Game of Thrones or Harry Potter? What Was the Middle Ages Really Like?

Game of Thrones vs Harry Potter Header

A look at Middle Age representation in popular culture with Professor Andrew Taylor

Game of Thrones is just pure fantasy isn't it? Dragons, magic, bits and pieces of armour from all ages. Does it tell us anything about the Middle Ages?

Sure, there’s plenty of fantasy, but there are lots of things Game of Thrones gets right, like the endless betrayals and the importance of family in a civil war. Or how quickly fortunes change if you organize the right ambush or make the right dynastic marriage.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is popular in part because it is incredibly violent. Is that true to life?

There were certainly brutal battles. One of the battles in the Wars of the Roses, the English civil war of the fifteenth century, had as high a death toll relative to the total population as the Battle of the Somme. On the other hand, no fifteenth-century knight could easily slice off arms and legs. Their armour was too good for one thing. That's why they carried small daggers that they could slide between the vents of a helmet to finish off their opponents.

So Game of Thrones or movies like Braveheart are giving us a Hollywood version of medieval warfare?

Yes. But these fantasies didn't start with Hollywood. Medieval accounts of battle, like The Song of Roland, have knights doing the same impossibly violent deeds. George Martin and the showrunners for Game of Thrones actually got a lot of ideas, especially the Starks and Lannisters, from Shakespeare and his account of the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Shakespeare’s Richard III, about the murderous Yorkist king, is where many of our modern stories about the Middle Ages began.

What does Game of Thrones leave out?

Medieval aristocrats were on the whole very devout, even when they were busy murdering each other. In Game of Thrones religion is just for fanatics. Nobody else feels guilty or spends hours in prayer. Real medieval aristocrats were always founding monasteries, chapels, and colleges.

Colleges. You mean like Hogwarts?

Exactly. Eton, for example, England's oldest public school, was founded by Henry VI, a Lancastrian. Most of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were first founded by medieval aristocrats or wealthy churchmen.

Harry Potter

So what can Harry Potter teach us about the Middle Ages? 

It certainly shows you where our modern university system comes from. Of course now we only use the gowns at convocation, but the whole idea of professors, or masters, as they were called, and of set textbooks, and exams, and organizing knowledge into carefully divided fields is one we inherited from medieval Europe. That may sound rather Eurocentric but, in fact, it is quite the reverse. If you don't understand where the system you're using came from you're like a fish who can't see the water. It's easier to make genuine changes in a system of knowledge or to recognize the value of other systems of knowledge if you understand the history of the one you're using. I'd say that's now one of the most important reasons for studying the period. We’re still working in medieval systems.

When was the Middle Ages anyway?

Basically, if you're talking about Western Europe, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the invention of the printing press, 400 to nearly 1500. But it's not as if one day someone lifted a curtain and said "Now it's the Middle Ages" or "Now it's the Renaissance" I traced an English harper, Richard Sheale, who collected ballads in the north of England in 1558 and then took them to a printer in London. When I read about his travels north and the border wars with Scotland it seemed very medieval, and that was at the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

How do you find out about medieval life?

The richest sources are old manuscripts. Of course most of the contents have been printed now, but looking at the original manuscripts can still provide a lot of information. I found out about Sheale by reading his personal song collection in the Bodleian library in Oxford.

What I love to do myself is follow the old routes, the pilgrimage paths and the paths taken by medieval minstrels. You can still learn a lot from covering the ground. For example, one of the manuscripts I've worked with belonged to a medieval monk who was having an affair with a nun ten miles away. His book had a small section about how to hunt with hawks. I traced his route to the nunnery and I was flushing rabbits and song birds all the way. I suddenly realized that he must have been hunting as he rode out to meet her. It was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Are there any movies that are more realistic than Game of Thrones?

If you want to see what life was like for a prosperous peasant family, I'd recommend The Return of Martin Guerre, an imposter who pretends to be soldier coming back after the wars and works his way into the family and village.

And it's not realistic, but Al Pacino's Looking for Richard shows you how Shakespeare's Richard III became the basic model for Game of Thrones and for modern gangster films and. It's no coincidence that the actor who played the Godfather should return to this play.

Do you have any current medieval projects?

I'm teaching a course on chivalry and violence this fall, trying to understand how medieval stories about battles were used both to teach men to kill and to discourage them from killing too much. In teaching a course in Paris in May, exploring how it became the intellectual centre that gave us so much of the modern university.

Andrew Taylor

Professor Andrew Taylor

English, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa

Andrew Taylor has been teaching in the department of English in the Faculty of Arts since 2001 and served as Vice-Dean of Undergraduate Studies from 2012-2016. He received his B.A. from Queen’s University and his MA and P.D from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto and is a former president of the Canadian Society of Medievalists.

His research concentrates on the relation between oral and written culture in medieval Europe, including the role of minstrel storytelling, and the development of leisure reading and commercial book production. He is currently collaborating with the research project ALPAGE (AnaLyse diachronique de l'espace urbain PArisien: approche GEomatique) to build a history of Paris on a geomatic grid.

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