New Acquisitions: How It Wasn’t: Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages, Part III

The following is the third part of a three part series where we look at the question “how medieval is Game of Thrones?” and – if not the Middle Ages – what period of European history does Game of Thrones most draw from? This part will look at the political (and to a degree) economic institutions of Westeros, as presented in the show.

Part I, which you can find here, examines military affairs (and also examines the rationale behind writing this at all), while part II, available here, looked at religious and family norms. I think all three parts probably ought to be read in order, so if this is your first dip into these posts, I encourage you to start at the beginning. The conclusion of this post, in particular, assumes you have already read the other two.

So, without any further ado, let’s be off.

Vassals and Bannermen

I want to begin with an observation, obvious but frequently ignored: states are complex things. The apparatus by which a state gathers revenue, raises armies (with that revenue), administers justice and tries to organize society – that apparatus requires people. Not just any people: they need to be people of the educated, literate sort to be able to record taxes, read the laws and transmit (written) royal orders and decrees.

(Note: for a more detailed primer on what this kind of apparatus can look like, check out Wayne Lee’s (@MilHist_Lee) talk “Reaping the Rewards: How the Governor, the Priest, the Taxman, and the Garrison Secure Victory in World History” here. He’s got some specific points he’s driving at, but the first half of the talk is a broad overview of the problems you face as a suddenly successful king. Also, the whole thing is fascinating.)

In a pre-modern society, this task – assembling and organizing the literate bureaucrats you need to run a state – is very difficult. Literacy is often very low, so the number of individuals with the necessary skills is minuscule. Training new literate bureaucrats is expensive, as is paying the ones you have, creating a catch-22 where the king has no money because he has no tax collectors and he has no tax collectors because he has no money. Looking at how states form is thus often a question of looking at how this low-administration equilibrium is broken. The administrators you need might be found in civic elites who are persuaded to do the job in exchange for power, or in a co-opted religious hierarchy of educated priests, for instance.

Vassalage represents another response to the problem, which is the attempt to – as much as possible – do without. Let’s specify terms: I am using ‘vassalage’ here because it is specific in a way that the more commonly used ‘feudalism’ is not. I am not (yet) referring to how peasants (in Westeros the ‘smallfolk’) interact with lords (which is better termed ‘manorialism’ than as part of feudalism anyway), but rather how military aristocrats (knights, lords, etc) interact with each other.

So let us say you are a king who has suddenly come into a lot of land, probably by bloody conquest. You need to extract revenue from that land in order to pay for the armies you used to conquer it, but you don’t have a pile of literate bureaucrats to collect those taxes and no easy way to get some. By handing out that land to your military retainers as fiefs (they become your vassals), you can solve a bunch of problems at once. First, you pay off your military retainers for their service with something you have that is valuable (land). Second, by extracting certain promises (called ‘homage’) from them, you ensure that they will continue to fight for you. And third, you are partitioning your land into smaller and smaller chunks until you get them in chunks small enough to be administered directly, with only a very, very minimal bureaucratic apparatus. Your new vassals, of course, may do the same with their new land, further fragmenting the political system.

A wonderful map of political fragmentation in the Kingdom of France, made by Gabe Moss. Note that each of these colored zones (indicating a major vassal) would have been further subdivided (so the Duke of Aquitaine would have his own vassals just like the King of France). The actual holdings of the French kings are the small areas labeled “Royal Lands of Hugh Capet.”

This is the system in Westeros, albeit after generations of inheritance (such that families, rather than individuals, serve as the chief political unit). The Westerosi term for a vassal is a ‘bannerman.’ Greater military aristocrats with larger holding are lords, while lesser ones are landed knights. Landed knights often hold significant lands and a keep (fortified manner house), which would make them something more akin to European castellans or barons than, say, a 14th century English Knight Banneret (who is unlikely to have been given permission to fortify his home, known as a license to crenellate). What is missing from this system are the vast majority of knights, who would not have had any kind of fortified dwelling or castle, but would have instead been maintained as part of the household of some more senior member of the aristocracy. A handful of landless knights show up in Game of Thrones, but they should be by far the majority and make up most of the armies.

There’s one final missing ingredient here, which is castles, something Westeros has in abundance. Castles – in the absence of castle-breaking cannon – shift power downward in this system, because they allow vassals to effectively resist their lieges. That may not manifest in open rebellion so much as a refusal to go on campaign or supply troops. This is important, because it makes lieges as dependent on their vassals as vassals are on their lieges.

Honor, Homage and Fealty

What the above means is that if, say, Tywin Lannister wants his army, he only gets it if House Falwell, and Ferren and Foote and Clegane choose to come out and fight for him. If Tywin wants to administer the countryside, change a law, count his subjects, impose new taxes – he can only do these things if the houses under him follow through (remember, he has functionally no administrative apparatus of his own – that’s why he outsourced the job). But, Tywin’s options to coerce this cooperation are – because of those castles – extremely limited.

To refer to a distinction introduced in Wayne Lee’s talk linked above – Tywin cannot rely on force (do it because I will kill you if you don’t), he has to use power (do it because you think you ought). Because the apparatus of the state here is very limited, that power is largely generated through personal relationships – you ought to fight for your liege because you have a personal relationship with him. You see him fairly often, you swore loyalty to him (in person!!), he (or his ancestors) have helped resolve your problems in the past and most importantly, because he has kept faith with you in the past.

