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The following post is the first part of a three part series where we look at the question “how medieval is Game of Thrones?” and – if not the European Middle Ages – what period of history does it most draw from? In each part, we will draw on a different historical framework: first military, then social and finally political history.
Part I, which you are reading now, will deal with this from the perspective of the structure of war and conflict. Part II, linked here, will instead pose this question from a social history perspective, looking at cultural and religious norms along with questions of gender and family structure. Finally, Part III, linked here, will look at political structures and norms (and also have the conclusion).
But first, I want to answer a question: Why am I bothering? Isn’t this all a bunch of useless nitpicking? Well, first – what did you expect from a blog named A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry? Useless nitpicking is our specialty. But – for once – I think this is useful nitpicking. For a great many people, Westeros will become the face of the European Middle Ages, further reinforcing distorting preconceptions about the period. How we view the past has a tremendous influence on what we think about the present. In particular, the tendency to view the distant past as a time of unrestrained barbarism provides us with both an unearned sense of superiority and often a dangerous hubris – ‘we’re not like that anymore, that can’t happen anymore – people in the past were just stupid.‘ But they were not just stupid or just maniacs – they were people. People are people, no matter when they lived.
The number of times I have been told by enthusiastic fans that Game of Thrones was superior to other fantasy works because it showed a medieval society ‘how it really was’ or ‘more realistically’ is beyond counting. Sometimes that praise is simply extrapolated to ‘the past’ as if human experience was a binary between ‘the now’ (when things are good) and ‘the past’ (when things were uniformly bad). To argue that Game of Thrones is more true to the ‘real’ Middle Ages is making a claim not only about Game of Thrones, but about the nature of the Middle Ages itself. And that claim deserves to be assessed.
This is part of why I have opted to look primarily at the show, Game of Thrones and not the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The show – reaching many millions more people and being far more culturally pervasive – is going to have a much larger impact on the public perception of the past. Moreover, to be honest, the ‘defense of historicity’ repeatedly made for the show seems less common as a defense for the books (perhaps, in part, because book fans seem to feel the books need less defending).
We should also define the European Middle Ages for the purpose of this comparison. The Middle Ages in Europe stretch from c. 500 AD to c. 1450 AD, a nearly 1,000 year period. Understandably, there are massive differences between what war and society looked like in 550 compared to 1350. But the trappings of Game of Thrones are a lot more specific: the plate-clad knights, courtly ladies, martial tournaments all evoke the High (c. 1000-1250) and Late (c. 1250-c. 1450) Middle Ages, so that is the period we’ll primarily compare with.
Finally, before we dive in, two final caveats. First, this is not a criticism of George R.R. Martin’s world-building. There is, after all, no reason why his fantasy world needs to be true to the European Middle Ages (we’ll talk about known/possible historical inspirations as they come up). I do not think Martin set out to design a sneaky medieval culture lecture in fantasy novel form, so he cannot be faulted for failing to do what he never attempted. Second, this look will draw more from the show than from the books, simply because the show is complete and it is easier to discuss a complete thing – that said, elements of lore that didn’t make it into the show, but are still illustrative, may come up.
Alright? Let’s dive in.
One thing Game of Thrones is very clear about is how brutally destructive the wars of Westeros are. The wheel – “on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground” (S5E8) – very nearly ends Westerosi society writ large. The War of the Five Kings disrupts the food supply situation sufficiently enough to cause famine and starvation in the Crownlands and bloody riots in King’s Landing (S2E6). King’s Landing itself would be essentially destroyed during Daenerys’ capture of the city (S8E5), with probably hundreds of thousands of casualties, given the scale of the destruction and the reported size of the city (but more on that later).
But how destructive is this wheel really? Can we give it a number? Neither the show nor the books provide a clear metric to assess the war losses, but given the burning of King’s Landing and the repeated mentions of famine, they cannot be lower than several hundreds of thousands for civilians alone (and possibly much higher if we include deaths from the nearly certain Winter famine). To this must be added the North and the Riverlands, which experience sustained devastation and occupation.
