Matters medieval have been on my mind a lot recently, for several reasons:
1) As a historian (who specialises in the Middle Ages) I have an ingrained inclination to connect past and present events.
2) I am writing a magazine article about contemporary couturiers’ fascination with the Middle Ages; Vivienne Westwood’s Paris show revealed that next season’s couture is not all about the Jazz Age.
3) Catching up with my London Review of Books subscription, I read John Lanchester’s article about George R.R. Martin’s writing.[i] Like many others, I am now (becoming) addicted to Game of Thrones (despite the fact that characterisation and plotlines are far from novel – [spoiler alert] Lanchester highlights Jaime Lannister’s attempted murder of Bran Stark at the end of the first episode of season one as an audience grabber, or ‘hook’. I don’t disagree, but the vulnerability-of-innocents topos has been around since at least 1975, when it was used to brilliant effect in Jaws. Medieval aristos pushing people from towers is not uncommon, either; think Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Braveheart (1995).)
Solace in the Seven Kingdoms
Lanchester’s article tries to place people’s fascination with Game of Thrones, as relatively few readers engage with Science Fiction and Fantasy and are disinclined to acknowledge the fact if they do. He suggests that one of the reasons why audiences are flocking to Westeros each week is to find a sense of security that the ‘debt crisis’ and ‘double-dip’ recession has taken from them. We identify with the people of the seven kingdoms who fear that ‘Winter is coming’, as for us it possibly already has. We share the characters’ anxieties about the present and future. Lanchester could have gone further. Our economic ennui probably makes us more inclined to accept, and embrace, Game of Thrones‘ monochrome morality. The notion that Westerosian justice is black and white appears simple and consequently sensible. Far better a society in which transgressive actions warrant a direct and proportional, if invariably violent, response because of the presence of a social code that values honour and loyalty, than our judicial reality, rendered in a myriad shades of grey, which appears to allow all manner of ne’er do wells to abscond with bonuses and payouts, their culpability widely acknowledged and their innocence unsatisfactorily unproven.
John Lanchester and Game of Thrones do not refer to it, but the Wheel of Fortune underpins many of the plotlines in the programme. During the medieval period, various allegories were invoked to explain the vagaries and challenges of life to a theocentric and pre-literate society; few were more popular than the Wheel of Fortune, controlled by the capricious goddess Fortuna.[ii] The Christian church had attempted to denigrate the pagan goddess, but her iconography and explanatory formulae – typically: regno (I rule), regnavi (I have ruled), sum sine regno (I do not rule), regnabo (I shall rule) – endured.[iii] A sixth-century academic text, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, guaranteed Fortuna’s longevity through compromise.[iv] The goddess retained control of her wheel, but she became subordinated to God.
If the original allegory explained how people’s lives would encounter highs and endure lows, the Christianised version seemed to promise more. It emphasised how hardships could be mitigated, or at least minimised, if people followed a life of devotion and sobriety. Good Christian living was the necessary counter to Fortuna’s scheming and malevolence. It was not a coincidence that these dastardly character traits were associated with a woman and that the hapless spinning victim, whom Fortuna helped or hindered as the fancy took her, was always a man. Women were viewed with suspicion throughout the Middle Ages. Many stories, contemporary and classical, revealed how women foiled various men who had thought to trust them. The Wheel of Fortune therefore reveals much about the attitudes and beliefs of medieval west. Curiously enough, it strikes me that the Wheel is an equally appropriate device to demonstrate contemporary attitudes and beliefs about the evolving roles of men and women.
The Wheel Keeps on Turning
The economic crisis damaged the credibility of Man at a time when His societal role was already under intense scrutiny.[v] In 2004, the acerbic and irreverent Nelly McKay satirised the plight of Man in her song It’s A Pose, of which the following lyrics give a particularly good flavour:
Sammy, oh let me put away the kettle
Oh, no honey
Your arrogance is what makes you special.
And Manny, of course
When you leave you are missed.
Fellas can’t you see I’m pissed.
Tryin’ to enjoy my readin’
But you insist on interpretin’ text
Oh go on fuck off I’m pleadin’.
Every sentence is a pretext for sex sex sex sex
God you went to Oxford
Head still in your boxers
But you’re male so what should I expect?
“What the hell do you mean?”
Well for instance,
You’ve committed every rape.
“And what else?”
I won’t heed your insistence
Mr copulatin’, populatin’, masturbatin’, denigratin’,
Birth of a Nation instigatin’, violator of my escape.
But hey, hey, hey, that ain’t nothin’ to do with you.
You’re a sensitive Joe, I’m forgettin’.
But every woman knows,
It’s a pose, just a pose.
The world’s your ho
But she’s getting’ too old
For your pose.
Oh, there she goes.
