On the Nature of Westerosi Feudalism (x-posted from Tumblr)

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.

Wat the Hewer did not go down without a fight.

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 Shepherd and his flock. Crazy or crazyawesome?

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.

File:111 Spear-Phalanx-Diego-Gisbert-final.jpg

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.

Buying and selling some thralls.


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.

58 thoughts on “On the Nature of Westerosi Feudalism (x-posted from Tumblr)

  1. Julian says:

    Great post. Any chance you have the names of the artwork and artists? They’re really good.

    • A bunch of them are from the worldbook. If you google image search Battle of Stonebridge, Storming of the Dragonpits, Dornish, and Viking Thrall, you should be able to find them.

  2. So I assume that given we haven’t seen these actions play out to their conclusions yet they are excluded but:
    1. The High Sparrow utilizing religious zealotry and the animosity of the displaced masses against the monarchy to bring the monarchy to its knees, in a sense, because of Cersei’s ignorance and incompetence. When the High Sparrow suggested setting a precedent of having the Faith take a hand in the judging of the Monarchy for crimes that the Monarchy cannot judge fairly, Cersei agrees because she only focuses on having Margery killed.
    2. The repercussions of the Red Wedding are being felt in the Riverlands, giving the discontent small folk justification to take justice into their hands when the Monarchy shows neglect or involvement in what is considered one of the most heinous crimes in recent history. The various Freys as part of a lordly house and with a guarantee of no royal prosecution are shocked that the small folk would show the agency to punish them and that the monarchy cannot protect them from the small folk who they consider below them.

    Given these two situations that are playing out, what do you think will happen? Where do you see the momentum of these movements heading given what we know currently? And did I do justice in my assessments or did I forget something?

    • WPA says:

      On 2. I’d have to think it stems from the twin (pun!) issues of the Freys publically violating an easily and widely understood value of guest-right alongside their inability to project power to protect “their” smallfolk. In this sense I wonder if a rudimentary sense of social-contract is what’s going on. Edmure Tully, whatever else can be said of him, clearly upheld his end of the social contract by protecting his people first and foremost, even at the cost of “good sense” from his family- “My people, they were afraid” and all that. I have to think that’s going to pay some dividends for the Tullys- the system may still be feudal- but the smallfolk seem to have some degree of voice in which Great Houses have an easier time of it. The ones that display some concern for the lower orders – Stark, Tully, etc- have a reserve of good will when times get tough. After all- a discontented populace would probably be easier to rally around a rebel lord than one that is, if not thrilled with the social status, practical in recognizing one set of ruling values is preferable ( a sense of obligation to below, sense of even-handed justice) to another one.

    • I didn’t want to get into the High Sparrow, because I’d already mentioned him in the tumblr debate. But what this shows is that the High Sparrow is working from an established tradition that uses religious ideology to legitimize agitation from below that otherwise would be put down brutally.

      In terms of an ongoing phenomenon – I’m a bit skeptical that the High Sparrow is going to last very long. Too many armies are converging on King’s Landing, and Dany will be a force to be reckoned with. My hypothesis is that the High Sparrow is going to crown Aegon VI after Tommen’s birth is revealed, but what happens after I’m not sure.

  3. MightyIsobel says:

    This is an important discussion, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

    I agree with your assessment of the incidents you discuss here, but I’m still not convinced that GRRM portrays Team Smallfolk with the realism or accuracy he gets credit for from some readers.

    1. Narrative POVs. Every POV in the series is either highborn or a trusted companion of a highborn person. The smallfolk experience always comes to the reader through a highborn person’s filter. Davos’s exceptionalist narrative tends to reinforce the nobility’s ideas of class (i.e., “the poor don’t contribute to society, but this one guy brought me onions that one time, so he deserves more”). And while I agree with you elsewhere that GRRM teaches us to read his characters’ biases skeptically, I don’t think he’s interested in the nobility’s biases as a class. An example is:

    2. Economic exploitation: Feudalism was an intensely exploitative economic system. All of the nobility’s silks and lavish meals and shining pageantry came from somewhere, but we never meet a Westerosi peasant who is disgruntled about armed dudes under royal banners collecting taxes and leaving their children to starve. Instead, the reader is led to believe that Team Smallfolk approves of the way the Great Houses are allocating resources, and that outbreaks of intra-House violence are their biggest political problem. The KL Bread Riot, characteristically, is understood as a reaction to the mistakes of the nobility: troop movements disrupting the food supply, and incompetent policing under Joffrey’s personal direction. It’s a meta-narrative that reinforces the politics of the
    highborn: as long as we run things well, we expect to keep running things forever.

