In which I get angry about Mary Stuart

Yesterday, a piece appeared in The Guardian, written by Kevin McKenna, on “the enduring appeal of Mary, Queen of Scots.” Several things stood out, articulated wonderfully by my colleague Dr. Kathleen Kennedy on Twitter:

 

kk mary stuart tweet 2019.01.13

There are plenty of historians (because #womenalsoknowhistory) who could have been consulted on this topic and who could have provided a more nuanced explanation of Mary Stuart’s appeal without consigning her to utter political insignificance.

 

Because the fact is that Mary Stuart was not politically insignificant. Though she only ruled Scotland for a few short years, her influence pervaded politics in England and France for the last half of the sixteenth century and it was her son James Stuart who finally unified Scotland and England as James VI of Scotland and I of England, an accomplishment that, for better or worse, fundamentally altered the European landscape.

 

(And I say this as a lifelong fan of Elizabeth I: Mary Stuart’s reputation is both undeservedly bad and overly romanticized.)

François Clouet, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (c. 1558-60, Royal Collection)

Mary Stuart was the only daughter of James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise, the daughter of a powerful French family. Her father perished at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, making Mary queen of Scotland at six days old, and she was sent to France for her safety while her mother ruled Scotland as regent until her death in 1560. While in France, Mary was in the care of the Guise family, though she also spent time in the court of King Henri II and Queen Catherine de’ Medici. To shore up what was known as the Auld Alliance, Mary was betrothed to and eventually married the Dauphin François. They briefly ruled as King and Queen of France, but in 1561, François died, leaving Mary as a teenage dowager queen with only one choice. She had to return to Scotland—a country she had not seen since her birth—and take her throne.

 

All of this politicking happened within the context of the Wars of Religion. Mary was Catholic, and her connections to the French royal family only bolstered those religious ties. Scotland, in the meantime, was falling under the influence of Presbyterianism, and the Protestant leaders of that movement (most notably John Knox) were deeply suspicious of Mary, who represented three major threats to them: that she was female, raised in France, and Catholic.

 

The English suspected Mary for those reasons, plus one even more worrisome—that Mary, through her grandmother Margaret Tudor, had an indisputable claim to the English throne. When Mary arrived in Scotland late in 1561, Queen Elizabeth I had only been on the throne for two years. These two cousins were about nine years apart in age (Elizabeth born in 1533 and Mary in 1542), and both had grown up in turbulent circumstances that shaped them into the queens they became, but Mary’s legitimacy as Queen of Scotland had never been in question, while Elizabeth faced opposition for her entire life as a result of Henry VIII’s highly questionable marital choices.

 

Between this unquestioned legitimacy and her French Catholic upbringing, it is not surprising that Mary encouraged conspiracies designed to place her on the English throne. The French had everything to gain by encouraging political turmoil in England and had often used France’s alliance with Scotland for precisely that end; in turn, the Scots had no desire to be yoked to England, and were content to have their southern neighbor embroiled in civil war.

 

For several years, things remained in a stalemate. Neither queen was married and neither had an established heir. Then, in 1565, Mary married her English cousin (and Elizabeth’s), Henry Lord Darnley, who was himself within the English line of succession. Elizabeth and her advisors immediately feared that Mary intended to claim the throne and acted accordingly, encouraging rebellion against Mary from Scottish Protestants and, more indirectly, using propaganda to discredit her.

 

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scot, and Henry, Lord Darnley (Anon., c. 1565, at Hardwick Hall)

The marriage of Mary and Darnley was a complete disaster. Darnley was—to put it bluntly—a trashfire of a human being, arrogant and power-hungry, who made enemies of most of the Scottish nobility and, eventually, his own wife. He spread rumours about Mary having affairs, including one with her secretary David Rizzio, and then arranged Rizzio’s violent murder in March 1566, while Mary was six months pregnant with the future James VI/I.

 

Anonymous sketch of the manor of Kirk o’Field on the night of Darnley’s murder, 1567.

Mary gave birth to her son on 19 June 1566, and between her positions as queen, mother, and Catholic, she could not simply divorce Darnley. She met with several leading Scottish nobles in November 1566 to determine the best course of action, and Darnley, sensing the nature of that course of action, retreated to his father’s lands for fear of his life. Early in 1567, he was induced to return to Edinburgh. On 10 February of that year, an explosion occurred at his temporary residence, Kirk o’Field, and Darnley’s body was found in the garden, apparently suffocated.

