The Evolution of Arthurian and Medieval Romances

GOT Arthurian literature comparison collage v1b

Nowadays people complain that Game of Thrones, The Shannara Chronicles or any other modern dark fantasy is too violent. ‘Everything on TV is too violent.’ And then they go Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons: ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ But did you know that there was a plenty of violence in all the medieval romances where George R.R. Martin, Terry Brooks and countless other fantasy authors have taken inspiration from?

sir gawain and the green knight iii
This medieval drawing depicts a scene from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where Sir Gawain uses the latter’s axe to cut off his head. The Green knight’s head speaks a prophecy before the (now) headless horseman rides off.

We think that this is something recent. That authors in the good old days did not shock their audiences with vivid descriptions of brains splattered all over the stony ground (or wherever it was they did battle), and depraved carnal acts.
They knew better than that!

Well, boys and girls, that’s not how it went down. That is how the late 18th and 19th century writers would want you to believe (and some contemporary novelists) but in reality, medieval romances were filled with carnage and sex.

Just read Le MorteD’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, written at a time when England was embroiled in a violent civil war and you will see what I am talking about. Or better yet, read Chretien de Troyes. You do not have to go through all of his poem, just pick one at random dealing with the legend of King Arthur, and you will see nothing romantic about this legend. That is because our concept of romance is VERY DIFFERENT from what the medieval people saw as romance.

The more I revisit medieval romances, the more I fall in love with them (all over again). They are gory, sadder, than anything written recently. In a way, they were trying to copy their predecessors, Greek and Roman writers.

chretien de troyes
Chretien de Troyes

The way that Chretien, Sir Thomas Mallory, and several other medieval authors portrayed these legendary figures left a lot to be desired. And I do not mean this in a bad way. Arthur was a flawed character, his knights were less than perfect. Whoever wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” perfectly shows this. Sir Gawain sleeps with the Green Knight and (spoilers) after finding out that it was all a trap by the magical Green Knight (whom he previously chopped his head off), he gets angry but his anger turns to regret as he begs his opponent to absolve him.

Chivalry was one of the core tenets of medieval society. People aspired to be greater than their ordinary selves. This code of conduct was reserved for the rich, and only a select class of rich people. Aristocrats, Kings, and Queens, were seen as the moral arbiters of society. They were held to a higher standard than anyone else, people lived and died by their example.
But we are all human; we make mistakes. Some people learn from their mistakes, others refuse to accept any responsibility and continue to make them.
The Arthurian characters erred many times. Most of them picked themselves up and did their best to rectify their mistakes by becoming better people starting with them admitting they had done something wrong.

Arthur death Edward_Burne-Jones.The_last_sleep_of_Arthur

What the 18th and 19th century monarchs were smarter than their predecessors was in their approach to these figures. Rather than aspiring to live up to their example, they took a step back, read between the lives, examined their lives and used their failures as a way to reinforce their moral codes unto society.
What Victorians ended up getting was a morality play set in a pristine place that was ruined by human vice.

A Yankee in king arthur's court book cover

Out of all the writers of this era, the only one that didn’t follow this formula was Mark Twain with his science fantasy novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ Originally intended to be satire, the author’s brutal depiction of the medieval era and use of sarcasm is truer to the medieval romances that popularized this legend than anything his contemporary Victorians wrote.

Gone was the sex and violence and acts that were too much for the Victorians to handle. Gone was also the political commentary. Some scholars believe that Sir Thomas Mallory used the Arthurian legend to criticize the two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty that had plunged England into a bloody dynastic civil war that lasted over three decades.
Victorian writers did not want their audience to read between the lines. It was okay if aristocrats did it with older version of the novels that depicted a cruder and less civilized age, but not for the common populace who wanted something different (and far less complicated).

The end result is the medieval era as the new protagonist of Arthurian lore. An Eden-like setting filled with magic and beauty; the ideal place to escape.
This formula became so successful that it is still employed in TV, movies and other pop culture mediums.
To loosely quote what the character Fry from Futurama said, people do not want to be reminded of their dreary existence. They want to be spoon-fed the same old tired formula because otherwise, they will get confused or scared.