    3. No Justice: I have to admit, it makes my fanwanking heart go pitter-pat to see the words “quit-rent” and “socage” in a well-written meta. Indeed, medieval peasants were surprisingly nuanced in their thinking about property rights, and it is evidence that they had some limited access to justice, that these concepts were preserved in writing. But in the Might-Makes-Right world of the Seven Kingdoms, it’s hard to see how such agreements would mean much if some armed dudes under royal banners can show up to push you off your land so a highborn third heir can establish a freehold. It’s easy to imagine that happening, and hard to see where the displaced family would go for help to enforce their property rights. It’s not just that there’s no functioning justice system, it’s that the Westerosi people don’t seem to have a vocabulary to talk about fairness. Maybe that’s why Gaemon Palehair’s very sensible social program never gathered enough steam to show up more than once in the Maesters’ history of the realm. It would take all the steel in old Valyria, and more besides, to fulfill a commitment to feed the poor and care for the sick in Westeros.

    All of these problems simmered under the surface while the War of the Five Kings raged. But when we get into the Meereenese Knot, we find a whole narrative arc constructed around limited POVs, unsophisticated economics, and an attempt to retrofit an existing culture with nuanced justice. The problem there is not Dany, or the legacy of Old Ghis; it’s world-building flaws in the way Team Smallfolk is represented all over Planetos.

    • Sean C. says:

      I think GRRM is pretty clear that the feudal system is far from a fair economic model, and it’s not just the current warfare that’s at issue (Tyrion has some comments to that effect).

      But I agree that the peasantry is generally not much of a force in the story. Westeros as GRRM has developed it in the main text has virtually no social institutions or movements apart from the nobility (even the church was pretty much a non-factor until we got to AFFC, which always felt a bit like a retrofit to me). This is still, in the end, a story about noble houses, and even if the real conflict is with the White Walkers rather than the “game of thrones”, it’s still a conflict that looks to be primarily fought and won by a collection of noble bloodlines (two of those bloodlines being ones that seem likely to have special magical qualities to them, at that).

    • 1. “And while I agree with you elsewhere that GRRM teaches us to read his characters’ biases skeptically, I don’t think he’s interested in the nobility’s biases as a class.”

      It’s not a broad sweeping theme of the series, sure, but there are little pieces throughout. I’d say the biggest is how many of our characters regard the small bits of institutional democracy of Planetos with suspicion, ridicule or at best dismissal as a curiosity. Tyrion is so ‘modern’ in many of his views, yet when confronted with the open forum of the HIll Clans of the Vale, or the Triarchy elections of Volantis, he just can’t wrap his head around it.

      2 & 3. Valid points. My only fan-wank here is that we are dealing with a world that experiences mini ice ages that defy the type of basic predictability that human societies in the real world have utilized since hunter-gatherer days.

      This has led to societies that undergo massive change for years at a time, only to have to switch back again. The big example is the North where we’ve been told flat out that vast stretches of the already low population countryside are outright abandoned in favor of a few dozen regional castles. So your average family in the Winter Town not only finds themselves living in (relative) close proximity to the Lord of Winterfell and his family, but also largely reliant on the stores that are controlled and dispensed by the same lord. Add to the fact that no one is ever quite certain how long the winter will last, and it doesn’t surprise me that not only would the peasantry of Westeros lack some of the concepts of rent & land ownership that peasants IRL developed, but also that there would be an even greater sense of loyalty to the local lord.

      Obviously the North is an extreme example, but in the final chapters of ADWD we’ve already seen first hand accounts of how much even the early snows affect life in the Riverlands, the Vale and coastal regions & ports.

