Dr Clare Monagle, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, talks about how a popular television show is changing the way we teach history.
The Middle Ages are everywhere at the moment. Most ubiquitously, Game of Thrones is rolling out its sixth season. The story of the battle for the Iron Throne shows no sign of declining in popularity.
As a medieval historian, it is my duty to tell you that the Middle Ages of Game of Thrones has not that much to do with the real historical epoch we call the Middle Ages.
But, I’ve found over the years that this story is not necessarily what my students want to hear. They are attracted to the Middle Ages because they desire it as a place of magic and fantasy. From Tolkien, video games, Monty Python, and innumerable other cultural places, the Middle Ages are alive and well.
This year I decided to teach a unit that brought both Middle Ages together. ‘From Charlemagne to Game of Thrones: The Middle Ages Then and Now’ gives students an appreciation of the medieval millennium itself, as well as of the history of medievalism in modernity. Just as the real Middle Ages has a history, so too does the fantasy of the Middle Ages. For example, we discussed how Joan of Arc has been co-opted by the radical right in France as a model of an idealised pre-revolutionary non-immigrant Catholic nation. We looked at the use of Braveheart in recent campaigns for Scottish nationalism.
Alongside this history of medievalism, I taught the more normative medieval history described above. I wanted to show my students just how far contemporary ideas of the Middle Ages are from the historical reality. In so doing, I hoped that they would then see that when we talk about the Middle Ages in popular culture we are really talking about ourselves and our desires within modernity, rather than revealing an essential time in the past.
It was challenging to teach this, to exist in these multiple time frames. The other challenge was that the students were far more expert in contemporary medievalisms than I am, so I was often wrong! But I hope that modelled something good for them as well. Creative and pleasurable learning can only happen, I think, when we forego authority and open ourselves up to the enthusiasm and energy of others. I hope we achieved this. And to my 11-year old daughter’s delight, I have pledged to become a gamer in order to be better prepared for my next Game of Thrones class.