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Game of Thrones Is Even Changing How Scholars Study the Real Middle Ages

Jul 14, 2017

When the next season of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones starts on Sunday, it will be a short one, with the last episode of this batch scheduled to air on Aug. 27. That fact may frustrate some eager to find out who will win the Iron Throne, but it’s good news for a particular subset of fans. After all, September is back to school season.

As TIME first reported, Harvard will offer an undergraduate medieval studies course inspired by Game of Thrones this fall and Boston College is offering a graduate-level one in spring 2018 — just the latest examples of similarly themed courses offered at American schools ranging from the University of California, Berkeley to Virginia Tech, as well as universities overseas. Major academic publishing houses have been churning out anthologies of scholarly essays on the books and TV show, and more are likely to come with the Martin Studies International Network (yes, devoted entirely to the work of Thrones author George R.R. Martin) announcing its formation next week and planning an appearance at the upcoming international Game of Thrones conference at the University of Hertfordshire in September. Classes that touch on the subject have had to add spots for more students, and scholars at Harvard and Virginia Tech tell TIME that Game of Thrones is the best recruitment tool for medieval studies and humanities courses since the Lord of the Rings films hit theaters. And it couldn’t come at a more critical time: Bachelor’s degrees conferred in the humanities declined 8.7% between 2012 and 2014, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has reported, while Harvard alone reported in 2013 that the percent of undergraduate students majoring in the humanities had dropped from 36% to 20% over six decades.

The effect is seen not only among undergraduates casually interested in the period, but also among those who devote their entire careers to the Middle Ages. “Ned Stark got me thinking more seriously about Old English literature and Anglo-Saxon culture,” says William Brockbank, who was inspired by the show to go for a PhD in medieval literature at the University of Oxford.

But the reach of Thrones is about more than classroom attendance. In fact, scholars say that Game of Thrones is energizing the entire field of medieval studies.

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Our Fictional History of the Middle Ages

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

Though Thrones might not be quite as based-on-a-true-story as Snoop Dogg thinks it is, George R.R. Martin has said that real British history has had "an enormous impact" on his books and the TV show, as have French and Scottish history. "I had read a lot of history, a lot of historical fiction, a lot of fantasy," he told TIME's TV critic, in an interview published Thursday. "I live in [today's] times, and it’s inevitable that they’re going to have some influence on me," he said. "But during the process of writing these, I probably would have been much more immersed in the politics of the Middle Ages and the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War."

But, by necessity, when Martin drew on the past for inspiration, he wasn’t just looking back to the 14th and 15th centuries and earlier. He was also drawing on much newer interpretations of that past.

In fact, there’s a whole area of study called medievalism, which specifically examines depictions of the Middle Ages in any post-medieval pop culture, like Shakespeare's history plays. Many of our own ideas about the “real” history of the medieval period are the product of those depictions, says medievalist Shiloh Carroll, who is working on a book on Martin's work. "A lot of the ideas we modern people have of the Middle Ages come from the Victorians telling us what the Middle Ages were," she says. During that period, countries like France and England were busy creating popular narratives about their national pasts, and that work included the dissemination of ideas about what happened there during medieval times.

But, because our ideas about the period got filtered through the lens of a more recent past, many medieval sources — especially ones about the roles of women and non-whites in Europe — got "erased" or "ignored," says Kavita Mudan Finn, who edited an anthology of essays on Game of Thrones' influence. Enlightenment thinkers, who wanted to focus on reclaiming Greek and Roman philosophy, pushed the idea of the period as the “dark ages” in an effort to “set themselves apart from the backwards, superstitious monks who came before,” she explained. Then, Victorians incorporated the Enlightenment thinkers' ideas into their own narrative about the Middle Ages, adding a heavy emphasis on courtly love and aesthetics, which tended to confuse the Renaissance with the actual Middle Ages. (One example Finn says that GoT fans may recognize can be found in some of the books' descriptions of clothing, many of which hew closely to Victorian ideas of old-timey dress rather than actual medieval garb.)

In turn, today’s pop-culture discussions of the medieval period can influence much broader understandings of the real past.

The shift already started toward the end of the 20th century, when depictions of the Middle Ages began to evolve as the world of those studying the period did. Academics increasingly included the whole world, not just Europe, in their research on events of the time, and scholarship on the experiences of women and people of color grew too, matching the social movements that flourished in the modern world. More recently, scholars seem also to be more aware of the effects of contemporary culture on ideas about the past. At the International Medieval Congress, a top annual conference, the number of sessions on medievalism grew from 7 in 2006 to 27 in 2017.

