Medieval Britain: The Real Game of Thrones

The huge sweeping scope of Game of Thrones has impressed viewers and critics alike, and across the world millions will eagerly tune in to find out what will happen next in the battle for the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms. 

The television series is based on a series of fantasy novels written by George R.R. Martin, yet these are fantasy novels with clear historical influences.  Set on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos, the plot primarily focuses on the families of Lannister and Stark and their battle for the iron throne.  Just like the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England in the fifteenth century, this leads to a violent civil war. Meanwhile, in the North trouble is brewing, and the men of the Night’s Watch on the Great Wall, inspired by Hadrian’s Wall, must be on their guard to protect the kingdom from what is, perhaps, an even greater threat. 

As in medieval Britain, the characters in Game of Thrones communicate with each other through a variety of languages.  Indeed, such is the debt owed to the world of medieval Europe which it so vividly recreates, that one of these languages, High Valyrian, is even a language employed by a literate and educated elite, rather than being a spoken language used commonly throughout the kingdom.  In short: it fills the role that Latin did in high-medieval Europe.

In the modern British Isles, where English is used everywhere, it is perhaps hard to imagine a medieval Britain inhabited by peoples speaking a variety of different languages; yet that is exactly what the situation was.  Depending on where one lived, or in which level of society one moved, one might have spoken English, Norse, French, Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic or even Latin.  Understanding this leads to some thought-provoking questions as to what extent the peoples of Britain in the Middle Ages could communicate with each other, and how much they even needed to. 

This linguistic diversity has had a profound impact on modern English, and has bequeathed a wonderful range of sources, which we still enjoy reading today, and which we can use to better understand the past.  Game of Thrones might depict a fantasy world, but the real world of medieval Britain was every bit as exciting and varied. 

The huge sweeping scope of Game of Thrones has impressed viewers and critics alike, and across the world millions will eagerly tune in to find out what will happen next in the battle for the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms.


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