The Sweating Sickness & Greyscale

Sweating sickness GOT

There is great book by Claire Ridgway that I recommend if you are new to the Tudor era or just new to some of the diseases that were plaguing the population during that time. The sweating sickness is by far one of the greatest mysteries of the Tudor era because no one knows exactly how it originated, although many scientists and medical historians have a good idea given some of the contemporary records.

“A remarkable form of disease, not known in England before, attracted attention at the very beginning of the reign of Henry VII.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

“It was referred to by many different names, including the Sweat, the Sudor Anglicus or English Sweat, the Swat, Stup-Gallant, Stoupe Knave and Know thy Master, Sweating Sickness and the New Acquainance.”(Ridgway, Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell)

Claire Ridgway makes the distinction that she is not a doctor but has done a great deal of research on this topic (and she has also made a video on this topic which is a shorter version of the book) and has come to several conclusions, the main one being that this disease could have been the result of several things, including lack of hygiene in universities, homes and other places.

“Erasmus, in a letter to Francis, physician to the Cardinal of York, wrote of how English houses were not constructed to make a through-draft possible and that their rush floors were unhygienic because sometimes they were not renewed for around twenty years and so they allowed “spittle, vomit, dog’s urine and men’s too, dregs of beer and cast-off bits of fish, and other unspeakable kinds of filth” to fester.  Oothers blamed the damp, foggy English climate and Caius mentioned flooding: “rot in the groundes after great flouddes, in carions, & in dead men”, but these factors are unlikely to have caused such an epidemic.” (Ridgway, Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell)

She goes on to elaborate on other possible factors such as this being a new strain of influenza or a combination of various factors that made it possible for this to spread so fast and kill so effectively.


One thing she does dispel is that this was NOT brought over by Henry’s soldiers. This is something that is still perpetuated in some novels and while it makes for entertaining read, it is simply false. There are records of the disease before Henry and his army of mercenaries, disaffected Edwardian Yorkists and staunch Lancastrians landed on Milford Haven. In fact, one such account that she gives more details about in her book reads as follows:

“The disease was obviously known in England before the Battle of Bosworth because, according to the Croyland Chronicle, when Richard III called on Thomas Stanley to travel from his home in Lancashire to Nottingham, after news of Henry Tudor’s landing had broken, Stanley “made an excuse that he was suffering from an attack of the sweating sickness, and could not possibly come”. It appears therefore, that Henry Tudor and his forces cannot be blamed for its introduction.”

Sweating sickness death lament

The Luminarium project website has an article on this subject that is straight from the Encyclopedia Britannica, third edition that dates back to 1910, leaving it clear that the disease hadn’t been brought to England by Henry’s soldiers but that it was already native to England.

Sweating sickness dance of death
“It was known indeed a few days after the landing of Henry at Milford Haven on the 7th of August 1485, as there is clear evidence of its being spoken of before the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd of August. Soon after the arrival of Henry in London on the 28th of August it broke out in the capital, and caused great mortality. This alarming malady soon became known as the sweating-sickness.”

The symptoms according to Thomas Forrestier, a French physician, who lived in London and wrote a treatise on the disease, were the following:

  1. “A great sweating and stinking.”
  2. Redness of the face and body.
  3. Unquenchable thirst
  4. Headaches
  5. High fever
  6. Breathlessness

English physician John Caius was more detailed in his description of the disease, adding that the muscular pain would be accompanied by redness, abdominal pain, cardiac palpitations and dizziness.

Jorah greyscale

Game of Thrones, being partly based on the wars of the roses and the era after it, has sided with many novelists by having Ser Jorah on the show and Young Griffin’s (fake Aegon –sorry guys but I don’t think he is the real deal) guardian in the books be the ones that bring a horrible disease back to Westeros.

The show and books could surprise us by having these two characters finding some sort of miracle cure that stops it from spreading –sort of like what happened to Shireen- but it is unlikely. And it might be that the Stonemen’s disease or Greyscale, be Martin’s version of the sweating sickness in Westeros.

This would certainly make things difficult for Dany. The sweating sickness certainly did for Henry as it prevented him from going to certain places, or traveling alongside his wife years afterward. The sweating sickness was more deadly on England, killing many people and making no distinction between rich and poor.

