Studying the Iron Throne

Historian Alexandre Dubé shares parallels and predictions for the hit series "Game of Thrones," based on the past.

It’s the show people can’t stop talking about, and even if you don’t watch it—or haven’t read the original book series by George R. R. Martin—you’ve probably had people try to convince you to give HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones a try. In the history classroom at Washington University, assistant professor Alexandre Dubé is capitalizing on the phenomenon.

Alexandre Dubé
Alexandre Dubé

“Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones is that it subverts expectations of fantasy novels because the heroes can die. I think that brings students and readers closer to history,” says Dubé, “It puts you back in the mindset of the people who are in the midst of political crisis in 1650 or 1720. They don't know if they will die. They don’t know if they’re the hero. Game of Thrones, by killing off even the characters you feel some affinity to, restores some of that uncertainty, which I think is key to understanding history. Or at least, gives us the empathy and imagination to make us better historians.”

Dubé first read the book series to relax and distract himself after finishing his doctoral dissertation several years ago. However, his own research focuses on the politics of the Atlantic world before democracy swept through, so “it didn't really distract me from any of the themes I usually work on, but it was quick reading nonetheless,” he laughs. “I think the first couple of volumes are well-written and certainly well-researched, and I appreciated that.”

At first though, it was not his choice to bring the series into the classroom. Before he joined Washington University, Dubé taught a course called “Violence and Politics in Early Modern Europe” at McMaster University in Canada, and he noticed that whatever scenario or figure in history he discussed, students were quick to volunteer parallels with Game of Thrones plots and characters.

“I've come to realize that if you're teaching non-modern history, prior to the 19th century, or about events and topics that have very little presence in popular media, students are a little fearful of taking those classes. They have no reference for them,” he says. “Game of Thrones does that first step of making the topic something familiar and something that they know they enjoy. It’s my job then to scratch the surface and reveal the mechanism that animates the plot of the novel, and it's not too far-fetched to use that to study history.”

So what are some obvious parallels in history? What predictions can we make for the seventh season, which just premiered on HBO on July 16 and goes beyond the plot of the original book series? Dubé shares his thoughts.

A Throne in Contention

“The War of the Roses is clearly an inspiration for the plot, and it’s the most accessible form of dynastic struggle especially for an Anglophone audience,” Dubé says. The war was fought by the houses of York and Lancaster before the Tudors swept in to claim victory, and Martin writes about the houses of Stark and Lannister—pretty similar, huh? “So the setup at least is clearly derived from the War of the Roses,” Dubé says, “as well as the preoccupations with questions of matrimony, dynasties, lineages, legitimacy, that are central to both.”

However, these issues were hardly unique to England. During the French Wars of Religion, the houses of Valois, Lorraine, Burgundy, and Bourbon fought it out to control the throne. In Spain, the Trastamara family, reigning over Castille and the Aragon, fought for power for decades. Dubé says, “These dynastic struggles stem from rival claims to the throne that coexist with weaker claims to the throne. Having a kid inherit the throne, having a lineage die out, or having a woman be the legitimate inheritor of the throne are all considered moments of weakness in succession. That's usually when opposition starts rising up, or when kings are incapacitated in some ways.”

And the brutal and shocking Red Wedding? Try the Black Dinner. “It’s an episode from Scottish history, where the older advisers of the king of Scotland devised this big celebratory feast in order to arrest and then kill the king’s rivals. So again a setup that is quite similar to what you see in this series,” says Dubé.

To hear more about how our understanding of power and violence have fundamentally changed since the early modern period, tune in to hear from Dubé on the Hold That Thought podcast.

“Bastards are incredibly useful because you don't know, your dynasty might be wiped out."

Useful Bastards

Portrait of Antoine, bastard of Burgundy (1421–1504), by Hans Memling
Portrait of Antoine, bastard of Burgundy (1421–1504), by Hans Memling

Jon Snow, Ramsay Bolton, there is no shortage of bastards in Game of Thrones, and though the word has a negative connotation today, being a bastard—the illegitimate child of a king—wasn’t always a bad thing. In the 15th century, you’d often hold a position of power and have influence in the court. “People would recognize your status, and you would be called a bastard to your face,” says Dubé. “One of my favorites is the Big Bastard of Burgundy, or Anthony, le grand bâtard de Burgundy, who was a son of Phillip III and was highly trusted by his father to do all sorts of work, including the dirty work that he would not ask his legitimate children to do.”