What about army losses? The armies of House Tyrell, Lannister and Baratheon are all destroyed on the field – we’ll look at issues of scale in a moment – but for now, if half of their strength were casualties, we might estimate some 80,000 losses from these houses. The losses to the Riverlands, the North, Dorne, the Crownlands and the Iron Islands are less clear, but we might assume they’d roughly equal the proceeding total. To which must then be added Daenerys’ forces, reduced by half at Winterfell to the loss of around 4,000 Unsullied and 30,000 Dothraki (we are told she lost ‘half’ of both).
Based on all of that speculation, we might ballpark a minimum figure for losses in the wars as being 300,000+ civilians and around 200,000 combatants (not including losses sustained in Essos). If widespread famine is included – and it almost certainly should be, given the coming Winter – the real figure would be much higher, perhaps well over a million. And we have left out the near total destruction of the Wildlings, the death caused by the army of the dead moving south, or by Ironborn raiding. To this would need to be added excess casualties from disease, which are more severe than battlefield losses – the likely total casualty figures could thus easily be in the neighborhood of 2,000,000 or more.
War in Game of Thrones is thus not only endemic, but also shockingly destructive. Importantly, warfare in Westeros reaches a level of demographic significance – this war is sufficient to cause a real, identifiable decrease in the total population of Westeros (the books provide no tool for estimating the size of Westeros’ population, but a ballpark of 40 million is perfectly reasonable – meaning the war killed something between 2.5 and 5% of the entire population, in just a few years). This is a level of death that future Westerosi archaeologists and historians, excavating villages and reading town records, will be able to identify through the marked loss of population. Wars that destructive are rare in the pre-modern period – most wars are not ‘demographically visible’ in this sense, because the war losses get lost in the ‘noise’ of normal births and deaths.
While warfare in the Middle Ages was frequent, it was not generally this destructive. Estimating the destructiveness and scale of death in medieval wars is nearly impossible to do with any precision because of the nature of the sources. But a few comparisons can be made. The standard estimate for the loss of life due to the Crusades is 1-3 million, meaning that the War of the Five Kings was roughly as lethal in three or four years as two hundred years (1091-1291) of medieval religious warfare in the Near East. Alternately, the Albigensian Crusade – an effort in France to suppress the ‘cathar’ heresy – is thought to have killed anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 people; the main of the violence took twenty years (1209-1229), but the death toll also typically includes decades of efforts by the Inquisition which were only complete in 1350, a century and a half after the crusade began. Importantly, these wars – which still fall far short of the scale and intensity of war in Westeros – were religious wars, where norms preventing violence against civilians were much weaker.
Most wars were not religious wars, and these tended to be significantly less destructive, especially to the peasant farmers who made up the vast majority of the population. Partly, that was simply good sense: in a territorial war, control over the peasantry and their agricultural production was the goal, so mass-murdering the peasantry accomplished little. Wars between lords could thus often occur ‘over the heads’ of the peasantry (although the danger of raiding or of having food stolen for use by the armies remained acute – we shouldn’t minimize how hard even these wars could be for the people on the ground).
Another factor was a set of social norms. While the Middle Ages was a period of frequent (small) wars, it also saw some of the first efforts to curtail violence in a general sense, arising out of the Catholic Church: the Peace of God and Truce of God movements. The Peace of God (10th-11th cent.) gave religious protection to the peasantry and the clergy (along with women and widows) as non-combatants. The Church encouraged knights and lords to swear oaths to the effect that they would not violate the peace by attacking the peasantry.
That’s not to say that this prohibition always held – in practice, it seems to have mostly been honored in the breach. But it is a clear contrast to warfare in Westeros, where striking at the civilian population is clearly normal – Tywin thinks nothing of “setting the Riverlands on fire from God’s eye to Red Fork” (S1E10) and none of his bannermen questions the order. Cersei’s Season 8 effort to deter Daenerys from attacking by gathering civilians is attempted only because she thinks that Daenerys is different from a normal lord – who presumably would think nothing of the deterrent.
