“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).
Pharmacies and Surgery
The transmission of medicinal knowledge in the Middle Ages was a global phenomenon, as Arab and Jewish scholars translated and wrote commentaries on Greek, Persian, and Southeast Asian texts (writers in Europe were also engaged in the copying and translating of similar texts). The study of planetary and astral movements was closely associated with theories about bodily fluids, personality, health, and regimen. The signs of the zodiac, for example, were believed to hold great power over all aspects of life, from socio-political events to interpersonal relationships (and sex).
Plants were highly prized for their healing properties, and some organic matter and minerals—such as saffron and lapis lazuli—could be consumed as a remedy or made into pigments. Pharmacies and some aristocratic homes often had gardens of simples, or medicinal plants, which could be dried and stored in earthenware jars, as seen in the image above (the Getty has several examples of these vessels, such as a jar from Santa Maria della Scala in Siena or one with pseudo-Kufic script, highlighting the links to medicinal science in the Islamic world).
Anatomy and surgery were also fields of study and practice in the medieval world, in hospitals, hostels (travelers’ hospitals), ecclesiastical structures, and universities. Numerous illuminated treatises on pharmacopeia, astronomy/astrology, and surgery survive, such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Ms. Arabe 2964 (medicinal text of The Book of Theriacs; Mosul, 1199) or the British Library’s Sloane 1977 (surgical texts by Roger Frugardi of Salerno and Mattheus Platearius; Amiens, 14th century).
The word “manuscript” derives from the Latin words manus (hand) and scriptus (written), and is therefore applied to hand-written texts (versus printed books). The scriptorium was the place where writing took place in medieval monasteries, universities, and libraries. There, scribes copied, transcribed, translated, edited, corrected, glossed (commented on), and updated texts. An amanuensis or pupil (literally one who copies by hand) could also be involved in the preservation of texts. Prior to the wide-scale use of paper in Europe, modest and luxury manuscripts alike were composed of animal skin, called parchment or vellum.
After the writing surface was prepared, it was ruled for text, which would have been written before the drawn and painted decoration was undertaken. Once a book was completed, it was often presented to its patron, as visualized in chronicles, legal texts, and romances, among other genres.
Within the pages of illuminated or decorated manuscripts across Afro-Eurasia (from Germany to Armenia and from Constantinople to Tigray), there was a long tradition in the Middle Ages of depicting scribes or the supposed author of a text holding the tools of their trade in hand: quills for writing and knives for scraping away errors (sometimes these individuals are shown dictating to a scribe). The convention of showing these authors at times writing directly into a bound volume is inaccurate, as scribes would work on individual sheets of parchment before gathering them to be bound (edits or glosses could, of course, be added to bound volumes). If a grave mistake was made in copying the text, a scribe could either begin again (likely discouraged due to the expense of parchment) or find a creative way to cover his or her error.
Worlds Together, Worlds Apart
In 1054, people around the world witnessed a supernova (SN 1054, the Crab Nebula). Texts describing the fantastic cosmic event have been found in Japan (the diary of Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241)), China (in the Lidai mingchen zouyi, about 1414), and Iraq (Ibn Butlan (1038-1075)). The Shoshone-Bannock peoples of Idaho’s Snake River Valley may have carved the 1054 event into the so-called Map Rock and surrounding basalt deposits, and the Anasazi peoples of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico may have memorialized the sighting through pictographs. Archeoastronomers and archivists continue to piece these clues together, effectively finding connections between distant communities in the medieval world. There is much potential to expand this kind of study within the framework of the Global Middle Ages, as long as we are willing to think creatively and expansively about the remit of our fields of study.
Marriage and Annulment
By the thirteenth century, the Christian Church (West and East) considered marriage to be a sacrament, that is, a religious ceremony regarded as sacred. The age of puberty generally determined the marriageability of young women. Arranged marriages could serve to form or strengthen social or political alliances. Marriage also regulated sexual activity: intercourse was vital for procreation but pleasure embodied the vice of lust (and any form of copulation that did not result in childbirth could be deemed sodomitical, and therefore sinful).
Illuminated manuscripts preserve scenes of weddings, where couples join hands in the presence of a priest or celebrant and various witnesses. Hands were joined to symbolize the lifetime oath of union—similar to the homosocial bonds formed between monks or nuns—and rings were sometimes exchanged. Complex diagrams or charts—such as the Tables of Consanguinity and Affinity—determined the degrees of separation that needed to exist between two individuals intending to marry or to represent the ways in which two individuals’ blood lines intermingled. Too much mixed blood could be grounds for divorce, as could accusations of impotency against either spouse. Perhaps the most famous case of an annulled marriage in the premodern period is that of King Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon: the English monarch desired to marry Anne Boleyn and thus petitioned Pope Clement VII for an annulment. Manuscripts are essential documents for the study of marriage in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Dragons, Demons, & Death
“Death is the enemy. The enemy always wins, but we still need to fight.” This line from the Game of Thrones recalls the premodern preoccupation with death and the arsenal of spiritual practices necessary for combating the death’s power.
Books of hours—personalized prayer books—contained readings specifically intended to focus one’s attention on salvation or to provide prayers for one’s soul and for the souls of the deceased. By the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the illuminations accompanying the so-called Office of the Dead (as this series of texts was known) were especially macabre: a skeletal rider atop a dragon tramples four dead bodies in one book, while in another the specter of Death stands proud before the young Denise Poncher—who holds open her prayer book—as three youths lie slashed and bleeding on the ground before her.
In Inferno by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Florentine writer is led by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) to the depths of Hell. The lowermost circle—the ninth—is frozen by the flapping of Satan’s wings, trapping those who have committed treachery and the Devil itself in ice.
Hell is also a place in which artists visualized horrible torments for the eternally damned. In the Art of Living and Dying Well, the artist Antoine Vérard envisioned souls bound to a spiked wheel that forever turns while dragons breathe fire or await opportunities to devour the decaying flesh.
The dystopian medievalism of Game of Thrones comes to life through exquisite costumes, intricately detailed sets, and perhaps especially through the filming locations. Each season has featured a blend of Late Antique (Greco-Roman), medieval, and early modern sites, from which emerge the worlds of Westeros (and Essos).
Natural and archeological sites in Ireland have long been highlighted in the series, from the Dark Hedges to Inch Abbey and many others (which this medievalist recently visited). As an undergraduate student studying abroad in Spain over a decade ago, I walked the streets, visited gardens, and marveled at palaces and churches from Córdoba to Gerona that have since become the stage for assassinations and alliances in Dorne or sites of militant faith and cataclysmic explosions in Kingslanding.
This season, we were treated to additional medieval architectural spaces in Spain, and especially in the Basque Country: the Hermitage of Saint John the Baptist in Gaztelugatxe, with its majestic winding stone staircase, was recast as Dragonstone, and the hilltop Castillo de Almodóvar del Río in Córdoba formed the backdrop of Highgarden. And high on my bucket list of places to visit is Italica (Santiponce), whose ancient Roman arena became the Dragonpit, where our dramatic season ended.
Winter is here.
Season 7 Episode Recap Guide
Episode 1: Dragonstone
Episode 2: Stormborn
Episode 3: The Queen’s Justice
Episode 4: The Spoils of War
Episode 5: Eastwatch
Episode 6: Beyond the Wall
Episode 7: The Dragon and the Wolf
“We’re all on the same side… We’re all breathing.
There is only one war that matters: the Great War. And it is here.” — Jon Snow