Which is a way of saying that this system runs on trust and reputation, and that runs both ways. Even as Tywin watches his vassals for signs of disloyalty, his vassals are watching him. Is he true to his word? Can I trust him? Because if the answer is no – I best start hedging my bets. And that bet-hedging is going to come in ways Tywin does not want – I might refuse to come out and fight, or redirect my efforts to fortifying my own holdings, or even switch over to another liege. And in the very early seasons, key characters – most notably Tywin and Tyrion – know this and act accordingly. Tywin talks a good game about lions and sheep, but when it comes down to it, he knows his reputation matters – what the sheep say about the lion matters a great deal, it turns out. Robb Stark’s failure to handle the Karstarks, Tullys and Freys is his eventual undoing. Tyrion berates Cersei on returning to King’s Landing for her actions which might call the Lannister reputation into question (‘that bit of theatre will haunt our family for a generation.’)

Harold Godwinson swearing an oath to William, Duke of Normandy. The boxes there are holy relics, because oaths are usually sworn on something, and enforced by God. This is an essential element of oath-taking often left out fictional treatments of the institution, but they are what gives the oath its power.

What is unusual here is how frequently key characters deviate from the norms these societies need to function – Westerosi nobles are stunningly treacherous for people who rely on systems based in trust for survival. In a system which runs on trust and reputation, elites tend to value trust and reputation. They produce literature extolling it (as, indeed, do most ‘mirrors for princes’ – guidebooks on how to be a good ruler – from the Middle Ages do; see, for instance, Book 3 of Dhouda’s Liber Manualis (9th cent.), which goes on and on about trustworthiness) and refine its practice. The sort of eye-popping treachery so common in Game of Thrones was far rarer in the actual historical Middle Ages for exactly the reason Game of Thrones would lead you to believe: it is almost always self-defeating.

The problem here comes in the later seasons and how they re-contextualize all of this concern. That problem has a name, and it is Cersei. Cersei breaks all of these rules. Even early on, she has her soldiers (who recall – are not paid mercenaries, but likely vassals of her house who can very much take their skills elsewhere if they don’t like their current employer) demonstrate her own capricious untrustworthiness on Lord Baelish (she has also, I will note, mistaken violence for power). She humiliates Barriston Selmy in court, a spectacle her own future vassals might have remembered. She incinerated her own family – by blood and marriage – along with her erstwhile allies. Cersei is endlessly treacherous, often foolishly and obviously so, and yet…

And yet it doesn’t matter. The Lannister bannermen in the penultimate episode mount the walls to fight a doomed battle for her anyway. Not only is that behavior inexplicable, it hardly seems possible. Who, after all, is raising and leading these men? Who is coordinating supplies and grain shipments to the capital? Remember, the reason for this distributed system of political leadership is that the central state does not have the administrative apparatus to raise armies or feed cities on its own – it has to outsource that to vassals. Vassals that Cersei has murdered or alienated, almost to a man. Cersei is defeated because dragons are unstoppable monsters, but she should have been defeated because she would have simply been incapable of raising an army at all.

Or of administering King’s Landing (much less her more distant holdings) which brings us to:

King’s Landing Is Very Big, or
Uh-oh, it’s Logistics Time, isn’t it?

This may seem like an odd place to talk about King’s Landing, but the problems inherent in managing a city this size neatly point to some of the problems in Westeros’ vision of medieval government. King’s Landing is huge, with a canon population of 500,000 (for comparison, that is ten times the size of its in-show stand-in, Dubrovnik). No city in medieval Europe was this large – the nearest contender would have been 5th to 8th century Constantinople (the highest estimates for the city in this period cap out at 500,00, most are quite a bit lower). The Constantinople of this period, of course, was no medieval city, but a relic of the great cities of the Roman Empire, with all of the municipal architecture (like aqueducts, cisterns, granaries and high capacity ports) that implied.

King’s Landing, with rapidly reducing population. This city is still probably too small – compare this image with the one below showing the extent of Constantinople’s walls in the Middle Ages.

By contrast, Paris seems to have ranged between 200,000 and 300,000 (mostly towards the lower end of the range) in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period (it only reaches 500,000 at around 1700), while late Medieval London probably capped out around 100,000 (and also only hit half a million around 1700).

(Rome at its height under the Roman Empire was quite a bit larger – Neville Morley estimates a population close to or at a million (Metropolis and Hinterland (1996), but of course that city belongs to Antiquity, not the Middle Ages and our question here is how medieval Game of Thrones is. It also seems worth noting that the apparatus of actually running and feeding a city of that size would almost certainly be beyond the capabilities of the sort of administration Westeros possesses.)

It’s not clear that Benioff and Weiss – or Martin, for that matter – has quite realized the problems a city of this size poses. The physical size of the city is inconsistent in the show, but it frequently seems too small. The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, running the circuit of the city at its height, enclosed some 5.5 square miles. The image below gives some sense of that scale – at 500,000, we would expect all of the land in the walls to be built up (the population density of c. 400 per hectare that implies is reasonable for fairly dense ancient city, but would require the entire space to be built up; it is somewhat less dense than supposed for Rome (see Metropolis above)).

Artists rendition of an aerial view of medieval or late Antique Constantinople. To reach the population of King’s Landing, all of the space within the walls should be built-up cityscape. Note also the large and prominent port facilities to provide food for the city. Constantinople was also served by aqueducts and cisterns for water-supply.

Now, the show broadly wants to imply that the rulers of Westeros handle the administration of King’s Landing by not handling it – thus the city is poor, squalid and stinks. This explanation, unfortunately, does not work for a city this size. Even well administered, a city of this size would likely be poor, squalid and stinky, but without effective administration, it would be dead from starvation. Very roughly, we might estimate the grain requirements of each resident at around 17kg per month (which would need to be supplemented by other food-stuffs), or 8,500,000kg per month for the whole city. That means the city needs to import 312 tons of grain, per day, every day. More, really, because they need to stockpile for the winter, and the sort of ships Westeros has can’t sail in all seasons (but that’s a topic for another day).