The barrage continued. In 2010, Hanna Rosin wrote about the End of Men.[vi] She postulated that Man is ill suited to a postindustrial society, which is ‘indifferent to [His] size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.’[vii] Rosin’s argument has been pursued further by ‘social strategist’ John Gerzema and journalist Michael D’Antonio in their new book, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. The authors argue that traits typically associated with women (flexibility, sincerity, adaptability, cooperation) are preferred to those more commonly associated with men (aggression, rigidity, ambition, selfishness). It follows, they suggest, that future commercial success will preference women, or men who learn how to act like them.[viii] Gerzema and D’Antonio’s book has yet to be published, but some critics have already expressed doubts about their findings. Treating of the same topic, but working along different lines, Alison Wolf’s recent book, The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society, quashes a number of gender-based myths, but suggests that women will retain their child-rearing responsibilities and not achieve gender equality ‘at the very top of [their] profession[s].’[ix]
The media coverage that followed in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death last month reveals how difficult it is to comment on gender roles, let alone predict how the relationship between men and women will evolve. Whatever side of the political fence people stand, many admired Thatcher for her inimitable adoption of male traits; the verb to ‘hand bag’, recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary, demonstrates how the Iron Lady was able to be simultaneously feminine and, very aggressively, masculine.[x] The Girls’ Schools Association appear to take the view that a pick n’ mix approach to gender characteristics is the most advantageous route to career success. They have endorsed an initiative that will give girls from private schools the opportunity to network and deliver after dinner speeches. It is hoped that this training will put women on a par with men, who seem to possess an innate ability to banter and schmooze.[xi] But the sharing goes both ways. The various clothing trends that men have experimented with so far this year, from pocket squares and boutonnières, to subtly manicured facial hair and elbow patches, suggests they are cognizant of the direction in which societal winds are blowing and using their dress to effect a look of effeminised masculinity. Up to a point.
The Manly Metrosexual?
Nobody warmed to the ‘New Man’ and the concept of a ‘New Lad’ had no traction. At some point in the late nineties, the ‘Metrosexual Man’ seemed omnipresent, but he proved to be the most problematic of them all.[xii] Men have never liked to talk about their gender and they baulk at being addressed in gendered terms.[xiii] But this does not mean that they are unaware of their masculinity/ies, as numerous street-style photographs attest. Presently, men seem to be renegotiating their gendered roles through experimentation in dress by incorporating elements that are at once perceived as gentle, even effete, and assertive and aggressive. At times, men’s progress falters, for this is very much a Brave New World, but a discernible theme does seem to be apparent, and it is broadly in line with Rosin, Gerzema and D’Antonio’s theses: if Modern Man is to be a tenable proposition, he needs to demonstrate a secure grasp of own his masculinity by adopting and demonstrating traits more commonly associated with the opposite sex. This position is a far cry from the Middle Ages and would have little place in Westeros – [spoiler alert] before ordering the execution of Eddard Stark, Boy-King Joffrey rebukes his prospective bride and mother, who sought mercy, for appearing soft.
Fortuna’s Wheel for the Twenty-First Century
To illustrate this, I have produced my own twenty-first century Wheel of Fortune (below). The goddess Fortuna is dressed, appropriately, in Vivienne Westwood’s medieval-inspired A/W 2013 couture. The Ruling Man wears accessories that suggest he is kind, sensitive, gentle and obliging, to highlight the favoured feminine traits identified by The Sunday Times. But he also has facial hair – albeit subtly sculpted – and a cigar, to demonstrate that he has not forsaken his manhood (though note how forced this signifier seems). The Man whom he has displaced, who tumbles down the Wheel, is the epitome of the ‘Yuppie Fuck’, to borrow lyrics from another Nellie McKay song. The striped shirt with contrasting white collars and cuffs is the epitome of banker chic and is still widely frowned up. For what it’s worth, I rather like this style of shirt. The Fallen Man, at the bottom of the Wheel, is necessarily naked. As Mark Twain observed, naked people rarely influence society (in the West). The Social Climber has adopted some of the sartorial choices of Ruling Man, but desirous to succeed, he still displays some of the more aggressive manly characteristics, career-orientated, ambition, focus, directness. He is therefore still wedded to his suit, although it does have short trousers à la Thom Browne.
This revised Wheel of Fortune presents a very different view of society from the Middle Ages, it is as though Fortuna’s wheel has been turned inside out. The people of Westeros would not identify with it, or accept it. On reflection, this could be another reason why Game of Thrones has proved so popular; for it reminds us of a time when societal values and positions seemed unassailable and immutable. Presently, societal positions and gender roles are complex and confused, no doubt because we sense that Winter has come.
[i] J. Lanchester, ‘When did you get hooked?’, London Review of Books (11 April, 2013), 20-22.
[ii] A. Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978), 83-4.
[iii] H.R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1925), 165.
[iv] Ibid., 17-18.
[v] B.L. Wild, ‘Light Up! Cigars & Man’s Self Esteem’ (22 April, 2013): http://linleywild.com/2013/04/22/light-up-cigars-mans-self-esteem; idem, ‘They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore: The Style & Symbolism of Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper & Cary Grant’, (12 March, 2013): http://linleywild.com/2013/03/12/they-dont-make-them-like-that-anymore.
[vi] H. Rosin, ‘The End of Men’, Atlantic Magazine (July/August, 2010). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/. Accessed: 16-ij-2013; eadem, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women (London, 2012).
[vii] Rosin, ‘The End of Men’.
[viii] F. Angelini & J. Gillespie, ‘By George, he’s got it!’, The Sunday Times (5 May, 2013), 20.
[ix] L. Gratton, ‘Make room at the top’, Financial Times (4/5 May, 2013), 8.
[x] V. Friedman, ‘An image cast in iron’, Financial Times (13/14 April, 2013), 4.
[xi] S. Griffiths, ‘How to get ahead in banqueting’, The Sunday Times (5 May, 2013), 3.
[xii] M. Tungate, Branded Male: Marketing to Men (London, 2008), 1-10.
[xiii] J. Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London, 1993),193-94; C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 214-15.