Is there a dark side to shows like Game of Thrones?

Jul 25, 2016

Credit HBO

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  For several years now all things medieval have been big in the United States. HBO’s wildly popular television drama Game of Thrones is one example, the History Channel’s Vikings is another.

Annual Renaissance fairs, like the one held in Williamson County each spring, can now be found in nearly every state in the union. But even though there’s much that’s positive about medieval culture, and the entertainment it inspires, medievalism also has a darker side.

Medievalism can be defined as the admiration – you might even say the veneration - of elements of the history and culture of the Middle Ages. Middle Tennessee State University’s Dr. Amy Kaufman is something of an expert on Medievalism and the influence it continues to have today.

“Looking at it historically, medievalism is fundamentally conservative,” Kaufman noted. “Medievalism really rises up when people feel like their identities, their national boundaries, their ways of life are threatened.”

Identity, boundaries, threats; all words ripped from today’s headlines. Kaufman believes it’s easy to see Medievalism’s influence in current American culture.

“Since 9-11, America and Europe have both seen a rise in a particular brand of medievalism that fetishizes the certain kinds of stable power in the past,” she said.

A past that’s become the focus of today’s pop culture. Current television programs like Game of Thrones and Vikings, along with a number of popular video games, portray a world that’s both brutal and patriarchal. While it might be a stretch to see television programs as a serious threat, no matter how popular, Kaufman noted that Medievalism has a dark past that should never be underestimated.

“You saw a huge surge of medievalism in 19th century Europe that led to 20th century European medievalism. It’s best represented by Nazi Germany,” Kaufman explained. “They used a lot of medieval images to talk about preserving the German race.”

Kaufman explains that the Ku Klux Klan also used medievalism in the 19th century American South. The Klan borrowed the symbolism from British Victorians who embraced medievalism as a response to losing their colonial territories and immigration. She says medievalism shifts based on what people want from it, including the notion that women are the weaker sex, that all women are damsels in distress.

Credit history.com/shows/vikings

"Exactly. That’s the fantasy even though it’s supposedly condemned and we always have these exceptional woman characters like Lagertha in Vikings is a great example. They fight the system, and they often do it through very masculine means… I think people believe that women in the past had no agency or had very little agency,” she said.

Dr. Kaufman says that’s nothing like the reality of life in the Middle Ages. She notes that women of the period had numerous roles and considerable power. But of course, that frequently is not what you see in today’s portrayals of the era. Dr. Kaufman has especially strong opinions about the way author George R.R. Martin portrays characters in his Game of Thrones series.

“Martin narrates through a very sexist lens. All the language used both in the show and in the books is extremely casually degrading to women. You see nothing like that in the literature of the past. Chaucer, for instance - even with male writers - Chaucer is famous for giving voice to women. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is his most famous example," she noted.

For a clearer picture of medieval life, Dr. Kaufman recommends the website Medievalists.net. She says the site combines academic articles with more popular depictions of the era, including book and movie reviews.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was a joint project of student reporter Aja Wilson and News Director Mike Osborne.