That food is going to need to be imported over long distance. Assuming fairly good land (here I am partly borrowing from Erdkamp’s figures in The Grain Market in the Roman Empire (2005) and partly using my own; note that ancient and medieval farming productivity is much lower than modern) and a 10% surplus (because the farmers eat most of the food they grow), we might expect that a city like King’s Landing requires a minimum of 6,426,000 acres of good wheat-land (10,040sq miles) to sustain itself. In short, King’s Landing would require a grain farm the size of Massachusetts merely to meet the minimum survival requirements.

But that food almost certainly cannot travel overland. In Game of Thrones, we are repeatedly told that King’s Landing is supplied by the Reach, with food moving up the Roseroad to the capital. While it is hard to get clean estimates, the road from Highgarden to King’s Landing is some 900 miles long; as we’ve noted elsewhere, transport of bulk goods overland before railroads is expensive. Working from the Roman Price Edict of Diocletian, the price of grain doubles every hundred miles it is moved overland – even the Lannisters might struggle to feed their considerable household at those prices. Even if King’s Landing sat in the center of a perfect circle of ideal farmland (and it very clearly does not) it would not be possible for even most of the grain the city required to move overland.

All of which is to say that for King’s Landing to exist, the government of Westeros almost certainly needs to coordinate long distance grain transport to the capital, to the tune of hundreds of tons every day, and most of that will move by sea. The Romans did this, but they had a fairly sophisticated bureaucracy (for the ancient world) to do it with, the Cura Annonae, which coordinated purchase (often through taxes), shipping, baking, supply and storage for a couple hundred thousand citizens in the city (the rest were stuck with what the market would provide, but the market could make use of the infrastructure built by the state (roads, ports) for this purpose). And these are the beginnings, not the end of administrative problems: firewood (for heating and cooking), water, waste, ports, roads and on and on. The Roman investment in Rome’s port, at Ostia, was massive.

But, you will recall, the entire point of vassalage was to limit the administrative overhead of the king, because the king had few administrators. And no, to be clear, the Gold Cloaks are nowhere near enough to manage King’s Landing. The sort of government we see running Westeros is incapable of feeding King’s Landing. It is thus fortunate that it is also incapable of producing King’s Landing.

For a city to grow, there has to be some economic nexus that pull in the food required to support the large numbers of non-farmers who live in the city. That nexus was often initially a market (which in turn attracts artisans and other kinds of production), along with the concentration of elite landholders who owned the countryside but lived in the city. But to produce truly huge cities, pulling food from hundreds of miles away, a city needs much, much more economic pull. Before industrialization, effectively the only source of that kind of economic pull was taxes.

Essentially, the seat of government, taxing a large empire, pulled vast wealth into the capital, where it could then form the economic nexus required. In Rome, conquest made elite Romans fantastically rich, and in turn those Romans wanted to purchase all sorts of goods and services, which created the economic demand for labor (as well as the economic resources required to buy all that food). Roman taxes were also used to provide free bread, as mentioned, to thousands of citizens, directly subsidizing the city’s population. Essentially, the city of Rome grew fat on the continual flood of taxes extracted from the Roman provinces. The same was true, broadly, of Constantinople or the great capitals of China under the various ruling dynasties (or the great imperial European capitals of the Early Modern and Modern periods).

But one fact hammered home again and again is that the revenue raising power of the Iron Throne is pathetic. And this is no surprise – think back to how this political system works. The king has handed out land to his vassals so that they can raise forces on that land from the revenue they extract. Little to none of that tax money comes to the king – so the Iron Throne must subsist only one the tax revenues of the Crownlands. This is, to put it lightly, not enough to justify a city of this size. If the primary economic activity of King’s Landing is the Red Keep and the royal household, King’s Landing would never have grown so large. Which is fortunate, in a way, in that it relieves the king of having to watch the city starve because he cannot possibly feed it.

Running a City in the Middle Ages

Of course, historical medieval rulers were perfectly aware that their limited administrations were not very good at running cities of any size. Even a modest medieval city (something in the low-to-mid tens of thousands range in population) requires more administration and government than a king’s court is likely to have. Yet a city cannot be broken up into smaller and smaller vassals the way the countryside can. What is a king to do?

The answer, historically, was to treat the city – which was self-governing – effectively as a vassal of the king or lord who controlled the region. For instance, many of the cities of the Netherlands were vassals of the Dukes of Burgundy (who were also the Dukes and Counts of a bewildering array of titles in the Low Countries). The City of London made sure that its ancient charter and rights were respected by one English king after another. Indeed, the City of London as well as “all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports” have their “liberties and free customs” explicitly protected in Magna Carta (section 13). In the Holy Roman Empire, many of the most important cities were direct subjects of the emperor, the ‘Free and Imperial Cities’ and had considerable autonomy.

What that city self-government looked like varied greatly from one city to the next. Most town politics were dominated by a selection of elite wealthy families (members of these families are sometimes generally referred to as ‘patricians’) and powerful commercial associations of tradesmen (that is, guilds). However they were organized, all of these individuals would be classified in Westeros as ‘smallfolk’ – low-born tradesmen and landowners made good. Nevertheless, in medieval Europe these men were important – treating them poorly might lead a town to revolt, and a fortified city with its own town militia in revolt was a tricky military problem. For example, the effort by Philip IV of France to reduce the independence of the Flemish towns he controlled triggered a revolt which annihilated a French army at Courtrai in 1302 (Philip eventually ‘wins’ a partial victory, but has to recognize the independence of most of the Flemish towns).

