(McFarland, 2017) 236 pp. $19.99
Ken Mondschein’s Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War can be seen as part of a growing trend in scholarship that has begun to address the relationships between medieval Europe and its depictions in contemporary popular culture. As with Mondschein’s book, much of this work focuses on the accuracy or authenticity of modern interpretations of the medieval past, themes that Mondschein, a visiting fellow at the Massachusetts Centre for Renaissance Studies, has dealt with before. For those looking for a strictly academic exploration of how George R. R. Martin uses the Middle Ages (and as Mondschein is correct to point out, modern ideas about the Middle Ages) in his novels, the book will fall flat: this is not what the author has tried to do, and Mondschein has aimed the book at a wider readership. He is confident, however, in asserting that there is a need for historians to encourage fans of popular franchises such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones to engage with the history of medieval warfare. Mondschein’s reasoning is that ‘if we historians don’t write books such as this one, we do nothing to rebut the pop-culture Middle Ages as a Jurassic World of resurrected straight white male barbarians out of a Frazetta painting – since the reality was nothing of the sort…If we historians are going to push a narrative of diversity and inclusion, popular subjects such as medieval military history need to be written from that perspective’ (p. 5). The author certainly deserves praise for attempting to challenge the homogenous narratives surrounding medieval military history in the public imagination.
Mondschein’s book deals with a broad range of topics comprising nine individual chapters. These are followed by endnotes, a ‘further reading’ bibliography, and an index. This wide spectrum of topics is certainly a strength of the book, as it has provided Mondschein with the opportunity to include several of the most fascinating stories of medieval warfare and contrast them with their counterparts in Martin’s universe. Chapter one is a discussion of chivalry and an assessment of ‘if it ever lived’ (p. 11). Mondschein herein compares the ideologies of real and fictionalised knighthoods, paths to becoming a knight, and the role of courtly love. These themes have been researched thoroughly by other scholars, but what sets apart Mondschein’s approach here is, of course, his utilisation of modern fantasy literature. Chapters two and three focus on the development of arms and armour in medieval Europe, the influence of other forms of popular culture (i.e. Dungeons and Dragons) on Martin’s works, and the lack of technological progression in Westeros. They are followed by a chapter dedicated to the historical use of arms and armour, in which Mondschein gives an overview of medieval and early modern fight books and discusses how individuals both trained for and fought in combat.
Following these early chapters is a contextualisation of their subject matter within wider European and Westerosi society. Mondschein seeks to explore what the worlds in which knights, their armour, and their fencing arts existed was like. Chapter five, for example, is a study of different typologies of violent engagements: war, duels, and tournaments. In this chapter Mondschein looks at the differences and similarities between these forms of violence and why both real and imagined fighters chose to engage in them. The sixth chapter is focused on economics, where Mondschein also theorises on the impact a decade long winter would have on the economic climate of the Seven Kingdoms. Mondschein’s seventh chapter, on women warriors of Westeros, is arguably the strongest. It is here where he first gets a chance to really challenge the idea of medieval warfare being the sole domain of the ‘straight white male barbarian’. Here four archetypes based on characters from Martin’s books are created and their real life equivalents examined, allowing Mondschein to demonstrate how women have previously led armies and fought. In the penultimate chapter attention is turned to discussing the complex interactions between different cultures as a result of conquest in the Middle Ages. Mondschein analyses the themes of race and religion throughout this chapter, as well as how both travellers, conquerors, and the conquered attempted to break down linguistic barriers to travel and co-exist. This chapter is where Mondschein really gets to exploring racial diversity throughout medieval Europe in order to challenge the idea of the European Middle Ages as an exclusively white era. The final chapter is a medieval atrocity sourcebook, where Mondschein gives ten examples of military atrocities from the Middle Ages and compares them against their most analogous counterpart from A Song of Ice and Fire. No analysis is offered here aside from a short conclusion and the chapter is predominantly made up of quotes. Mondschein’s reasoning for this is that it acts as a rebuttal to those who would criticise George R. R. Martin for the nature of the violence in his works.
Unfortunately, Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War contains several errors which could have been avoided, including incorrect manuscript references in the endnotes, incorrect dates for key historical events, the misattribution of important texts, and misquoting of source material. Some examples are given here. The first of these is present in a timeline of comparative events between medieval Europe and Westeros, and later in on in the book too, where Mondschein mistakenly cites 1096 as the year in which Urban II called the First Crusade, even though the Council of Clermont actually occurred in November of the previous year, 1095. Other basic errors can also be found in the book, whether misattributing texts to the wrong authors or misquoting them. In chapter four, whilst detailing how knights and men at arms trained to improve their fitness in armour, Mondschein quotes at length from the biography of the French knight Jean II le Maingre, also known as Boucicaut, the Livre des faits du bon messiere Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquat. The text itself is anonymous, although sometimes attributed to Nicolas de Gonesse or Jean d’Ony, but Mondschein claims out of nowhere that it is in fact a product of the ‘French’ chronicler Jean Froissart. This mistake is potentially due to the author translating from a nineteenth-century edition of Froissart which contains Boucicaut’s biography in a third volume.
In discussing medieval and renaissance swords Mondschein also severely misquotes the 1599 fight book of George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence. The explanation of different sword types starts off accurately enough, with Mondschein noting that Silver believes any long sword (note the difference between a long sword and a longsword) to be a weapon with a blade longer than his prescribed perfect length: this perfect length is measured by the distance between the dagger held in the hand of an outstretched left arm, and the right hand drawn back behind the body with the elbow joint closed. Moving on from this explanation, Mondschein then mistakenly claims that Silver ‘says that a two-handed sword ought to have the same blade length as a “long sword”, but with a longer handle’. This, however, is false. Silver states that the two-handed sword ought to have the same blade length as a sword of perfect length (which Silver calls a short sword or single sword), not the same length as a long sword, which he repeatedly criticises throughout Paradoxes of Defence. Whereas Mondschein believes the relationship to exist between a long sword and two-handed sword, Silver quite distinctly says that the two-handed sword’s length is dependent on the short sword. Paradoxes of Defence itself states that ‘the perfect length of your two hand sword is, the blade to be the length of the blade of your single sword’, which is measured in the manner stated above. Mistakes like these unfortunately force the reviewer to question Mondschein’s command of his material.
Such mistakes aside, Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War is an interesting contribution from Mondschein. Its broad range of martial and military themes make for a pleasant read given the author’s accessible style that is often interlaced with humour. Although those without any interest in A Song of Ice and Fire or Game of Thrones will find little here to please them, fans of books and show alike ought to enjoy the wealth of comparisons which Mondschein has been able to establish.
Jacob H. Deacon