In fantasy, medieval life is depicted as all sexual violence and squalor. It’s not that simple

Whenever a fantasy story treads too far into gruesome violence or plain old human exploitation, storytellers like to trot out four little words:

That was the explanation the creators of the “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” gave after the premiere served up a smorgasbord of gore, including an agonizing forced birth scene in which a woman is sliced through like a turkey in hopes of saving her baby at the expense of her own life. (Both die.)
“We felt that was an interesting way to explore the fact that for a woman in medieval times, giving birth was violence,” co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik told The Hollywood Reporter about the scene. (HBO, home to “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon,” shares parent company Warner Bros. Discovery with CNN.)

Is sexual and reproductive violence historically accurate to the medieval age? To an extent, yes, as records show. But so are myriad other things that seem to conveniently fall off the storyboard when it’s time to add authenticity.

“The desire to be ‘accurate’ suddenly disappears when sex isn’t involved and it is actual interesting day to day minutiae,” says Eleanor Janega, a medieval historian who teaches at the London School of Economics. “If the (‘Game of Thrones’) world was historically accurate, why isn’t every single noble house or castle absolutely covered by huge gaudy, colourful murals? Why is it that this form of historical accuracy isn’t important, but showing rape as endemic is?”

Other historians point out that, as prurient and gasp-worthy as something like a crude C-section death is, such butchery wasn’t as prevalent as storytellers would have you believe.

“They were very keen on protecting mothers from harm,” medieval history scholar Sara McDougall told Slate.

Texts from the time indicate that such extreme measures would usually be performed on women who had already died — not, as in “House of the Dragon,” a fully awake and alert woman with no clue what was about to happen to her.

The original “Game of Thrones” series was highly criticized for its endless carousel of rape, abuse, sexual humiliation, garden-variety cruelty and, of course, childbirth gone wrong. George R.R. Martin, the mind behind the iconic “A Song of Ice and Fire” series that spawned “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon,” has long said he turns to history to ground his narratives. The rivalry between the Starks and the Lannisters, for instance, is fashioned after the legendary War of the Roses. Even the deadly Red Wedding (which features another unhappy ending for a pregnant character) takes inspiration from an event in Scottish medieval history known as the “Black Dinner.”

Janega points out that, while medieval times were certainly not overkind to women or anyone else who wasn’t rich, powerful and male, they weren’t the burlesque of suffering we’re so used to seeing on screen.

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“‘Accuracy’ is always focusing on the distasteful aspects of a society, but never the pleasurable ones,” she says. “(It) somehow always encompasses sexual violence and never things like, for example, the three field system, or fishing weirs. They don’t really show how women other than the nobility are a dynamic part of the medieval workforce. Women are found in pretty much every facet of medieval work: as blacksmiths, running shops, brewing beer, in cloth production, running bath houses or in trading delegations addressing the court.”

In fiction, history is always negotiable. Do we really need to see, for instance, the specifics of medieval plumbing, or glimpse the fraying cuff of a noblewoman to feel centered in a story that also includes dragons and magic fire? Probably not, as audiences have noted. But that means, as Janega observes, the details that do matter may say more about the present than the past.

“It would be more accurate to say that this is fiction, but it reflects the society which is creating the art, and that society is packed to the rafters with sexual assault, rather than implying that it simply has to be done in the name of bearing witness to a misogynistic past that we no longer experience,” Janega says.

It’s easy, and maybe a little comforting, to look back a few hundred years and decide that things were far worse across the board. While much of that is true, records show we carry a multitude of misconceptions about the medieval and surrounding eras that make our current reality seem much more sophisticated in contrast.

While we may imagine rotting teeth and reeking bodies, oral hygiene and cleanliness, though limited by today’s standards, were important to those with access to appropriate tools and clean water (or not-so-clean water). Even something as horrifying as rape was defined differently, encompassing kidnapping and forms of sex outside of marriage. Yes, people still stank. Yes, people still engaged in unthinkable forms of violence. But the argument of “historical accuracy” can often place more emphasis on finding differences between past and present than grappling with the uncomfortable similarities that scholars have noted.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that fantasy doesn’t have to resemble history at all. If the vast recesses of imagination can birth ice giants and bring the dead back to life, it can surely invent a world where social structures aren’t defined by ever-present suffering. And if there must be fire and blood, perhaps there are more creative — nay, even more historically accurate — ways to depict it.




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