Watching Game of Thrones, and devouring the novels, made me a better medievalist. As fans of the show and novels know well, George R. R. Martin’s imaginary world offers a vibrant account of life and death, of royal power and magic, of political infighting, arranged marriages, sex, love, and despair. It is not an accurate depiction of medieval Europe, but why should it be? Instead, it is great fun, and is also a prime example of what scholars have started calling “medievalism,” accounts of a medieval past that are often as much about us as about them, what we love (and love to hate) about Medieval Europe, real or imagined.
But there is more to it than just good fun. Game of Thrones also helped me think through one of my main interests as a scholar, illegitimacy in Medieval Europe.
According to the Game of Thrones wikia page, a bastard is “anyone born out of wedlock.” Until recently, scholars of medieval Europe have generally adhered to the same definition. I have argued that we need to revisit our definition of bastard, at least for medieval Europe through the late twelfth century, and I would suggest that the same rule holds for Game of Thrones. Medieval Europe did not divide its people into two stark categories: children born of marriage and children born outside marriage. Instead, children were ranged on a spectrum of illegitimacy.
The same is true of Westeros and its neighbors. What mattered most for the prospects of a child was often the status of both parents, not the question of if they legally married each other or not. Of course there were plenty of regional variations in medieval Europe (and in Game of Thrones). There were changes over time in Europe as well. It is harder to assess change over time with Game of Thrones, but certainly there are characters in the series who refer intriguingly to a past in which some sexual and marital practices considered illegal by contemporaries were quite legal, and could have resulted in legitimate issue with rights to a throne.
Much as in Medieval Europe, there are several different kinds of bastards in Game of Thrones, falling into sometimes overlapping categories. The first and most obvious type of bastard is one born to a known “highborn” father who recognizes the child as his but whose mother is either unknown or known to be low status. Here the most memorable example is Jon Snow, Snow being the surname for Northern bastards of this type (though of course — spoiler alert — Jon’s parentage turns out to be more complicated, and extremely throneworthy regardless of any niceties of marriage law), or Sand, Sand being the surname for bastards from the south. It is quite clearly better to be a Sand than a Snow, with the warm sunny climate of the south both more openly licentious than the restrained north, and more tolerant of children born to extramarital sex.
This difference in the social status possibilities for the same kind of illegitimate child in two different regions mirrors nicely, and probably quite intentionally, the relative permissiveness towards bastards found in Iberia as opposed to England. The sons of lower status mothers had little chance of becoming king in England — William of Normandy, the conquering bastard in 1066, the obvious exception to this. William’s grandson Robert of Gloucester, son of King Henry and an unknown woman, was not considered a worthy candidate of his father’s throne. In Game of Thrones Ramsey Snow, a bastard son of Lord Bolton and a miller’s wife, raped by Lord Bolton — and a bastard in every sense of the word — could be legitimized as Ramsey Bolton and therefore become a legitimate heir, but this does not appear to have been a real possibility for Robert of Gloucester. Kings of England needed royal blood, ideally from both parents, and Robert had a good deal less of it than his half-sister Matilda, who via her mother had the best possible ancestors for an English queen.
Looking instead to Iberia we find, as in Dorne, in southern Westeros, greater room for bastards to inherit and also more women in positions of power. I have a hard time imagining the royal daughters of the ruling houses of Christian Spain having the same military prowess as found with the Dornish princesses, but it is certainly clear that kings in Iberia could quite publicly keep concubines, and that the children of these women could do quite well. Even the son of a Muslim concubine, Sancho Alfónsez, seems to have been considered a worthy candidate for the mighty kingdom of Castile-León. We know a great deal less than we would like about his mother: King Alfonso VI had so many wives and concubines that it is extremely difficult to sort them out and sort out who precisely Sancho’s mother was, but it seems that she was a Muslim concubine, though there are some stories that Alfonso married her in an effort to “legitimize” his only son. While Sancho’s mother may have converted and her son was likely raised as a Christian, it is a surprise to see their son as the main contender to the throne until his untimely death in battle in 1107. Alfonso’s eldest daughter, Urraca, born to one of his highborn Christian wives, inherited his throne instead, but his daughter Teresa, born to a noble concubine, obtained the county of Portugal, which soon became a kingdom.
In subsequent generations, we more often find the children of illegal marriages made between the various interrelated ruling families inheriting thrones than the children of lower status concubines, but that does continue to happen, and in ways worthy of a Game of Thrones rendering. For instance, in the fourteenth century, Henry “the Fratricidal,” one of many illegitimate sons of King Alfonso XI of Castile and his noble mistress Eleanor (a woman of actually quite high Iberian royal ancestry), killed his legitimate half-brother Pedro “the Cruel” and became ruler of Castile.
There is so much more to say about Game of Thrones and what we can learn from it about the Middle Ages, but to close off this piece I’ll say only that the Middle Ages is filled with such stories, and that fiction like Game of Thrones can help us better understand how to tell them.
Featured image credit: City walls of the Old Town, Dubrovnik. Photo by JSB. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.