For quite some time, I have been meaning to write an article about Game of Thrones‘ fantastic Emmy win. Yes, I realize the news cycle has passed, but I still think the win is superb and long overdue recognition of fantasy as a genre. In the meantime, however, I found this article sitting on my hard drive, so I thought I would publish it. While rewatching some episodes of The Sopranos, I noticed some references to the Middle Ages and became intrigued. This is what I could make of them.
Warning: This article contains depictions of violence that some readers may find disturbing.
Underneath the beige suburbia, oversized SUVs and baked ziti of The Sopranos, there beats the faint pulse of the Middle Ages. The Sopranos sprinkles references to the Middle Ages in its episode names, closing music, and symbols. Some of mob boss Tony Soprano’s crew behave in ways that are downright medieval — although, it’s unclear to me at least, whether creator and showrunner David Chase found inspiration in the Middle Ages for their behavior or if it is a legacy of the Mafia’s post-feudal roots.
Like the Sons of Anarchy bikers, Tony Soprano’s men behave like the “gangster knights” of the Middle Ages. And, by “gangster knights” I mean everyone from the feudal retainers in late medieval England who acted as their lord’s hired thugs to the gangs of warriors during the Anarchy and the Hundred Years War who took villages ransom, raped, and pillaged.
The capos of Tony’s crime family operate in an honor-based culture, a subculture in which men project a fearsome image as a defense mechanism, respect is paramount, and bloody revenge swiftly ensues offenses. They assume blood-feud-type rules and resolve disputes savagely. From their Cadillacs, they patrol their territories as they run their daily collections. It’s subtle, but its there. Tony and his crew seem to spend an awful lot of time in their cars.
During the Anarchy, or even in Norman England, when nobles, knights or warriors set up camp and erected castles in an area, some soldiers would have to be out patrolling on horseback just to keep a lid on things. They would need to project a menacing presence to keep those from whom they were extorting labor or money cowed. If you were an average eleventh- or twelfth-century English person and a castle popped up in your neighborhood, this was bad news: those who had or wanted power often erected castles as launch point for patrolling an area and keeping it intimidated and subdued1 . In some respects, the patrolling behavior of the Mafia and other criminal gangs is not that different.
The Sopranos has episodes with tiny references here and there to the Middle Ages. One episode is entitled “In Camelot”; although this is certainly a reference to John F Kennedy, it still is medieval.
The spelling change in the episodic title “Knights in White Satin,” a play on the Moody Blues song “Nights in White Satin,” alludes to the ungallant behavior of the married captains (“knights”). (Tony’s dumped mistress attempts suicide ,and Janice is set to marry a man who holds a gun to her head during sex and punches her in the mouth.) Intentional or not, one of the biggest medieval influences on The Sopranos is the notion of respect in an honor-based culture.
Dissing Tony Soprano or any of the made men who hang out at the Bing — Tony’s seedy strip club — is reckless because their livelihood depends on people being scared of them. Like the medieval gangs of thug-ly knights, one of the mafia’s main activities – and that of Tony’s gang — is protection racketeering.
Central to every racketeer and illegal bookie’s business model is the power of a fearsome reputation. Tony and his capos are the kind of guys you want to give a wide berth to. Just ask the gambler in the first episode who didn’t fear Tony enough to promptly repay him. Tony had no qualms about chasing this indebted doctor through the paths in an office park, running him down with his SUV, and beating the crap out of him — despite a crowd of stunned witnesses.
Tony threatens to kill the derelict doctor probably more because of the gambler’s disrespect as his lack of repayment.
“Where’s the fucking money?” Tony shouts, as he brutalizes the gambler. “I’ll know you’ll get the fucking money. But you know what you should get? A get a cork in your fucking mouth because you tell people I’m nothing compared to the people that used to run things.”
Kings and days of old
After the capo or “knight” (Ralphie Cifaretto) beats the naïve, vulnerable (relatively maiden-like) stripper Tracee to death at the end of Season 3’s the “University” episode (3.06), the show cuts to a black screen and plays The Kink’s song “Living on a Thin Line” as the closing credits roll.
Ralphie beats Tracee to death after she berates him in front of his friends for not calling her. Although Ralphie is crazy, these mafia men live in an honor-based culture. (In fact, real-life members of the Sicilian mafia call themselves “men of honor.”) Public disrespect is a hard-wired trigger for all of Tony’s crew.