The absence of these wealthy and influential townsmen is even more striking considering how much of the action takes place in King’s Landing or Oldtown, both cities far too large to be directly administered by the Houses which supposedly run them (Baratheon for King’s Landing, Hightower for Oldtown). It also removes a significant element of historical medieval governance, especially in the later Middle Ages – the presence of significant non-nobles who need to be managed.

In Westeros, smallfolk are completely excluded from government to a degree that makes nonsense of the administration of these large cities. Westeros is a world where ‘feudal’ lords make up the entirety of government. In contrast, if there is one thing that defines the politics of the Middle Ages, it is fragmented power structures, where kings are forced to manage not only military-aristocrat-nobles like themselves, but also clergymen – some of whom are also the rulers of their own fiefs (they are ‘prince-bishops’ and ‘prince-archbishops,’ because many of the towns and small regions of Europe essentially came to be ruled by the local bishop), and the representatives of important towns. In places like England, even non-noble landholders – the gentry – were significant, in part because they provided an important source of military manpower by the 13th and 14th centuries.

We’ll return to this problem in the conclusion as we tie some threads from all three posts together about structures of power in Westeros and the Middle Ages, but first I want to deal with one more major observation:

The North is a Nation-State

This is not a problem, per se, but it is something about Westeros that would have been deeply out of place in the historical Middle Ages. Medieval kingdoms and Early Modern States were both built around the personal holdings of individual rulers. For instance, to talk of ‘Austria’ or ‘Burgundy’ in the 1400s as states/countries/governments is to engage in a degree of anachronism. There was no Austrian state, merely the collection of lands either owned or controlled by whoever the reigning Habsburg was at the time. Likewise, Burgundy in, say, 1440 was not a coherent entity, it was simply the collection of lands that Philip the Good (Duke of Burgundy, but also Duke of Brabant, Limburg, Luxemburg and Lothier, Count of Artois, Flanders, Charolais, Haniaut, Holland and Zeeland, and the Margrave of Namur). The ‘kingdom’ was thus not a permanent, durable entity so much as a collection of possessions the same way my personal ‘library’ is not permanent building but just a term for ‘books I happen to own right now.’

A map of the holdings of the Dukes of Burgundy. Each outlined section represents a different title held by the same person, with each title having its own vassals (many of which were bishops or cities).

It is thus a bit odd that the regions of Westeros are seen by its inhabitants as being clear and unchanging. For instance, the Reach has borders, those borders do not move and everyone in those borders is loyal to House Tyrell. This is not how medieval rule works. The borders of, say, France, shifted over time (some places we consider ‘obviously’ part of France were added only quite late, like French Flanders or Provence) as the ability of the French king to control those regions changed. For long periods of the Middle Ages, large parts of France were effectively controlled by the Kings of England (because they were also Dukes of this or that French duchy).

The idea that France, or Germany or Italy was a distinct, permanent entity with its own existence apart from a given royal family – more than just a space on a map – which comprised a people, their language and the government of those people, this is a modern phenomenon. Indeed, one may argue, it – that is, the nation-state – is the modern phenomenon.

But in Westeros, the North is different. While it has the same vassalage-based political system as the south, it has a completely different political consciousness, summed up neatly by Lyanna Mormont’s declaration that, “the North remembers – we know no king, but the King in the North whose name is Stark.” The North is not merely the personal possessions and vassals of whatever Stark happens to be running the show – it has a clear and separate existence.

This national identity survived (or was possibly formed during) centuries of Targaryn rule (in part because the Targaryns left the local elites in place) only to reemerge as a state almost immediately after Ned Stark’s death (one assumes Ned Stark’s friendship with Robert Baratheon was the only reason this didn’t happen earlier. Even when the new state failed, it reemerged again following the collapse of what was essentially a Lannister occupation government. The North is religiously distinct, which certainly matters in this context (recall one reason given for Robb Stark to declare himself King was that the Southerners don’t even worship the ‘right gods’) and clearly culturally distinct, with its own distinctive fashions and cultural values. Importantly, this cultural distinctiveness seems to cut down from the nobility through to the commons, with the commoners themselves feeling attachment to the idea of the North and Stark rule. Northern lords seem to feel they have more in common with their smallfolk than they do with, say, the Lannisters.

In this sense, the North may be intended to mirror the medieval Kingdom of Scotland and its efforts to remain independent of the English crown, but the level of unity in the North is much higher. One wonders if Martin has essentially read later Scottish nationalism backwards into the medieval accounts; the earliest hints of a Scottish national identity really begin appearing only in the 1300s (the tail-end of the Middle Ages), though to call even this nationalism is probably premature. Many Scottish nobles, for instance, had more culturally in common with their Anglo-Norman equivalents in England, whereas the lords of the North clearly regard themselves as culturally northern, sharing in the religion, cultural habits, dress and speech patterns there. Moreover, whereas Scotland repeatedly fragmented during the Middle Ages, the North is clearly regarded as a single state with only one family being able to claim the kingship.

While having such an early nation-state in Westeros is not a world-building flaw, per se, it is worth noting that it runs against some of the dominant scholarship concerning how nations form. In particular, Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities (1983), highlights the role of the printing press in creating a common vernacular discourse which in turn encouraged the formation of national identities formed around national print-languages. Given how vast the North is, it is hard to imagine how it maintains the cultural unity that we see from it without this sort of technology providing a way for distant communities to interact with each other.

