Warning: spoilers about the fifth season abound.
This season of Game of Thrones has been the most controversial yet. A big part of this contention springs from the fact that many of the show's leading female characters have been pushed to the brink: Sansa Stark faces a brutal rape on her own wedding night. The young and ill Shireen Baratheon is sacrificed for her father's military plans quite literally, being burned at the stake. A sympathetic wildling mother, Karsi, is introduced, then killed off within a single episode. As always, Arya Stark seems to remain no more than a knife's edge from peril. And even the mighty Daenerys Targaryen requires deus ex Drogon for survival.
In last night's season finale, imperial matriarch (in more ways than one) Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is sentenced to a "walk of atonement" for her sexual history. Her punishment includes being shaved, stripped, and paraded through town publicly. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Eugene Simon, who plays Cersei's cousin, spoke of how "medieval" the practice is.
Simon isn't wrong, but he's isn't exactly right, either. Once again, the ways in which Game of Thrones fails to be medieval may say more about our own time than about the Middle Ages.
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As we do today, the Middle Ages had a range of ways to shame people who acted outside of society's bounds. In "charivaris," people dressed as monsters chased malefactors, or captured them and subjected them to public humiliation. Men and women could be forced to endure "rough music" for minor social infractions like gossiping or for more serious transgression like spousal abuse. This was social vigilante-ism, however. Rather than being enforced by the state, these were neighbors finding ways to shame other neighbors. While pillories and cucking stools might feature in our imagined medieval worlds, these types of social punishment were practiced most frequently after the Middle Ages, and were part of formal, institutionalized punishment rather than the neighborhood justice of the charivari.
However, the Middle Ages did employ a wide range of institutional shaming, frequently enacted through special courts linked to the Catholic Church. Medieval people across Europe would have been relatively accustomed to seeing men and women stripped down to their underwear and paraded through town as penance for a range of infractions from infidelity to heresy, on a more or less regular basis. Even the powerful could be forced into such penance: the English King Henry II's penance for the murder of Thomas Beckett, or Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV's punishment at Canossa for angering the Pope are famous instances, for example. Men's sexual choices could also be punished this way, as we see in the instance of Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, who performed his penance for adultery in the 1380s.
To strip someone completely naked instead of leaving them their underwear is a creative decision by series author George R. R. Martin (and followed by showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff) along the lines of Deadwood's decision to use contemporary swear words because modern people wouldn't even notice historically accurate cursing.
At the same time, Cersei's punishment calls to mind the law on the treatment of the female captive outlined in the Bible in the book of Deuteronomy (21: 12-13): "She shall shave her head, and pare her nails; and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her… and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband." With her hair shaved, nails pared, and body exposed, she becomes utterly bare. The act renders her culturally clean enough to be taken as a wife.
Indeed, the similarity of Cersei's treatment as a captive woman again calls to mind the specter of marital rape that Game of Thrones has raised before. Most recently marital rape featured just weeks ago on Sansa's wedding night, but in an earlier instance Cersei herself was raped by Jaime Lannister, the man she otherwise chose as her primary sexual partner and emotional support (not uncomplicated by the fact that he is also her brother).
So which is it? Is the "underlying society medieval?" If so, it means that Cersei's walk will not be her end socially or politically. Far from it. After all, Henry II, Henry IV, John of Gaunt, and other medieval penitents such as Jane Shore, mistress to English King Edward IV, Marquis Thomas Grey, and Baron William Hastings both high and low continued on to live long, successful social and political lives. That was the point of institutional shaming. It served as a kind of medieval version of time-out, in which a person could stop, think, and collect her resources, and once that's achieved, return to regular life. Time-out might be a punishment, but it's a social punishment, designed to help a person reintegrate into society.
If, on the other hand, Cersei falls fully and irrevocably—as did Eleanor Cobham, the disgraced former Duchess of Gloucester who spent the rest of her life under house arrest following her own penance—then once again Game of Thrones fails to be medieval, despite what many believe. If, instead, the show is a fantasy, then it's a misogynistic fantasy. If Cersei is not allowed redemption following her walk, she will have had her life destroyed for her sexual choices, becoming another notch on the show's headboard of wrecked women's lives.
No one today would think to use the treatment of the captive woman in Deuteronomy as a roadmap toward marital bliss, but we have abundant evidence that our modern culture denies women sexual autonomy, and that the social punishment for women who show sexual autonomy can be staggeringly high. Our culture harshly judges women for having sex with more people than we think they should, for having sex with women instead of men, for enjoying kinky sex in ways we ourselves don't enjoy, and more.
It seems our own culture, no less than Game of Thrones, needs a time-out. The time to sit and think might do us some good. With increased awareness, perhaps we can start pulling ourselves together and work toward a more respectful, equitable society.
Kathleen E. Kennedy is an associate professor at Penn State-Brandywine, specializing in medieval and Early Modern English literature and history. She is on Twitter.