So I’ve gotten a few questions about whether I’m going to critique television shows as well as movies. And during one of this season’s episodes of Game of Thrones, I realized that there were a couple of things that irk me about how Westeros is depicted, so I decided to make a post about it. I will eventually get around to other tv shows; feel free to offer suggestions.
Obviously, Game of Thrones is fantasy fiction, and not set in any real historical period or place. But while it’s not set on Earth, it is theoretically based on medieval Europe. George R. R. Martin has been fairly open about the various medieval events that he has found inspiration in, and the heavy emphasis on knights, swords, and castles draws a straight line to the medieval period. While there are some contradictions, the fashions, the architecture, the weapons and armor, and other details all point to a setting analogous to Western Europe somewhere in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. And there are three things that really annoy the medievalist in me about the way this society is being depicted.
If This is a Medieval Society, Where Are the Manors?
One of the things that most people are at least faintly aware of about medieval society is that there were lots of peasants. We may not know what peasants really were, or what their lives looked like, but we know they were around somewhere.
Western Europe was a heavily agricultural society during the medieval period. Depending on exactly where and when one looks, somewhere between 80% and 95% of the total population were peasants, that is to say, farmers. Obviously this number varied considerably; some regions, such as Scotland or Norway, relied more heavily on shepherding or fishing for their support, and some of the more urbanized regions, such as northern Italy, or the Rhineland had a higher percentage of town-dwellers and therefore fewer peasants, but overall, it’s safe to say that at least 4 out of 5 people were peasants.
For most of the Middle Ages, most regions of Western Europe employed some form of the manorial system. Rather than having large numbers of tiny family farms, the way that American agriculture did for much of its history, medieval farming was generally organized into manors, large co-operative farming estates. A typical manor, if there was such a thing, was owned by a nobleman or an institution such as a cathedral or monastery that acted as the lord of the manor. Without going into too much detail, the lord essentially leased portions of his fields to his peasants, who held that land on a hereditary contract. As rent, the peasants paid a share of their crops and also performed labor services, such as plowing the fields the lord exploited directly rather than renting out, or carting his produce to a market.
Manors were collective farming. Because of the limits of medieval agricultural techniques, it was necessary to rotate which crops were grown in each field, in order to prevent soil exhaustion. This meant that all the peasants had to be co-ordinating what was being done in each field. They generally lived in small villages of 100-200 people located within walking distance of their fields.
In this arrangement, the lord got a guaranteed labor force and a regular supply of produce, while the peasants got access to farmland and some promise of protection from outside threats such as raiders or bandits (although in many areas, it’s hard to say how effective that protection would have been). Very commonly, the lord possessed the right to conduct law courts to punish low crime and enforce what we today call ‘law and order’. The manors also obviously provided peasants with socialization, a place to seek marriage partners, a place of worship, a mill to grind their grain, a simple market where they could barter for craft goods they couldn’t manufacture, support when they were ill or economically struggling, and other features that small towns typically provide in all societies.
Now, I realize that Game of Thrones is mostly focused on the doings of powerful nobles and their servants and retainers. And nobody wants to watch peasants doing their peasanting; I suspect that there’s only so much one can do dramatically with a guy plowing fields. But the show does give us occasional glimpses of rural life in Westeros, and it bares very little resemblance to manorialism or in fact to any sort of agricultural society. Westeran (?) peasants seem to mostly live in small isolated stone houses (which in itself is a little dubious; most late medieval peasant houses had wooden frames and either wooden walls or wattle-and-daub). Instead of living in villages of 100-200 people, they seem to live in very remote areas miles from their nearest neighbors. They don’t seem to have fields in which they grow crops.
They seem to have lots of small inns out in the middle of nowhere, whereas most late medieval inns would have been in a small village because they were primarily places to meet and drink, not places where travelers can sleep when they’re on the road.
The closest things we’ve seen to villages, at least that I can recall, are two small communities that appear in “Breaker of Chains”. One is the small village just south of Castle Black that seems to mainly consist of a brothel. The other is a small community raided by the Wildlings. This village is definitely not a manor; there are no fields, and barely any buildings. It looks more like a temporary work camp where people go to do seasonal work than anything else; there only seem to be two permanent buildings. The peasants wander around looking peasanty—one is hanging her wash out, another one is hauling water in a yoke. There are a couple piles of hay, but absolutely no other sign that actual farm work could happen here because there are no fields to plow.
Now, I suppose we could say that the North, being close to the Wall and being all hilly isn’t suited to farming and instead its people are more pastoralists, herding sheep or cows for their living like many people in Scotland did. But if that’s the case, where are all the livestock? And why don’t we see any manors anywhere else? The idea that most peasants all live alone out in the middle of the forest (like the ones that Arya and the Hound find shelter with and then rob the next morning) just doesn’t make any sense.
Ok, I admit that this is a small issue. But one of my biggest gripes about fantasy literature in general is that it usually has only an incoherent notion of economics and what peasant life actually looks like. Manorialism isn’t really an esoteric concept; any Western Civ textbook will have a section explaining it (I should know; I’ve looked at lots of Western Civ textbooks). It would just be nice if Game of Thrones made slightly more effort to depict a plausible peasant society.
Why Doesn’t Anybody Give a Damn about the Seven?
Religion is, in theory, an important issue in Westeros. We’ve got the dominant religion of the Seven, which has mostly displaced the Old Gods. The Lord of Light is an intruding god whose cause has been embraced by one of the would-be kings, who has started burning people who won’t support the Lord of Light. But despite this theme, the faith of the Seven is barely visible in the series.