But the old ideas about the Middle Ages are still dominant as topics of studyso Game of Thrones is helping the field evolve even more.

MORE: 7 Times Game of Thrones Drew on History in Season 5

Perfect Timing

The show has become a global phenomenon just at a moment when, thanks to the Internet and changing social norms, the world is rife with serious discussion of the social implications of television shows. Just look at the Internet on any given Monday morning following a new episode, and it’s easy to see that the show has become a jumping off point for fans to discuss how violence against women gets represented on television, disability studies and even climate change — after all, the greatest threat to the Game of Thrones universe is the arrival of winter.

Those discussions are happening in academic circles too, as scholars of the Thrones era look for new research topics — and, in turn, hope that they can use the show’s popularity as a jumping-off point to teach people who learned everything they know about the period from GoT a little bit more about what really went on back then. In fact, the points at which the show diverges from the history are often the points at which non-experts are most amenable to learning something new about the past. For example, Paul Freedman at Yale University likes to remind his students that religion played an even larger role in the real Middle Ages than it does in the Game of Thrones universe, and the show's "woman problem" can get people talking about the real experiences of women who lived more than 500 years ago.

"In the period Martin is primarily drawing on — the 14th and 15th centuries — there were so many women doing amazing things," Finn says. "These women have been under-researched for many years, and only recently is academic work being done. In short, medieval Europe was a lot more diverse than Westeros in Game of Thrones, and women had rather more power and agency than the show tends to suggest (even without dragons).”

In other words, undergrads — or any fan inclined to look up whether something that happened on the show could have ever happened in real life — may come to medieval studies to meet the true-history versions of Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, but when they stick around, it’s often to learn that the real past is even more fascinating and nuanced than what HBO can bring to life. Needless to say, a lot happened in a period that's roughly 1,000 years long, so the popularity of the show has given scholars who have studied subjects other than big-name European royals an unprecedented megaphone to talk about their research. For example, Carolyne Larrington, Medieval Literature scholar at the University of Oxford and author of Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones, used the fictional Dothraki warriors as an occasion to write about the real horse-riding nomadic Mongols of 13th-century central Asia.

Because we know that pop culture affects what society thinks about the past, scholars look forward to using these discussions to help get that data about how diverse the Middle Ages were into the mainstream conversation about the period. That means future depictions of the Middle Ages may be more diverse too — and closer to the truth. And, as outside observers become more aware of that truth, the situation may accelerate the shift that has already begun within academic circles, as those entering the field professionally find encouragement to focus their research on a wider range of subjects.

MORE: Game of Thrones and the True History of Dragons

After the Finale

Which is not to say that Game of Thrones has earned its place in the official academic pantheon. It has a long way to go before it’s standard reading material for undergrads — or even before it reaches the acceptance level achieved by The Lord of the Rings and the field of Tolkien Studies. It is still considered “safer” to write about traditional medieval topics, and younger academics in particular may perceive that venturing to Westeros is a bad career move. “There's always been a tension between people who write about Chaucer and Milton and people who write about popular things," says Robert Rouse, a professor of Medieval English Literature who teaches a course inspired by George R.R. Martin at the University of British Columbia.

“Most [institutions] would say that they don’t have to pay you $120,000 a year to talk about Game of Thrones," echoes Richard Utz, President of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism, who argued on Friday in an Inside Higher Ed op-ed that medieval studies departments should beware of relying too heavily on Game of Thrones (which is, after all, still just a work of fantasy) as a recruitment tool. Those within the field disagree over whether it's proper to contextualize the original medieval texts within anything but their own original medieval world, and traditionally the answer has been that it is not.

But that dynamic may be changing too, Utz notes, with scholars seeking new ways of doing their work. "My personal theory is that a certain way of doing scholarship had exhausted itself," he says. "Most of the major medieval texts had been edited. The question had been, 'What now?'”

Case in point: Matteo Barbagallo, a doctoral candidate in Fantasy Literature at the University of Glasgow who’s starting the Martin Studies International Network, felt this first-hand when universities rejected his first doctoral proposal on early modern and late modern literature because there were too many people studying those same topics. When he instead submitted a proposal on George R.R. Martin, the idea was accepted.

And, though the show is winding down soon, these academics hope the change it has wrought will be a lasting one. If nothing else, it’s a chance to remind the world that the study of the Middle Ages is a relevant and timely field — and that there’s a lot more to the past than what you see on TV.

"If I tell someone I'm a medievalist, the first thing they ask about is Game of Thrones,says Marta Cobb, Senior Congress Officer at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, “but at least that gives me a way to engage.”

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