A professor of medieval history on how Game of Thrones—and the bloody showdown between the Red Viper and the Mountain—echoes the past. Sometimes, what really happened is worse.
In the seventh episode of the first season of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister speaks the line from which the series takes its name: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Since 2011, a fever for Machiavellian treachery and ever-looming supernatural doom has moved beyond the usual fantasy-reading public’s borders, with a growing base of aficionados following the fortunes of the Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens and others. The show has, at its core, a realistic sense, rather than a romantic one, of medieval history. It is often compared to the Wars of the Roses and its ensemble cast of villains, bunglers, and occasional heroes.
In the judicial duel between Ser Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, and Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain That Rides, we have yet another echo of actual medieval history.
Of the actual duel between the Mountain and the Viper, judging its accuracy is no easy matter. Certainly, there are famous fights like the 1386 combat most recently discussed in Eric Jager’s The Last Duel. There, a husband defended his wife’s charge of rape by killing the man she had accused. While contemporaries accepted the outcome as proof, the dead man’s guilt has attracted debate ever since.
The bulk of our accounts of judicial duels, however, come in charters left behind by those whose very property was being contested—religious men and women who weren’t supposed to dwell on violence for its own sake. Many often didn’t have an actual combat to recount, just a note of who cut a deal or forfeited by their absence.
Probably the other most vivid and parallel account of an actual trial by combat comes from the pages of the Flemish notary, Galbert of Bruges, who kept a journal of events in 1127-28. In a series of murders, executions, and betrayals that could rival Martin’s cosmos (except in several hundred pages rather than 1000s), the political system in Flanders nearly came undone.
During the chaos, many old grudges were settled, sometimes under the guise of overdue justice. A man called Iron Herman took the opportunity to charge Guy of Steenvoorde with participating in the Flemish count’s murder. Guy turned immediately to a trial by combat, and in this case, both men did their own fighting.
This actual fight has more than a few echoes in the Martell-Clegane duel.
From the beginning, Guy had the better of the fight, unhorsing Herman and toying with him for awhile. Eventually Guy lost his mount as well, and the two men got down to a slugging match with their swords. The sheer exhaustion involved in such an effort quickly wore out both men, who both willingly threw away their heavy shields to devote their remaining strength to the fight itself. Eventually, Iron Herman was on the ground prostrate and seemingly finished. As Guy prepared to deliver the coup de grâce, Herman saw and took a brutal path to victory. From his place on the ground, he reached up and grabbed Guy’s testicles, held on to them tight, and then shoved Guy aside without loosening his grip. With all his “lower parts broken apart,” Guy admitted defeat, an admission that saw him hanged a few hours later for his (now proven) treachery.
Indeed, what Game of Thrones fan wasn’t on the edge of his or her seat Sunday night, watching the Viper prolong the fight, wishing he would simply finish off the Mountain? The longer he kept the Mountain alive, the more chance there was of the same brutal path to victory. And thus, another fan favorite is gone.
Some have disputed the truthfulness of Galbert’s account, but I’m in agreement with Jeff Rider, who has produced a new edition of Galbert’s journal, that the duel is mostly accurate, even if influenced by literary models that portrayed savage violence almost too happily. In particular, the stark brutality of the conclusion gives the account an accuracy missing in medieval romances and poems. Certainly, it paralleled the brutal end that the Red Viper found despite his nearly flawless pursuit of personal justice.
Those literary models are the home of grand combats, much in the vein of George R.R. Martin’s fantastic descriptions. And, in many ways, the template for Clegane’s and Martell’s combat isn’t so much the historic Middle Ages as it is the fiction written in the Middle Ages.
Chretien de Troyes has Yvain and Gawain fighting anonymously for hours without stopping until night forces them to draw back. Helmets get busted wide apart, shields are shattered and plenty of blood flows.
The same violence occurs in the Song of Roland’s final combat, where Ganelon’s guilt is established when his champion Pinabel is killed by a single stroke from Thierry. We’re supposed to believe that Thierry clove the iron helmet in two and dashed out Pinabel’s brains just after receiving nearly the same damaging blow.
In the epic poem Raoul de Cambrai, things get even grittier. The protagonists Bernier and Gautier have a duel that again occupies an adrenaline-defying amount of time. They begin with a joust where Gautier pierces Bernier with his lance between his ribs. This wound doesn’t stop Bernier, however, and he returns the favor in the next pass, leaving his spear embedded in Gautier. It’s an epic poem, however, so Gautier isn’t even slowed down. Shields are again splintered into useless bits, and sparks fly from all the metallic collisions. Gautier (with a spear still stuck in his side, let’s not forget) eventually lands a monumental blow: Once again a helmet gets shattered, and Bernier loses six inches of his face, including an ear. He takes a moment to complain to God about this injury since he feels his cause is just, a sentiment that the Red Viper could doubtless commiserate with. Still he carries on, sustaining yet another horrendous blow from Gautier that removes six inches of flesh from his shoulder.
Naturally—it’s fiction—they don’t die, but eventually they are separated to prevent all the watching vassals joining the fight. The scene in A Storm of Swords has the crowd likewise pressing in, but more from excitement over a blood sport than because of any political investment. Unlike the bystanders in Westeros, some of whom become collateral damage in the heat of the duel, the quasi-fictional King Louis of France sets his men to fight at a spot protected by the Seine River. In 1386, the crowd of onlookers was cowed into silence by the threat of losing a hand.
