HERE THERE BE A FEW SPOILERS
I’ve previously written about how alternative-history needs a basis in history. Other forms of fiction frequently benefit as well, and Game of Thrones is no exception.
Dragons and whitewalkers aside, George R.R. Martin wants Westeros to feel somewhat familiar to us. He also wants something cohesive, and one of the ways you do that is borrow from things already in existence. So just as he leaned on history for his characters, he also drew on more general medieval historical concepts.
Swearing of Oaths
Oath-taking and oath-breaking were very serious matters in the Middle Ages. It was so serious that the word warlock has its roots in an Old English word for oath-breaker.
There was little in the way of contracts, in part because so few people could read. You had to trust those you dealt with. Accused criminals would bring people to testify that he was honest rather than innocent. Then he would swear to his own innocence.
One type of oath was the betrothal (marriage would be another). Betrothals, unlike today’s engagements, had force of law behind them. You didn’t get to merely walk away from them. In some ways, you’re already married; you’re just not living together or having sex. Weddings were sometimes declared invalid because one party was already pledged to another.
Granted, such issues were commonly brought up for political reasons. During the War of the Roses, it was argued after his death that Edward IV was already betrothed when he married Elizabeth Woodville, thus rendering his heir illegitimate. This worked out well for his brother, who became Richard III. No one seriously argued it previously.
Likewise, Joffery makes a very public show of proving his betrothal to Sansa Stark is invalid. Joffery, of course, doesn’t personally give a damn, but even he knows it’s good politics. (It also let him torment Sansa, which is always a pastime of his.) So he has his council explain how they were quite thorough in their research and thus were confident he owed nothing to the family of a traitor.
Bread and Salt
There are actual bread and salt traditions in central and eastern Europe, although they are generally more about welcoming than specific pledges. The bread is a ritual sharing of food. Salt might be seen as providing a luxury, as salt was expensive in many places, but it could also have protective aspects, as salt is often ritually used as a purifier.
Still, medieval guests were expected to have certain rights. The host should not only not harm guests but also protect them from harm. A host who did not provide adequate food, lodging and entertainment was a poor host, one lacking in hospitality.
So to welcome someone into your home, feed him, and then murder him and his company is beyond simple murder. It’s the breaking of a fundamental social contract.
George R.R. Martin has specifically named two events of broken hospitality as his inspiration for the Red Wedding: the Glencoe Massacre and the Black Dinner, both in Scotland.
Anyone else getting tired of fictional monotheisms being aggressive and oppressive? Yes, Christianity did more than its fair share of conversions at the point of the sword and heretic burning. But while monotheisms in shows such as Game of Thrones, the later seasons of Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica embrace many of those negative qualities, we don’t see much of the positive ones such as charity.
Monotheism doesn’t have to be evangelical. Judaism and Zoroastrianism are both examples. Quite the opposite, various groups at varying times in history have objected to people converting into the group, seeing it as only something into which you are born.
Yes, yes, the night is dark and full of terrors. And we’re all going to hell. Moving on.
While much of Game of Thrones draws from the High Middle Ages, the concept of the seven kingdoms comes from several centuries earlier. “England” as a political entity only came into existence in the 10th century. Previous to that, the territory was divided up into seven independent kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex.
Winter is Coming / Little Ice Age
Europe was doing really well in the High Middle Ages. One of the reasons was that the weather became increasingly conducive to farming: warmer averages, longer growing seasons, etc. Around 1300, however, it descended into the Little Ice Age. Marginal areas became unfarmable, growing seasons were shorter, and bad weather caused years of failed crops.
Famine killed millions of people (and the Black Death tens of millions more), but the stress of limited resources led to lots of other things as well. The 13th century was a great place to live. The 14th century was a nightmare.
Martin has said Joffery’s death is loosely based on the death of Prince Eustace, son of King Stephen of England in the 11th century. Stephen and his cousin Matilda were fighting for the throne and destroying the country in the process (the civil war lasted two decades). The final solution was to let Stephen be king but only if he acknowledged Matilda’s son as his heir.
The problem was Stephen already had an heir, Eustace, and he didn’t like the idea of losing his inheritance. Luckily for England, he choked to death at a feast, although there were always rumors of poisoning. Joffery was not merely poisoned but poisoned by something that largely mimicked choking.
The Rose of House Tyrell
The most obviously history-inspired family sigil is that of the Tyrells, which clearly is a version of the Tudor Rose. The Tudor Rose is a joining of the Red and White Roses of Lancaster and York, since the reign of the Tudor ended the War of the Roses between those two houses.
The Lannister lion comes in a close second. A similar figure periodically shows up in English heraldry, including that of the Lancaster kings.
The Targaryen propensity for incest turns modern stomachs, but it was quite traditional for ancient Egyptian royalty. The pharaohs were gods, so their children were something a little below that. To marry them off to just anyone would pollute that divinity.
However, ancient pharaohs had multiple wives, so you married off half-siblings, not full siblings. That could considerably hold off the downside of incest. Things got really funky, however, when Alexander the Great took over Egypt, which then fell into the hands of his general, Ptolemy.
Ptolemy came from a monogamous culture, but he and is family adopted many aspects of Egyptian imagery of leadership, one of them being incest. However, now it is often full siblings being married off, which continued for 300 years. The last Ptolemaic pharaoh, Cleopatra VII, had only 13 ancestors counting back to great-great-grandparents. Most of us have 30.