History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The High Sparrow and the Bonfire of the Vanities

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE MOST RECENT EPISODES OF GAME OF THRONES AND INFORMATION ABOUT A VERY SPECIFIC CHARACTER!

Today we are going to take a break from the big ideas and grand scale events of the show and talk about one particular person: The High Sparrow.

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We’ve already discussed the High Sparrow’s position on things the Faith deems immoral and we’ve seen his minions of the Faith Militant perform an act so awful and so soul shattering I’m surprised it hasn’t caused an uproar yet.  I am, of course, talking about this.

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Yes, it seems the Faith Militant has left the people of King’s Landing with fate worse then death, a world without booze.  I’ve mentioned before that the Faith is dead set against all form of vice including gambling, sodomy, and most tragically drinking but at the same time it’s hard to completely hate the man since he has also preached that all men are equal in the eyes of the gods and that people should make it their duty to help those in need.  The High Sparrow has led the Faith Militant on a crusade against sin and while that isn’t all that special in itself what’s really interesting is that it has a direct historical parallel.

Just like the Faith Militant several of the real world Medieval Catholic holy orders would occasionally stage large coups in populated cities and wage a war on vice and sin.  One of the most famous of these coups was staged by this man.

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This is Girolamo Savonarola, a Catholic friar who dressed plainly and had several strong opinions on what was right and wrong.  Like the High Sparrow Savonarola preached for reform in the Church and against excess and immoral behavior.  Savonarola’s sermons were also quite apocalyptic and were very critical of what he deemed to be the immoral practices of the Church and of the people of Renaissance Florence.  While this did not make him many friends in high places (he was excommunicated from the Church in 1497 by Pope Alexander VI) he did prove to be incredibly popular with the common people.  This culminated in him leading bands of people through the streets of Florence and carrying out the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities was Savonarola’s attempt to return the city of Florence to a more pious state.  He and his bands of children would wander around the city, knocking on the doors of the rich and powerful, and demanding any luxury items or secular works of literature and art.  As you can see above they were all gathered into a big pile and burned (no account on whether or not they destroyed barrels of wine but I’m sure they did).  Unfortunately Savonarola’s power and reputation would not last.  His views and ideals became too unpopular (nobody liked to live in Medieval Europe sober for too long) and all the powerful enemies he made were more than happy to see him burned as a heretic and traitor.

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Author’s Note: If I’ve wound up spoiling the future fate of the High Sparrow in this post I am truly sorry.

So there you have it, a direct historical counterpart to a specific event and person in the Game of Thrones world to a real life counterpart.  Thank goodness this is just a fantasy novel set in a time long ago.  It’s not like leaders and pundits today are going on about the corruption of society or anything.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Church and State in Westeros

WARNING!  THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE MOST RECENT EPISODES OF GAME OF THRONES.  IF YOU ARE NOT CAUGHT UP IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS WILL BE SPOILED.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

One of greatest things about Game of Thrones in my opinion is the book’s treatment of organized religion.  George R.R Martin doesn’t treat the Faith of the Seven and the worship of the Old Gods as some minor subplot but rather establishes it as a powerful force in Westeros, both as a form of identity and as a powerful political force in its own right.  In the show the Faith is represented and nominally led by the High Septon who resides in King’s Landing.  He is seen officiating over the marriages, funerals, and coronations of all the important nobles, a job that gives the Faith the ability to shape the future of Westeros by declaring marriages and the alliances that come with those marriages valid.

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He is also seen crowning the kings of Westeros, implying that the right to rule comes from the favor of the gods and as their chosen representative the High Septon has the power to validate the rule of kings.

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Unfortunately the high Septon is revealed to be a bit…lax in his duties as the leader of the Faith and in the show he is seen cavorting with prostitutes which the Faith generally frowns upon.

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As a result of these activities certain members of the Faith rise up against the High Septon while being led by another individual called the High Sparrow.  The High Sparrow has a more literal and by the book interpretation of the Faith’s teachings by shunning things like fancy clothing or even shoes.

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Feeding the poor and destitute of Kings Landing.

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And punishing anyone who disobeys the rules of the Faith.  Even the High Septon is not immune to the Sparrow’s discipline once the Lannisters give him the authority to do so.

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Due to his zealous adherence to the rules of the Faith and worship of the Seven the High Sparrow has shown himself to be absolutely fearless in his use of violence and punishment for those deemed wicked.  He even arrests the children of the Tyrell family, one of the most powerful families in Westeros, on charges of sodomy and purgery to the Faith.  He is able to do this because he believes that everyone is equally accountable to the gods no matter what their status.  With an army of zealots at his back and a righteous cause to lead them the Faith of the Seven is a political power that is to be feared and is only growing stronger.

I’ve mentioned before that the Faith of the Seven is similar to the established worship of Christianity in Medieval Europe and the Faith’s organization and power in Westeros is no different.

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During the Medieval Ages the Catholic Church was an incredibly powerful, wealthy, and important organization that had a huge impact on the livelihoods of everyone from the most powerful king to the lowliest peasant.  While the kings and monarchs of Europe lorded over people and territory the Church lorded over the souls of all Christians and if you crossed the Church you risked losing your soul to Hell and nobody wanted to be associated with someone like that.  Since the Church was responsible for overseeing the state of Christian souls they had the power to approve and annul the joining of souls, an event some like to call marriage.  Since the Church was responsible for overseeing marriages this allowed them to approve or condemn any royal alliance formed by marriage giving them incredible power over the royal families of Europe.

Like the High Sparrow’s mission the Church also played a major part in the social welfare of Medieval Europe.  The Church was incredibly wealthy controlling acres of land, building massive cathedrals, and receiving roughly 10% of every Christian’s income in the form of tithes.  You don’t build structures like this

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without some serious money.  Despite a considerable amount of corruption and greed one of the greatest missions of the Church was its charitable works and what it accomplished for the poor and destitute of Europe.

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Alms giving and humble living were important hallmarks of Medieval Christianity and many religious orders and other holy groups devoted themselves to teaching the poor and healing the sick, traditions that carry on to this day.

Finally there is was the Church’s firm belief that they answered only to a higher power and had authority above and beyond the laws of men.  Probably the greatest example of Church power was the battle of wills between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire (what we now know of as Germany).  The Pope and the King began to quarrel over who should be allowed to appoint important church officials to certain lands in an event known as the Investiture Controversy.  Basically what happened was that The King argued that he should decide who got to hold and collect income from land he owned while the Pope argued that no religious official should be controlled by an earthly king.  The Pope wound up excommunicating the king, cutting him off from the moral support of the Church and effectively banning him to Hell.  It got so bad for Henry that he had to travel to Rome dressed in rags and prostrate himself in front of the Pope as a repentant sinner.

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The message was clear.  The Pope was the supreme authority over the souls of Christians and would not be bullied by kings and other earthly rulers.  Since the Church had a responsibility to safeguard these souls it should have a certain measure of authority over them on Earth allowing the Church to tie itself directly to the affairs of the state.