 

Darnley’s death and its aftermath are simultaneously the most famous and the least known episodes in Mary Stuart’s life. We know that Mary ended up married to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, in May 1567, but it is unclear whether or not it was under her own power. Plenty of novelists—and more than a few historians and journalists, including the recent Guardian article—assume that Mary chose to marry Bothwell, a move that damaged her reputation beyond repair and sent her fleeing into England, ultimately to her death. In this era of #MeToo, we must acknowledge the possibility that when Mary was intercepted by Bothwell on her way to Edinburgh on 24 April 1567, she was, in fact, abducted against her will. Moreover, that her subsequent marriage to him does not denote consent so much as a conscious decision to make the best of her situation in an era where her reputation would have already been ruined by an assault.

 

Mary’s imprisonment and execution are more clearly documented, and recent historians have allowed that the evidence that led to her death may have been partly or even fully fabricated. Elizabeth’s own reluctance to sign Mary’s death warrant speaks to the murkiness of the situation, and the consequences of Mary’s execution reverberated across Europe, as the execution of another queen, Marie Antoinette, similarly did some two hundred years later.

 

What has persisted, thanks to Elizabethan and Protestant propaganda, and Lord Darnley’s smear campaign, is the perception of Mary Stuart as a helpless, clueless woman completely out of her depth, or, led by the men around her. Depending on who tells the story, this interpretation serves to either condemn Mary as foolish or humanize her at the expense of the clever, unfeeling Elizabeth. The Romantics and Victorians glorified Mary for what they perceived as emotional attachment, being led by her heart—her three marriages and her son stand her in stark contrast to the long-reigning but ultimately sterile (and therefore unnatural) Elizabeth. Modern historians, conversely, have dismissed Mary for those same reasons, holding Elizabeth up as the paragon of female power. This false dichotomy does a great disservice to both of these remarkable women, who contended with circumstances far beyond their control and men determined to destroy them. A more fruitful approach–one that is growing in popularity within queenship studies and the historical community more generally–would be to consider these two women not as mere rivals, but as queens navigating a complex series of power dynamics that included blood kinship, religious conflict, toxic masculinity, and political competition.

 

I would therefore argue that the ‘sanguine and less emotional’ approach that Kevin McKenna attributes to historian Sir Tom Devine, who dismisses Mary as ‘a figure of essentially minor historical significance’ is fundamentally misguided. However one feels about Mary Stuart, her impact on both Scottish and English—not to mention French—history is greater than it appears on first glance, and her fate serves as a cautionary tale for any subsequent woman aiming for political power. No matter what you do, who you marry or don’t marry, the children you do or don’t have, there will always be men who will do whatever it takes to bring you down.

 

P.S. I have many, many thoughts on how the CW series Reign handles these issues, which I will discuss at the Popular Culture Association conference in April 2019, and in the book I am currently writing for Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Further Reading:

John Guy, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots (HarperCollins, 2004).

Sarah Gristwood, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe (Basic Books, 2016).

Sharon L. Jansen, The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave, 2002).

Jayne Lewis, Mary, Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation (Routledge, 1998).

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On Shakespeare in the Age of Trump, Part II

 

Tyrant coverStephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (subtitled Shakespeare on Power in the UK; an interesting shift in focus) is not an academic book; it is an extended version of an editorial he wrote for the New York Times one month before the 2016 election. Tyrant does just what its title implies: it examines Shakespeare’s treatment of tyrants and tyranny across a range of plays. And, like most of Greenblatt’s popular books, it is elegantly written, wry, perceptive, and sometimes just a bit self-involved.

Shakespeare has always been political, and the people who try to argue otherwise are a) wrong; and b) the same people who claim that all classic literature is somehow apolitical and not of its time. Greenblatt’s capsule studies of 2 and 3 Henry VI, Richard III, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and Coriolanus offer a rogues’ gallery of tyrants to choose from, but the true strength of this book lies not in the exploration of the tyrants themselves, but of their enablers, their followers, and their opponents. Greenblatt clearly takes pleasure in using Shakespeare as a commentary on the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump without once mentioning his name, and his references range from the ham-handed (Jack Cade intending to “make England great again”) to the amusingly subtle (the blink-and-you-miss-it use of the word “grab” in relation to Richard III’s treatment of women).