There are occasional references to priests, and there seems to be some sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy, because there’s a High Septon in King’s Landing and important rituals have to happen in the Great Sept of Baelor. Characters occasionally pray, and Catelyn Stark has a scene in which she wrestles with her faith. Everything points to religion and the Church of the Seven being very important to Westeran society, just as it was to late medieval society.
But in practice, there are almost no clergy visible. Despite the heavily focus on political machinations, the High Septon seems to play no role at all in politics. None of the significant characters are clergy and the few clerical characters barely get dialog. There are a lot of religious rules, but their main purpose seems to be to get broken to demonstrate how morally ambiguous most of the characters are. Characters pay lip service to religion, but no one seems to actually care about the Church, or whatever the formal organization that worships the Seven is called. The Maesters are supposed to be important, since they’re the educated people, but they are generally depicted as doddering old men, and they seem to a secular group separate from the clergy. And there don’t seem to be any churches/temples/whatever they call their religious buildings, except for the Grand Sept in King’s Landing.
In medieval society, the powers and resources controlled by the clergy were major sources of political power and influence. Every noble family wanted to have a younger son placed in an ecclesiastical office, in hopes that he would work his way up the hierarchy and become a bishop or abbot and thus be able to support his family politically. But neither the Lannisters nor the Starks have done this. Tyrion Lannister, a perpetual object of loathing by his father and siblings for much of the series, is exactly the sort of person who would have been placed in a monastery or given clerical training. The same is true for John Snow and Rickon Stark. The fact that neither family used this strategy tells us that the Church of the Seven is not regarded as having any clout at all, which makes no sense given how important the series presents religion as being in theory.
What Martin (and the screenwriters working with his material) has done here is create a medieval society for a post-modern world that no longer sees religion as a powerful political force. Instead of the usual medieval cinematic cliché of clergy that can do anything they want because the Church is all-powerful and therefore doesn’t have to follow any rules, Martin gives us a supposedly medieval society in which religion has no institutional power whatsoever. Sure, it is possible to have a society in which organized religion has little formal power, but that’s not medieval at all. It’s something else entirely.
My Biggest Complaint
The thing that irritates me the most about Game of Thrones is the way that it is based so heavily on clichés about medieval society as the ‘Bad Old Days’. It depicts a society of relentless brutality, thoroughly corrupt political institutions, and law enforcement mechanisms that are somewhere between powerless and non-existent. Murders happen with shocking regularity and rarely seem to surprise anyone other than the victims. The common people are little better than slaves with no rights, and the powerful people are all terminally jaded, going through public ceremonies they don’t particularly believe in. All that matters is naked, raw political power and the force that backs it up.
All of this seems plausible to viewers because it fits our ideas about how medieval society was. But this is a wild parody of medieval society. Contrary to most people’s ideas about the medieval past, people’s legal rights mattered a great deal to them. The later Middle Ages was a deeply litigious society in which men (and sometimes women) sued or complained to higher authorities when they felt their rights had been violated. Peasants protested, sometimes quite effectively, when they felt that their lords had violated the terms of their arrangement, and lord of manors sometimes kept extremely detailed records of exactly what obligations their peasants had, in part because failing to keep such records could make a manor much less profitable.
By the late Middle Ages, clergy almost routinely sued each other when disputes broke out. One of my favorite examples involves an archbishop of York who got into a dispute with the cathedral chapter, the clergy who were responsible for the daily running of the cathedral. As part of the quarrel, the chapter official responsible for providing candles refused to supply them, so that the archbishop was for several months forced to perform the mass in the dark.
Medieval society could be quite violent, certainly more violent than modern society (I should know; this is a key issue in my current research on medieval Oxford). But when violence happened, there were legal mechanisms that addressed it. For example, in England (which is where my research is focused), when a man or woman died under suspicious circumstances, the law required that the body be cordoned off and an official known as the coroner had to come and inspect the body, in the presence of a coroner’s jury. He then took testimony from the jurors about what they believed had happened. If they concluded the victim had been killed by someone else, attempts were made to apprehend that person, put them on trial and punish them. By modern standards, the system had many holes; there were numerous ways someone might evade punishment or that the system could fail to function properly. But English society still did its best to punish violent crime, and failure to attempt to punish crime was as outrageous then as it is today.
Now, Game of Thrones depicts a society in which political authority is breaking down during a civil war. And outrageous miscarriages of justice did happen during periods of English royal weakness (particularly in the late 15th century, which Martin has drawn a good deal of inspiration from). But even during the Wars of the Roses, England still had a functioning legal system, albeit one that often yielded to political pressure. There were still officials responsible for enforcing the law, arresting criminals, and enacting justice. But Westeros apparently doesn’t even have a legal system. When Tyrion is put on trial, it almost seems that the system is being invented for this occasion, or that trials are a rare phenomenon. (Yes, it’s a show trial; I get that. Actually, there’s a lot wrong with this trial, from the standpoint of late medieval English law, but maybe that’s another post.) At no point in the series has anyone ever said “Excuse me, but taking things that belong to other people is a crime.”
Whatever Westeros is, it isn’t medieval. I’m not the first person to point this out. And it frustrates me that the series is teaching people some rather inaccurate ideas about what medieval culture is like. It makes my job as an educator just a little bit harder. And what’s all the more maddening is that this skewing of people’s ideas about the past is going to happen even though this is a fantasy world and not the actual past.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy Game of Thrones. The writing and acting are excellent, the characters are for the most part interesting, and I’ll certainly tune in next season to find out what happens. But I have no doubt that as much as I enjoy the series, these things are going to continue to bug me. Such are the tribulations of scholars who watch tv or go to the movies.
Want to Know More?
You can get the Game of Thrones Season 1on Amazon, obviously.
If you haven’t read the books, the place to start is A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1). And if you have read them, you might like to read The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire).