So a while back, I got into a bit of a debate with yuyurana andmightyisobel about the nature of Westerosi feudalism, whether serfdom existed in Westeros, and to what extent the smallfolk had/have political agency in their own land. At the time, I was super-swamped and promised a future rebuttal, but that kept slipping down my to-do list.
Well, the recent publication of AWOIAF sort of jogged my memory, and has given us a much better (although by no means complete) picture of the status and activities of the smallfolk, so here’s my long-promised response:
While AWOIAF doesn’t explicitly rule on the question of serfdom, there are many, many examples of smallfolk agency, from the peasant King Pate of Fairmarket who rose against the Stormlanders in the name of Riverland independence, on down.
The Revolt of the Faithful:
The biggest example we have of smallfolk agency is the case of the Revolt of the Faithful. Following the denunciation of “King Abomination” by the High Septon, “the smallfolk who had once loved Aenys turned against him. Septon Murmison was expelled from the Faith for performing the ceremony, and zealous Poor Fellows took up arms, hacking Murmison to pieces a fortnight later…some Poor Fellows attempted to murder the king and his family in the castle itself, scaling its walls and slipping into the royal apartments…thousands of Poor Fellows prowled the roads, threatening the king’s supporters.” So right off the bat, we have the smallfolk organized militarily and attempting to overthrow the Hand of the King and the royal family and anyone who might support them, by force of arms.
Next, when Maegor takes the Throne, we see the Poor Fellows acting even more boldly. From a section cut from the text but read at convention: “The King’s first act upon resuming the Iron Throne was to command the Poor Fellows swarming towards the city to lay down their weapons, under penalty of proscription and death. When his decree had no effect, His Grace commanded “all leal subjects” to take to the field and disperse the Faith’s ragged hordes by force. In response, the High Septon in Oldtown called upon “true and pious children of the gods” to take up arms in defense of the Faith, and put an end to the reign of “dragons and monsters and abominations” So here we have the Poor Fellows openly defying royal authority, with religious piety being used as a levelling principle against feudal hierarchy. Not for the last time.
We then see a number of major smallfolk leaders. Wat the Hewer – an homage to Wat Tyler – led an army of nine thousand at the battle of Stonebridge (later Bitterbridge). Again from a section read at convention:
“The nine thousand Poor Fellows under Wat the Hewer found themselves caught between six lordly hosts as they attempted to cross the Mander. With half his man north of the river and half on the south, Wat’s army was cut to pieces. His untrained and undisciplined followers, clad in boiled leather, roughspun, and scraps of rusted steel, and armed largely with woodmen’s axes, sharpened sticks, and farm implements, proved utterly unable to stand against the charge of armored knights on heavy horses. So grievous was the slaughter that the Mander ran red for twenty leagues, and thereafter the town and castle where the battle had fought became known as Bitterbridge. Wat himself was taken alive, though not before slaying half a dozen knights, amongst them Lord Meadows of Grany (?) Vale, commander of the king’s host. The giant was delivered to King’s Landing in chains.”
So here we see the smallfolk organized into large armies, led by their own people, and despite their defeat, you have to be impressed by their courage and physical prowess. After this battle, you get another at the Great Fork, where “thirteen thousand Poor Fellows,” along with Warrior’s Sons and some rebel lords, go down swinging in a hard-fought battle against the King on Balerion.
Even four years after the High Septon himself bends the knee, you see the smallfolk standing against Maegor, with Septon Moon (an homage to the preacher John Ball) and the Red Dog of the HIlls forming a new army of the Poor Fellows against the tyrannical king.
Overall, a sustained episode of seven years of open rebellion by the smallfolk against the monarchy.
The Dance of the Dragons:
This episode casts in a different light the case of the Shepherd. Rather than a random madman, he now seems to be operating in a tradition of smallfolk religious-inflected political agitation. The world book even speculates that “he might have been one of the Poor Fellows who, though outlawed, still stubbornly haunted the realm.” Even if the Shepherd wasn’t a Poor Fellow, we know now that the movement remained alive for ninety years, operating underground.
We’ve already talked about the Storming of the Dragonpit, but I think it’s important to note that one of the most consequential events of the last three hundred years, the act that prevented the Targaryens from ever recovering from the Dance, happened as a result of smallfolk political agitation.
Moreover, we learn from the world book that “The Shepherd and his mob ruled much of the city” for a month, and that moreover, Gaemon Palehair was acclaimed king by “thousands” and issued edicts, edicts we learn later had real political content: “girls would henceforth be equal with boys in matter of inheritance…the poor be given bread and beer in times of famine…men who lost limbs in war must afterward be fed and houses by whichever lord they had been fighting for…husbands who beat their wives should themselves be beaten.” Gender equality, a rudimentary welfare state, and veterans’ pensions – this is evidence of political consciousness among the smallfolk, an agenda that goes beyond mere religious hostility to inbred dragonriders.