When the credits and plays “Living On a Thin Line,” it drives home the fragile lives of the people like Tracee who live at the margins. But, the song also evokes medieval warfare (“castles burned”), social injustice — and even medieval barbarity and wartime brutality towards peasants. Producer Terrence Winter has noted “Living on a Thin Line” is the show’s most asked about song.
When Tony learns how Ralphie killed Tracee, he hits Ralphie, a major offense since Ralphie is a made guy. Tony tries to justify it by stating Ralphie disrespected the Bing.
Ralphie disses Tony one last time
Ralphie’s fate is a quintessential example of the perils of honor-based culture. Despite being childhood friends with Tony, Ralphie ultimately falls out with him because Tony viewed him as not only obnoxious but, worse, disrespectful.
Tony’s impatience with Ralphie’s disrespect quietly escalates until Tony can no longer tolerate his capo, despite the latter’s made-man status. First, Tony catches a whiff of possible disrespect towards his sister; Janice dumps Ralphie (the unstated reason is because of his love of sadomasochistic sex). (Tony could have figured out what Ralphie did to Janice after he dated Ralphie’s mistress, a move offensive to Ralphie.)
Ralphie’s on thin ice, but he keeps skating towards the edge by making dangerous and politically messy jokes. He crassly jokes about the overweight Ginny Sack, the don of New York’s deeply loved wife: she had a “90 lb mole removed from her ass.” Ralphie crank calls Paulie’s mother, terrifying the elderly woman – an incident that causes Paulie to quote the Mafia Code to Tony for an offense against his blood and demand Ralphie’s head.
Initially, Tony tolerates the troublesome Ralphie because he is such a good earner. But, he disrespects Tony once too often. And, disrespect, insolence, and insubordination – these are text-book offenses in honor-based cultures.
Tony ultimately kills Ralphie, and its Ralphie’s insolent attitude that triggers Tony’s homicidal rage. Ralphie has the nerve to backtalk Tony when the bossman questions Ralphie’s slaughter of Tony’s beloved horse “Pie-O-My.”
After Pie-O-My loses once too often at the track, Ralph sets fire to her barn so they can collect the insurance money. He didn’t count on Pie-O-My’s death wounding Tony — “She was a beautiful, innocent creature!”
Ralphie might have escaped if he had shown a drop of contrition. Instead, he dumps gasoline on the fire by effectively calling Tony a hypocrite, insulting him. The fight then gets so out of control that Tony strangles Ralph to death.
The Soprano‘s obsession with respect might simply be a reflection of the modern-day Mafia’s behavior. Did Chase and company study the Middle Ages to get deeper insight into honor-based culture, or did they simply closely analyze the behavior of modern-day wise guys? I have no idea.
The Sopranos does directly allude to the Middle Ages in other places, however, notably through the tale of Heloise and Abelard.
Carmela & her teacher, Heloise & Abelard
Carmela Soprano is Tony Soprano’s restive yet attractive wife. Plagued by vague pangs of conscience over Tony’s criminal activities and yearnings for self-actualization, Carmela finally kicks Tony out after his jilted ex-mistress calls Carmela’s home.
Although her priest warns her it is sinful, the separated Carmela briefly cavorts with her son’s guidance counselor, Bob Wegler. The Sopranos episode containing this fling – “Sentimental Education” (S5, Ep6) — playfully alludes to the medieval tale of Heloise and Abelard.
Don’t Stand So Close to Me
Crossing student-teacher boundaries, forbidden love gone wrong, castration: Heloise and Abelard were a tabloid-worthy couple for the ages.
Although originally a knight, the French philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard gave up warfare for scholastics. Abelard’s gifted oration drew thousands of students from across Europe. As Abélard’s fame soared, his ego exploded.
Abélard met the young Heloise in 1115. Although she may have been as young as 17, she was already famous not only for her mind but also her great beauty. Somewhat craftily, Abélard persuaded her uncle Fulbert to let him move in with them. Abélard would tutor Heloise in exchange for living with Heloise and Fulbert for free.
Roughly a year after Abelard took up residence in Fulbert’s house near Notre Dame (Paris), he seduced his young student – who may have been 20 years his junior.2 Abelard even bragged about his conquest.
When Heloise’s uncle sussed out their romance, he separated the duo. Yet, they continued to rendez vous secretly.
