“Enemies to the east, enemies to the west, enemies to the south, enemies to the north. Whatever stands in our way, we will defeat it.” —Queen Cersei Lannister
The penultimate season of Game of Thrones is here, and our medieval/modern episode recaps will return each week as well (see previous seasons here).
The rhetoric of “enemies all around”—expressed in the words of fiery Queen Cersei Lannister—resonates across time. This historical echo is but one way in which the HBO series, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, appeals to our sensibility that the present mirrors the past, or the ways that propaganda promotes alternative views about current events (at times playing up, exaggerating, or overlooking prejudices or precedents from bygone eras).
Just as our own world has changed radically in the year since the previous season, so too did the fictional worlds of Westeros and Essos witness significant political upheaval: a fraught election pitted mansplaining greatness over an attempt to shatter an iron ceiling for female rule; an unstable imperialist state witnessed the obliteration of numerous competing factions; a wealthy foreign power attempted to cut its ties with other realms; proponents and opponents of defending a great wall clashed; humanitarian rule was challenged in the face of a refugee crisis and commercialism; and changes in the world’s climate were ruthlessly debated (you can’t make this stuff up, right?).
As a specialist of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I’m interested in GoT for several reasons: the ways in which the narratives and visuals draw upon our ideas (real or imagined) about those historic periods; the use of architecture or world heritage sites as settings that help to create a dystopian fantasy world (much as artists drew upon their surroundings to stage ancient events in contemporary environments); the roles that costume and dress play in character development and storytelling; and of course, because of the resonance with the medieval (even if by “medieval” we mean a collision of ancient to Victorian time that sometimes resembles the late Greco-Roman empires + the Crusades + the War of the Roses + a smattering of other events that took place around the world during the traditionally thousand-year moment known as the Middle Ages, with a touch of dragon fire and White Walker ice fantasy of course).
Our aim in recapping GoT episodes with art has been to share rarely seen objects from the collection (due to the light sensitivity of manuscripts, in particular), to inspire curiosity about history, to present a more global view of the Middle Ages, to be more inclusive and diverse in the stories we tell, and of course to have fun!
This post will expand each week of season seven, and we have a few surprises to share from our collection and from other museums around the world. Teaser: the exquisite early-twentieth-century manuscript below.
“If we don’t put aside our enmities and band together, we will die—and then it won’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.” —Ser Davos Seaworth
GoT Medievalisms and the Real Middle Ages
Chained Libraries and Map Rooms
In university cities and religious institutions across medieval and Renaissance Europe, the most valuable
manuscripts were at times chained to bookcases or desks to prevent loss or theft (books would not have been easily removable, if at all, despite what we saw in the first episode of the season).
This manuscript at the Getty was once part of a chained library in Cologne. Several of these so-called chained libraries still survive, one of the most famous of which is at Hereford Cathedral but others survive at the Malatestiana Library in Cesena and the Librije of Zutphen in the Netherlnds, among others. On a recent research trip to Cesena, I had the pleasure of studying several manuscripts in the chained library, which was organized by subject or language (law and ecclesiastical history, for example, or Hebrew and Greek texts).
World maps were another kind of prized possession in the premodern world, as rulers desired the most up-to-date information about cartography and political, national, and religious boundaries. Hereford Cathedral also features a mappamundo, as these maps are known, as does the Vatican Museum and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Designed by Giorgio Vasari for Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Sala del Mappamondo (or Sala delle Carte Geografiche) in Florence contains fifty-three map panels attached to cabinet doors, effectively presenting the entire known world of the mid- to late-16th century, including representations of China, Japan, Mexico, and California.
Some scholars believe that the cabinets behind the maps contained objects from around the world, supposedly organized based on an items’ geographic origin. The giant terrestrial globe was originally conceived to descend from the room’s ceiling (together with an armillary sphere, very much like the floating orbs in the Citadel of Old Town in GoT).