Last month, when suicide bombers attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the world was aghast that ISIS specifically targeted girls and young women. Unfortunately, no one who understands the pseudo-medieval image ISIS has built around itself was all that surprised. In “Muscular Medievalism,” a prescient article in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Amy S. Kaufman makes important points about the misogyny of ISIS and their obsession with a fantasy version of the medieval past:
[A] key component of muscular medievalism is its need for the suffering and exploitation of women in order to validate its vision of masculinity. In the autumn of 2014, the new caliphate declared that the enslavement and rape of women and girls is central to its ideology. ISIS’s glossy, almost corporate, monthly English language magazine, Dabiq, included an article called “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which explicitly argued, “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar—the infidels—are taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law.”
After giving several harrowing examples of ISIS’s brutality, Kaufman draws a bitter conclusion:
And yet, despite the explosion of reporting on the fate of ISIS’s conquered territories, the world’s reaction to this horrific violence against women and girls—apart from the usual Twitter outrage—is largely complacent. The enslavement, ritual rape, and murder of thousands of children and grown women—on a scale that would demand immediate action of the persecuted group were anything other than women—is lamented, but ultimately dismissed as part of the “medieval” nature of life under the Islamic State, thanks, in part, to our misguided fantasies about the past.
What does Kaufman mean by that, and why does she implicate all of us, including Westerners? Throughout her article, she draws a provocative connection between the way ISIS asserts its “authenticity” and what we as readers and viewers in the West seek in our entertainment. I hope she won’t mind if I quote her at length:
Take, for instance, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which holds such a revered place in contemporary American popular culture that it’s treated to weekly recaps in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. The author of the epic fantasy series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, claims to be delivering an unapologetically “real” version of the Middle Ages in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin says he was inspired to pen his particularly brutal portrayal of medieval times because other writers “…were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.” And if Martin’s novels are any indication, getting it right means saturating the faux-medieval world with rampant misogyny and rape . . . However, Martin explains away the sexual violence in his novels with his vision of history: “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex,” he clarified to one interview. “It’s medieval.”
For Martin—and his legions of fans—the abundance of sexual violence and the disturbing conflation of sex and rape in the books and on the show are, in fact, markers of medieval authenticity. Indeed, rape-as authenticity is a key component of the show: “It’s not our world,” argued executive producer D.B. Weiss in defense of the rape scenes on HBO’s show, “but it is a real world, and it’s a violent world, a more brutal world . . . It’s a world where these horrible things are definitely pervasive elements of their lives and cultures. We felt that shying away from these things would be doing a disservice to the reality and groundedness of George’s vision.” To be clear: violence against women isn’t just a byproduct of historical authenticity in the show and in the novels. It is, according to their creators, what makes these medieval-inspired works of entertainment authentic. The violence against and degradation of women in the world of Westeros is as important to the “medieval” setting as the armor, the castles, the weapons, and the charmingly fetishized details about food. But using violence against women as a shortcut to bolster authenticity is hardly limited to Martin’s creative endeavors: the casual rape of women and girls, often as a kind of “background noise” behind the “real” plot, pervades almost every work of medievalism that is proclaimed “gritty” or “authentic,” the often-anonymous victims themselves rendered disposable tropes in the service of historicity, from the Channel’s show Vikings to popular games like The Witcher and Dragon Age.
When someone questions the decency of our fondest shows and books, it’s tempting, and awfully easy, to recite a familiar refrain: “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.” But to answer too quickly is to evade self-examination. Even though I think there’s too much moralistic finger-wagging at artists and writers these days, there are ethical dimensions to reading and watching television, especially where the Middle Ages are concerned. Goodness knows I’ve heard plenty of parents complain about the overwhelming influence of the “Disney princess” franchises on their impressionable daughters. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, harmless in themselves, possessed antebellum Southern planters with such absurd visions of chivalric grandeur that Mark Twain blamed him, not facetiously, for the Civil War. Centuries earlier, the Spanish conquistadors who hacked and slashed their way through the Americas were obsessed with chilvaric romance, seeing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan not for what it was, but as a magical city out of the sprawling tale Amadis of Gaul—and seeing themselves as the latest wave of crusading heroes, called to convert, conquer, and rule.
Even though Kaufman isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?
“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”