June 26, 2016 in Editorial
Spoilers for Season 6 of Game of Thrones.
We never thought that a character could be quite so unlovable as Joffrey; but then along came Ramsay, with his torturing, twisted sense of humour, and dubious family dynamics. To the modern viewer Ramsay is the epitome of the worst of medieval times. But what would a medieval Englishman have thought?
If you had to list reasons to hate Ramsay, then reason #1 is that Ramsay tortures people. His house’s banner is the flayed man, and where Ramsay goes suffering follows.
When we meet the Glovers for a few minutes during the middle of episode seven, they had been helped by the Boltons to get their castle back, with no malice or anger towards the Boltons. Clearly their lands hadn’t been ravaged or people raped; so the Boltons are able to support their allies with minimal human rights abuses. The Bolton’s barbarism is only directed at their enemies. Which was, tragically, common medieval practice, because of castles and money.
Medieval warfare was not primarily about pitched battles, but was overwhelmingly focused on siege-craft. William the Conqueror for example (the Norman who showed up in 1066 and never left) was at war for most of his life, but only ever fought in two pitched battles; the rest of his time was spent attacking or defending castles. The trouble was, sieges were ruinously expensive because they lasted so long. Modern armies are hired all year round, and so it doesn’t make much difference if the soldiers are sitting in their barracks or outside someone else’s throwing rocks and babies. Medieval armies however were hired when needed, then sent away again. So if there’s no siege, then no army. With a siege, you need an army for months or years to sit outside the walls. Edward III racked up such big military debts that he had to promise not to leave Flanders without permission, and put the Crown Jewels up as collateral.
So to help reduce costs, you need to either force your enemy to come out of their castle and meet you, or intimidate them into surrendering. And both of these options involve looting, pillaging, burning and terrifying the local population. The horrible thing for the modern reader? It worked. Maybe not forever, but certainly on the order of years. When William the Conqueror took England, the North rebelled against him. He pillaged the lands so badly that people resorted to cannibalism to survive, and 20 years later the population was a quarter of what it had been. The result: The North gave no trouble. Edward III slaughtered peasants across the south of Scotland in 1356, and earned himself two decades of peace.
Killing, butchering and raping peasants was just something that happened; and a medieval would probably not particularly notice.
Aside from killing peasants then, what of Ramsay’s treatment of his captives?
This is slightly more complicated. Ramsay has high-value prisoners (Sansa but, mainly, Theon), and has them tortured. Was this just normal medieval practice?
Not even close. Peasants were fair game, as they didn’t matter. But important prisoners would be ransomed back to their families for huge sums of money, and this was the main way in which medieval warfare could be profitable for the victor. (If you capture a king, then the ransom could be multiples of the annual income of the realm).
There were, of course, exceptions. Sometimes someone valuable is in your hands because they’re a hostage. For example, defenders of a castle might say “we will surrender in three months, unless someone arrives with a relief army by then” and would hand over hostages when the deal was made. If the defenders broke their truce, then these hostages would be executed. Edward III hanged a boy, Thomas Seton, in front of the boy’s father outside Berwick castle for example, for just such a reason.
The torture or murder of a captive however, particularly by someone of royal status, was extremely rare. King John tried to have a captive (the teenage Arthur of Britanny) blinded and castrated; the jailer refused the order, and John’s subsequent murder of Arthur made John into a pariah, and may well have lost France for John.
This isn’t to say that torture didn’t happen. After all, Edward I invented hanging, drawing and quartering. But this was done in public, after a trial. After Magna Carta, the English were guaranteed protection of life and limb until proven guilty.
Which brings us to what many viewers might have thought was a common medieval scene; family members killing each other to take the throne, as Ramsay did with his father. However, in England at least, a son never killed his father to take the throne. Family feuds did happen: William the Conqueror’s own son Robert rebelled against him, and so William laid siege to the castle. During a combat in the siege, William’s horse got shot from under him. Robert then gave his dad a horse to escape on.
Peasants died fighting William, but when Robert had William at his mercy, he let him go (while all around, knights and peasants fought and died).
Overall then? Ramsay’s pillaging and widespread “casual” torture of civilians would have barely registered with the medieval. His torture of Theon would have been outrageous and despicable, and the murder of his own father unforgiveable. He would most likely have been remembered like King John. Cruel, with the occasional streak of military brilliance, but overall unfit for rule.
References and suggested reading:
The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation, Ian Mortimer (2006)
The Norman Conquest, Marc Morris (2012)
The Plantagenets, Dan Jones (2012)
A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, Marc Morris (2008)
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