    • Amestria says:

      “2. Economic exploitation: Feudalism was an intensely exploitative economic system. All of the nobility’s silks and lavish meals and shining pageantry came from somewhere, but we never meet a Westerosi peasant who is disgruntled about armed dudes under royal banners collecting taxes and leaving their children to starve.”

      That’s the whole Sparrow movement in a nutshell.

      • To quote from my next analysis: “Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all…but no more!”

    • Amestria says:

      “3. No Justice:”

      When Roose raped a peasant woman and murdered her husband he took care to see that no tales were told to Ned Stark. When Jorah sold some poachers (undesirable smallfolk nobodies if there ever were any) Ned came to behead him. When Clegane massacred people in the Riverlands Ned Stark outlawed him. Ned is an exceptionally decent lord (as opposed to Tywin, who doesn’t care if one of his most powerful knights is a serial killer) but I don’t think his behavior is all that exceptional. If lots of peasants are sincerely loyal to their lords is likely because they have had good experiences with them and what they considered fair dealings.

    • 1. I disagree about the impact of Davos’ POV. If anything, it works the other way – Davos is our lens into Stannis’ mind.

      2. Again, I disagree. The Revolt of the Faithful, the Defiance of Duskendale, the Kingswood Brotherhood, the Brotherhood Without Banners, the Sparrows movement, are all examples of the smallfolk reacting to injustice. The important thing is that, historically, people use the ideas around them to express resistance to injustice. Hence John Ball using the Bible to critique the feudal structure, or the way the German peasants used Lutheranism to do the same. The smallfolk are expressing themselves in the language and conceptual framework available to them – whereas the smallfolk of Braavos would have a very different political vocabulary.

      3. Like I said, I think you’re wrong about the vocabulary. The Sparrows are very, very vocal about the failure of lords and kings to provide protection and law and order.

    • Meereenese Liberation Front says:

      I don’t know… Does being critical of feudal (or any other class) rule really mean dividing POVs equally amongst high- and low-born? Wouldn’t that diminish a much more important point Martin reminds us of – i.e. the fact that rulers are indeed more interesting than the ruled, because individuality itself is a privilege? To paraphrase Jorah’s words to Dany: When the high lords play their game of thrones, their are numerous possible fates for the high-born, but only a monotonous horror for the low-born. What exploitation brings upon the exploited is not only economic inequality, but rather the impossibility to write one own’s history. (It’s the same debate re: women in history. It’s a good thing to dig out female writers, composers etc., but it would be stupid to claim a ratio of 50/50, simply because – except for the terribly rare exceptation – women were not allowed to express themselves in the same way as men were.)

  4. Abbey Battle says:

    Excellent work Maester Steven – you really do highlight the potential power of the Smallfolk across the Seven Kingdoms as something of a sleeping giant and it’s interesting to note that it is The Faith that has most often stood at their head.

    Also if you need it, I believe that I can clear up any confusion about ‘Grany’ Vale – GRASSY Vale is the holding of House Meadows, located in The Reach, and presumably remains the target of curses from those who recall Wat the Hewer with any affection.

  5. KrimzonStriker says:

    I’m confused by which people and what cities have charaters or not, in the Aerys section during the Defiance of Duskendale it makes it sound like charters/general autonomy are exclusive to Dorne within the Seven Kingdoms, and that while common across the Narrow Sea Tywin moved to squash any attempt to enact them in Westeros, foreseeing the possible consequences to the nobility/monarchie’s authority.

    • Sean C. says:

      The absence of charters is cited in the Riverlands section as a reason why there isn’t a major city there compared to other kingdoms, so by implication they exist elsewhere.

      • KrimzonStriker says:

        Perhaps it’s a pre-conquest precedent and while upheld afterwards the Iron Throne itself has never enacted a charter aside from Dorne then? I was more under the impression the main reason the Riverlands don’t have one is that they’re too constantly in conflict at one point or another to develop one.

    • I would say that Lannisport, Gulltown, Oldtown, and White Harbor have charters. King’s Landing probably not because it’s a royal possession.

      I believe the Duskendale incident detailed that charters were common in Essos, not Dorne.

      The bigger question is whether towns have a more limited charter. I doubt it – I think what Tywin was worried about was that if the towns got charters, there’d be a lot of lost revenue coming in. While there are only five cities proper in Westeros, there are dozens and dozens of towns.

