I don't know if it's the dialogue, or the plot, or the sex, or the brutality, but I'm addicted to Game of Thrones. I devoured the five novels that George R.R. Martin has written thus far in and wait eagerly-if-not-patiently for the remaining two. I've read Martin's prequel stories, the ones about Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire, the future Aegon V Targaryen. I have watched and rewatched every episode of the HBO series. I've even occasionally weighed in on one of the many websites devoted to deconstructing the fantasy epic.
One consequence of spending an excessive number of hours in Mr. Martin's universe results is that the world of GOT pops up in the oddest places. Fans use Stark v. Lannister references in interoffice e-mails. They campaign for promotions while regretting they lack the Machiavellian skills of Petyr Baelish. I expect that at this very moment, somewhere in the English-speaking world, new parents are fighting over whether to name the baby Arya or Brienne (and the new puppy Ghost or Summer).
And, since my work is writing popular histories, I can't seem to stop finding eerie parallels between Westeros in 298AC (years after Aegon's conquest of Westeros. Don't ask.) and 1300AD Britain, which is where much of my next book is set. For example:
Tywin Lannister had nothing on Edward I.
Edward I, known as Longshanks, King of England from 1272-1307, was easily as formidable as the head of the Lannister clan... and as frightening. In one 14th century chronicle, he was described as "Valiant as a lion, quick to attack the strongest and fearing the onslaught of none. But if a lion in pride and fierceness, he is a panther in fickleness and inconstancy... The treachery or falsehood by which he is advanced he calls prudence and the path by which he attains his ends, however crooked, he calls straight, and whatever he likes he says is lawful."
In his 1298 invasion of Scotland, King Edward earned the title he wanted inscribed on his tomb -- "The Hammer of the Scots" -- commanding Sir John Fitz Marmaduke, his own Gregor Clegane (the "Mountain-that-Rides"): "You are a bloodthirsty man; I have often had to rebuke for being too cruel. But now be off, use all your cruelty, and instead of rebuking you I shall praise you."
Nor were Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell a more scandalous couple than Edward Caernarfon and Piers Gaveston.
Gaveston was a 21-year-old nobleman from Gascony when he became one of the official companions of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward II. Their relationship was, however, a lot more than companionable. Thomas Burton, the Cistercian leader of the Abbey of Meaux, described Edward as "too much given to sodomy." Robert de Reading, a monk of Westminster, and author of the Flores Historianum, wrote that the king was "overcome with his own wickedness and desire for sinful, forbidden sex." And it ended just as badly for Edward and Piers as for Loras and Renly: The royal favorite was beheaded on the orders of four English earls, who allowed a friar to return Gaveston's head to Edward (though what he did with it is lost to history).
Queen Cersei? Meet Queen Isabella.
Like Cersei, Isabella of France was widely lauded for her beauty. The French chronicler Godefroy de Paris described her as "the most beautiful woman in the kingdom and the Empire." Walter of Guisborough called her "one of the fairest ladies in the world."
But that's not how she earned her later appellation, the "She-Wolf of France." Isabella didn't just abandon her husband for her native France because of his relationship with another man, Hugh Despenser the Younger. She returned at the head of an invading army, deposed her husband, crowned her son, and ruled as England's regent for four years.
And what about The Wall?
Though most people assume that Hadrian's Wall was the inspiration for GOT's enormous barrier between the kingdoms of Westeros and the north, a better candidate is the Antonine Wall, built by the Emperor Hadrian's adopted son Antoninus Pius. Like the Wall, it marked the boundary between one nation and another -- England and Scotland, or, as it was then known, Caledonia. And, like the Wall, it had 19 forts along its length.
After a long summer, winter was coming.
The year 1300 is very close to the end of what passed for a Westeros "long summer" in northern Europe: A very long summer, known as the Medieval Warm Period, centuries during which European temperatures averaged at least 2 degrees celsius higher than they do today, when northern England was a wine-growing region and cereals were farmed at altitudes of a thousand feet above sea level.
When winter arrived, along with giant storms that destroyed two successive harvests throughout northern Europe, it brought the greatest famine in European history, and left behind what has come to be known as the Little Ice Age.
Red Wedding, anyone?
Many people now know that the inspiration for Game of Thrones' "Red Wedding" was the 1440 "Black Dinner" in which the 16-year old Earl of Douglas and his 10-year old brother were betrayed and killed in Edinburgh Castle by Sir William Crichton.
What they don't know is that the boys' ancestor, Sir James Douglas -- the original "Black Douglas" -- had already written the script that Crichton followed. In 1307, the Black Douglas beheaded every Englishman at a dinner in his own castle of Douglasdale, and then, in the legend that became known as "Douglas's Larder," ate the feast the English had prepared, burnt the remainder, ransacked the castle's stores, and salted the well, for good measure.
From time to time, when asked to recommend books to read while awaiting the next installment in his series, Mr. Martin has generously suggested the work of other writers of fantasy. I welcome such recommendations, but I don't need them. Not until I exhaust the Chronicle of Jean de Froissart, who describes the execution of Hugh Despenser thus: "First, his privates were cut off, because he was deemed a heretic, and guilty of unnatural practices, even with the king, whose affections he had alienated from the queen by his wicked suggestions. His private parts were cast into a large fire kindled close to him; Afterwards, his heart was thrown into the same fire, because it had been false and traitorous."
Now that's brutal.
William Rosen is the author of JUSTINIAN'S FLEA: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire, THE MOST POWERFUL IDEA IN THE WORLD: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, and THE THIRD HORSEMAN: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century.