We may attribute this flaw to the simple effort to blow up the politics of late medieval England on to a continental scale, when the political systems that it is based on – be it systems of vassalage or clan allegiance – do not scale. Nevertheless, we have to conclude that a kingdom like the North – massive and with a strong sense of national unity – would have been a stunning oddity in the European Middle Ages; it is essentially an anachronism.

Conclusions

I want to begin by saying that these three posts are not intended as the sum total of my critique of Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire. Instead, I have addressed a very specific question: how accurate are these works to the culture and society of the European Middle Ages? This is partly why Essos has gone unmentioned here. It has its own problems, particularly the borderline-racist exoticism with which many of its cultures (but especially the Dothraki) are treated, but that is quite separate from Westeros’ historical basis. Those issues would be, I think, best handled separately, and probably by a different sort (read: better) of scholar than I. But I want to return to that core question: how medieval is Game of Thrones?

As I suspect is now obvious, I do not think that Game of Thrones or even A Song of Ice and Fire is a good stand-in for the European Middle Ages. While fans of both commonly declare that Martin has told it ‘how it was,’ it is hard to endorse this view from a historical perspective. Westeros isn’t any better as a substitute for medieval Europe than Middle Earth or Narnia (even after Benioff and Weiss’ labors to remove as much of the supernatural elements from A Song of Ice and Fire as they could). This is not a critique of world-building: there is no reason a fantasy world must resemble a real-world society. But this is a warning about letting this sort of fiction color one’s assumptions about the past.

While the differences I have laid out seem minor, they add up, particularly because nearly all of them push in the same direction: they minimize competing centers of power outside of the nobility. Martin has systematically removed the ‘brakes’ from medieval systems of rule. Perhaps the defining feature of medieval rulership was the fragmentation of power, between lower nobility (those smaller houses we almost never hear about), important smallfolk (like the town governments that do not exist in Westeros), and powerful members of the clergy (either as temporal leaders – prince-bishops – or spiritual ones). Moreover, the ruler was sharply constrained by religious and political norms which demanded certain forms of behavior – piety, fidelity in oaths, etc. – and could harshly punish deviations from these norms.

Martin has kept the weakness of the central monarch, but otherwise torn out all of these other systems from medieval society. Now, it is true that these institutions were weaker in England than in other places in Europe, but that was precisely because the English king was far more powerful than most other monarchs in Europe and had used that power – itself a product of vast royal landholdings far exceeding what the Targaryns or Baratheons have – to sideline competing institutions. But even in England, with its far more powerful central monarch, these institutions were far stronger than they are in Westeros.

Because the narrative of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is so focused on politics, this radical reshaping of how political power functions runs through every part of the narrative. After all, the defining narrative feature of the story – its core theme – is the tremendous destructiveness of the unchecked pursuit of power. Yet the very nature of rule in the Middle Ages ensured that the pursuit of power typically was checked, and that the destructiveness of warfare remained – compared to either Classical Antiquity or the Early Modern Period – more limited (if still quite bad). It is a commonplace to declare the Middle Ages a ‘violent period’ but it is unlikely that military mortality during the Middle Ages ever rose to the levels it was at during Antiquity or the Early Modern (much less the truly staggering levels of military mortality in pre-historic societies).

I think there is a real danger in this misrepresentation of the Middle Ages as a cauldron of violence and ambition. As Game of Thrones hurtled towards its final season, many fans speculated as to how the ‘heroes’ would ‘break the wheel’ and solve Westeros’ problems. What form of more modern – and thus implicitly, more peaceful and humane – social organization would be imposed? Underlying these speculations was the assumption that it was the medieval aspects of Westeros that gave rise to its catastrophes and suffering and that the solution was modernization of some sort of another. That’s a set of historical assumptions which comes with real-world implications.

It’s also wrong, based on a faulty, pop-cultural view of the Middle Ages as a uniquely violent and oppressive time (I hope I have been clear that it wasn’t any more violent than the periods immediately before and after). In fact, Westeros’ problem – that the tremendous power of the state to deal in violence is unchecked by any competing (democratic, religious, cultural) institutions – is a modern problem, not a medieval one. To lead an audience to assume that these sorts of wars and these sorts of problems are a thing banished only to the distant past, or easily solved by modern institutions is to dangerously mislead them.

In short, the danger is in the correlate to the idea that Martin and Game of Thrones show it “how it really was,” which is that Game of Thrones shows “how it isn’t anymore.” And that assumption – that this is a tale of the sort of barbarism and violence which belongs only to the past – is perilous. And therein lies the paradox of A Song of Ice and Fire‘s medieval trappings: Martin is not so much showing us ‘how it really was’ but how it really could be.’ And that is a more uncomfortable – but far more important and valuable – lesson than the false presumption that Game of Thrones is true to the past.

Our watch is never ended.

27 thoughts on “New Acquisitions: How It Wasn’t: Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages, Part III

  1. This probably isn’t a good time to mention that the show expressly says that there are over a million people living in King’s Landing in Seasons 7 and 8 then? 🙂

    The size of King’s Landing from the books is also somewhat misleading. There’s almost 500,000 people in the city, but that includes the Lannister and (enormous) Tyrell armies, and tens of thousands of refugees from the Crownlands and Riverlands. Deducting that, the peacetime population of KL is more likely to be 350,000, maybe somewhat less, with Oldtown below 300,000, which is far more believable.

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  2. Just stumbled over your blog (thanks r/lotr!) and am quite enjoying it. For media, the comparisons of text vs television/movie are quite fascinating.