      • KrimzonStriker says:

        Nah I read it, it common and Essos but Duskendale wanted a charter that granted them similar freedoms like in Dorne, which makes sense going back to the treaty that installed Dorne into the Seven Kingdoms. The difference between town versus cities though makes much more sense in terms of charter limitations though I will note that all said cities were in existence prior to Aegon’s Conquest so my point on the Iron Throne itself never granting a charter except in the case of Dorne may still be accurate.

        • That’s not right. Darklyn’s wife wasn’t Dornish, but Myrish. She’d be familiar with charters in Essos, not Dornish.

          • KrimzonStriker says:

            And she makes that note about Essos but the there’s also a section in the passage describing the reasons why Duskendale wanted a charter specifically made a comparison to the freedoms enjoyed by Drone

  6. Abbey Battle says:

    It has just struck me that I would love to see a series of images depicting how the Smallfolk make their living across the Seven Kingdoms when the Lords aren’t tearing the realm and all within it to pieces with their wars, images based in equal parts upon those illuminations from the ‘Tres Riches Heures’ commissioned by the Duke of Berry, as well as the Plates one sees in almost every single Osprey Publication (and I really do wish Osprey could do a series based on what life was like for those of our ancestors who did not make a living killing their fellow Man).

    Say eight plates (one for each of the Seven Kingdoms and Dorne), each showing a different way of making a living that does not require mayhem, murder or preparation for that sort of unpleasantness – and also letting the readers get a look at the landscape of one of the Seven Kingdoms away from castles, fastnesses and sundry strongholds.

    (1) The North – a group of foresters set about securing lumber at the fringes of some wood lightly sprinkled with snow, only a field of stumps at the front of the picture and only a single tree left standing (a Weirwood, probably with votive offerings left before the face or with some fellow praying for a day without incident … or wolves).

    (2) The Vale – a quarry of miners working to haul out the raw materials for some great hall or a sept, a riot of stone-dust and noise, perhaps with a Maester or a Septon supervising (and maybe even a Mountain Clansman snooping, quite possibly thinking “So THIS is how the other half live” to remind us that danger can be closer than we think).

    (3) The Riverlands – A drover herds his cattle through the crossing of some minor vassal of the mighty River Trident, quite calmly ignoring the liveried minor retainers of two major houses bickering noisily in the background over whether MY Lord shall cross first or whether HIS Lord shall cross before him (probably shouting across the river, one on each side – for the sake of amusement let us imagine that one represents Vance of Wayfarer’s Rest, the other that other branch of House Vance whose stronghold I cannot remember).

    (4) The Stormlands – a party of trappers stumble through a storm-lashed day and find their mood not entirely improved upon discovering a poacher making use of THEIR hunting cabin, possibly to the point of taking the law into their own hands.

    (5) Dorne – Some discerning equestrienne testing the paces of a sand-steed she’s planning to purchase canters along the bank of a river as Orphans of the Greenblood pole their way in the opposite direction (possibly waving!), even as the Sandy Dornishmen keep an eye on the purchaser and the as-yet-unpaid-for-purchase.

    (6) The Reach – An entire family spreads the work of a harvest across the generations, father reaping, sons binding up the sheaves and baby sister scaring away the crows under the supervision of granny while EVERYONE keeps an eye out for the sort of weather that can ruin a harvest even faster than a war.

    (7) The Westerlands – Somewhere up in the Hills, a long way from Casterly Rock and even farther from Lannisport, a gang of miners prospect for a new seam of ore beneath the Earth, doubtless somewhere very deep and very dark but with slightly less of a death-grip on them than the grave.

    (8) The Iron Islands – A view of some harbour on Pyke, as the fishermen unload fish even as the merchants load a great many ingots; an oddly peaceful scene spoilt only by the poor thralls being casually ignored by the proud sons of Salt and Rock as they’re readied for distribution.

    The things the mind comes up with when it feels it has nothing better to do!

  7. Grant says:

    This is rather off-topic but could I suggest creating a recommended reading list? You’ve mentioned several interesting titles before and it strikes me that fans of this site would enjoy having a list of books on the past that would help them dodge some of the ones that peddle long-since discredited theories and statements.

