Winter is here and all men must die. These dictums reveal macabre and foreboding wisdom surrounding the upcoming, final season of HBO’s smash-hit series Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books.
As curators of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Getty, we are thrilled to continue our tradition of bringing you episode recaps on the @gettymuseum Instagram and, here on The Iris, thematic tie-in posts to each episode using medieval art from our collection and around the world.
Why Recap Game of Thrones through Art?
Our aim in recapping Game of Thrones episodes with art has always been to draw connections between the Middle Ages (roughly 500–1500 in Europe, Africa, and Asia) and the show by sharing the breadth and depth of our manuscripts collection, as well as to bring some objects from the collection to light that otherwise have not been exhibited. (Our handmade books contain upwards of hundreds of painted images and decorations, but they are light-sensitive and can only be physically displayed for short periods of time.)
In the series:
- Awaiting Season 8: Snow, Frost, and Ice
- Episode 1: What do dragons eat, anyway?
- Episode 2: “Which Way Should I Go?” / “Which Way Do You Want To Go?”
Episode 2: “Which Way Should I Go?” / “Which Way Do You Want To Go?”
Female leadership and power were on full display: Sansa Stark’s capability as the Lady of Winterfell, Daenerys taking charge in her typical authoritative way, Lady Mormont insisting on joining the fight, Arya designing a formidable weapon for battle and demonstrating her prowess with the blade, and even a young Winterfell girl eager to protect her own. But we also saw women’s power called into question: what is the role of women on the battlefield, as Brienne becomes a full-fledged knight? How might we come to terms with the idea that Daenerys’s claim to the Iron Throne—which she has doggedly pursued as a singular goal since Season 1—might be in jeopardy simply due to the existence of a male heir?
The question of the status of women in the Middle Ages was similarly negotiable, contested, and never quite settled. There are numerous examples of royal and noble women who transcended the traditional boundaries set for their gender and ruled either on their own, or, as was more often the case, in the stead of a male relative (a son or a husband): Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Blanche of Castile (1188-1252), Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482), Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) (among many others) each made names for themselves for their strong and capable leadership. Even in these cases, however, the rule of a woman was sometimes seen as problematic, going against the status quo. In France, women were even prevented by law from succeeding to the throne without a husband, and in many other cases, women were only allowed to rule other territories as widows, a political position that allowed them far more freedom. Male claims to titles and lands almost always held more sway—a practice about which Daenerys might have a few opinions.
We have far fewer examples of female knights from the Middle Ages—in Game of Thrones, Ser Brienne of Tarth is truly a pathbreaking figure in this regard. One of the most famous and controversial figures in French history is Joan of Arc (1412-1431), a peasant girl who aided the French against the English at a decisive moment of the Hundred Years’ War, but later still faced a trial on charges of witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was executed at the age of 19 for her troubles.
Women trying to lead in the Middle Ages faced an uphill battle, despite their strong wills. We might turn to young Lady Mormont’s determined assertion to take part in the travails to come as an example for the modern age. After all, who run the world?
Episode 1: What do dragons eat, anyway?
Sansa’s suspicious curiosity about the culinary preferences of Daenerys’s dragons can in part be answered by the medieval bestiary, a kind of encyclopedia of animals and most popular source for animal lore in the Middle Ages.
Though it doesn’t specify a particular diet, the bestiary says that the dragon is a fearsome beast, the king of serpents that carries all its strength in its tail and can snare any other animal. It fears the shadow of the peridexion tree, where doves safely roost. The dragon lies in wait for the doves to leave the tree’s safety, and when they do, the dragon is able to catch them.
To a Christian reader, this tale was seen as symbolic: the peridexion tree represented the church, which offers assured safety to its believers, the doves, and the dragon symbolized the devil, always on the hunt for the faithful who had left their safe haven. Daenerys’s later comment that the dragons don’t like the North may also ring true with the bestiary legend, which locates them in the warmer climes of Ethiopia and India (geography from a medieval European perspective was…well, flexible and shifting). The dragon’s legend made it an attractive subject for medieval artists, and it appears everywhere in medieval manuscripts from marginalia to decorated initials.
The bestiary also says that the dragon is the natural enemy of the elephant, a creature we also heard a bit about in the first episode (writers of medieval-inspired fantasy love elephants, from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin). Elephants usually appear in bestiaries outfitted with howdahs, a kind of fortified castle that could carry soldiers into war—highly useful for queens like Cersei. And just for the record and to contradict the commander of the Golden Company, elephants did make sea voyages in the Middle Ages! The Getty collection includes an image of the ancient general Hannibal of Carthage (237 – about 183/181 BCE) transporting elephants by ship.
Awaiting Season 8: Snow, Frost, and Ice
With the final season set to begin April 14, 2019, we’re excited to start exercising our recapping muscles again soon—even as one of the challenges we will face is a dearth of imagery needed for this coming season. Over the last several seasons, we’ve mined the Getty’s manuscripts collection and the holdings of many other libraries and museums, and yet we find ourselves conspicuously short on winter-themed images, specifically scenes of snow, frost, and ice. Certainly medieval Europeans were familiar with snowy and icy winters—so why do we find so few images of these conditions in medieval manuscripts?
One explanation might lie in the common medieval belief in the balance of humors within the body. In this theory, humors existed as four different bodily liquids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, which were each associated with fundamental elements (air, fire, earth, and water) and particular seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). It was believed that, during each season, too much of its corresponding humor existed within the body and needed to be balanced out for overall health.
The humor associated with the winter season was phlegm, which was thought to be evened out through a diet of red wine and hot meats (perfect for Cersei Lannister). Viewing images of people warming themselves by the fire, feasting indoors, or baking bread were also thought to balance the feelings of cold in winter months. The fifteenth-century Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino advocated the viewing of greenery as a way to counter a melancholy (or dark and cold) temperament—the broody-moody medieval personality type. It may be that there are so few images of winter in medieval art because people thought that seeing too much snow would create added phlegm in their bodies, thereby unbalancing their humors.
Medieval calendars sometimes provide glimpses of winter and the warming activities just mentioned, but not in the total-earth-covering-frost-of-death that we anticipate will come in the final season of GoT. Nonetheless, we’ve gathered a selection of images of winter from the pages of manuscripts to the walls of palaces and churches, and even assembled some depictions of Hell itself (to see what we mean, re-read Dante’s Inferno and skip to the Ninth Circle—that of Treachery). We’ll share these wintery scenes throughout the season as we muse on the previous day’s episodes on this blog post, which will grow as the season continues, and on the @gettymuseum Instagram every Monday morning from April 15 to May 20, 2019.
We hope that the images we share each week pique your interest, expand your view of medieval history, and spark your imagination.
If you’re in Los Angeles and want to connect with medieval manuscripts in real life, be sure to visit the Getty Center to see two timely exhibitions: The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts (April 30–July 28, 2019) and Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World (May 14–August 18, 2019).