Heloise became pregnant. Abelard sent her to live with his sister in Brittany. She gave birth to a son, whom she named Astrolabe, after the navigational device.
Heloise’s uncle Fulbert forced Abelard to wed Heloise. Fearing this marriage would damage his career, Abelard agreed only if the marriage was kept a secret. For her part, Heloise would have preferred to remain Abelard’s mistress and never marry him. She saw marriage as akin to prostitution.
To punish Abelard for the damage Heloise’s pregnancy had done to his reputation, Fulbert made sure word got out about the marriage – even though Heloise tried to deny it.
Because of this situation, Abelard sent Heloise to live in a nunnery. Fulbert, however, assumed that Abelard had disposed of his inconvenient wife by making her take her vows.
To punish Abelard, some of Fulbert’s henchmen broke into Abelard’s house and gelded him.
Deeply ashamed, Abelard took to the tonsure and became a monk. Abelard forced Heloise to become a nun, much to her fury. Despite all of this, the “imprisoned” Heloise and the castrated Abelard continued to correspond – each from their respective cloisters – through letters steeped in passion and philosophy.
Now that the background history is out of the way, consider Carmela’s romance in The Sopranos.
Carmela’s plays Heloise
Part of Bob Wegler’s appeal to Carmela is his erudition. During their romance, he teaches the sheltered Carmela about history and culture.
Carmela is flattered that the well-read Wegler is interested in her given her scant knowledge of literature. Wegler, in turn, loves the idea of a shapely student who idolizes him.
During their first date, Wegler gives Carmela an Everyman’s Library “first edition” of Madame Bovary – an ironic gift, which recounts the tale of a bored luxury-craving wife who escapes the banalities of her stifling provincial life by having affairs.
The first time Carmela sleeps with Bob she gets up in the night to use the washroom. On a stand near the toilet, she finds a Penguin edition of the Letters of Abelard and Heloise.
When Carmela returns to bed, she asks Wegler about the book:
Carmela: “What is Abelard and Heloise? It looks religious.”
Wegler: “It’s the classic story. A 12th century scholar falls in love with his underage student. Gets her pregnant. And, they’re found out. Her uncle, the abbot, has him castrated. It’s timeless really. Even though he becomes a monk and she a nun, their passion burns on through these incredible letters for the rest of their lives.”
The next night the Carmela and Wegler laugh and feed each other spoonfuls of creamy cake at a cozy French bistro.
Immediately after the scene ends, the camera cuts to a shot of Carmela peeling a rather phallic-like cucumber. And, then the cuckolded Tony walks in. The peeled cucumber is both a symbol of Tony’s cuckolded-ness and foreshadowing.
The final subtle allusion to Heloise and Abelard is formed by the actual scene in which Carmela and Bob Wegler break up.
The trouble between Carmela and her “teacher” begins due to a series of misunderstandings. Carmela is a devout Catholic, whose conscience plagues her on her second date with Wegler, and she refuses to sleep with him: in the eyes of the church, she is still married.
On the third date, after a jubilant Carmela overcomes her guilt and sleeps with him again, Wegler misinterprets her previous reticence.
He suspects Carmela is using him to get her son into college. From his perspective, Carmela leaves him with a “raging hard on” on their last date but jumps him after he furthers her son’s shot at college.
As Carmela storms out of Wegler’s bedroom, she warns him: “you’d better watch your step,” leaving him impotent in his own bed(room). The threat of Carmella’s protectors – her husband and his friends – symbolically “castrate” Wegler. Like Abelard, Wegler is “castrated” in his bedroom, by a powerful man’s friends, in the middle of the night.
Given the drama, drama, drama of the Middle Ages, should it surprise any of us that some of Hollywood’s finest writers and producers are fans of the era? David Chase certainly appears to have a nodding acquaintance with the Middle Ages. Kurt Sutter is now producing the fourteenth-century The Bastard Executioner. And, Guy Ritchie is creating the tent-pole franchise, Knights of the Round Table about the legendary King Arthur.
It’s easy to cynically assume that these medieval shows are capitalizing on Game of Thrones success. But, given the strains of the Middle Ages in The Hunger Games (Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years War), The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and possibly many others, Hollywood’s renewed interest in the Middle Ages might not be as much opportunism as it is liberation: Game of Thrones‘ success lets writers who love the Middle Ages explore their passion.