    In the GoT sphere, I’m wondering what you think of the realism of the “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” stories. I’m thinking specifically of The Hedge Knight and The Sworn Sword, which appear to shed a little more light on the “retinue of retinues” you describe. Or perhaps not, if the details are wrong.

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  3. Hi Bret,

    In terms of feeding King’s Landing – perhaps it is a special case?

    The city itself is on Blackwater Bay, which for all we know has huge fish stocks. Meanwhile King’s Landing overlooks the mouth of the Blackwater River. The River has a couple of tributaries that both run North East-ish. One up to the God’s Eye (a large inland lake), the others up through the Eastern Riverlands to the Mountains. Mace Tyrell and Tywin Lannister were able to ship a large chunk of their army on barges down the Blackwater to fight Stannis at King’s Landing. So, perhaps a large volume of food can be shipped to King’s Landing via this route.

    The top of the God’s eye is not far from the King’s Road and the town of Darry – which is situated near where all the tributaries of the Trident meet. Again, these tributaries flow from The Neck in the North, or past Riverrun nearly all the way to the Westerlands. So, it’s also possible that food could be shipped down the Trident, then either down the King’s Road or the Blackwater to King’s Landing.

    In terms of the Crownlands itself -they seem quite large. (Using the Wall is 300 miles long, and the maps we have of Westeros aren’t in Mercator style with distances in the North inflated on the map). Anyway, using the Wall as a scale it is 200-300 miles from King’s Landing to Duskendale and maybe up to 1000 miles to the edge of the Crownlands at Crakelaw point. So, in theory there is enough land there to feed everyone. Can they actually farm a surplus and ship it to King’s Landing? Based on what you are writing, no.

    So, I guess the food situation in Westeros requires some suspension of disbelief? We see Winterfell has a greenhouse, which is reputed as a 19th century technology. Meanwhile, everyone has to some way to farm a surplus and survive multi-year, if not multi-decade long winters. Personally, I imagine there are thousands of massive graineries scattered all about the countryside and septs and underground caverns full of beer barrels all stocked up for long winters.

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  4. Really helpful, this article puts in words several considerations I had in my mind, you delve deep into people´s assumptions and real history with good exposition.

    I have to conclude you´re NOT a pedantic guy, you read and you connect things, or as Saint Theresa of Avila (the mystic and writer) said: Humility is the truth, no more, no less. (Paraphrasing)

    Thanks and keep up this fantastic blog!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Landed knights often hold significant lands and a keep (fortified manner house), which would make them something more akin to European castellans or barons than, say, a 14th century English Knight Banneret (who is unlikely to have been given permission to fortify his home, known as a license to crenellate).”

    A minor point, but the license to crenellate part sounds like its a piece of a outdated piece of historiography according to the historiography section of the Wikipedia article on the License to Crenellate (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Licence_to_crenellate), at least according to the sources sited there and a paper (http://www.castlestudiesgroup.org.uk/Licences%20to%20Crenellate%20-%20Philip%20Davis.pdf) that quantifies known English licenses to crenellate. The view listed there is that licenses were signs of royal favor prominently displayed at castles to show off one’s status, but that the great majority of castles were unlicensed and there are few if any recorded attempts by royal officials to take possession or destroy unlicensed castles in particular.

    Has there been a shift in historiography back towards the view of these licenses actually being necessary for castles to be built without royal displeasure, or is something else intended?

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  6. I’ve been reading a lot of your posts recently, but this series I think sums up best what I like about your writings:

    Your writing is profoundly educational with respect to overarching trends in a way I’ve never seen in the rest of my history education. A few weeks of reading your posts have contextualized this stuff for me better than entire books I’ve read in the past. (But you don’t skimp on the citations either, when when discussing broad trends, and I respect the heck out of that).

    You’re both really funny and engaging with how you incorporate cultural touchstones as an educational tool and also very serious when addressing the real world implications of that culture in a way that’s truly eye-opening.

    You treat the people who lived through these times as important, with lives worth respecting and learning from. I’ve never encountered a historian who took such care to include those who their sources might not have focused on or whom might not have driven events unless those people were their exclusive focus.

    For all that your blog is supposed to be unmitigated pedantry, I’ve actually found you to be quite careful in what you judge worthy of serious criticism or analysis, what can be ribbed for simple fun, and what’s “just fine, seriously it’s fine, live a little and just enjoy it”.

    Lastly the depth at which you go sometimes is deeply humbling. Reading your work always leaves me going “… I did not know as much about this topic as I thought, and I am suddenly very sure that even my now improved knowledge is very, very small”.

    Thank you very much for writing this. It’s made my life richer for it.

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  7. Very interesting series. To steelman the Westeros worldbuilding based on what you described, it seems like they had a stronger and more centralized monarchy under the Targaryens, who with their dragons had a unique level of personal power in the realm. They played the role of crushing the power of competing institutions – I can only imagine that having the church being totally under the thumb of non-believing outsider kings who flaunt its teachings for centuries was bad for its moral authority, especially among the noble elite who hang around king’s landing. And having the all powerful Targaryen kings directly ruling king’s landing was probably bad for the development of any independent political forces there.

    So then what we see in the modern era of the show is the Targaryens having lost dragons, and thus the justification for their unusually centralized system, and then having been overthrown by their vassals not long after. So by the time of the show there’s a weak post-Targaryen central monarchy, presiding over super-powerful vassals and no other competing sources of authority. And then the show ends with this new balance of power being made official, with the top level vassals making themselves the protagonists of the political system with the imposition of an elective monarchy.

