Game of Thrones and the fluid world of medieval gender

There is not a female figure on Game of Thrones who does not have a medieval counterpart. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Game of Thrones and the fluid world of medieval gender

There is not a female figure on Game of Thrones who does not have a medieval counterpart. © Home Box Office, Inc.

With Games of Thrones back on our screens, the question of the gender roles it depicts and promotes continues to be hotly debated.

Some commentators excuse what they see as the blatant misogyny of the series by noting that author George RR Martin could hardly have written female characters otherwise while being true to the historical context of the “Middle Ages” (at least as it is popularly envisioned).

Others are happy to compile lists of powerful female figures on the series and applaud the way they “destabilise” traditional gender roles.

Yet there is not a female figure on Game of Thrones who does not have a medieval counterpart, whether an actual historical person or a character from a literary text that enthralled audiences for centuries. So let’s look at these:

Strong female leaders?

Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Game of Thrones has Daenerys Targaryen, the only surviving child of King Aerys II Targaryen; the Middle Ages also had female rulers, some hugely successful (Elizabeth I of England), others less so (Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed at the behest of Elizabeth, her first cousin once removed).

At one point, the power structures of Western European countries were perceived as so female-centric that it led Calvinist Scotsman John Knox to pen the virulent anti-feminist pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (1558).

Power-hungry incestuous sisters?

Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Game of Thrones gives us Cersei Lannister, the widow of King Robert Baratheon and Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms. The Arthurian legends gives us Morgan Le Fay, who sleeps with her brother King Arthur and bears from the union Mordred who will eventually be Arthur’s doom.

Women who dress as knights and fight men in battle?

Painting, c. 1485. An artist’s interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490). Wikimedia Commons

Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth are two of the most popular female characters on Game of Thrones, but they have a long way to go before they can rival the enduring fame and admiration excited by the historical Joan of Arc (1412-1431) who led French armies against the English towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War and was executed by the English in 1431.

Records show that the Inquisitors who interrogated Joan were as much concerned with her transvestitism as with her claims to hear angelic voices and devoted a great deal of effort into convincing Joan to give up her masculine attire, a step with which she never complied.

Yet Game of Thrones never even approaches the slippery and surprising world of gender manipulation and redefinition that are a feature of medieval spirituality.

Indeed, Game of Thrones, for all its quasi-medievalism, is completely lacking in a major segment of the medieval world:

The monastic

Game of Thrones notes the existence of religion, and of religious leaders – some even female (Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light) – but it does not represent the massive proportion of the medieval population that devoted their lives to religious service.

Melisandre, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Medieval Western Christianity proved adept at multiplying gender positions, rendering them fluid, and refiguring gendered embodiment in ways that made an identification with one sex and its “properly” aligned gender difficult, if not redundant.

Although monasticism was a strictly sex-segregated undertaking, it was, paradoxically enough, also productive of some extraordinarily complex and fluid gender formulations. Nuns were exhorted by the men tasked with their pastoral care to be “virile” in their faith, and to surpass even men in the strength of their devotion.

Meanwhile, male monastics cultivated “female” virtues such as humility, aware that in the topsy-turvy economy of New Testament Christianity, based as it was on the willing sacrifice of Christ, being humble, gentle, and patient of suffering was also particularly manly.

We know from manuscript evidence (British Library, Cotton Julius E.vii) that nuns enjoyed stories of women who showed their devotion by undertaking male disguise and living undetected as monks for their whole lives.

Saint Wilgefortis in the diocesan museum of Graz, Austria. Wikimedia Commons

The bearded female saint Wilgefortis proved popular in late medieval iconography: this young woman was martyred for her refusal to marry and her joyful acceptance from God of a full beard in order to avoid this fate.

While monastics deployed gender identities in innovative ways in regard to themselves, even the gender of the Christian Trinitarian God came under consideration with both male and female mystics contemplating the motherliness of Christ.

Male mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) saw themselves suckling at the breast of the Virgin, and feminist critics such as Karma Lochrie have commented on the vaginal imagery of the wound in Christ’s side to which male clerics were so devoted and to which they would envision themselves pressing their mouths.

The 14th-century female mystic Agnes Blannbekin claimed to have received the foreskin of Christ in her mouth in her celebration of the Eucharist and described its taste as sweet as honey.

The world of medieval spiritual gender was powerfully fluid and productive, with performativity the key. Game of Thrones might offer some interesting, and even compelling, female role models in its medievalist worldview, but perhaps contemporary viewers would be more shocked by the gender permutations at play in the “real” Middle Ages.



This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.