It is an unfortunate fact that the word “medieval” summons up visions of backwards, outdated, even barbaric people, practices, and technologies. George R.R. Martin has glommed on to this idea of the Middle Ages to create A Song of Ice and Fire’s Westeros, a world that he insists is more realistic and historically accurate than most other medievalist fantasy worlds. However, Martin’s medievalism is part of a distinct pattern of medievalisms going back to the early Renaissance, one which Umberto Eco called “Barbaric Age” medievalism.
In his essay “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” Eco enumerated ten “little Middle Ages,” or various ways that medievalism projects biases, anxieties, and desires onto the past. Barbaric Age medievalism is “a shaggy medievalism,” dirty and violent. It is the Dark Age model viscerally displayed on the page or screen, as the case may be. This view of the Middle Ages can be traced back to Petrarch in the 1300s, when the lines of division between the Classical era, the Middle Ages, and the blooming Renaissance were being drawn. Martin’s conception of the Middle Ages as inherently violent, sexist, patriarchal, and feudal, as well as less morally developed than our modern era, is nothing new.
What sets Martin apart from a lot of believers in the Barbaric Age Middle Ages is his influence. Not for nothing did Lev Grossman refer to him as “the American Tolkien”; his impact on fantasy literature may well end up being as profound as J.R.R. Tolkien’s. People believe Martin’s declarations that Westeros is an authentic reflection of the historical Middle Ages, and thus declare that any problems in A Song of Ice and Fire are due to historical reality, not to Martin’s writing. Sexual violence? Just how things were back then. Poor representation of people of color? There were no people of color in medieval Europe. Often, these dismissals are followed by some form of “get over it.”
Whether Martin’s portrayal of a Middle Ages is “right” or not isn’t the point, of course. The point is how modern anxieties, biases, and needs are projected onto the Middle Ages, and then how Martin examines and uses those. The central cause of the violence and barbarity of Westeros is toxic masculinity, which Martin examines in depth, exploring how this version of masculinity—which demands strength in the form of violence and emotionlessness from its men—harms women, men, children, and the land itself. However, he does not admit that Westeros’ toxic masculinity is his own creation, instead continuing to push the “realism” argument.
The Middle Ages will probably always be a site of modern anxieties and desires, fueled and even perpetrated by works like A Song of Ice and Fire. While the series is an artfully written, deep, and layered one, with intriguing characters and a fascinating storyline, in terms of its depiction of a pre-industrial, medievalist world, it draws on hundreds of years of tradition in its insistence that “back then” everything was dark, dirty, violent, and terrible.