George Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series of books, dramatized as "Game of Thrones" on HBO, has gotten a lot of people interested in the Middle Ages. Those of you who have been reading these posts know that there was a whole lot to the Middle Ages that did not involve knights whacking each other with enormous swords or people riding across an empty landscape, but the books (and the shows) have made a good-faith effort toward historical realism, at least in the look.
The Starks and the Lannisters, as Martin has said, are clearly rooted in origin in the Yorks and the Lancasters, two branches of the English royal family engaged in a debilitating war in the fifteenth century. The real war, called the War of the Roses because one family had a red rose for their emblem and one a white, was fought with gunpowder and cannons, rather than knights, but like Martin's imagined wars, it killed off an awful lot of people, most of whom knew each other and had been cousins and allies, and was full of treachery and deceit.
The armor and weaponry in the show are based on real late medieval tournament armor and weapons. It is rather ironic that these were perfected in the late Middle Ages just as their use in real battles became irrelevant. Of course, real medieval people would not sleep in their armor--it would be far too uncomfortable. One senses that the show has used aluminum rather than iron.
Martin made up his own religion (indeed religions) for the Seven Kingdoms, none of which look much like Christianity. Probably the closest any of the depicted religions come to medieval Christianity is the Ironmen's faith in the Drowned God. I have to commend Martin for including religion; a lot of modern fantasy pretends it's not there. The dominant religion of Westeros is based on seven gods, and thus Martin has a church-equivalent called a sept, which makes sense as that is the Latin root for "seven," but it does also make one think "septic" in a disturbing way.
The cities in the show use some of Europe's oldest cities as backdrop, where there really are winding, narrow cobbled streets even today. However, medieval Europe's cities never had nearly as many brothels. The Free Cities are vaguely Mediterranean, some modeled fairly directly on Venice. The cities of Slaver's Bay seem a combination of north Africa and central Asia. That's the advantage of fantasy--you can mix and match.
People sometimes assume that as a medievalist I won't like the show. I like it just fine, because it doesn't pretend to be historically-accurate medieval yet has a good pseudo-medieval feel. My own stories, of course, are not nearly as dark and grim, but I really like Martin's characters.
I've enjoyed the books for the 20 or so years they've been out (come on, Martin, you need to pick up the pace a little). And I think the writers of the show--including Martin himself--have done a good job of keeping true to the spirit of the books even while radically pruning characters and events and rearranging their order.
The danger with the new season is that they may catch up to the books. Are next year's shows going to contain spoilers for those who are reading? Starts April 12.
Click here for more of my thoughts on medieval-themed fantasy.