History — it’s a Game of Thrones

DRAGONS. Brutal betrayals. Horrible families. Believe it or not, historic reality makes Game of Thrones seem like a sideshow.

Modern authors don’t have to look far for inspiration. Often, it’s right there on their shelves in learned tomes of history.

Some of the stories are truly fantastic. Others are simply amazing examples of human behaviour.

Dr Katie Barclay of the Adelaide University school of History and Politics says she finds the use of history in popular modern fiction fascinating.

“These are clearly engaged with much of the historic literature, particularly for the medieval period,” she said. “And, as a historian, you watch it, and you’re constantly thinking ‘yeah that’s good’, and ‘no, that wouldn’t happen’, except it’s fantasy so you can’t get annoyed!”

Dr Barclay points out that history and fantasy have had a long and close relationship: The first novels were called “histories” and purported to be based on real events.

“They often were,” Dr Barclay said, “at least to the level that they featured real historical characters if reimagined to suit the sensibilities of the era”.

And such “reimagining” is central to the history-fantasy link. The same story is often retold in different ways over hundreds of years, with each incarnation pitched at the tastes and expectations of a new generation, she said.

“But the most inspirational tales for modern writers and audiences are not necessarily those based on the most outlandish stories or supernatural events, but those that relate to unexpected human relationships.”

Here’s just a sample of some of the most eye-catching historical sources you may recognise in popular books, films and television shows:

SCOTLAND’S ‘RED WEDDINGS’

“The Scottish ‘Red Weddings’ linger in the historical imagination because of what it says about betrayal and loyalty and human relationships, and because they wiped out whole families, not just because they are bloody,” Dr Barclay said.

The brutal slayings, while not weddings, were regarded as particularly heinous as they breached strict moral codes of hospitality.

In 1691 a terrible betrayal saw most of the key members of clan MacDonald massacred.

The Scottish clans had been summoned to produce a signed document swearing allegiance to King William of Orange. The MacDonald clan, delayed through a series of misfortunes, delivered their oath several days “too late”.

Several months later, a troop of 120 men under the king’s Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonald’s estates in Glencoe and claimed shelter from the harsh weather.

Hospitality was duly offered, but, after a fortnight of enjoying the MacDonald’s food, drink and card-games, the soldiers slew about 40 of the clan as they slept in their beds in what would become known as the Glencoe Massacre. The 40 or so women and children that escaped died of exposure.

An earlier, similar, massacre has gone down in history as “The Black Dinner”.

In 1440 the young Earl of Douglas (traditionally called the Black Douglas), 16, and his younger brother David were invited to dine at Edinburgh Castle with 10-year-old king James II.

The story goes that the young nobles were getting along like a house on fire, enjoying food, entertainment and each other’s company until deep into the evening. Suddenly, legend has it, the severed head of a black bull was dropped on the dining table.

The two Black Douglas boys were dragged outside, given a mock trial, and beheaded.

The young king was not likely to have been to blame. The Chancellor of Scotland, Sir William Crichton, had issued the invitations as he felt the Black Douglas clan had grown too powerful.

HISTORY’S HORRIBLE FAMILIES

There is a reason why the likes of the Tudors keep appearing in books and on our screens. They were truly awful people and members of absolutely horrible families.

“Games of Thrones is fascinating,” Dr Barclay said, “not just because of the gruesome deaths and sex, but because these are families defending lineages, committing incest, being wiped out in a single generation.

“We get behind the families because of their relationships to each other, not just because they have dragons.

“Wendy Moore’s Wedlock is also fascinating because of the manipulative and abusive relationship between husband and wife. Then there was Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire (which became the movie The Duchess) a story about a dodgy threesome.”

Then there is the true story of James Annesley, the heir to the estate of Anglesea. He was abducted as a child in the 1730s and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. He managed to escape in his late teens and returned to Britain to discover his uncle had inherited his estates. He won the first trial, but died during a drawn-out 10 year appeals process. This inspired stories such as Memoirs of an Unfortunate Nobleman, Peregrine Pickle and The Wandering Heir.

THE REAL DRAGON SLAYER

If “Smaug” the dragon from J.R.R. Tolken’s The Hobbit gets your blood racing, imagine what the impact the “real thing” would have had on medieval Europe.

The only real encounter with a “dragon” recorded in history happened on the island of Rhodes in the 1340s.

According to the Order of St John’s archives, the beast had established a lair to the south of the fortified city of Rhodes. There, it had begun preying on the local livestock and maidens.

Several Knights Hospitaller are said to have set out to prove their valour by tackling the dragon. After they failed to return, the Order’s Grand Master firmly ordered a stop to such expeditions.

