Sexualized Saturdays: It’s Getting Medieval Up In Here

Renly_profileSince Game of Thrones hit the mainstream viewership, I have pondered the concept of alternative sexual lifestyles in the medieval, fantasy setting. It’s an interesting concept, and one that surprisingly hasn’t been touched on much in a lot of famous Middle Age pieces, like the Arthurian legends.

I always found this weird. Anyone who knows anything about Roman and Greek culture knows that homosexuality was not “taboo,” so to speak. Art, stories and historical records talk about LGBTQ+ relationships. Even Zeus had a relationship with Ganymede, who was described by Homer as the the most beautiful mortal ever to exist.

arthur-404_683230cBut by the time the Early Middle Ages rolled around, the concept of LGBTQ+ relationships was labeled evil, and were seemingly hidden from plain view in the time period’s legends and stories, specifically the British legends of King Arthur. For example, while Galehaut may have had a strong romantic obsession with Lancelot, the legend never explicitly mentions that Galehaut is gay. Furthermore, there are strong implications that Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere were all sexually active with each other. Society just likes to pretend that Lancelot and Guinevere were sleeping together, not Lancelot and Arthur.

This is the complete opposite from how the British monarchy actually worked. While a king was expected to father children to continue the bloodline, and flaunting a homosexual relationship was taboo, there are multiple reports that some kings, like Edward II of England, also had homosexual relationships.

renly-baratheon-1024So there should be no surprise that Renly Baratheon can be depicted as both gay and a strong potential heir to the Iron Throne. While Hollywood may, at times, perceive gay men as weaker than their straight counterparts, Renly is just as deceptive and strong-minded as the rest of the leaders fighting in the War of the Five Kings.

Furthermore, Renly’s lover, Ser Loras Tyrell, is a very skilled knight, fighting to avenge his lover’s death. If Renly was a woman, that storyline would fit right in with Arthurian lore.

So why is it that that go-to relationship in fantasy is the belief that the king valiantly fights for his queen, no matter what? There are just as many historical references of British kings hating their queens as there are for kings loving queens.

Loras-Tyrell-house-baratheon-30161553-1280-720I think we’ve reached the point where fantasy writers need to be comfortable with creating characters who are both strong leaders and long for a male significant other.

And oh by the way, women can be strong leaders too. Elizabeth I and Victoria guided England to immense prosperity, and I have a feeling that the women of A Song of Ice and Fire will play an immense part when George R.R. Martin’s finishes the story. But women/women relationships rarely happen. I think that is another wasted tool in the writer’s toolbox.

And, to be honest, there aren’t many examples of good woman/woman relationships in a medieval setting. Some reports show that Anne, Queen of Great Britain, had a relationship with favorite Abigail Masham, but that’s pretty much it. And the examples in Game of Thrones are of prostitutes pleasing their clients. There is no emotion behind it.

Ultimately, fantasy writers need to not fear backlash from having characters not follow the male/female dynamic. Having a leader live a sexual lifestyle outside of heterosexuality doesn’t make the leader weak, and to think otherwise is ridiculous.

5 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: It’s Getting Medieval Up In Here

  1. No matter what society you look at, you can pretty much understand the norms and rules of sexuality by looking at how the society is structured.

    For Rome and Greece, these were highly urbanised and economically developed societies, which allowed for rich and fascinating civil expressions, such as law, philosophy, science, etc. It’s no surprise, therefore, that we find rich homosexual culture in these societies. Firstly, on a physical level, humans cannot engage in social, romantic and sexual relations with each other unless they are physically in proximity to one another. And secondly, a thriving intellectual and artistic culture will naturally lead one to other forms of personal development.

    But from when the Roman Empire collapsed, two major things happened. One, the majority of the European population was no longer urban but rural; a medieval peasant may spend their entire life and never meet someone outside their family, which is hardly grounds for any kind of social lifestyle, let alone sexual. Two, we saw the rise of the Roman Catholic Church as a major land-owner, which had the power to freeze on economic development; without a healthy economy, there was no driving force to pull humans together. And if humans aren’t meeting together in places to conduct themselves, then the opportunity for other things doesn’t arise.

    So in the Dark Ages, we notice two things about human sexuality. Firstly, the vast majority of the population were peasants, and they effectively had no sexual lives whatsoever. The material realities of their lives forced this to be so. Secondly, the aristocracy, being a wealthy, privileged and centralised social institution, were capable of having exciting, lively sexual lifestyles; but because the aristocrats were quantitatively such a small group of people, incest was unavoidable.

    Your criticisms of fantasy writers is quite right. These people have made no attempt at recreating the actual lives of people in the Middle Ages, no attempt at implanting real historical circumstances into their novels, so that their characters act as in accordance to the historical norms of that time. Instead, they are simply implanting the hetro-normative values that we have in our society today onto the medieval world. In today’s society, there are gender norms, sex segregation and sexism, and these are mirrored onto the fantasy medieval world in the books. That is historically inaccurate, lazy and an abuse of the responsibility of being a writer.

    • I totes agree with Justin B;

      In my opinion, if writers actually took into account some actual historical facts about courtship in medieval times, specially in the Court, we’d see the fin’ amours in action. Fin’ amours is part of the “romantic” culture of the trovadors, divided in stages or steps, in how to woo the one they loved (which had to be a married woman or man) including keeping your love a secret, then writing songs and poems, and finally sending and keep trying until he or she gives (which could and couldn’t happen). It was more of a game than anything. And although it was for men to be trovadors (its all over Arthurian legend for the knights to fall in love with the Lady), there are some women trovadors that left very interesting poems behind. ;p

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