I took issue with several elements of Greenblatt’s original 2016 editorial, and he does address some of those in the book. First, he offers an extended discussion of Jack Cade, a character I thought was missing from the original editorial, and he does not lose sight of the fact that Cade has been suborned from on high by the duke of York to sow chaos amongst the common people so that York can step in to seize power. And I am forced to admit to my own bias as a fan of the first tetralogy; the very thought of comparing “the erudite, dangerously charismatic Richard and the inarticulate buffoon who won the 2016 election” was one that “may have sent the playwright spinning in his grave,” according to my original analysis. Unlike the president, I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong.

As Constance Grady remarks in her review for Vox, one of the strongest threads in Greenblatt’s book is “how forcefully it troubles the pleasure of the tyrant, and with what moral clarity it examines its mechanisms.” Because there is pleasure in watching Richard of Gloucester rise to power through Henry VI Part III and Richard III. He implicates the audience in his schemes, winking at them, drawing them in, even seducing them to a degree. As Greenblatt aptly observes, “the play does not encourage a rational identification with Richard’s political goal, but it does awaken a certain complicity in the audience, the complicity of those who take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humour of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable” (81). And because it is a play—a work of fiction—the audience can do so without consequence.

In the theater, it is we, the audience, watching it all happening, who are lured into a peculiar form of collaboration. We are charmed again and again by the villain’s outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them. Looking out at us from the stage, Richard invites us to not only share his gleeful contempt but also to experience for ourselves what it is to succumb to what we know to be loathsome. (81-82)

Ouch. There are plenty of us—myself included—who look at supporters of Donald Trump in utter bafflement, wondering what they see in him that they find so appealing, but don’t think twice about finding Richard III to be a compelling character. Part of the brilliance of Shakespeare is that when he holds up the mirror to his audience, we see things we would rather not see.

I still don’t think Trump and Richard III are the same, just for the record, even if an audience’s reaction to both is, on some level, unsettlingly similar. Richard is nothing if not clever, and, as Professor Eliot Cohen argues in his review of Tyrant for the Washington Post, his soliloquies offer a glimpse of “a complex if terrifying trajectory of a kind that would elude Trump, a considerably more static figure.” Donald Trump completely lacks Richard’s rhetorical capability and charisma–of course, Richard has the benefit of being a fictional character written by a magnificently talented playwright, based on an admittedly unfinished treatise by an equally talented philosopher. Trump, on the other hand, is the mediocre son of a rich man who has coasted to power on nothing but crude bravado, other people’s money, and a complex system of inequalities that privilege him most when he deserves it least. Thus, while there are some superficial similarities between the two, Greenblatt’s reliance on this particular comparison seems a bit overstretched at times.

Greenblatt’s analysis of those around Richard is far more effective. Of the chapters on Richard, Chapter 5 (titled “Enablers”) is the strongest, implicating not just the characters in the play but those of us in the audience who go along with his schemes in spite of their appalling consequences. “There are almost no morally uncompromised lives,” Greenblatt argues; “virtually everyone grapples with painful memories of lies and broken vows, memories that make it all the more difficult for them to grasp where the deepest danger lies” (71). In this, he focuses primarily on George of Clarence, whose affection for his brother and his own suppressed guilt about his prior actions blind him to Richard’s treachery.

What Greenblatt leaves out is another character who, at least early on, falls into the category of those who respond to Richard’s rise with fear: “those who feel frightened or impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence,” but who ultimately forms the heart of the resistance against him (66-67). This is Elizabeth, the widow of Richard’s elder brother King Edward IV. Her initial reaction is to go along with Richard, not because she supports him or believes that he is out for anything other than blood, but because she has no other option. All the men surrounding her are following his lead, and to resist would put her in greater danger than staying silent.

Shakespeare’s source for Richard III, Sir Thomas More’s unfinished History of King Richard III, fleshes out Elizabeth earlier in the narrative than Shakespeare does. More’s Elizabeth makes it abundantly clear from the start to the reader, and to other characters, that she does not trust Richard one inch. “Troweth the protector,” she demands, “that I perceive not whereunto his painted process draweth?”[1] When she does capitulate—handing over her son to the Archbishop of York, acting on Richard’s orders—she does so knowing that she is signing her child’s death warrant, and only surrendering because she has no other choice. Her arguments are completely sound, but they cannot stand against armed men.

