Brienne of Tarth and the history of medieval knighting

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

Our hearts leapt as we watched Jaime Lannister knight Brienne of Tarth in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” It was a powerful moment for both of them, and a thrill for fans. It also makes you wonder…Game of Thrones is wonderful fantasy fiction with a pseudo-medieval grounding. Were any women ever knighted in actual medieval history?


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Time posed the question to Joelle Rollo-Koster, a professor of medieval history at the University of Rhode Island. She has some experience with knighthood, having been knighted by the French government as a Chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

The first real-life figure we can compare Brienne of Tarth to is the 15th century’s famous Joan of Arc, considered a heroine of France for her visions of angels, and for leading a French army to end the Siege of Orleans and her subsequent capture and burning at the stake at the age of 19.

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Rollo-Koster looks first at the Thrones knighting ceremony and how it stacks up against the historically accurate European ritual. Academics consider the 12th century Arthurian works of Chretien de Troyes to contain the first descriptions of people being knighted, or “dubbed.” The word “dubbed” is related to the French word “adouber,” a verb related to arming someone.

Another intriguing aspect of the French ceremony is the colee, the face slap. Rollo-Koster explains its purpose:

"The colée is a slap on the face. I explain it to my students as, number one, you need to resist that slap. If you’re a knight on your knees and somebody punches you and you are not able to resist, that shows you don’t have much strength. There’s that macho strength element, but there is also a memory element: Here, I’m slapping you, let it be the last time somebody slaps you on the face."

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Bryan Cogman /

The colee has evolved from a physical face slap to the tap of a sword on each of the recipient’s shoulders. That’s the way Jaime dubbed Brienne on Thrones. But, Rollo-Koster points out, “if it was a true medieval ceremony in the 11th or 12th century, (Brienne) would have been smacked in the face.”

Thrones follows the tradition of an older knight (Jaime) performing the ceremony for a younger knight, but as the 13th century wore on, the church took over, with priests or Bishops doing the actual knighting and employing religious words. “What we saw [on Thrones] was a mishmash,” Rollo-Koster explains. “A knight ordaining another knight, but using religious language.”

Rollo-Koster says that Jaime’s referencing of the Faith of the Seven would be similar in tone to the words of the priests and monks, who often spoke Latin so poorly that they accidentally used the feminine versions of the words.

“They would make a mistake and turn it into the feminine, and that’s exactly what they are doing in the show,” Rollo-Koster explains. “He (Jaime) says in the name of the father and then the name of the mother. It’s a take on an extremely masculine ceremony, which they turn feminine. They turn it feminine in the language of the dubbing, the father and the mother, and also in the person they are dubbing, because you never dub a woman, as [Brienne] says. The play with it is fun and this is what brought me right away to Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc smashed the medieval glass ceiling, one might say. And unlike some fabled military women who dressed as men and hid their identities, Joan was always distinctly female. After being captured, some of the heresy charges laid against Joan involved her wearing of both female and male clothing; her actions “freaked men out,” and they burned her at the stake for it.

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Today, the world looks upon knighthood more and more as a symbol of accomplishment than a privilege of sex, and all we Thrones fans were thrilled to see Brienne obtain her lifelong dream, courtesy of Jaime. Joan of Arc became a legendary French icon and was even canonized as a saint in 1920, but she was never knighted.

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