Obviously, medieval popular literature no more reflected the realities of trial by combat than Rambo movies give us a valid picture of covert ops. Fortunately, there are other accounts from the Middle Ages that give us real events against which to measure Martin’s historical grounding.
Geoffroy of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is mostly fiction, but he presented it as history, which it was often accepted as. Writing about King Arthur’s supposed campaigns in France, Geoffroy describes a duel between Arthur and Frollo that follows many of the same thematic patterns. It ends, as we might expect by now, with Arthur killing Frollo with a single mighty stroke. What I’ve always remembered from this scene, though, is the description of Frollo’s feet drumming on the ground as he breathed his last—the kind of uncomfortable and brutal violence that has proved a hallmark of Game of Thrones.
In an actual trial by combat, though, from the mid-1150s, another detail comes very close to the combat between the Mountain and the Red Viper. King Louis VII of France finally ordered a judicial duel to solve an ongoing complaint between Stephen of Massy and the monks of Saint-Germain-des-Près. For once, everyone showed up, and the fight took place. The charter, written by one of the monks, notes that both champions gave their best, but finally “our fighter”—a nameless champion—pushed in close with lots of blows and then won by gouging out the eye of his opponent. The neutral reportage makes the scene all the more graphic and contrasts sharply with the emotional energy that surely attended the actual duel.
I spoke with Tom Leoni, a researcher and teacher of late medieval dueling techniques. Without nitpicking on the specifics of how Clegane and Martell fought, we found several fantastical elements that probably wouldn’t have been present in an actual duel.
Leoni noted that the difference in armor—the Mountain encased in plate mail, the Red Viper in a light byrnie and boiled leathers—would not have been allowed. The offensive weapons would likewise have been kept within similar bounds.
Leoni hypothesized the possibility for unequal weaponry if knights were to agree to use their full range of accepted weapons, but he stressed that he hadn’t found an actual case of this yet. Certainly, the suspicion of poison on the Viper’s spear would have seen it rejected.
Parity of combatants was more the norm. Frustrated by a suit against her convent, the abbess of Ronceray declared herself ready to throw anyone in the ring: a peasant, a commoner or a knight. When her opponents chose a blacksmith as their champion, she produced the same type of defender.
In some places, this was the law. In Lombardy, duelists were limited in the early Middle Ages to just shield and club. Later customs as to what weapons were allowed became more elaborate, but equality of armor and weapons was still the expectation. Even the mutual sharpness of the swords was legislated.
My own research into such duels finds the combatants often left unnamed, a rhetorical move doubtless meant to present the duel as a truly judicial affair and certainly not the kind of mob scene that Tyrion’s trial degenerated into.
One other aspect of justice, modern or medieval, has remained constant. Legal maneuvers impoverish some and enrich others. Tyrion had already drawn the mercenary Bronn into his service for a prior trial by combat and tried to hire him again for this one. Now a knight and a social climber, Bronn saw no profit in Tyrion’s cause. Similar hires are hard to find in the actual Middle Ages. Bruno Lemesle found only one case out of all his documents in Anjou where the defendant paid a champion for his efforts. It may well have happened, though, without being mentioned. Or in the case of many “defenders" of religious houses, they were either already on retainer or were actually extorting the protection money. Just the money involved in setting up a duel had to change hands (think of posting bail), and many religious outfits acted as safe depositories for such funds.
Admittedly, I’ve been slow to join the Game of Thrones parade. But like the inevitability of rubbernecking at a car wreck (or in this case, the death of still another Stark), the whole phenomenon has a habit of swallowing you if you pass too close by. Social media has kept me abreast of many plot twists and turns as firestorms of outrage and smugness come and go. Many academic colleagues have long been taken with the books. My students have been consistently stunned that I, a medieval military historian, haven’t already drunk deeply at the well.
Finally, I took the plunge after yet another plea that I give this “oh-so-realistic” series a try. Martin indeed delivers all the grit that I was promised. He describes violence and sex (and often, the two at once) with a directness that is an uncomfortable homage to both medieval and modern realities. For those who might want to keep the refined sensibilities of Middle-Earth in place, Martin’s historico-fantasy world is a recipe for a very upset stomach.
I’m left to wonder what Ursula K. LeGuin might make of all this. One of science fiction and fantasy’s grandes dames, she complained some 40 years ago that proper fantasy writing was being ruined by the intrusion of mundane elements. She singled out Katherine Kurtz’s first novel (a less than fair target given Kurtz’s later richness) as a disease to be resisted: namely, that if fantasy worlds and characters weren’t otherworldly enough, they failed some kind of test. Much as I admire Tolkien’s characters or am mesmerized by Moorcock’s, I’ve never bought this argument. One can blur the boundaries—literally, as Roger Zelazny or Neil Gaiman have done to such great effect—between this world and some other reality, or one can have a world like Martin’s existing well beyond our basic laws of planetary motion. Either way, it’s the author’s exploration of the human condition that counts. It’s all that has ever counted.
The interesting thing that I’ve come to appreciate isn’t whether Martin’s fiction can be measured for some kind of historicity quotient. That would be just too clear, too black and white. Since the line in the Middle Ages between fact and imagination was occasionally blurry, one has to forgive Martin if he mixes and matches likewise. Despite what Cersei may believe, there has always been a lot of middle ground.
This essay originally appeared on Longwood.edu.