imagine kings, queens, castles, knights, serfs, etc.  But, they don’t stop there. Some students invariably enter the realm of fantasy.  They will tell me that they think of witches, dragons, magic, and wizards when they conjure up an image of the long gone world.  My students understand these things did not exist during the Medieval period, but the ivanhoeideas come to their mind regardless. They just can’t help it.

My students are dredging up more than just the fantasies of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  Their associations of fantasy and the Middle Ages are much older than those two twentieth century writers. The early nineteenth century, and the Romantic movement is truly to blame. The romantics’ obsession with the Middle Ages as a time of wonder, magic and heroism must be the starting point to grasping why medievalism entwines so readily with our contemporary fantasies.  Responding to the cult of rationality associated with the Enlightenment, the Romantics created a Middle Ages that was mythical, irrational and magical. These modern Europeans created a legendary memory of the Medieval period that lives on even today. Game of Thrones is just the latest rendition.




By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My specialty is modern history.  Just like anything, focusing only upon one subject, or time period, can get a bit staid.  So, I am always looking to branch out.  Recently I have had mini-obsessions with biblical history, the beginnings of civilizations, the history of science, and the history of religion.  Lately, I have taken some minor detours into life during the so-called Middle Ages.  The years 600-1300 of European history is one I could always use some brushing up on.  With this in mind, I devoured a book recently entitled The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by the French historian Robert Fossier.  As I read this book, I thought some of aspects of ordinary life in the Middle Ages was worthy of a blog post.  Here are a couple of my favorite bits of information about the time period in the words of Fossier.

Mathematical Knowledge:

  • “Worse, in all of the centuries of the Middle Ages, figures were not given their real arithmetical values….Figures had only symbolic value. One, three, seven and twelve were God, the Trinity or figures found in the Bible; and as for six and its multiple six times six, they were the sign of what cannot be counted with the fingers of one hand, thus, what surpasses immediate understanding…This disdain for figures affected measurement as well. Someone would sell ‘a wood’, bequeath ‘his land,’ and give ‘what he has.’” ( Page 28)

Early Death:

  • “As late as the fifteenth century, 42 percent of the ground space in Hungarian cemeteries was taken up by the graves of children under ten years of age…and 25 to 30 percent of babies were stillborn, a figure difficult to find today even in the most poverty-stricken lands.” (30-42)

Child Rearing:

  • “When a child reached the age of one, he was helped to walk with the aid of a walker, but anything like a playpen or crawling on all fours was systemically discouraged. The first may have been seen as a reflection of fetal enclosure, and the second as a return to animal life, condemned by God.” (48)

What they ate:

  • “….bread occupied too great a place in the diet. People consumed from 1.6 to 2 kilos of bread per day, and other foods were known as companaticum, ‘what you eat with bread.’ (61)

A time of kindness:

  • “…the house was the basic cell of life, a haven of safety, a space for sociability….Closed in and private, hence inaccessible to the Other, it was also an expression of charity – or of charity as it was conceived in those centuries, which was the alms of a loaf of bread or a bowl of soup offered at the door, for the beggar knocking at the door might be Jesus…that hospitality…was one of the natural paths to salvation. “ (109)

And of cruelty:

  • “…mockery greeted the gesticulations of the mute. As for the blind…their confusion was met with laughter, and nothing was done to aid the myopic…” (20)

The British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote  that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  From these short glimpses of the Middle Ages, we can see he was correct. But, by looking at the lives of these people, we can also see how life has progressed, and regressed.

How lucky we are to live in a time when graveyards are not being filled by children?  How amazing is it that our 8 year old children have more mathematical knowledge than medieval adults?  How heartwarming is it that the modern world attempts to help and be kind to its most physically disabled? But, how unfortunate that those most socially and economically disabled are now seen as being a drain on society that should be punished for laziness? How annoying is it that with all the wonderful, healthy foods at our disposal, 10% of our calories per year come from sugar and chemical filled soda? Lastly, how sad that we have such a lack of historical knowledge that we don’t appreciate how far we have come in our attitudes and knowledge?