Shakespeare excises this sequence, but devotes the majority of Act 4, Scene 4 of Richard III to Elizabeth. She enters in grief, mourning the murder of her sons in the Tower of London, and, after encountering the otherworldly Queen Margaret (who was historically dead but dramatically resurrected by Shakespeare to comment on the action), she manages to defeat Richard in an extended argument of 230 lines in the Folio text. Greenblatt briefly discusses this scene, primarily as an illustration of Richard overreaching and misusing tactics that have worked for him in the past, and in that, it serves his larger discussion of tyranny well enough.

I see something quite different, and I’ve written about it at length elsewhere. Yes, Elizabeth is clearly nauseated by Richard’s proposal to marry her daughter after having murdered her sons. But that does not stop her. She fights through her disgust and rebuts him, line by line, and in doing so, makes him look ridiculous to the audience that, for the first half of the play, gloried in his rhetorical prowess. Greenblatt allows that Elizabeth has already allied with the forces waiting to bring Richard down from abroad, but he doesn’t acknowledge her theatrical victory, fragile as it seems.

Rereading that scene in the light of recent events brought to mind two courageous, articulate women: Professor Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Both of these women faced down an overwhelmingly hostile interrogation by unsympathetic, sexist old (white) men with intelligence and grace. Where they differ from Shakespeare’s Elizabeth is that Elizabeth wins the argument and the war. Richard may dismiss her as a “relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman,” but the audience knows better.[2]

When I read Greenblatt’s 2016 editorial, I responded with the following on Twitter:

Response to Greenblatt 2016

Even though we lost (and, make no mistake, we lost), and in spite of all the setbacks we’ve had since then, all the abuse and gaslighting and horror, we are fighting back. We remember our history. We don’t buy the lies. And we are done with tyrants.

ETA: I forgot to mention one other odd omission in Greenblatt’s analysis that has come up in other reviews of the book, namely Angelo from Measure for Measure. However, there is an excellent essay by Peter Herman on just this topic, related to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, that appeared in the Times of San Diego on 24 September 2018.

[1] Sir Thomas More, The History of King Richard III, ed. Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 38. Spelling modernized.

[2] William Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.431.

highlights from the medieval scholars that took over my workplace today

anauthorandherservicedog:

jumpingjacktrash:

brunhiddensmusings:

mediaeval-muse:

batmanisagatewaydrug:

batmanisagatewaydrug:

so my campus is currently hosting an ENORMOUS conference of scholars who study medieval history. they’ve been completely flooding the tiny cafe where I work and drinking our coffee faster than we can make it, but the good news is that they provide some PRIME people watching, including: 

  • the fact that all of their name tags include pronouns so that I won’t feel bad assuming anyone’s gender in this post
  • the woman RANTING about one of her colleagues on the following grounds: “he thinks he understands it from some class he took in 1996! FUCK OFF, TOM.”
  • the man who was loudly and earnestly discussing the “influence of the Harry Potter fandom on our modern political discourse” while he got a soda 
    • before he was out the door he’d switched topics to his preferred methods for teaching students about elves 
  • the two nice extremely polite young British lads who I could not tell apart to save my life. their name tags indicated that they were apparently not twins, but cloning does not seem impossible.
  • the sheer number of people graciously volunteering to buy lunch for people they’ve just met 
  • an unexpected number of very handsome soft butch women involved in medieval studies. I am bisexual and weak.
  • the guy in the flannel shirt who had the coldest, softest, most feminine hands I’ve ever encountered. I fell in love with him for a good 60 seconds. I am bisexual and weak.
  • people who aren’t from America being cheerfully confused by our money, including my favorite, a Canadian woman who told me “I’m slow with American money because it’s all the same color.”
    • I’ve learned that people who aren’t going to be in the country for more than a few days don’t give a SHIT about their change and will toss all of it in the take a penny/leave a penny jar. I collected so many quarters, y’all.
    • also a nice British woman called it the penny pot, which is the cutest shit I’ve ever heard and absolutely its new name.
  • just in general the EXTREMELY good grace and patience with which everyone accepted that we only have 2 cashiers and that it takes about seven minutes to make more coffee.
    • SEVERAL times after I apologized for the coffee wait (because this is customer service and minor inconveniences mean we have to grovel) the response was ‘lmao no worries this just means I get a fresh pot’
  • a woman approached me to day with a fucking enamel pin of that old illustration of a nun gathering dicks from a tree (you know the one) and I said immediately “oh my god, is that a pin of the penis tree?” and she looked stoked and said “yes it is the penis tree! you’re only the second person to recognize it!” what kind of boring ass medieval scholars has she been hanging with???? she was probably so fucking excited to finally have company where she could wear that pin and nobody said anything??? rude.
  • you know, this one
image