In this sense, warfare in Westeros is less like warfare in the Middle Ages – where, observed or no, there was a general sense that some individuals were ‘civilians’ and thus not valid military targets – and more like warfare in Antiquity. To the Romans, for instance, wars were generally against peoples – the Romans will talk about being at war with the Carthaginians (all of them) or the Celtiberi (all of them) or the Helvetii (all of them). The one exception are the Hellenistic monarchies of the East, which were the personal possessions of royal families rather than larger ethnic groupings – there the Romans went to war with individual monarchs. But that was the exception, rather than the rule.
In that context – where the Romans are at war with an entire people, then the entire people became valid military targets. And the Romans behaved as such. Polybius describes the Roman process for sacking a city – “When Scipio thought that a sufficient number of troops had entered [the city] he sent most of them, as is the Roman custom, against the inhabitants of the city with order to kill all they encountered, sparing none, and not to start pillaging until the signal was given…one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half, and the dismembered limbs of other animals…” (Polybius 10.15.4-5; emphasis mine). Such slaughter was not seen as outside the rules of war, but rather a normal consequence of attempting to hold out against a besieging army. A city which wanted to avoid massacre should surrender before the siege began in earnest (the last moment to so surrender, under Roman rules of warfare, was before the first ram touched the city wall).
It is true that on occasion, the same kind of indiscriminate killing occurred in the Middle Ages, almost always in the context of religious wars (where, the enemy being heretics or infidels, the religious restrictions on violence did not hold), but even then it is typically presented by the sources as unusual and shocking. The capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade (1099) is the typical example of peak medieval brutality – the crusaders massacred much of the city’s population in a horrific spree of blood-letting. Raymond d’Aguliers, an eyewitness, declares of the massacre that “If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief,” (trans. A.C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses via Edward Peters, The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartes and Other Source Materials) – yet such a slaughter would have been normal and unremarkable in the Roman world – or, seemingly, in Westeros. What was exceptional in 1099AD was normal in 199BC – or in King’s Landing.
Of course, there is another reason why medieval wars tended to be much less destructive – medieval rulers simply lacked the capacity – in administration, infrastructure and resources – to deal that much damage. Which brings us to:
Scale in Warfare
Warfare in medieval Europe was generally a relatively small affair. While a lot of attention is paid to wars between kings – the Hundred Years War, War of the Roses, etc. – the vast majority of conflicts were small, between local lords with limited holdings. This kind of warfare often involved ‘armies’ of only dozens or hundreds of men. In the past, I’ve had students read excerpts from the many complaints of Hugh V of Lusignan (dating to 1028) – Hugh is perpetually in military conflict with his neighbors, but the scale of such conflicts is tiny – he takes just 43 horsemen to try to win a castle and some land, for instance (yet it is a large enough force that his Lord, the Count of Aquitaine, is aware he’s taken it and orders him back to court). The same sort of small-scale warfare populations the ‘tales of deeds’ (French: Chansons de Geste), like that of Raoul de Cambrai, where Raoul spends the poem attempting to recover the fief of Vermandois (Raoul’s chanson also ties back into the previous point about norms of warfare: Raoul breaks the Peace of God by attacking a convent, which causes his best knight, Bernier, to side against him; Bernier then slays Raoul in battle, leading to a blood feud between the families. Note how the transgression of the religious protection owed to non-combatants thus leads to the protagonists’ demise and a permanent rift in the community – the moral is clear: don’t attack non-combatants).
