Game of Thrones Season 1I adore the Game of Thrones miniseries on HBO. I study medieval swordfighting and the pseudo-medieval environment of the show is dense with sword fighting, sword training, and sword making. Game of Thrones also features superb acting, great dialogue, gorgeous costumes, and beautiful scenery. Here is my review of the first season. Note that it does include spoilers.
I have seen the full season three times through now, and each time I note even more details in the costumes and backgrounds. The designers for the show put an immense amount of work into making sure their world was coherent. It is of course worth noting that this is a fantasy world so any complaints about "potatoes weren't found in medieval England" are fairly irrelevant. It's not authentic history. Still, it is sturdily grounded on actual history, so it is worth appreciating, for example, the use of different armor types by different levels of characters.
Women, in this fantasy version of medieval Europe, are not expected to defend themselves. This is gotten into in more detail in season two, but it's fairly obvious in season 1 as well. When we meet the Stark family, the male children are all out practicing archery while the two girls - Sansa and Arya - are inside sewing. When Arya sneaks out to shoot at the archery target, and does well, she's treated as a silly thing rather than a person with talent.
Still, there are a few who appreciate her interests. Her half-brother Jon orders a custom-made, small sword for her before he leaves. She loves her gift and names it "Needle". Her father, seeing her desire to learn more, hires her a "dancing master" who trains her daily on how to sword fight properly. But they keep the teacher's true talents secret from everyone else at the castle. It would not be proper for a girl to be learning sword skills.
So we have a nine year old girl who is tolerated by a few as a swordswoman - but most scoff at her interests. Is there any other woman in season one who has interests in swords?
Arya's father and brother would seem to be encouraging of this mindset, but even so her sister Sansa is very against the idea, and mom Cat equally shows no interest in self defense. If even in a "welcoming" family it's not happening, it's not much surprise that in the less tolerant families that it is even less likely. Cersei Lannister shows no interest, nor does her daughter Myrcella. Daenerys joins an extremely war-loving culture but never shows an interest herself.
The vast majority of women we encounter in the show are either noblewomen, expected to kick out male children for their Lords, or prostitutes. Women are seen as objects that men grab and use. Occasionally they are loved.
The praise for a woman is about her physical beauty. Sansa is appreciated by Cersei for being pretty. In comparison, men are praised for being strong. King Robert tells young Bran to show his muscles.
Now, interestingly, this is all NOT necessarily how medieval times were! This is our modern fantasy version of medieval times. For example, in the show they indicate that pretty much every able bodied man gets swept up in the war. This is a modern misconception based I imagine on what happened in England in World War II - but back in medieval days, war wasn't like that. They didn't take untrained farmers and try to instant-train them on intricate sword work. Instead, they took the trained men-at-arms and soldiers. The peasants and craftsmen were absolutely critical to stay at home and harvest the crops. They would not have been pulled out just to be "cannon fodder". For example, at the Battle of Agincourt, a key battle, the English forces were maybe 9,000 men at most. The population of England in this time frame was probably 2.8 million to 3 million people. So that's only 0.3% of the population. Even taking into account women and children, that is still a tiny percentage of available men.
The confusion happens because we tend to view history through a lens of modern sensibilities. So in this case, our most recent large war memory tends to be World War II. In World War II, the UK mobilized about 6 million men. The total UK population at the time was 47 million. So that is a staggering 13% of the population. If you take out women and children from THAT number, it is no wonder that this had such a gigantic impact on the way we view all warfare.
We can sometimes "merge" ages together. We "look back" to Victorian era images of women riding sidesaddle and imagine that all "old time" women must have been delicate side saddle riders. However, this was a relatively short-lived fad, from mainly the 1500s to 1800s, and just for aristocracy. Horses were the normal way for people to travel, like cars are today, and women and men simply hopped on them and rode.
We see old Robin Hood movies with the gentle ladies being delicate flowers. This was a reflection of what men in the 1930s thought women should be like. It was not a reflection of what medieval men thought! In medieval times, combat was going on all the time. Noble women were trained in warfare and expected to know how to defend their keep. Lords were often off with the knights chasing down enemies. They were required to go visit the King. Sometimes they went off on the Crusades for years on end. It was absolutely the woman's responsibility to keep the keep safe while they were gone. Writings from the 1400s clearly state: "[The Lady of a Household] must know the laws of warfare so that she can command her men and defend her lands if they are attacked."
Some of this is seen in Game of Thrones, season one. We do see that women are expected to defend their young. When an assassin comes in to kill her young son, Brom, Cat Stark doesn't cringe in fear and shout helplessly for her guards. She dives at the man and attacks him with everything she has. This is what a medieval woman had to be like. She had to take on bandits, wolves, and other threats, keeping her family and people safe. When Daenerys is pregnant, and her brother attacks her, she strikes him with a heavy, golden belt, warning him to stay away from her.
But in this season, that is the extent of a woman's "strength".
What often happens with medieval fantasy stories is that people accept they are fantasy (there are dragons, after all) but along the way they begin to think they are a version of "real medieval life" with a fantasy flair to it. It affects how they think medieval times actually were. So watchers start to think medieval women were all simpering, passive, sew-by-the-window people who could barely lift their own arms. Game of Thrones seems to be quite strongly in this mold, and the interests of Arya stands out as a "bizarre exception" to the world members. This of course can be fine for the Game of Thrones world - it's fantasy after all. But it's critical to realize that this was not a mirror of actual medieval times.
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