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  8. More late proofreading corrections . . .
    cap out at 500,00, most are quite a bit lower -> (missing zero at the end…if the intention was “500,000”)
    subsist only one the tax revenues -> subsist only on the tax revenues
    collection of lands that Philip the Good -> (There is no verb for this clause: perhaps that was supposed to be of/?)
    is not permanent building but just a term -> is not a permanent building but just a term

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  9. It’s probably fundamentally flawed to critique Martin’s work in comparison to real world themes. Martin’s work doesn’t set out to much be a historical or modern critique of the real world nearly as much as it explicitly sets out to be a critique of the fantasy literary genre. Martin is having a go at Jordan, Tolkien, and others, not at modern society.

    Whatever B&W we’re trying to do, belies critique or explanation.

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    1. Martin has made repeated statements that various plot elements “were how things were” or that his cultures – particularly the Dothraki – were modeled off of real-world historical cultures. E.g.: on sexual violence here: https://ew.com/article/2015/06/03/george-rr-martin-thrones-violence-women/ and on the Dothraki see the quotes here: https://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Dothraki#Behind_the_Scenes

      I don’t think he can have it both ways – hiding behind history for one decision, and then declaring the whole thing non-historical for the rest. And his statements encourage his fans to take what he is writing as historically based, which they *very*much*do* as I note at the beginning of part 1 of this very series. I’m not even the first person to notice by any stretch (see for instance https://www.publicmedievalist.com/thrones-outdated-history/ ).

      So I think that Martin’s posture does expose him to critique for abusing history to justify his storytelling, just as it exposes his fans to critique for mistaking Westeros for a society grounded in any sort of history.

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    2. One of the problems with “having a go” at Jordan, Tolkein, and others is that those explicitly, and in very large scales, use ‘a wizard did it’ as their justification, and also aren’t trying to be particularly realistic. The Lord of the Rings started as a continuation of the Hobbit, a children’s book that among other things in its first edition has Bilbo going to China, and describes a moral struggle between elemental evil and normal folk trying to resist its temptations (and ultimately failing); what Aragorn’s tax policy is is irrelevant to the main drives of the story. Jordan’s biggest problem of all is that every woman on the planet crosses her arms under her breasts and huffs about boxing people about the ears; his worldbuilding is much less of a crime than GRRM’s, even though it has issues that Sanderson made worse at times.

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  10. From what little I remember of the show (I found the books an awful slog, and gave up), Westeros had a fairly robust and highly concentrated banking sector. While I know that there were banks or the functional equivalent of them during the Middle Ages, was there really any equivalent to “Iron Bank” in reality? I know that the Christian and Muslim prohibitions against charging interest don’t seem to have any parallel in Westeros, but did could this quasi-medieval Westeros have the legal system and trade networks that would generate the need for a bank and permit its survival?

    There’s a lot in GoT that really doesn’t hang together. How did the Watch get created? Who funded building that insanely large wall? Considering the Great Wall of China took decades and tens of thousands of lives to build, how could a medieval society construct or maintain it?

    As for the sheep? I suspect that no medieval lord thought of his people as mindless sheep. First, that’s where he got his army from. Second, peasant revolts were not that uncommon.

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    1. By the Late Middle Ages, you did get some very powerful banking families in the Italian city-states, which in terms of Martin’s historical inspirations seem to form the real-world analogue for the Free Cities of Essos (Braavos specifically, where the Iron Bank is based, is an incredibly obvious adaptation of Venice; they’ve even got their own Arsenale with assembly-line galley manufacture!). I don’t recall any Westeros-based banks in the books, and haven’t seen the show. For what it’s worth, by the 14th century, Christian bankers had developed a couple end-runs around the usury prohibition. One has to assume a fairly active offscreen economy, but it’s perfectly likely that Westerosi and Essosi trade has reached the state of complexity and activity that would cause the development of powerful banks similar to those of the Peruzzis or Medicis. As to the question of the Wall, a medieval society *could* construct such a thing—*if the society were Ming-dynasty China*, with a massive administrative capacity and completely different relationship to agricultural production than contemporaneous western Europe, and still the Great Wall of China as it stands today is an agglomeration of many centuries of separate building efforts from the Qin onwards, which for much of its history was only maintained by local rulers, if they even bothered at all. The Great Wall is also not more than 30 feet higher than its surrounding area at its highest point, while the Wall in Westeros is 700 feet high in the novels, which, if it were in the real world, would have made it the tallest structure on the planet by a good margin until the construction of the Eiffel Tower. At some point one does have to say, okay, it’s fantasy, Martin is scaling things up—which is completely fine! That’s what fantasy is for! If I wanted to read only about things that could happen, I’d go read nonfiction!—but then certain sections of his fanbase, who Bret’s writing in reaction to here, want to argue that Martin’s worldbuilding is qualitatively different from and more “plausible” and “realistic” than, say, Tolkien’s, and while it’s certainly better put together than the Tolkien imitators (and Tolkien-imitator-imitators) who were crowding the genre when ASoIaF first hit the shelves and to which the series is in part a reaction, Westeros is absolutely not more realistic than Arda just because the story is tonally different.

