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SPOILER ALERT! Murder at the Feast: Game of Thrones and Medieval history


Do not read this if you have not seen last night’s episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ as it contains spoilers.

In George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the infamous Red Wedding sees the noble Robb Stark, King of the North, his family and followers murdered in the midst of wedding celebrations by his treacherous vassal, Walder Frey. While it might at first seem a typical example of fantasy literature and TV drama’s love of shocking violence, the events of the Red Wedding, like much of the rest of Game of Thrones, are inspired by real events from medieval history. Feasting together was supposed to create friendships and promote peace and stability, but it could also lead to quarrels, violence and even murder.

The Politics of Feasting

Feasting and drinking was politically important in medieval Europe. Without taxation or professional armies, kings depended on their personal relations with the nobility to rule. In order to be successful a king had to make friends of his aristocracy. In order to foster warm relations, medieval rulers spent their life in an unceasing journey throughout their lands feasting and hunting with local aristocrats. By handing out gifts and entertaining local notables at their table, rulers sought to remind the kingdom of their power and majesty and to show their trust in and friendship towards the great men of their kingdom.

However, the royal gifts and bountiful hospitality also had another function. Through their generosity rulers sought to put the local landholders in their debt. Rebelling against ones lord could be good or bad. A great aristocrat might very well have just cause to complain of his king’s rule, but to betray a ruler whose generosity one had enjoyed, with whom one had drunk, eaten and made merry was deeply shameful. A man who did that behaved – as medieval chroniclers never tired of pointing out – like Judas, the disciple who had betrayed Christ after sharing his food at the Last Supper.

The Blood Feast

The most infamous example of a feast that descended into violence and even claimed the life of a king, is the story of the Bloodfeast in Roskilde. On 8 August 1157 the three cousins and would-be kings of Denmark, Sven, Knud and Valdemar, met to feast together and mark an end to the decade-long civil war that had torn the kingdom apart. The first night of the feast went well with much merriment and hard drinking. On the second night of the feast, however, after diner had ended and as the drinking had begun in earnest, Sven suddenly left the hall. Immediately afterwards, his men entered, armed, and began to kill Knud and Valdemar’s supporters. Knud was killed with a blow to the skull, but Valdemar was only wounded and escaped into the night.

What had gone wrong? Sven claimed that Knud and Valdemar had been planning to murder him, while Valdemar accused Sven of having long planned to use the feast to dispose of his rivals. There were also suggestions that the murder had not been planned, but that Sven had been offended when a singer had performed a song mocking him for his recent defeats in the civil war.

Death and damnation

Using a feast to dispose of ones rivals was a risky manoeuvre, while it could present an easy opportunity to attack while their guard was down it could also bring down hatred and scorn on the attacker. After news spread of the murder at Roskilde many of Sven’s supporters switched sides because they found it shameful to serve a man who had betrayed his table-companions. On 23 October, Valdemar and Sven’s armies meet in battle. Sven was defeated and cut down in cold blood. Valdemar, the last surviving claimant to the throne, was then able to unite the Danish kingdom.

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The hardships suffered by traitors, however, did not end with death. In his Inferno, Dante condemned traitors to the lowest circle of hell. It is here that Dante, to his surprise, meets the spirit of the noble Alberigo di Ugolino, whom he knew to be still alive and well in the world above. During a family feud, however, Alberigo had invited his kinsman and enemy Manfred to dinner. While they were eating, Alberigo had asked his servants to bring in the fruit – a secret signal for them to murder his guests. For this crime, Alberigo explains, his soul had immediately been condemned to hell, although his body continued to live above, possessed by an evil demon. Judas, the traitor above all traitors, Dante finds in the very jaws of Satan, suffering the cruellest torment of all the souls in Hell. As the Frey family of Westeros is about to realise, it is no small thing to breach the rules of hospitality.

As originally seen on Independent.co.uk