I have more:

  • every single person who said “cheers” when I gave them their change.
  • the painfully hip young man who was dressed entirely in standard academic business casual EXCEPT FOR his shiny silver doc martens. 
    • me: “you boots are amazing.”
    • him: “!!!! thank you!”
  • the man who walked in, spotted the selection of high octane energy drinks, and nearly cried with relief. when he came to the register to pay for what was probably enough caffeine to kill a horse he looked me dead in the eye and said cheerfully “thanks, I’m jet lagged as shit and I can’t be expected to function right now.”
  • the dude who overheard my friend Austin listening to Florence and the Machine, started chatting with him about it, and asked him out on a date
  • I sold a hot dog to An Actual Nun

I love my fellow medievalists so much ❤

theres not one of them who picked that major for any reason other then they wanted to have fun and be cool

reblogging this so i have it in my ‘for later’ tag in case i can dig up my aunt’s email to send it to her. she is a history professor specializing in medieval stuffs and will Understand.

You need to switch to medieval history, @leavesdancing. These people sound fun.

I remember having read something about a loving (but impossible and platonic) relationshp of Anthony Woodville and Margaret of York, I suppose it’s another silly rumour/lie about WOTR but I cant help asking: where does this story come from? Is there any posibility of these two being in love? I supose the story was invented by some fiction writer…

The only time I’ve come across a romantic relationship between Anthony Woodville and Margaret of York was in a novel by Anne Easter Smith called Daughter of York. While I thought the book on the whole was pretty good, I really didn’t like this particular choice, as I thought it made both characters less interesting and less believable.

Now, the two did know one another. Anthony was part of Margaret’s retinue when she first travelled to Burgundy in 1468 to marry Charles the Bold, and he returned in the early 1470s on his way to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. He is also, most likely, the person who introduced Margaret to the printer William Caxton, who she patronized very early in his career, and the two shared a lot of common interests. I personally like to think that they were friends, but nothing more than that. Woodville was married twice and had one illegitimate child, but no legitimate heirs so far as we know.

It doesn’t appear anywhere else so far as I know. As far as primary sources are concerned, there are several that report a proposed marriage between Anthony Woodville and Mary of Burgundy (Margaret’s stepdaughter), but it’s almost always within the context of rumour and usually meant to make the Woodville family look extra grasping and greedy so I doubt it was ever taken seriously.

Fanfiction 101: A Bibliography

nospaceinfanfiction:

my friend:
“man, i want an academic works about fanfiction rec list”

in other news, I am very extra


  • Coker, Catherine. “The
    Margins of Print? Fan Fiction as Book History.” Transformative Works and
    Cultures
    25 (2017).
    http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.1053.
  • Derecho, Abigail.
    “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.”
    In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet
    Age: New Essays,
    ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. Jefferson, NC:
    McFarland, 2006.
  • Hellekson, Karen.
    “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal 48 (2009), 113–118.
  • Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.
  • Jamison, Anne. Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking over the World.
    Dallas: Smart Pop Books, 2013.
  • Johnson, Shannon
    Fay. “Fan Fiction Metadata Creation and Utilization within Fan Fiction
    Archives: Three Primary Models.” Transformative Works and Cultures 17
    (2014). http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0578.
  • Nielson, E. J. “Dear
    Researcher: Rethinking Engagement with Fan Authors.” Journal of Fandom Studies 4.3 (2016), 223–249.
  • Pande, Rukmini and
    Swati Moitra. “Racial Dynamics of Online Femslash Fandoms.” In “Queer Female
    Fandom,” edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative
    Works and Cultures
    24 (2017).
    http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.908.
  • Price, Ludi, and
    Lyn Robinson. “Fan Fiction in the Library.” Transformative Works and
    Cultures
    25 (2017). http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.1090.
  • Tushnet, Rebecca.
    “Copyright Law, Fan Practices, and the Rights of the Author.” In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a
    Mediated World,
    ed. Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington.
    New York: New York University Press, 2007.
  • Willis, Ika. “Keeping
    Promises to Queer Children: Making Space (For Mary Sue) at Hogwarts.” In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet Age:
    New Essays,
    ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. Jefferson, NC:
    McFarland, 2006.