“Bastards are incredibly useful because you don't know, your dynasty might be wiped out. If you really want to ensure that it survives, your bastard may be recognized,” Dubé explains. However, as the Catholic church consolidated its power in the 16th century, there was an increasing rigidity around what constituted a legitimate marriage—and a legitimate heir.

“Getting married in the church meant that the marriage would be recognized by state authorities, which reinforces, first of all, the power of the husband, and second, the necessity of legitimacy. So bastards are increasingly marginalized as time goes on,” says Dubé. “I've posited in the class that what Game of Thrones represents is not really a typical Middle Ages. It's more of an early modern society with a lot more travel, more urban centers, a lot of commercial exchanges, so that's why I'm locating it in that 15th- to the 17th-century time period.”

Women As Written By Men

Catherine de Medici, queen of France
Catherine de Medici, queen of France

“This is something both Game of Thrones and historical record have in common,” Dubé says. “It's women as written by men, and I think it’s important we talk about them that way. We interrogate how the portrayal of women is conditioned by certain expectations from the clerics, monks, and thinkers who write about them. They all had very strong opinions about women and their place in the political setting of their time.” Often this perspective limited women to being the object of men’s desires, or a way for a man to make a power play through marriage, rather than agents of their own.

Of course, some women, like Cersei Lannister and her historical counterpart Catherine de’ Medici, found ways to take what power they could and were widely villainized for doing so. Both queens gained a lot of power to ensure the success and future of their dynasty, but then watched their sons die, one by one, and were confronted with the potential end of the dynasty. “Catherine de’ Medici was an amazing political animal and a person who had to navigate extremely dangerous situations, where she could have died many, many times,” says Dubé. “Louise of Savoy, the mother of Francis I, King of France, also used all the means at her disposal to get her way.”

Other female characters in Game of Thrones are able to break free of their constrictions entirely, and Dubé is quick to point out that the show makes more allowances for this than history. “You have a lot of strong characters like Brienne of Tarth or the Queen of Thorns, but even these draw from historical tropes. That's how they gain their power for us, even centuries later. So the idea that certain female characters are more recognizable because of the ways in which men wrote them in the 16th-century is pretty disturbing. But I think it's something we need to confront.”

“I don't think Daenerys will come back to create the United States of Westeros."

Predictions from History

Given that Martin has drawn so much from the historical record, does the past hold clues for what comes next?

“Now that the show is further than the books and magic has taken more of a role with, like, people being brought back to life—it's harder for me to say,” Dubé says. “I don't think Daenerys will come back to create the United States of Westeros. From the historical record, the way out of both the War of the Roses and the French Wars of Religion was a much stronger, absolute monarchy. After so much chaos and war, societies typically fell back on the idea that states should be strong, should quash dissent, and should be centered around a king, who is different from the other nobles.”

“Part of the reason why the nobles can dissent in Game of Thrones is because they see themselves as equals,” Dubé says, “and the Targaryens are announcing the sacred monarchy, the idea that there's a magical, holy quality to the ruler. So I think Daenerys is coming back to Westeros, and she'll bring advisors and remnants from the other big families together, with Tyrion and probably Jon Snow, who will realize he’s been Targaryen all along. They will form an authoritarian state.”

But this is just an educated guess. What’s the only prediction Dubé would bet on?

“Petyr Baelish is going to die. If he is indeed drawn from all these ambitious advisers like Thomas Cromwell—and he seems to be—well, Thomas Cromwell dies. He’s beheaded. So that's the strongest prediction I can make. But who knows? He might be coming back as a zombie. So that's my very little prediction.”

Leave a Comment:


Well done. I liked this article very much. I'm not so sure Baelish is going to die. He's extremely sneaky!