The Dornish case:
Another example of Smallfolk agency came in the wake of Daeron’s Submission of Sunspear. Having conquered the Martells and twoscore of their most powerful bannermen, and taking hostages, Daeron left believing that Dorne was conquered.
“the king had not anticipated the tenacity of Dorne’s smallfolk, over whom he had no hold. Ten thousand men, it is said, died in the battle for Dorne; forty thousand more died over the course of the following three years, as common Dornishmen fought on stubbornly against the king’s men.
Lord Tyrell, whom Daeron had left in charge of Dorne, valiantly attempted to quell the rebellion…punishing any supporters of the rebels with the noose, burning down the villages that harbored the outlaws…but the smallfolk struck back, and each new day found supplies stolen or destroyed, camps burned, horses killed, and slowly the count of dead soldiers and men-at-arms roses – killed in the alleyways of the shadow city, ambushed amidst the dunes, murdered in their camps.”
Unbowed, unbent, unbroken might be the words of House Martell, but had it been up to them, Dorne might have been conquered in 159 AC. That Dorne remained free for another twenty seven years is entirely due to the common people of Dorne.
The Thralldom Question:
Now, as I have said, we don’t know directly what the nature of Westerosi feudalism is vis-a-vis the smallfolk. However, we can now do some reasoning by comparison. We know that the Iron Islands practice thralldom, which is depicted as a much harsher and more degrading practice than exists on the mainland. But what exactly thralldom consisted of we haven’t known of before:
thralldom should not be conflated with chattel slavery…unlike slaves, thralls retain certain important rights. A thrall belongs to his captor, and owes him service and obedience, but he is still a man, not property. Thralls cannot be bought or sold. They may own property, marry as they wish, have children…the children of thralls are born free.
This legal status puts thralls roughly in the position of “villeins” (the historical origin for villain), who formed the majority of serfs, below the freemen who paid rent, owed no service, and were legally free, but above the slave who was the property of the lord. Thralls can’t leave, i.e are tied to the land; they owe service, i.e have to work for free for their master; but they can own property (which in turn means they have free time to labor on their own account) and are considered people in law.
If you have to kidnap mainlander peasants by armed force to get them to become thralls, their status must be higher than this by a good margin. At the very least, they are free under the law, rent-paying tenants of their lords. Now there are a variety of potential leases that might be in effect: smallfolk might farm under quit-rent, in which they pay rent plus a tax that frees them of feudal obligations, or under copy-hold, in which the rights and obligations of both landlord and tenant are set down on paper, with the tenant usually having rights to wood and pasture as well as their own leased land, and the right to sell their tenancy to the landlord, or under socage, a fixed rent paid at defined intervals with automatic renewal of leases.
One incident might help us narrow this down: in 209 AC, Westeros underwent a drought that lasted a year right after the Great Spring Sickness, and caused the smallfolk to abandon their homes en masse in search of some land where it rained. The Hand of the King, Bloodraven, issued an edict commanding them to return to their own lands, but it was widely ignored and Bloodraven was too busy with the Blackfyres to enforce it. This is a clear parallel to the impact of the Black Death, which shattered serfdom and gave rise to the 1351 Statute on Laborers, which set a maximum on wages and forbade workers to leave their masters, and which similarly was not enforced very well.
To me, this suggests that prior to 209 AC, the smallfolk of Westeros likely held land under copy-hold or quit-rent or something in between villainage and those systems but yet more attractive than thralldom, under which they still owed some form of obligation to their lords, and that system broke down in the wake of the Great Spring Sickness and the drought. Which means it’s more likely that the smallfolk now rent under either copy-hold with relatively expansive terms or under socage or simply own their own land.
None of this is to say that Westeros is an egalitarian place. The highborn still own most of the land, have rights of pit and gallows, have privileges in law (trial by combat, the right to execution by the sword rather than by hanging, etc.), and the smallfolk still lack an organized political presence. (However, the existence of town and city charters might well mean that urban smallfolk have the right to elect local officials in those places).
However, the fact remains that even under an unjust and oppressive system, the smallfolk retain agency and power. In the last three hundred years, we have seen three major movements (the Revolt of the Faithful, the Shepherd’s Storming of the Dragonpit, and the Sparrows) by which the smallfolk have shaken the monarchy to its core, as well as more temporary or limited movements, like Rat, Hawk, and Pig’s insurrection, the Kingswood Brotherhood, the Brotherhood Without Banners, the 209 migrations, and to a lesser extent the Defiance of Duskendale.