In comparison, the armies of Westeros are huge. Going by the Wiki of Ice and Fire, we might estimate the field armies – not inclusive of garrisons and other small forces – of each of the major players as roughly:
The North: 20-30,000 (but slow to gather; notional strength 45,000)
Iron Islands: 20,000
Riverlands: c. 20,000 (notional strength 45,000, but divided politically)
Vale of Arryn: Roughly equal to the North or Dorne (c. 45,000 notional)
Westerlands: 35,000 in the field in the war (notional: 55,000)
Crownlands: 10,000 to 15,000
Stormlands: c. 30,000
The Reach: 80,000-100,000 deployed with Renly (!!)
Dorne: c. 50,000 thought to be available to the Martells
For comparison, the French army at Agincourt (1415) was no larger than perhaps 35,000 men (some historians have argued it was significantly smaller), yet its defeat was enough to cripple France (suggesting the army represented the lion’s share of the field forces available to the king of France at the time). The English field force was smaller – only around 9,000. Agincourt was no small skirmish – these were royal armies that represented the best their kings could do (Henry V, king of England was with his army, in fact). Nor were these typical sizes restricted to England and France. The Battle of Nicopolis (1396) was between the Ottomans on one side and a grand alliance of Christian powers on the other, and probably involved no more than 40,000 men on both sides (meaning two armies of c. 20k), despite the fact that the battle was between the well-organized Ottomans on one side and more than a dozen European powers on the other.
In comparison, the armies of Westeros are massive – and the figures above do not include the multiple hundred-ship fleets that many lords maintain either. Renly Baratheon alone has a host in the field of 100,000 men; Mace Tyrell later marches to King’s Landing with 70,000 Tyrell soldiers. For comparison, in 1527 – well into the early modern period (where army size jumps markedly) – the entire Ottoman army consisted of 18,000 regular troops and 90,000 timariots (ethnic Turks called up to fight for specific campaigns, much like knights and their retinues). The Ottomans were far better organized than any medieval European power (thus the requirement that opposing Ottoman expansion required grand alliances – see above). And all of those Ottoman troops absolutely could not be maintained in one place, as Renly does with his host.
It does little good to protest that Westeros covers a massive area, because that simply introduces new problems: the logistics of armies this large are likely beyond the capacity of most medieval European rulers. Even the Romans – whose logistical capacity significantly exceeded that of the medieval period – rarely assembled armies as large as Renly’s or Mace Tyrell’s and only for short times. Tiberius (as a general under the emperor Augustus) assembled an army of c. 100,000 to deal with a revolt in Illyricum (modern Albania, Bosnia, parts of Croatia and Slovenia) – the army was sufficient to eat the province into famine within a single year (which seems to have been, in fact, Tiberius’ goal – suppress the revolt by denying it supplies) and never strayed far from the rivers (where it could be supplied at distance).
Mace Tyrell’s army will have had to march down the Roseroad some 850 miles to reach King’s landing. It probably moved no faster than 10 miles a day, so it was marching for 85 days (file that number away – we’ll come back to it). 80,000 men, along with pack animals for a fairly lean baggage train (c. 20k mules – yes that is a fairly lean baggage train for an army of this size!) would consume around 189 tons of food per day. The army might be able to carry around 20 days supply with it (that assumes those mules are pulling lots of big, slow wagons) and it is far too large to supply itself by simply pillaging the local peasants as it moves. That means the Tyrells will have to have built up stockpiles of food at key points all along the Roseroad. How much food? Assuming the army sets out of Highgarden fully supplied (this seems unlikely), 12,285 tons. And that doesn’t even account for horses.
No medieval king had access to those kinds of resources, nor to the sort of administration which could procure such massive amounts of supplies. The Roman Empire could do this – but it required the involvement of treasury officials, local magistrates and a built up system of supply (which was maintained by a large, standing army of professional soldiers). Which leads into:
Army Building for Dummies
Remember that 85 day number? We’re coming back to it. Soon. I promise.
