Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Brunhild: the original Queen Cersei?

The Merovingian Queen Brunhild is one of the most notable figures of the early Middle Ages.

I was struck by the similarities between her and Queen Cersei in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, and so a bit of a comparison seemed in order. In my opinion, Brunhild makes Cersei look like a kindergarten teacher.

Queen Cersei and her younger rival Margaery. Image © HBO

This entry is a guest article at Jamie Adair's excellent blog The History Behind Game of Thrones - please check it out!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

New Year

I can't believe that the New Year is almost upon us.

Well, the new university teaching year, at least. It's not as much fun as the real New Year - fewer fireworks - but it's still quite exciting. And terrifying.

Soon the streets of Durham City, shaken from their summer hibernation, will be swarming with students new and old, the former recognisable by their bewildered looks as they wander the twisting streets of the Peninsula in forlorn attempts to locate lecture halls and/or colleges and/or bars. Amidst all this you might see harried lecturers rushing about with faces scarcely less bewildered, forlornly attempting to locate lecture halls and/or offices and/or pubs.


As the kid says at the end of Terminator: viene la tormenta.

On Saturday I drove out to Stanhope, a merry little town in the Pennines, and spent a solitary morning up in the hills. It's late enough in the year that the moors have a touch of autumn about them, but not so late that it feels bleak. The ground was soft to walk on, the heather still warmed by a purple hue. It was good to have some calm before the storm.


Strange to think that four years have passed since I arrived in Durham. It was meant to be only a temporary teaching post. Mind you, that was fine by me at the time. I'd just finished a PhD, which involved living in poverty through my 20s. I think the most extravagant thing I bought during that decade was a bread maker.

Three whole years of employment? Seriously?

To a post-doc, a three-year post is like gold dust. I also figured it would give me a chance to decide if the whole academia lark was really what I wanted to do.

My other career option, if 'option' is even the right word, was writing novels. The one good thing about seriously wanting to be a novelist is that it makes something like medieval history look like a rational career choice. Something to fall back on.

As it turned out, the temporary job became a permanent one, and the left-field plan to get a book on the shelves of Waterstones also worked out. Both happened last year, within three months of each other. It was a year of big changes, good and bad.

Of course, this means that I now I basically have two full-time jobs. This is why the blog got so quiet over the summer, as I buried my head in teaching prep and redrafting the second novel. Luckily there was a lot of crossover between the two.

I don't want to say too much about the second novel before it hits the shelves next year, but it's epic. Truly epic. For all the hard work it's been, I really, really love how it's shaping up, and I can't wait for it to get out into the world.

Ruins of the imperial palace, on the Palatine Hill in Rome

In the meantime, there's the Durham Book Festival coming up next month, which is going to be awesome. On October 12 I'm on a panel with the classicist Peter Jones, author of Veni, Vidi, Vici - should be fun!

Friday, 23 May 2014

Game of Thrones and Dark Age history

Game of Thrones started broadcasting in 2011, about the same time I started teaching at Durham University, so over the last few years my students have got used to me peppering lectures and seminars with gratuitous references to the show.

It says a lot about the vibrancy of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy world that it can resonate with an early medievalist, even though his main inspiration is from later medieval history, especially the Wars of the Roses. But I’ve noticed a few interesting parallels between Martin’s world and the period commonly (and unfairly) known as ‘the Dark Ages’.

Jamie Adair has an excellent blog which mainly focuses on Game of Thrones parallels with later medieval history, and Brittany Garcia has recently written a great essay on parallels with Roman history, so I thought I could help fill in the intervening centuries...

Weirwoods and sacred oaks

While the southrons of Westeros tend to follow the Faith of the Seven (loosely based on the Roman pantheon), many in the north follow what they call ‘the old gods’. These nameless deities are part of an ancient, nature-focused religion strongly associated with the sacred trees known as ‘weirwoods’.