fan studies rocks, thank you for your time

Decolonizing Popular Medievalism: The case of Game of Thrones

This paper was originally presented in absentia at the 2018 meeting of the Medieval Academy of America plenary session titled “Building Inclusivity and Diversity: Challenges, Solutions, and Responses in Medieval Studies,” organized and chaired by Nahir I. Otaño-Gracia.

***

Decolonizing Popular Medievalism: The Case of Game of Thrones

While not universally accepted, it is not uncommon for those of us in medieval studies to point to popular medievalism as our introduction to the field, whether via J.R.R. Tolkien, historical novels, video games, or the biggest phenomenon on television right now, Game of Thrones. And, as many scholars have discussed in detail, popular medievalism bears little resemblance to the actual medieval period, which makes any movement to decolonize the field even more challenging.

This paper offers a specific test case for how one might begin to decolonize popular medievalism from within, a process that has already begun and that I have watched with great interest over the past year. On July 30, 2017, the Twitter hashtag for Game of Thrones was overtaken by a protest (#NoConfederate) against the creators’ new proposed series for HBO that imagined an alternate universe where the Confederacy had successfully seceded from the Union and still openly practiced slavery.[1] This convergence of media attention and activism also brought to the forefront conversations about Game of Thrones’ deeply problematic attitude toward race and racism—one that draws on scholarship about the actual Middle Ages as well as discourses concerning race theory and the rise of white supremacist movements in the United States over the past several years. With a media property as widespread and popular as Game of Thrones, it is at least possible to alter the larger public view of the Middle Ages, but in order to do so, popular medievalism must take a good, hard look at the kinds of narratives it is perpetuating and the damage those narratives are doing.

In the 2014 issue of Postmedieval, ‘Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages’, Daniel Lukes remarks that medievalism in general (and neomedievalism in particular) “tend[s] to exalt one particular type of Middle Ages (a Eurocentric, Western white one) in a fantasy of an isolated West.”[2] As is likely not a surprise to anyone in this room, it is extremely important to distinguish between this kind of neomedievalist discourse and the medieval past that we study and attempt to communicate to our students, particularly when the creators of these neomedievalist texts fall back on tired assumptions about the medieval period to defend their own questionable choices.

As early as the beginning of Season 2, Game of Thrones, a series that prides itself on an immersive medieval-esque setting, has been critiqued for its clumsy handling of racial issues. The introduction of the Dothraki, for instance, a nomadic warrior tribe based vaguely on the Mongols, falls prey to a variety of damaging Orientalist stereotypes. They kill one another for no reason at all and their ‘conquests’ are usually excuses for pillage and rape. While, as Carolyne Larrington has examined, there are some cultural touchstones—the Dothraki use of kennings in spoken language or the ambiguous role of the dosh khaleen—they remain largely one-dimensional, a nameless, interchangeable horde of warriors whose primary purpose after their reintroduction in the sixth season is to terrify any and all enemies of the Mother of Dragons.[3] Unlike the Mongols, to whom Larrington compares them in an extended discussion, they have no written language, and their motivations remain occluded to the reader and the viewer.

Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed argued in 2012 that racial dynamics in Game of Thrones tell us more about contemporary America than about any kind of imagined medieval past.

Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire, like the Lord of the Rings, is the work of a brilliant and conscientious writer who is nonetheless writing in his own time and place. The United States in 2012 is, far too often, and even with a black president, still a culture rich in racist stereotypes and xenophobic fear-mongering. Expecting a writer to remain entirely unstained by this is expecting a person to live underwater without getting wet. If we still find troubling racial assumptions and caricatures in fantasy—whether on the page, or on the big or small screen—this probably tells us more about our culture-wide problems than it does about a single writer’s, or a single show’s issues. A Song of Ice and Fire is indeed our American Lord of the Rings, and if Westeros has its race problems, they are simply a powerful reflection of America’s.[4]

I would extend this analysis to include not just contemporary politics and culture, but also the particular strain of medievalism that author George R.R. Martin brings to bear in his novels. The first book was published in 1996, when feminist and postcolonial readings were still relatively uncommon in medieval studies. He has specifically mentioned the Hundred Years’ War, the English Wars of the Roses, and the Crusades as inspirations, and much of the available historiography of these periods focused almost exclusively on the viewpoints of white men; even when others could be found in primary sources, white perspectives were overwhelmingly privileged. Although much has changed in academic medievalism since then, its popular counterpart remains trapped in assumptions born in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and we can see those reflected in the racial and gender disparities at work in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.

Academics have begun to push back against these assumptions, particularly in light of their co-opting by white supremacist movements in recent years. In articles for Vice and The Public Medievalist, respectively, Kathleen Kennedy and Shiloh Carroll have taken Game of Thrones to task for its adherence to Orientalist notions of race, while an article in TIME Magazine last summer brought a number of academics, including Shiloh Carroll, Carolyne Larrington, and myself, into dialogue to discuss the flawed medievalism underpinning the series.[5] Carroll’s forthcoming book Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Brewer, 2018) includes a chapter, ‘Postcolonialism, Slavery, and the Great White Hope’, that addresses these issues in more detail, alongside sustained analyses of gender and sexuality.

In the meantime, similar conversations have been happening in certain portions of the vast and multivocal fandom devoted to Game of Thrones, primarily on Twitter and Tumblr and spearheaded by a combination of women and people of colour. In summer of 2016, shortly after the end of Season Six, two female Tumblr bloggers (one a woman of colour) posted an extensively detailed essay (meta in fan parlance) addressing the intertwined issues of race and gender in A Song of Ice and Fire. Unfortunately, they, and others who venture into these debates, encountered opposition from other fans who believe that Martin’s universe is in some way authentically medieval—or, perhaps more infuriatingly, deride them for not just being able to have fun, a common criticism levelled at feminist and postcolonial critics of popular media. Indeed, the above-referenced meta begins with the following introduction:

 Where to begin? It’s a tricky question. We’re talking about a series that has dragons and direwolves and ice zombies. As a truly charming anon asked me recently, why should we care what’s sexist, racist, ableist? This is a world where there are dragons, after all.

 

The converse question to that is–this is a world in which there are dragons, direwolves, and ice zombies. If you’re choosing to build a world (because Martin built this world, even if some of those building blocks are based in our own), why are you choosing to include sexism and racism when you could have all of that be burned away in the face of the dragons you’re talking about?[6]

Earlier in February, Steven Attewell, a political historian who runs the blog Race for the Iron Throne, published a series of posts on the region of Dorne that drew heavily on Edward Saïd’s Orientalism and offered a cogent critique of Martin’s underdevelopment of characters and plotlines that led to the clumsy and frankly offensive handling of all things Dornish from Game of Thrones’ fifth season onward.[7] His choice to also post this series in full on the Westeros.org website as well as on Tumblr makes it more likely for a larger swathe of the fandom to encounter it than those who habitually follow these debates. (Nor is it altogether surprising that these arguments gain more traction when coming from a white man than from female or non-binary fans of colour, but one cannot claim that fandom avoids the problems of the rest of the world.)

While publishing academic books and articles on this subject allows us to reach other academics, in order to truly begin to decolonize popular medievalism, we who know our history and its complexity should push back more firmly and more publicly on these topics. The articles by Carroll and Kennedy are an excellent start, although viewers have yet to see any satisfactory change in Game of Thrones itself, and given that the show has only a single season left, meaningful improvement seems unlikely. That being said, activist April Reign’s #NoConfederate protest drew enough attention that work on that proposed series has since been suspended—indeed, HBO CEO Richard Plepler remarked several months later that the network had “screwed up” in its early attempts to publicise it.[8] Could this kind of protest work for popular medievalist media? Potentially. But unless it becomes clear that viewers have lost patience with this frustrating and damaging overreliance on antiquated, colonialist, and sexist assumptions about the Middle Ages, popular media will continue to fall back on them. Just as importantly, the inclusion of diverse directors, writers, producers, and actors in future media depictions of the medieval period will allow us to decolonize both behind and in front of the camera—as long as medieval stories are being primarily if not exclusively told by straight white men, that is the medieval history we’re stuck with.