The phrase I drill into my student’s heads about the structure of medieval armies is that they are a retinue of retinues. What I mean by this is that the way a medieval king raises his armies is that he has a bunch of military aristocrats (read: nobles) who owe him military service (they are his ‘vassals’) – his retinue. When he goes to war, the king calls on all of his vassals to show up. But each of those vassals also have their own bunch of military aristocrats who are their vassals – their retinue. And this repeats down the line, even down to an individual knight, who likely has a handful of non-nobles as his retinue (perhaps a few of his peasants, or maybe he’s hired a mercenary or two on retainer).
If you want to read a really detailed (and rather dry) look at how this functioned, take a look at David Simpkin’s The English Aristocracy at War (2008); he combed surviving English records from c. 1272 to 1314 and he analyses (among other things) average retinue size. The average retinue found was five men although significant lords (like earls) might have hundreds of men in their retinues (which were in turn comprised of the retinues of their own retainers). So the noble’s retinue is the combined retinues of all of his retainers, and the king’s army is the combined total of everyone’s retainer’s retainers, if that make sense. Thus: a retinue of retinues.
This is exactly the system that Game of Thrones claims its armies work on. The high lords – folks like Tywin Lannister – ‘call their banners’ and their bannermen – the Westerosi term for vassals (and presumably a direct take on what was called a ‘knight banneret’ historically – the lowest form of aristocrat who would have his own banner and thus his own military unit) show up with their own retinues, exactly as above. And, at first blush, this seems quite medieval – this is how medieval armies in the High and Late Middle Ages were formed (mostly). The problem is that armies in Westeros never seem to function within the constraints of this system.
First, the obvious: this system, where armies are assembled based on personal relationships and where the smallest units are often very small simply does not have the capacity to scale up forever. There are just only so many retainers a king can keep a personal relationship with – and so on down the line.
Second, those retainers aren’t ‘on retainer’ to serve forever. They are obliged to a certain number of days of military service per year. Specifically, the standard number – which comes out of William the Conqueror’s settlement of his vassals after taking the English throne – was 40 days. The entire point of this system is that the king gives his vassals land and they give him military service so that no one has to pay anyone anything, because medieval kings do not have the kind of revenue to maintain long-term standing armies. It is no accident that the most destructive medieval conflicts were religious wars where the warriors participating were essentially engaged in ‘armed pilgrimage’ and so might stay in the field longer (God having a more unlimited claim on a knight’s time than the king).
Finally, imagine organizing supply for an army like this. Every retinue unit comes in a different size: Lord Tarly might have a few hundred men, Lord Risley a couple dozen, Lord Hastwyck showed up with just his household guard of five and so on (for dozens and dozens of retinues). You – the king’s quartermaster – do not know how large these retinues are, but you must ration and distribute food so that you don’t run into a position where one retinue is starving while the others have surplus. You also need to coordinate the baggage train of excess food…but of course most of the wagons and pack animals belong to all of the minor lords with their small retinues. You begin to see the problem: centralized supply – necessary for keeping a large army fed – is practically impossible.
(If you want to read about the difficulties of keeping even an early modern army (with somewhat more centralized supply and logistics) together at long distance, consider reading Geoffrey Parker’s The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road and keep in mind that, at its peak, the army he describes (and the insurmountable challenges of paying and supplying it) was never more than 90,000 men – smaller than Renly Baratheon’s host – and tended to be on average a bit less than 60,000 strong).
What Kind of Army is This?
So, to sum up what we’ve covered so far: warfare in Westeros isn’t actually very medieval. While we’re told that the armies are organized on medieval lines, they are much too large and the wars they wage are far more destructive than what was normal for political (read: non-religious) conflicts in the Middle Ages. Moreover, they seem unconstrained by the cultural norms of the Middle Ages (like the Peace of God), or by the logistical limits common to (poorly organized) medieval armies.
Is there a time in European history these armies would fit better into?
I think the answer to this is ‘yes’ – these armies are not medieval, but rather early modern in their size, capabilities and destructiveness.