Henry VII’s surviving son and heir, Henry VIII, could have come this close never to marrying Anne Boleyn because she happened to be one of the victims of this sickness. Thankfully for her and her family, she recovered. Other members of the nobility and the royal family weren’t so lucky. Take the Brandons for example. Charles Brandon’s last wife, Catherine Willoughby gave him two sons who survived infancy but didn’t live beyond that. During the reign of Edward VI they died, leaving the poor Duchess devastated.

The sweating sickness would go on to hit again with the last recorded incident in 1652 in Leipzig. This new variant of the disease would also be seen in other parts of the globe such as in France, Spain in Holland during the nineteenth century.

There were many attempts to cure it or control it with Henry VIII, who like his paternal grandmother, had a fascination with the natural world, keeping a detailed journal where he came up with several tonics and remedies to combat this disease.

game-of-thrones Shireen side face

In Game of Thrones we aren’t given a full explanation as to how Shireen’s father managed to stop the disease from spreading. Season five just reveals that Stannis hired every physician and magician from across the known world to come to Dragonstone so they could stop the disease from taking over and transforming her into one of the hideous creatures we saw that reside in Old Valyria. Like lepers in the ancient and medieval world, Stannis was advised to send his daughter away to live the rest of her life among the other people infected but he chose not to because he was convinced that she could be saved. It could have been a combination of his obstinacy (because Stannis is a proud man) and his love for his daughter that prevented him from making a poor decision that would see his only heir being sent to live the rest of her days as an animal. (Unfortunately, he would go on to make a worse mistake when he listened to Melisandre, and sacrificed her, believing that Shireen’s death would bring him victory.)
Daenerys sends Jorah away to find a cure. Some fans believe that Jorah will find himself back to the Quaithe, the mysterious masked figure viewers were introduced to in season 2 and whom book readers have long speculated about since we were introduced to her in ‘A Clash of Kings’. The first trailer for season 7 shows us as a disgusting looking arm with ridges, dried up blood and stone looking skin which leads us to believe it is Jorah and that maybe (like Shireen) he has found a way to stop the disease from spreading or that he hasn’t and like the rumors surrounding Henry’s men bringing the sweating sickness to England, he will bring a deadlier strain of the disease to Westeros, causing more deaths and more additions to the army of the undead.


  • Ridgway, Claire. The Sweating Sickness: In a Nushell. Made Global. 2014.
  • Lisle, Leanda. Tudor: Passion. Murder. Manipulation: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
  • “What was sweating sickness?” YouTube, uploaded by The Anne Boleyn Files, 5 May 2014,
  • “English Sweating Sickness.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th, 1910

“Wolf Hall” Accurate?

Those in the UK will be lucky to see the new mini-series adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, this January. For those of us in America, we will have to wait until April when it’s aired on PBS. In spite of the long wait. Let’s review on the accuracy of this show.

So we have no cod-pieces because they thought American audiences, or others for that matter, would squirm at it. Okay BBC, first of all, not all of us in America are ignorant about cod-pieces or the fact that they are not sexual in any way. But anyways, refraining myself from an upcoming rant I will go to the most important points of this article: Accuracy. And how does Wolf Hall score in this respect?

If I could give it a score from 0 to 100 based on the photographs and articles I have seen written of it, as well as historians weighing in on it , I would give it a 90. (Yes not a 100 because of the lack of cod-pieces.)

To be honest, it was about time we had a series that other from being entertaining and being a Glee-style travesty of history, invested its big budget on accuracy. “The Tudors” was entertaining, many people liked it (myself included) but it was not accurate. Not by a long shot. In terms of acting it was great, new talent was discovered, young actors got their careers bolstered and I am glad. But the series missed a lot of good points such as Henry VIII’s two sisters that got merged into one because apparently Hirst believed we (the audience) would be too stupid to distinguish from the many Marys on the show. Hilary Mantel thankfully is not making the same mistake. And neither does the production team behind “Wolf Hall”.

There has been an intricate attention to detail, from costuming to the way people  acted or were attended by their ladies. in this scene where Anne Boleyn is about to be crowned; she is not just about to be crowned in the traditional sense as we’ve seen on TV. But the complete ritual is about to be displayed.

