Game of Thrones is referred to as a Medieval fantasy, and at first glance, that seems fine. Everyone fights with swords and there are dragons, so that's both bases covered, right? But how much of what's being depicted in the TV show is actually Medieval and how much is fantasy? We examine:
There are plenty of historical allusions to England’s 15th century Wars of the Roses for Thrones fans to untangle. Stark and Lannister bear a resemblance to the historical houses of York and Lancaster, King’s Landing plays the role of a warm and sunny London, etc.
Killing kings wasn't an easy business though, even once you got hold of them. People regarded kings with reverence, and extinguishing royal lines could invoke the wrath of God. For a pragmatic usurper, this meant a disgruntled populace and no real power. Henry VI was captured in battle thrice and was allowed to remain king for a while before Edward IV felt safe to have him killed. Richard II's murder hung over Henry IV for his entire reign, inspiring revolts and conspiracies.
Being a vicious ruler wasn't easy either. When Richard III executed nobles without trial and was rumoured to have killed his brothers' children, he was soon overthrown. While conflict over land was commonplace, violence and brutality outside of battle created a lot more problems than characters in Game of Thrones seem to appreciate.
Christianity in Medieval Europe was, as English historian R. W. Southern puts it, “the most elaborate and thoroughly integrated system of religious thought and practice the world has ever known.” There was no division of religion and state in Medieval times. Doctrines of faith formed the structure of society for rulers and peasants alike, and people could no more opt out of them than we can opt out of laws or the economy. Thomas Aquinas compared going against Christianity to a counterfeiter making fake coins: The detriment to the community is obvious to everyone, and the punishment was obligatory. Religion was intrinsic to life, but it wasn't just a central body handing out rules; it was also an organic development of rituals and folklore which held communities together for centuries.
In Thrones (so far at least), a unified church is practically invisible, either as an organising power or as a deep motivation behind characters' behaviour. As such, the people of Westeros aren't truly Medieval; they are effectively modern-day citizens with a high predisposition towards violence.
The problem with depicting the Medieval world realistically on TV is that it wouldn't feel right. The bare stone buildings that we are used to recognizing as Medieval would have actually been painted, with wooden outworks and gaudy decorations. Old forests would have been unmanaged, dark and dense, with low interconnecting branches. Farmland was based on an open field system, with patchworks of different crops scattered across strips of earth. Wheat fields were three times as tall as today, towering over peasants as they worked, and sheep were comparatively tiny, with a grown man able to eat one in a single sitting. Similarly, some features would seem anachronistic, such as clocks and reading glasses, despite the fact that they became commonplace during Medieval times.
All in all, a faithful rendering would actually look like a different planet in a corny sci-fi show.
Sex is certainly a big part of the Game of Thrones TV show, with internet forums affectionately dubbing its use of nudity in slow scenes as “sexposition.”
The act of sex is what it is, but peoples' ideas about it change with time. One feature of Thrones that jars with the perceived Medieval mindset is its defined categories of sexuality. A king is identified as gay, for example, and many knowing nods and petty jokes are exchanged about it — but there is little evidence of Medieval thought defining people by their sexual preference. Tactile gestures and expressions of love were commonplace between men who would be deemed heterosexual today. As American historian Ruth Mazo Karras points out, there are records that King Richard the Lionheart of England shared his bed with Philip Augustus of France, and “loved him as his own soul” without sexual implications (or if the chronicler is aware of a sexual dimension, it is so normalised as to be unworthy of comment). There was discrimination against sodomy as a “wasteful” sex act, and therefore one of many sins, but beyond that there is remarkably little evidence of individual sexual practices being categorised.
Thrones is suitably grimy when it wants to be, and indeed there would have been a great deal of filth and disease during Medieval times. Peasants lived in single-room habitations shared with livestock, cities lacked sewerage systems — the implications are obvious.
On the other hand, Thrones often fills up its time with characters taking a quick dip in a river or having a soak in a luxurious bath. Immersion bathing would have been very uncommon in Medieval times. Waterways were polluted with raw sewage, and rainwater had to be preserved for drinking. People combed, scraped and rubbed themselves with cloths to keep clean, but perhaps that doesn't have quite the same sex appeal.
To point out Game of Thrones' lack of Medieval features isn't really a criticism. It is, after all, a work of fiction made for TV and seeking to entertain. As Medieval times span a thousand years of history, it's also hard to reduce them to defining features.
But it's still worth bearing in mind that we're not watching the world and attitudes of people from a bygone age. In fact, just as Victorian Medieval fantasies feature jingoism and xenophobia dressed up as nobility, we're showing a lot more of the mindset of our times in the world of Game of Thrones than anything Medieval.