Several things set the early modern period apart from the Middle Ages, but the one that concerns us most right here is state capacity. What I mean by that is the ability of the state (read: the king) to extract revenue and use that revenue to do things (raise military forces, reshape society, hire bureaucrats to extract more revenue, etc). Medieval kings had very limited state capacity, because their own nobles – who (see above) had their own armies – worked to limit the power of the central monarch. In contrast, the early modern period (c. 1450 – 1789) is a period of rapidly increasing state capacity as monarchs begin to aggressively centralize the governance of their country.
Changes in the nature of armies is both a cause and effect of this. Centralized royal power enabled larger, more standardized, more professional armies raised through royal revenues outside of the control of the nobility – which were, in turn, efficient mechanisms for the suppression of the nobility and thus further centralization of power (I should note: the scholarship on the exact mechanisms by which this happens is voluminous and contested – this is just a general description of the phenomenon; ch7 of Wayne Lee’s Waging War (2016) is actually a pretty layman-approachable introduction to the history and the debate if you want that).
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the visual language that Game of Thrones uses for all of the armies of Westeros save for those of the North is drawn from the early modern period. These armies have uniform equipment – presumably provided by state armories – and have been trained and drilled to march and fight in time. Even if we dispense with the visual representation of the armies as mistakes on the show’s part, the fact that these armies can stay in the field month after month implies that at least significant parts of these forces are effectively professional and being paid for their service, rather than having been raised in a vassalage system.
The size of armies also points in this direction. While the exact trajectory of army growth in the early modern period is somewhat contested, what is not contested is that armies in the early modern period were substantially larger than those of the late Middle Ages. From medieval armies in the thousands or low tens of thousands, the armies of the great powers of Europe ballooned into the upper tens of thousands in the 1500s and then well over 100,000 by the mid-1600s. These armies were not generally concentrated in one place due to logistics issues, but the overall destructive capacity of the state had increased several times over.
Thus while George R. R. Martin has often pointed to the War of the Roses (1455-1487 – thus, I may note, an early modern, not medieval war) as the historical inspiration for Game of Thrones, the scale of conflict and the size of armies more clearly evokes the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, like the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). As one might imagine, larger armies often means greater ‘collateral damage’ so let’s look at how the early modern period compares to the Middle Ages in the destructiveness of warfare.
The wars of the 16th and 17th centuries – especially the Thirty Years War – were shockingly destructive compared to what had come before. Part of the reason for this was the nature of the conflicts: many of these wars were born out of the Protestant Reformation and were thus religious wars, pitting Protestants against Catholics. In that kind of a war – unlike a political dispute over a throne or territory – the enemy populace becomes a target of violence for believing the ‘wrong’ thing. In the Thirty Years War, Catholic armies would destroy Protestant villages and vice versa, with the objective of changing the religious make-up of the region by violence.
But not all of the conflicts of this period were religious wars. While the secular wars never reached the raw butchery of the Thirty Years War, they were still markedly more destructive than what had come before. Another part of the reason for this was the improvement in the armies themselves – you will see people chalk this up to gunpowder, but slow firing muskets aren’t that much more destructive than the weapons of the past. But a medieval army – as we’ve discussed – could only be so big, and could only stay in the field so long. But the new standing armies of the early modern period were made up of professionals who can war all year round, and they’re larger to boot. Moreover, the Reformation – by splintering the power of the Church – had weakened the very religious norms which sometimes restrained violence (however weakly) in the Middle Ages. The consequence was armies both more capable and more willing to inflict damage on the population at large.
Finally, the large size of these armies also contributed to greater levels of destructiveness in another, unexpected way: they strained against the very upper-limits of pre-railroad logistics. As governments struggled to pay, feed and equip these soldiers, armies in the field were forced to supply themselves locally and to pay soldiers in captured loot, at the expense of the local population. Under these conditions, restraining hungry soldiers from acts of extreme violence in taking food or loot became increasingly difficult, verging on impossible. Armies in the field became almost elemental forces of destruction, careening from siege to battle to siege and wrecking the countryside they passed over.