Weirwoods appear throughout the show – large oak-like trees with white bark, red foliage and faces carved into their trunks. This is very reminiscent of the pre-Christian religion of northern Europe. Sacred trees, in particular oaks, were important to the peoples who lived in the forested lands in what is now Germany.

There’s a famous story of a Christian missionary, St Boniface (right), who destroyed such a tree in 723:

[Boniface] attempted to cut down, at a place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called by the pagans of olden times the Oak of Jupiter. Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch.

Naturally enough, the tree instantly collapsed and the pagans all converted to Christianity. I'm not sure the Starks would be so impressed if someone tried to burn down their godswood. Which brings us nicely on to...

Iron Islanders and Vikings

Jamie Adair has written a couple of blog entries on the Vikings (on castration and female warriors), so I can keep this brief.

Of course the Iron Islanders are based on Vikings. Longships. Raiding and pillaging. Warrior culture. The Greyjoy family motto of ‘we do not sow’. Need I go on?


Okay, as an early medievalist I might complain that Martin is inadvertently helping perpetuate an old-fashioned and one-sided perception of the Vikings as rampaging thugs, but this is fantasy, after all. Besides, part of the joy of the show is watching the Iron Islanders themselves (especially poor Theon Greyjoy) desperately try to live up to this ├╝ber-macho image, bless their angry little hearts.

The Dothraki and the Huns

Jamie Adair has written some fun blog entries drawing parallels between the death of Attila the Hun and the death of a certain hated Lannister. There’s a further Hunnic echo in the Dothraki hordes of Essos – Martin’s direct inspiration is probably the Mongols (just replace ‘khal’ with ‘khan’), but the Huns work just as well.

Little is known about the Huns until they gallop onto the stage of history in the late fourth and fifth centuries. It’s clear that they were a nomadic people from the vast grassy plains of the Eurasian steppes, and it’s clear that the Romans were horrified by them.


Rome was used to dealing with barbarians, but the Huns were something else. Their appearance and whole way of life were utterly alien. The Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Huns as ‘a race savage beyond all parallel’, and goes on to describe them thus:

They are certainly in the shape of men, however uncouth, but are so hardy that they neither require fire nor well-flavored food, but live on the roots of such herbs as they get in the fields, or on the half-raw flesh of any animal, which they merely warm rapidly by placing in between their own thighs and the back of their horses. They never shelter themselves under roofed houses, but avoid them, as people ordinarily avoid sepulchres as things not fitted for common use.

Concerning horses he writes:

They are not well suited to infantry battles, but are nearly always on horseback, their horses being ill-shaped, but hardy; and sometimes they even sit upon them like women if they want to do anything more conveniently. There is not a person in the whole nation who cannot remain on his horse day and night. On horseback they buy and sell, they take their meat and drink, and there they recline on the narrow neck of their steed, and yield to sleep so deep as to indulge in every variety of dream.

And their attitude towards farming?

None of them plough, or even touch a plough handle; for they have no settled abode, but are homeless and lawless, perpetually wandering with their wagons, which they make their homes; in fact, they seem to be people always in flight.

Finally, this is how the Huns introduced themselves to the European world:

This active and indomitable race, being excited by an unrestrainable desire of plundering the possessions of others, went on ravaging and slaughtering all the nations in their neighborhood... 

There’s obvious ignorance and exaggeration in Ammianus’s account. What he saw as aimless and lawless wandering was clearly a highly successful way of life for the Huns – so successful that Attila managed to establish total Hunnic domination over a vast swathe of Europe, terrorising his neighbours and bullying the empire into supplying him with endless piles of gold and silver. Needless to say, this should all be sounding familiar by now.

I have a couple more Dark Age parallels to explore in a future post, but in the meantime check out the blogs of Jamie Adair and Brittany Garcia, and subscribe to my mailing list above for updates!

Images from Wikipedia Commons

Translations:
C. H. Talbot (trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London, 1954)
James Robinson (ed.), Readings in European History, vol 1 (Boston and New York, 1904)