So one of our readers asked us this question the other day. In Game of Thrones, Sam Tarly is constantly mocked for being fat. In the real Middle Ages, would a young overweight noble be mocked for his weight? I was under the impression that being overweight was a sign of wealth back then? I mean, in general almost all the nobles in GoT are of similar weight to 21st century people. I would assume that real medieval nobles are more overweight people? Also what was fat in those days?
Game of Thrones is in many ways more parallel to the later Middle Ages than the earlier, though thus far lacking the defining technological advances (gunpowder and print) and having things like GIANT FLYING DRAGONS. Over the course of the later Latin M.A., from the 12th century onward, we can see development through literature a growing value on an aesthetic that Vigarello calls “power and lightness.” This will culminate in the first major movement of representational art in the 15th century with the reification of a strong-but-slim male figure as superior–and in the criticism even of kings for being overweight. By the time of the Renaissance, fatness is associated with sloth, gluttony, and impotence.
In the eleventh century, chroniclers do sometimes mention the excessive weight of their subjects (nobles all, sometimes royals). Fatness matters when it becomes a burden in life. William the Conqueror, whom the monk of Caen describes as great in size in every dimension (so big he couldn’t be stuffed into his sarcophagus), according to William of Malmesbury died when his house bounced his excessive paunch against the pommel of his saddle and his intestines ruptured. Orderic Vitalis, who offers what is generally considered the best description of William’s death, does not moralize the death or the fatness. He portrays William as a clear-headed, intelligent, wise-ruling king right up until the end of his death from infection.
Interestingly, William of Malmesbury seems to have had an eye for the corpulent. It’s his testimony that tells us King Philip of France used the excessive obesity of his wife as a reason to repudiate her (a cause of infertility); meanwhile, Philip was increasingly too fat to ride normal horses.
The seeds are planted: the idea that a man can become too fat for service in battle. In the twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances, we occasionally get a description of male characters beyond “beautiful” (which, in the Middle Ages, basically means young). Tristan of the Arthurian court is described as broad-shouldered and slender-hipped (swimmer’s body?)–the physique of a mounted knight, who must be light and strong, agile and steadfast. Likewise, Reynault in the Belle Erembourc has broad shoulders and a flat stomach.
From the twelfth century onward, as well, the Church’s ongoing efforts to Christianize the laity through, above all, moral instruction via the Seven Deadly Sins and the sacrament of confession drew increasing attention to the cause of fatness: excessive consumption, the sin of gluttony. We know from medieval texts that medieval people were highly aware of the link between overeating and overweightness, and the difference between muscle and fat. (That probably doesn’t need to be said, but just in case). The iconographic symbol of gluttony is the fat man.
The clergy’s efforts, one assumes, contributed to the moralization of fat. Fatness is less the result of wealth and a life of deserved excess, and more the result of spiritual failing. The moral thing to do is not to eat in overabundance; it is to maintain sobriety in the face of possibly abundance.
By the fifteenth century, the game is on. In 1457, the Duke of Milan consulted a doctor for advice because his son had grown too fat. Chronicler Philippe de Commines will describe the late King of England thus:
He indulged himself in [his pleasures] more recklessly than before. From this time he feared nobody, became very fat and full. At a young age his excesses overtook him and he died of apoplexy.
A final piece of really interesting evidence comes from Gaston Febus, Count of Foix’s, Livre de chasse. This 15 Century manuscript of it illustrates a feast scene. The overweight servants and valets tear into their food. The high nobility, slender and strong, eat calmly and regally. Male fatness isn’t just a marker of morality, it’s a marker of manners, power and class.
There are indeed positive portrayals to, particularly associated with cooks and bakers, the providers of plenty. But certainly in urban Italy we see more attention to weighing less from the medical side. And one of the things that has always struck me is that the examples of “positive fatness” in women (although I realize this thread concerns primarily men) almost always come from satires in which the women are not portrayed altogether favorably. In romances, the heroines are increasingly thin-waisted; Anne of France writes of a woman whose dress is laced so tight she has a heart attack.
But this question is concerned with functional fitness and fatness, particularly related to battle. There is ample evidence that within the later Middle Ages, excess weight was perceived as a burden in battle and to lordship, precisely Lord Tarly’s concerns in SOIAF/GOT. I haven’t seen the gendered angle in medieval sources that is implied in the books (Sam’s relationship with his mother and sister, e.g.), but that would be interesting for someone to investigate.