Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 2: on marriage and Sansa

So, Game of Thrones, am I right?  (I am.)  Oh, what is that, you are unsettled by marital rape?  Excellent, that means you are not a worthless human being.  Sadly, however, I’m going to welcome you to marriage in the medieval period, my friends.
OK, OK, let’s back it up.  Perhaps when you think about marriage in the medieval period you’re all like …


Yeah, but no.  The thing about chivalric or courtly love is that it was a construct that has nothing to do with people actually being married.  Wait, no, it has a lot to do with people being married, but the people in love were never married.
When you think about courtly love who do you name?  Probably Guinevere and Lancelot, no? Yeah think about who was married there.

I’ll give you a minute.


Now here’s the thing – marriage in the medieval period was not about love.  Really really it was not.  Instead it was about the getting of heirs, and establishing links between households.  If you happened to not want to die every time you looked at your spouse then – congratulations!  You had really hit the jackpot there.  Otherwise you sat there and procreated.

What it breaks down to is that there’s this thing called primogeniture.  That’s when the first son gets to inherit everything.   In the earliest medieval period this was not so much a thing, but by the High and Late medieval period it was in full swing.  So basically if you aren’t a first born son, you’re not going to be inheriting anything.  Moreover, if you are a first born son, you need to wait until your dad kicks the bucket to actually inherit, so it might be a while before you actually get hitched.

So, say you ARE a first born son, your dad finally dies in your thirties, and you get married.  You’re probably going to marry a fairly young girl to up your chances of multiple viable heirs.  (Remember, infant mortality is super super high at the time.)  So now you have married a sixteen year old girl, and you’re twice her age.  To be clear, that means the average marriage is looking a lot more like this than otherwise.

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Maybe, just maybe, that sixteen year old is not going to want to get down with you.  But you need heirs, and you are living in a society that consistently tells you that women are basically responsible for all the suffering in the world because of Eve. In addition, your wife is essentially seen as having no intrinsic value at all whatsoever except as a baby machine.  How do you think this wedding night ends, exactly?

Now, let’s say you are not a first son.  So maybe you join the Church instead, in which case I’ll see you in the brothels, homeboy.  Otherwise, perhaps you go to seek your fortune elsewhere in the hopes that someday you’ll make enough money to get your own wife and household.  You become a knight, and start living in the house of, let’s say, a Lord.  Said Lord is in his thirties.  He has a hot young wife who is sixteen.  You are eighteen.  You sit there and make puppy dog eyes at each other, and THAT is where this idea comes from.


You never actually get it on with the lady of the house, however, and maybe eventually you do manage to put together enough money and land to start your own household.  By the time you do this you’re probably going to be in your thirties at least, and you need to think about heirs.  You decide it’ll be best to get yourself a young wife.  The cycle repeats.

Now, we’re all super upset about Sansa.  (I didn’t hear y’all bitching when it was Jeyne Poole, but hey I guess you aren’t reading the books or whatever.)   I’m not saying you should think it was awesome, that’s not my point.  What I am saying is that what went down this week is a fairly accurate depiction of what sex was among the nobility in the medieval period. I’m not telling you that is good or right, but I am telling you that if you think it was all hearts and flowers, you are deluding yourself.

Now my loves, after four years, and this show descending into an utter garbage fire, it is time for that 2019 re-up on this post and – whew – the intentions of the writers sure have taken away my ability to make the argument above.

What, exactly, is my problem with my old approach to the Sansa problem? Well it starts out with the phrase, “I heard you were broken in. Broken in rough” from one Sandor Clegane and ends with Sansa announcing that “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.”

Excuse me, but FUCK THAT.

I have a problem with this because it reframes the daily horror of the constant threat or reality of sexual assault that women both historical and contemporary live with as fucking character building and exceptional. I cannot accept this.

My above post was focusing on how our society as a whole has built sexual assault into itself as an inevitability, and asking us all to reflect on what we allow to go on in the name of family and marriage. This new idea that all of this was exceptional and a sort of trial by fire that Sansa had to undergo to become the powerhouse that she is, is insulting.

Women do not become the powerful forces that they always have and will continue to be because men abuse us. We become indestructible in the face of assault in spite of what we have gone through. While I argue against the idea that sexual assault takes away our agency, I also have to argue against the idea that it somehow gives us agency. The agency was there all along, and we have done our best to navigate societies that set up our assault as inevitable and a part of a fucking growth process.

Like most women, I have often wondered what my life would be like if I wasn’t forced to deal with the constant grind of the patriarchy. Would I be more confident? Feel more comfort moving through the world alone? Feel better able to express my sexual agency? Have a real-ass career? I will never know because I was never offered that option.

Neither was Sansa. Even if she hadn’t wound up in that particular marriage, she may have experienced that same dynamic – if not quite as high on the sadistic scale – elsewhere. Within the historical primogeniture marriage system, the sexual autonomy of women isn’t exactly the highest priority on the list. But hell, it still isn’t now. Let’s not forget that marital rape was only make illegal in the UK in the nineteen-fucking-nineties. Hell last month here in London a judge declared that ” I cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife.” Yes. Last month. In 2019. We are not over this, and it isn’t helping us to become a better version of ourselves.

My argument about Sansa’s treatment was predicated on the idea that the sexual assault of women, both historical and current, is a reality and that ignoring the facts about the lives of women in the past only cheapens what they went through, and complicates our ability to fight against it today.

When the writers of Game of Thrones choose to frame her sexual assault as uniquely uncommon and an integral part of her character arc, I fucking object.

Sansa would have been Sansa no matter what her abuser did. Believe that.

Now get out there and smash the patriarchy.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on women in the medieval period see:
On constructing the “ideal” woman
Talking medieval women on History Hack
On Women and Work
On sexualising the ‘other’
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
On the Ideal Form of Women
On women and desire
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture

For more Game of Thrones analysis see:
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 1: Byzantine Constantinople
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 3: Holy Roman Imperial edition

(This was originally posted 21 May 2015 here.)

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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