  8. Meereenese Liberation Front says:

    Your essay reminds me of something I’ve always wanted to discuss: Amongst ‘critical’, ‘liberal’ readers of ASOIAF, there seems to be a consensus that the best ending of the series would be to abolish the Iron Throne and make an end to any unified power. I’m not really that convinced. Historically, I’d say the transition from feudalism to absolutism was, on the whole, one of progress; rather one solar king than innumerable horse lords whose understanding of politics (to quote Johannes Agnoli) never surpassed the level of yellow press. And looking at Westeros, there still seems to be a lot of work to do – a job kings like Jaehaerys (abolition of the right of the first night etc.) and even Maekar (disarming the church) have at least begun. – Just to take the last example: Indeed, religion was, just like in the real world, a way for the peasants to express their discomfort with their rulers, but that expression is (as the High Sparrow proves in Westeros and the Crusaders, the John of Leidens and Savonarolas proved in RL) ambivalent at best. The atheism of enlightened absolutists (take, for example, Stannis and his instrumentalist approach to religion) might just prove to be more valuable for society in the long run. So , as long as there is no “community of free individuals” (Marx) in sight, give me at least an Elizabeth I., a Fredrick II. of Prussia or a Tsar Peter – and put all the feudal lordlings, Starks and Lannisters, Freys and Wulls, in their place: on the dungheap of history as decorative courtiers of the king.

    • It’s a good point. Personally, I’m looking for a parliamentary Great Council.

      • Andrew says:

        The Great Council does sound like the Witenagemot of 7th-11th century England, whose duties were advising the king as well as choosing and deposing kings.

        The Witenagemot itself was a precursor to Parliament.

        • That, or the Curia Regis of William the Conqueror.

          • Andrew says:

            1. With the smallfolk, would the smallfolk rising up against the Ironborn on Fair Isle (albiet led by Farman) count as one for team smallfolk?

            2. Also, did you get my message? I wanted to hear your opinion regarding Jon’s decision regarding Alys Karstark and the Pink Letter, because I think after the author, you are the most qualified person I know to speak on the subject. I would have asked you an AMA, but I didn’t know if you were still on it.

          • 1. Yeah, I’d say so.

            2. So, in terms of Jon’s decisions. I think his decision re Alys was totally legitimate. She had guest right, that’s fair enough. The Pink Letter – I think Jon reacted emotionally and in haste, in a way that would cause maximum tension within the NW.

          • Andrew says:

            Last questions before I stop bothering you.

            1. Do you think if the Freys were hosting Daevn’s wedding at Riverrun, that the smallfolk of Riverrun would aid UnCat and possibly the Blackfish in a second RW?

            2. Some argued that he broke his oath by imprisoning Cregan Karstark, and wedding her to Sigorn.

            3. As to his decision regarding the Pink Letter, I think his only mistake wasn’t discussing it with his NW officers. What would have had Jon do? Given what we saw with Boltons’ offers of mercy in the past, I doubt they’d spare Jon, and who knows how many crows they would kill with him. Jon also didn’t have “Arya” and Reek, and couldn’t meet the Boltons’ demands if he wanted to. If he was going to fight them, he couldn’t do it at CB which has no defenses to the south, but more likely set up an ambush along the kingsroad.

            4. Do really think the Boltons would have left Jon alone had it not been for Mance at WF, or would Roose want to hedge his bets?

          • 1. I think there is going to be a second RW engineered by the BWB, yes.

            2. I think Jon was in the right there. Alys had guest right, Cregan bore arms against him.

            3. If I was Jon, I certainly would have told them that Ramsay Bolton was threatening to attack the NW. No need for them to read the letter.

            4. Hard to say. Roose yes, but Ramsay probably not.

          • Andrew says:

            1. My guess is the attack would be signaled when the singer, Tom O’Sevens, plays “Wolf in the Night” which commemorates Robb’s victory at Oxcross. UnCat would likely kill off every Frey and Lannister, including the children (if she wasn’t willing to spare Pod, then why would she stop at some Frey-Lannister children?) If Walder Frey is there, he would die screaming.

