A Song of Steel and Leather
Leather. Everyone wears it.
The Vikings wore it.
Julius Caesar and his generals wore it.
We all know that leather was used for armor throughout the Middle Ages.
Even Khaleesi wore elaborate dresses made of leather during her invasion of Westeros back in 297 AC.
No one can deny that leather was the only thing for a fashionable person to wear in the past. I mean, how couldn’t it be? Look how cool it is! Would Hollywood lie to us?
Actually, it might be somewhat shocking to learn that there is no evidence Roman generals used anything except than metal for their armor. Leather armor hardly existed at all, and I’m not sure the “armor” we see the Unsullied and Vikings wearing in their respective series would defend even momentarily against pointy objects. The process of tanning leather in general is difficult and vile and the resulting product isn’t exactly comfortable to wear on a day-to-day basis (especially before the advent of air conditioning).
Not the kind of thing I’d make a dress out of. But man, it sure is stylish.
The phenomenon of Vikings, Romans, and A Game of Thronesians in leather is only the beginning cinematic anachronisms. Much as how cowboys actually wore bowler hats and there were no clocks in Ancient Rome, historical narratives seldom tell us much about what the past was really like.
They do, however, tell us quite a lot about ourselves.
The reinterpretation of history through the contemporary lens is nothing new. Shakespeare openly embraced anachronisms while writing in the 16th Century, and in the Middle Ages it was common for artists to depict antiquity as looking the same as, well, the Middle Ages. Take this illumination of the Trojan War, which a modern person would never recognize as set in the ancient world were it not for the big horse. This would be somewhat like a modern film unironically putting Achilles in an M1 Abrams tank, or a novel wherein Medieval knights scale the walls of Jerusalem while wielding assault rifles.
We have a better sense today of what the past was like than historical people. Our technology gives us an acute awareness of how much our lives have changed over the years.
And yet we still care little for the definite historicity of our media. By this I mean that we crave authenticity over realism; we want our shows to give us the filtered impression of a time period, not the time period itself. Instead, the movies and books and TV and games we produce reflect the time of their creation: our sense of fashion, our moral sensibilities, and our thematic interests. Dramatizations are rarely more than the events of the past pilfered for plot and story; all else is unimportant, so long as the bare minimum sense of authenticity is preserved.
The undergraduate historian and the YouTube academic will take great umbrage at ahistorical arms, armor, and clothing. They may take even greater umbrage when the stories themselves are changed for modern palatability, or to ramp up the drama. It is certainly true that it can be disappointing when watching a film and the realization strikes that no one seemed to care about replicating the reality of the past. Indeed, the few films that do capture a sense of accuracy, both materially and culturally, like Zulu (1964, dir. Cy Endfield) or Waterloo (1970, dir. Sergei Bondarchuk), have a magic about them that is most certainly not found in The Vikings (2013-2020) or similar ‘historical’ shows.
But I would contest that there is nothing inherently wrong with embracing anachronisms. It’s important to take everything in context. We must remember that the media we produce is only one small part in a tapestry as long as human history. The dialogue with the past does not start or end with us.
Consider again the example of Game of Thrones (2011-2019). Despite what might be read online, Westeros is hardly a realistic adaptation of the Middle Ages. Politics are far too violent. The geopolitical scale is too vast. The Church too unimportant. The arms and armor are wrong on every level, and dragons aren’t even real. Despite its posturing as ‘dark, gritty, realistic fantasy,’ Game of Thrones tells us absolutely nothing about medieval life, neither as a king nor as a pauper.
But what does the series say about us, when examined distantly—perhaps by historians in the far future? They might get a sense of our lust for violence in popular media. They might be able to infer our attitudes toward sexuality, toward freedom and slavery, toward the notion of monarchy and autocracy in general; in other words, Game of Thrones reflects us splendidly. One might even argue that it has immense historical value in this sense—just for those in 3031, rather than 2021.
Obviously, A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy. It isn’t trying to be historical, although it was sometimes advertised as such. But it functions as a microcosm of related television, all of which possess the same cavalier attitude toward sword-fighting, leather-wearing, and sex-having that HBO’s Rome (2005-2007) invented and Game of Thrones later popularized.
Contrast this with a more careful historical adaptation like Marie Antoinette (2006). Marie Antoinette focuses on a few years in the life of its eponymous character, leading up to her imprisonment and later execution. Although the costumes are good, students of the French Revolution will notice countless errors, the most offensive of which being insinuation that Marie Antoinette was engaged in an extramarital affair.
But Marie Antoinette succeeds splendidly in capturing the essence of what it must have been like to be Marie Antoinette. Coppola’s film depicts better than any other the feeling of Versailles in that period: the decadence, the atmosphere, and the gilded cage of inherited power. So while its events cannot be taken as a textbook on Marie Antoinette’s life, the overall film can still be used to get a sense of what she might have been like as a person. The same could be said for most historical TV and movies.
Ultimately, this is what dramatized history should be for. It should be a way for us to build empathy with people of the past. It should be a technique for us to break down barriers, like living in a world where there are no firearms or smartphones, and instead focus on human life and tragedy—which is what Marie Antoinette does so well. The accomplishment of this task depends on performance, writing, and self-awareness: it does not necessarily depend on costume design, fight choreography, or any of those other things we like to complain about on the internet.
So bring on the leather. Send forth clocks and montages of Marie Antoinette picking shoes. Few among us can relate to being drafted into an arranged marriage to the Dauphin of France, and fewer still to the experience of wearing historically accurate armor on a 14th Century battlefield. But who can’t relate to joy of picking out new shoes?
Media’s historical accuracy is largely irrelevant when determining something’s quality. If putting everyone in Westeros in leather is what it takes for us to be able to empathize with the sense of fashion in that world, then so be it. The only things that matter at the end of the day are the people and our empathy for them; the rest, as they say, is silence.