‘Game of Thrones’ and the Reality of Pregnancy by Rape in the Middle Ages

Whether or not Sansa's pregnant, the possibility raises questions about how unwanted pregnancy was dealt with in medieval times.
July 8, 2016, 2:45pm
Photos by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Game of Thrones is well-known for gleefully killing off main characters, but less talked about is how the show seems to enjoy the thought of rape ending in pregnancy. Though we didn't see it addressed in the finale, fans have been speculating since episode nine that Sansa Stark may have conceived while being raped at the hands of her sadistic husband, Ramsay Bolton. "You can't kill me," the bound Lord Bolton sneers at her, before being devoured by dogs. "I'm part of you now."

If Sansa is indeed carrying Bolton's child, it certainly wouldn't be the first time on the series that a woman conceived during an assault. Gilly and Sam raise Gilly's son by her own father, Craster, who serially raped all his daughter-wives, keeping their female children and offering up their sons as sacrifices to the Night's King. Even Daenerys's child was conceived during marital rape by her husband Khal Drogo. During the Battle of Blackwater, Cersei Lannister reassures Sansa that, thanks to her period, she won't get pregnant if King Stannis's soldiers should storm the castle and gang rape all the ladies of the court. Added to this list, post-finale, is potentially Lyanna Stark, whose child is Jon Snow, the product of either rape or absconding with Rhaegar Targaryen, depending on which fan theory you subscribe to.

It's a brutal, rape-filled world that the women of Game of Thrones find themselves in, and the options offered to these women vary widely. Some of their children are welcomed—Sam and Gilly agree to love their son, whoever his father was and whatever the terms of his conception. Dany is desperate over the miscarriage of her child. In contrast, Cersei's comments to Sansa suggest that the children she expects her court to bear will be a horrible, physically, and psychologically damaging burden. Unspoken at the time, but revealed to viewers later, is the fact that Cersei herself (and Margaery too) uses a form of birth control or an abortifacient called "moon tea."

In this, at least, George R. R. Martin and the TV writers are not wrong: Women have long since used a variety of remedies, including herbs, to control their fertility (though not always effectively). However, medieval approaches to abortion and conception during rape were very different than our own. Before the Middle Ages, abortions were allowed because they weren't really considered abortions. From a medieval perspective, without a soul there was no human life, and souls weren't understood to develop until sometime between four and 17 weeks.

Because of this, women held quite a lot of control over their early pregnancies. We might note how this attitude accommodated the high rate of miscarriage in the first trimester, especially before modern nutrition and medicine. A lot can go wrong all on its own in those early weeks, and medieval midwifery and medical science left it to a woman and her advisers to decide how she wanted to handle that risky time. An abortion after the period in which souls were considered to develop was considered sinful, and might or might not be criminal, depending on where one lived, though prosecutions in the Middle Ages were rare.

We may see the result of such family planning in the life of a famous medieval queen mother, Margaret Beaufort. Married and co-habitating at an unusually young age for an Englishwoman, Beaufort bore the future King Henry VII when she was just 14 and the delivery nearly killed her. Often widowed, Beaufort married twice more but never had another child. It is entirely possible that she sustained such significant injuries and scarring during her first delivery that she was unable to conceive or carry to term again. But it is equally possible that she or her medical advisers were convinced that it was harmful for her to try to carry another child to term, and so took precautions to ensure that she did not.

"Presuming she is indeed pregnant, Sansa, as a chaste, blameless medieval noblewoman, would have had a choice, at least early in her pregnancy."

But Gilly and Dany bear their rapists' children, and Cersei implies that the ladies of her court will too if the battle is lost: Why? Why does moon tea only apply sometimes? The answer may lie in some medieval and modern attitudes toward conception and rape. Before the advent of modern medicine, it was commonly understood that both men and women had to achieve orgasm for conception to occur. Therefore, if a raped woman conceived, she was seen to be guilty of adultery: In other words, she had liked it—a chilling precursor to the modern "she deserved it" attitudes toward rape.

There is some evidence of this in medieval literature, too. In the popular premodern story of the raped wife Lucretia, she kills herself out of shame for being raped. In one medieval version, Lucretia locates her shame specifically in orgasm: "against my will there followed a delight." Her body betrayed her and so must have liked it and so she must kill herself in self-punishment.

But here medieval literature shows itself more compassionate than parts of our modern culture. In all versions of the story, including this one, Lucretia's father and husband believe her to be entirely blameless. Her husband insists that "he might force your body... but I know well that for all his strength he could never overpower your mind." Her body may have betrayed her, but her soul resisted to the last. She did not desire her rape, and any physical response says nothing about her intent.

Presuming she is indeed pregnant, Sansa, as a chaste, blameless medieval noblewoman, would have had a choice, at least early in her pregnancy. Like Gilly, she would be supported in bearing her rapist late husband's child. However, perhaps like Margaret Beaufort, and perhaps like Cersei and Margaery, she would also be supported in terminating it, thus ensuring that she can kill Ramsay's child and prove that he is no longer any part of her. On this point, we will have to wait until next season to learn whether Game of Thrones turns out to be more medieval than modern, now that winter has finally come.

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