Anne Boleyn's Coronation from "Wolf Hall" (2015)
Anne Boleyn’s Coronation from “Wolf Hall” (2015)

She sits in the chair, crowned with a beautiful white dress and is visibly pregnant. She holds the scepter and the rod and on her forehead is none other than the heavy crown of St. Edward. Let’s remember this because it is very important! Anne was not crowned as her predecessor was with the traditional crown worn by Queen Consorts. She was crowned with the crown of St. Edward. Henry wanted to make a powerful political statement that this Queen was not only going to be his true queen and his true wife but that their heir that was nestling safely in her womb would be his undoubted successor.

Secondly, before she even reaches the chair she has to complete the long ritual of prostrating herself before the altar. For this, it had to be a complete ordeal for Claire Foy who was wearing a baby bump to simulate Anne’s real pregnancy.  Lucy Worsley gave her advice how to accomplish this:

Anne Boleyn accurately prostrates herself before the altar, before sitting on the chair and being crowned. This ritual has not been depicted in the latest historical dramas.
Anne Boleyn accurately prostrates herself before the altar, before sitting on the chair and being crowned. This ritual has not been depicted in the latest historical dramas.

“Foy reveals that the ‘baby bump’ is uncomfortable under her costume, and isn’t sure how to ‘prostrate’ herself to the ground before the altar. With his customary attention to detail, director Peter Kosminsky asks me, as a historian, how she should do it. We agree that two of Anne’s ladies in waiting should help their pregnant mistress down to the floor.”

After the Mass ended, she made her way to Whitehall where a banquet was held in her honor. Upon her arrival the heralds cried:

“Now the noble Anna bears the sacred diadem.”

Anne’s victory was nearly complete. now all she needed was to give birth to a son. Anne was visibly pregnant during the ceremony, some whispered she had conceived before their marriage in January of that year (some historians place it before or after, depending on what sources they are using). This ceremony was significant because it guaranteed Anne’s place next to Henry and their offspring’ legitimacy.

In spite of all of this; there are some things that the series missed and this is that it will keep perpetuating the ‘dark Spaniard’ myth that all Spaniards are dark-haired- dark-eyed, etc.

Now the actress portraying Katherine of Aragon is not black-haired as Irene Papas in the “Anne of a Thousand Days” movies but she wears too much make up that makes her look too old and she looks very thin.
Katherine of Aragon had grown plumper as her predecessor, her mother in law Elizabeth of York had. The series of miscarriages and tragedies she had suffered -and the added stress- made her lose her figure but by no means did she look *that* old. Secondly, it was Anne who was dark-haired and dark-eyed and had olive skin and Katherine who was red-haired and with fair skin and blue eyes. Joanna Whalley by contrast is fair skinned, but her hair is not red enough and her eyes are dark brown, but at the same time she is shown wearing gable hoods and wearing the color purple which is very important if we want to talk about accurate costuming. Tudor society was very elitist. Everyone was put into boxes, or categorized according to their wealth and lineage. Thomas Cromwell and his family wear very sober colors, they have a lot of material artifacts thanks to the social mobility experienced during this period; but this doesn’t change the fact that they are still part of the middle class and not the elite. Royals, as they were above everyone else would wear specific colors. Purple was one of them.

Wolf Hall's Katherine of Aragon (played by Joanne Whalley) looking older in the second picture, once again perpetuates the Spanish stereotype. Although she is younger in the first episode, wearing the color purple and a gable hood as the ones she wore in the portraits of her; she still doesn't fit the mold of Katherine. Katherine was red haired -a fact that is mentioned in the episode when Wolsey remarks to Cromwell how "beautiful" she was and "how she dances, that red hair"- with blue eyes. This Katherine's red hair has lost its shine, but her eyes are dark brown.
Wolf Hall’s Katherine of Aragon (played by Joanne Whalley) looking older in the second picture, once again perpetuates the Spanish stereotype. Although she is younger in the first episode, and wears the color purple and a gable hood; she still doesn’t fit the mold of Katherine. Katherine was red haired -a fact that is mentioned in the episode when Wolsey remarks to Cromwell how “beautiful” she was and “how she dances, that red hair”- with blue eyes. This Katherine’s red hair has lost its shine, but her eyes are dark brown.

But I guess, like with Katherine of Aragon, we can’t have it all can we?

Nonetheless, the production looks very good, the clothes are very accurate, the hoods, the castles -the way they are decorated-, and everything else in general looks spectacular and I, as many history buffs, will be looking forward to this production when it hits the States in April.