      My major issue with the GoT/ASoIaF worldbuilding is the timescales involved—one could argue that Martin’s playing with unreliable narrators when he writes them writing their world’s history, but still, we’re supposed to believe that thousands of years (like, six or eight thousand years, longer than the length of time medieval Europeans thought the world had existed!) have passed in-world while the fundamental organization of Westerosi society remained the same? There’s engaging with the tendency of medieval-era historians to retroject their own social organizations onto, say, ancient Greek or Roman society/ies, and there’s “not counting the Targaryens, the last major upheaval in Westeros occurred at least two thousand years ago and at most six thousand, according to in-world record keeping, in which the invaders *imported the in-world Latin Church analogue*, and aside from the grafting-on of the faith of the Seven the essential feudal system of Westerosi society hasn’t changed at all since.” It’s the same problem that crops up sometimes in Lord of the Rings, but Martin’s writing explicitly in part as a reaction to Tolkien-derivative fantasy. The action of the series is taking place as far from the Andal invasion as my writing this comment is from the *birth of Jesus Christ*, at *minimum*, and I’m supposed to believe that nothing in Westeros has changed in that time? Does the presence of dragons and ice zombies cancel out the forces of historical materialism? (Which circles around to your point about peasant revolts.)

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      1. Thanks for the information about bankers.

        The Wall is the one thing* — before Danaerys walks out of a funeral pyre with her clothes burned off — is evidence of magic: such a structure would take many years and thousands of workers to produce with 20th Century technology**.

        —-

        * The structural properties of ice are such that the ice flows at the bottom of glaciers that are not 700 ft thick.

        ** I’m not a construction expert, but I suspect that such a structure could not be built, in any way whatsoever, with pre-modern technology. The most comparable modern structures, large dams, still take years to build. One interesting factoid is that cooling pipes have to be run through the dams as the chemical reactions that “set” concrete generate considerable heat. Compost heaps can get warm enough within themselves to kill microbes; a large dam would get hot enough to cause the cement binding the concrete decompose.

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  11. It isn’t just medieval fantasy that suffers from this faulty view of the nature of power. Something that a *lot* of fiction writers in all genres and mediums forget is that — absent actual superpowers, a la Darth Vader — a tyrant only has as much power (or perhaps I should say force) as the troops he commands, and those troops are unlikely to remain loyal to him if he treats them as disposable.

    (For instance, I’ve been watching Marco Polo on Netflix recently, and I couldn’t help thinking of this article when I watched an episode in which both Kublai Khan and his archnemesis, the Song Chancellor, brutally murder underlings who’ve done nothing to deserve it.)

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  12. I am a bit confused about the treason thing. You are basically saying, Lords cannot be treasonous, because then their own vassals will betray them? Looks like a contradiction to me?! Unless you mean to argue that a Lord who commits treason loses his honor and thus gives his vassals a pretext so they can betray him without loss of honor – but then, we should assume that a smart Lord doesn’t commit treason without having a plausible pretext at hand, therefore denying his vassals the pretext to commit treason.
    Also, a short read through the medieval section of wikipedia (Frankish Empire after Charlemange; Richard Lionheart; War of the Roses) leaves me deeply sceptical about your claims that treachery in the middle ages was rare or self-defeating.
    Of course, what happens in GOT Seasons 7 and 8 is totally absurd.
    By the way, I absolutely love your Blog. You have answered so many questions that have been bothering me for years.

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  13. Sorry but your essays are too West-centric and therefore not credible when it comes to Middle Ages. For example, back then armies in Eastern Europe and Asia were much larger than those of Western Europe. Just look at the Battle of Angora (1402) and you’ll see numbers that are even larger than numbers in ASOIAF. Another example, national identities in the West possibly formed in Modern times, but in the Balkans nations were already well formed by the late Middle Ages. Also, King’s Landing is obviously modeled after Constantinople and you yourself admit that some estimates put the population of Constantinople at around 500.000 people. So when you take the entire Medieval world into consideration, and not just Western Europe, ASOIAF books really look realistic in the core. Of course, dragons and magic didn’t exist, but the basic fibers of the story – societies, cultures, psychology – are extremely believable precisely because they do resemble historical precedents.

    The same cannot be said about Game of Thrones and that’s the strangest thing about your essays: you confuse the books and the show. Many of your points, like religious feelings and beliefs, are spot on – but only in regards to the show. The books have none of those issues, as Martin never forgets the importance of religion in a Medieval-like society. The show is a terrible adaptation, not the least because of the poor job Benioff and Weiss did with their world-building. ASOIAF doesn’t have those problems. Some 15 years ago Martin was interviewed by a legal scholar who questioned various aspects of Westeros’ legal system and Martin, unsurprisingly, had all the answers. Even the interviewer himself was amazed at Martin’s knowledge about the medieval laws and customs, which far exceeds the confines of ASOIAF. The podcast was called LAW TALK and I’m not sure that the original interview can still be found, but at least someone upload it to YouTube:

    You often mention books but it’s not really clear whether you actually read them. Or perhaps you did read them, but not thoroughly. Of maybe you were too influenced by the show already. And of course, Martin himself is to be blamed for some of that confusion, because he often defended the show way beyond reason, to the point that even the true fans of the books took the show as a faithful adaptation. In reality, however, that’s not the case at all.

    At any rate, while your essays are an interesting read and you obviously do possess a significant knowledge about the Middle Ages (or the Western Europe of the period at least), I don’t think any of your points hold up in regards to the books.

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    1. I think you are not fully engaging with our host’s points.

      The battle you refer to was between the Ottoman Empire and the steppe nomad empire created by Timur (Tamerlane). Those are states that were organized very differently from the kind of forces we see in the books and the show. The posts in this series go into detail about how an army raised and organized in the ways we’re clearly shown in the books and the show – which were characteristic of medieval Western Europe – could not scale to such sizes.

      Similarly, this post goes into detail about how a city population the size of Constantinople’s – even before the high end of the range of estimates of that population – was made possible by economic and political infrastructure that Westeros and King’s Landing do not have, as portrayed in the books and the show.

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