One, however, ignored the order. The French knight Dieudonne de Gozon decided to take on the beast personally. He gathered as many descriptions as he could of the animal from the country folk who had seen it and built scale model.

He then trained his dogs to attack the creature and practised angles from which he could attack it with his sword and lance.

Once confident, he sallied forth into the countryside and slew the dragon. He was then summarily expelled from the Order for disobedience.

But the public outcry from the peasants about how poorly their hero had been treated soon saw “the Dragon Slayer” restored to the Order and he ended up becoming Grand Master himself in 1346.

“The Rhodes story is not the only crocodile as dragon story going around,” Dr Barclay said. “There is one for St George too — only the crocodile got to Essex! We don’t really know if it was a crocodile, that’s just what a 19th Century scientist thought when he saw a skull in Rhodes that they claimed belonged to the dragon. Given that selling relics was big business during the medieval period and there was 600 years for a ‘dragon skull’ to go missing, decompose (or never exist in the first place) and be replaced with that of a crocodile by an entrepreneurial relic salesman, we don’t really know the truth here. Maybe there really was a dragon!”

MAGICAL SWORDS

The magic of a glittering, all-dominating sword is a powerful icon of hope and victory.

In the case of magic swords, it may be an idea burnt onto our cultural heritage by history.

Some say the legend of Excalibur could have been born from the impact a high-quality Roman sword would have had if it had survived into the Dark Ages of Britain. Such a refined, well made and strong weapon could indeed win almost magical status among its enemies.

This is precisely what happened when the Bronze Age collapsed before the onrushing Iron Age.

The new grey metal swords cut through bronze as if it was butter. Whole armies could fall in the face of just a band of iron-equipped men.

Iron’s impact was not just felt on the battlefield. The entire economy and social structure of Europe was turned on its head as it shifted away from bronze to the tougher, easier, more common metal.

Even the story of pulling Excalibur from the stone may be a cast-back to a long-forgotten time. Bronze blades were cast in moulds of stone before being pulled out and polished.

Iron was to experience a similar revolution when the refinement of steel emerged.

It’s an arms race that has never ended. And each age would most likely have had its own “Excalibur”.

But such magic-history links are rare, Dr Barclay said.

“The ‘magical’ element of fantasy allows us to set aside our practical concerns (’that wouldn’t happen’) and go with the story (‘it isn’t real, so that’s fine’), despite the fact that what drives the story could often happen without the magical elements,” Dr Barclay said.

THE BLACK WATCH

The romantic notion of a band of outcast warriors living on the fringes of civilisation who have taken a binding oath to protect the ignorant and ungrateful people they left behind is a common one.

It was no less popular when it was a reality.

The Knights Templar are well known for their supposed mystical secrets and the staged trial that accused them of such. But their real purpose also has passed into legend.

In the early 1100s, a small band of knights resolved to police the roads of the newly captured Holy Land for pilgrims making the dangerous journey from Europe.

To save their souls and prove their devotion the knights adopted the rigid rules and lifestyle of monks, with the added responsibility of protecting Christendom from all its enemies.

The idea spread like wildfire: Soon every second-son in Europe was clambering for permission to win glory (and a secure lifestyle) within a rapidly expanding network of farms, forts and fleets all designed to feed equipment, knights and soldiers to a distant chain of castles protecting Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Many other Orders sprung up, imitating the idea: The Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights were among the largest.

However, the trials and tribulations of the hot and volatile Holy Land soon caused the chivalric dream to lose much of its gloss. As such, many in the later ranks of the Templars were drafted from “grey knights” who had committed crimes or lost the support of their lords. In return for their service, these warriors were promised the limited freedom the Order offered — as well as a chance to fight, pursue a career and save their souls.

WINTER IS COMING

In fact, it’s already been. Several times.

We’re talking weird seasons that last for years — not the typical annual event.

In 536AD a 10-year winter kicked off in the Northern Hemisphere. Scribes in Europe and Asia reported bitterly cold conditions that seemed to never end. The sun was darkened, they said, and remained “small” even into the depths of summer.

Famine, war and plague quickly followed as crops failed and hungry hordes started streaming south.

Tree rings and ice core samples have since confirmed these events and tied the decade-long winter to the eruption of a supervolcano in El Salvador. But many academics consider that is in itself not enough to explain the duration of this winter. Some say Earth may have also passed through Halley’s Comet’s dusty tail.

Another unusual winter struck Europe in 1816. Known as “The Year without Summer”, hunger once again quickly swept across Europe as crops shrivelled up.

This event has been tied to the 1815 super eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The dust in the upper atmosphere from this eruption produced an average 1C drop in temperatures worldwide.

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