Thus the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) depopulated much of modern-day Germany, killing around a quarter of the entire population (but the carnage was often very localized – some areas were effectively untouched, others were completely depopulated). In the Low Countries, the Eighty-Years War (1568-1648) created a depopulated no-man’s land where the two sides (the Spanish armies and Dutch rebels) met in a long defensive stalemate. Spanish armies, having gone long without pay, also sacked Antwerp (1576) – the regional seat of Spanish government – to recover their arrears in pay through looting, severely damaging the local economy for decades and killing thousands of inhabitants.
This kind of war – less limited, with larger, more destructive and more rapacious armies – is far closer to what we see in Game of Thrones. Ironically, Joffery actually suggests (S1E3) building an early modern style standing army and has the idea dismissed by Cersei. One wonders though – given that Cersei knows little of war and isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks – if Tywin hasn’t already begun using Lannister gold to build the early modern style army he apparently already has.
Conclusions on Military Medievalism
The military situation in Westeros thus does not seem to fit the actual European Middle Ages very well. Westerosi armies do not seem to be limited by short terms of military service common in medieval armies, they are much larger than medieval armies ever were and capable of significantly more destruction. Moreover – and this is a thread we will pick up again next time – they seem unconstrained by the social and religious limits to violence of the Middle Ages. We should not be overly rosy – those limits were often more honored in the breach than the observance (and they didn’t apply to everyone equally either). Nevertheless, the sharp increase in military mortality in the early modern period attests to the fact that those limits – organizational limits, along with cultural ones – did, in fact, result in a lower overall level of violence.
It seems like almost any discussion of the Middle Ages begins with “this period was extremely violent.” And there is some truth to that – compared to the modern world, medieval kings and lords went to war a lot. War was a normal part of life. But compared to the early modern period or even classical antiquity, these wars tended to be relatively small and their impact limited. Compared to the modern period (meaning our historical period) – well, we managed to kill more people (in an absolute sense) in a single horrific spasm of earth-shattering violence from 1937 to 1945 (c. 85m people) than probably died in all medieval European wars combined. Violence is relative. Compared to the long peace of the Roman Empire (27 BC – c. AD 235; the empire itself lasted to c. 450 in the West (and to 1453 in the east), but its last centuries were more violent), yes, the Middle Ages were quite violent. But compared to what came after, the Middle Ages had more war, but less death (and we haven’t even discussed the human catastrophe that was the discovery of the new world…).
Does this mean Martin has ‘failed’ somehow? No – not at all. Again, A Song of Ice and Fire is not a thinly disguised history lecture, it is a fantasy novel series. Martin has built a society with its own rules and systems and then followed that societies’ rules and systems to their conclusions. Instead, what I want to stress is that – as it comes to military affairs – the armies of Westeros are actually not very much like the armies of the European Middle Ages, despite the similarities in knights and arms and armor.
Nevertheless, observing the difference between the Middle Ages and Westeros is important because it reframes one of the central themes of the setting. It is comforting to think that the out-of-control violence in Westeros is the product of something – a culture of warrior-knights and violence – that we don’t have anymore. But the opposite is true: out-of-control violence, of the sort Westeros has, is the product of something we still very much have: the tremendous capacity of the modern administrative state for violence.
Our modern administrative states can do wonderful things – they build roads and schools, provide healthcare (sometimes), they can care for the poor and regulate workplaces. But they can also produce spectacular and horrifying amounts of violence. It is this task – the violence, not the schools or the roads – for which they were designed and to which they remain best suited. We forget this (by pretending such violence belongs only to HBO and the distant past) at our peril.
Next time, we’ll look at how cultural and religious norms function in Westerosi society. The Middle Ages in Europe was in many ways defined by strong cultural and especially religious norms. How does Westeros match up?