[1] Hope Reese, “Meet the activist who wants to keep HBO’s Confederate from being made,” Vox (4 August 2017), https://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/8/4/16098256/no-confederate-hbo-game-of-thrones. April Reign, the activist who spearheaded the protest, was also responsible for #OscarSoWhite in 2016.

[2] Daniel Lukes, “Comparative neomedievalisms: A little bit medieval,” Postmedieval 5 (2014), 3.

[3] Carolyne Larrington, Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016), 190-92.

[4] Saladin Ahmed, “Is Game of Thrones too white?” Salon (1 April 2012), https://www.salon.com/2012/04/01/is_game_of_thrones_too_white/.

[5] Kathleen Kennedy, ‘Game of Thrones is even whiter than you think’, Vice (18 October 2016), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8gexwp/game-of-thrones-is-even-whiter-than-you-think; Shiloh Carroll, ‘Race in A Song of Ice and Fire: Medievalism Posing as Authenticity’, The Public Medievalist (28 November 2017), https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-in-asoif/; Olivia Waxman, ‘Game of Thrones is even changing how scholars study the real Middle Ages’, TIME Magazine (14 July 2017), http://time.com/4837351/game-of-thrones-real-medieval-history/.

[6] bitchfromtheseventhehell and lyannas, “I agree with farty old man GRRM,” the one that leads them is a she-wolf [Tumblr] (9 June 2016), http://bitchfromtheseventhhell.tumblr.com/post/145690854453/i-agree-with-farty-old-man-grrm-and-id-like-to.

[7] Steven Attewell, “Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: Part IX (Dorne),” Race For the Iron Throne (18 February 2018), https://racefortheironthrone.wordpress.com/2018/02/15/politics-of-the-seven-kingdoms-part-ix-dorne/.

[8] Antonia Blyth, “HBO CEO Richard Plepler on Confederate Backlash: ‘We screwed up’,” Deadline (3 October 2017), http://deadline.com/2017/10/hbo-richard-plepler-confederate-backlash-vanity-fair-summit-1202181519/.

Hi, same anon with the primogeniture question here. I am aware that in some cases outside England primogeniture definitely worked for girls. That’s how Charles V came to be King of Spain, for example. I asked because Desmond Seward in The Last White Rose insists that Elizabeth of York’s claim on the throne was not better than her sisters. My impression was that it was, although I am no expert and I understand that inheritance of crowns depended more on tradition than written laws, so I asked.

The assumption at the time certainly was that Elizabeth’s claim was superior. It’s recorded in several chronicles, including the Crowland Chronicle, generally considered to be one of the more reliable sources for 1483-85.

If a king died leaving behind only daughters, did the eldest girl and her children have a superior claim to the throne compared to that of the younger daughters and their progeny? Did primogeniture apply to girls?

It entirely depends on where your scenario takes place. In France and England, for example, it was rarely even an issue. Technically speaking, the prior monarch could declare an heir presumptive, but that rarely seemed to work. In the case of Henry VIII, for instance, he declared his elder daughter Mary (from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon) to be illegitimate and promoted his younger daughter Elizabeth (from his second marriage to Anne Boleyn) as his true heir…at least until he had her mother executed for adultery. Then of course both daughters were disinherited in favour of their younger brother Edward VI.

Even when Edward died in 1553, however, Elizabeth was reluctant to press her inheritance when Mary was still alive and she made a point of publicly supporting Mary’s claim. So I would say that while it was not a common situation in which to find oneself, primogeniture still applied to women.

It definitely applied to Isabella of Castile, who ruled for the latter half of the fifteenth century alongside her husband Ferdinand of Aragon. When she was younger, her uncle put forth an alternate claimant to the throne, also a young woman, but Isabella’s claim won at least in part because she was the elder and the more direct heir.

In short, we don’t really have enough cases in medieval and early modern Europe to say whether or not primogeniture applied to girls. I would say, based on what we’ve seen, probably yes.