            Of course, if the Blackfish is there, seeing that, he would be a little shocked at the women and children killed off, realizing his niece isn’t the same person he knew and loved.

            2. Why did Cregan’s party fire a crossbow at Jon’s party? Was it scare them off?

            3. And picking up “Arya,” that decision?

            Sorry, I realized I missed a few questions. Didn’t mean to go off on too much of a tangent.

          • 1. He might be shocked, or he might not. The Blackfish is kind of embittered at this point.

            2. ’cause they’re dumb.

            3. Part of guest right is that you have to accept travelers into your hearth.

          • Andrew says:

            2. The guy throws frozen shit at his gaolers who feed him. Arnolf’s progeny don’t seem to have the brains of their sire.

            3. I was referring to sending Mance to pick up Jeyne Poole or “Arya Stark.” Jon didn’t know they were going to WF, thinking she would escape herself but Mance would simply pick her up and carry to CB.

            4. I just realized I know why the smallfolk loved Egg according to Cersei. He tried to enact reforms in their favor. I wonder about those as well.

          • 2. Yeah, he’s an idiot.

            3. Oh, that. I dunno, did Jon give the order himself, or did Mel? I don’t remember.

            4. Yeah, those are interestingly vague.

          • Andrew says:

            “Could his sister truly have escaped such captors? How would she do that? Arya was always quick and clever, but in the end she’s just a little girl, and Roose Bolton is not the sort who would be careless with a prize of such great worth.”

            From Jon’s own thoughts, I think he thought Arya would have escaped herself from Winterfell. From there, he probably thought Mance was waiting along the kingsroad to escort her back to CB. I doubt with the murders at Winterfell, that Jon ordered that. Melisandre likely sent them to Winterfell.

    • MightyIsobel says:

      Well, sign me up for putting all the feudal lordlings on the dungheap of history, but it’s worth noting that the transition from feudalism to absolutism depended, in an economic sense, on the accumulation of resources through enclosure in the home countries, and colonialism abroad.

      The impossibility of Westerosi colonialism is the easy variable to resolve, since Westeros is basically a technological backwater on Planetos (right?). So without the overwhelming naval power and military tech (never mind their co-evolved cowpox virus) that worked to the advantage of European colonizers, Westerosi imperialists are limited to marshaling their own local resources perhaps as outlined by Abbey Battle above.

      And the lack of a state bureaucracy makes exploitation of those resources challenging. In the absence of skilled surveyors and engineers, and of loyal officials to collate the data they produce, how does the ruling authority ensure honest rendering of the taxes on the profits of grains grown on formerly common-held livestock pasture? More importantly, without colonies in the new world to ship the displaced peasants to, how does he or she handle the increasing urban bread riots and religious uprisings?

      So it’s hard to see how an imperial absolutist in the style of Elizabeth I or Frederick the Great could accumulate the economic might (Eh, I’ll just say it: Capital) necessary to end feudalist property ownership in Westeros as we understand it. Unless, as with every other really interesting political/history question, we hand-wave it off with Dragons, and Winter.

    • I’m one of the people who would prefer the Iron Throne not to exist at the end, not in its current status (ruling all Westeros) anyway, but that’s not because I think it would signify social “progress”. * It’s because I think that having the story end with some new and presumably good thing – especially a popular character like Jon or Dany – as the new ruler of Westeros, would be the most boring, tropey ending possible. GRRM is usually good at subverting tropes. And because I’m sick and tired of people asking “who do you think will sit on the Iron Throne at the end?” as if that’s the most important thing.
      Now, guess it’s maybe possible for IT to be still in place and for GRRM to end it with a relatively good character as the new monarch and still not make it tropey and predictable, if he stresses all the problems and difficulties the new ruler would face, and focuses on what policies they would use to solve those problems (as he’s said, LOTR never tells us things like, what was Aragorn’s tax policy? What did he do with the orcs?)…but somehow I doubt that can successfully be done at the end of the book series, rather than in its middle.

      *Which doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree with you on feudalism and absolutism. I’m generally skeptical of the popular idea of history as continuous “progress” in the positive sense – it would be a lot more accurate to note that the development and changes of human societies often tend to bring negative changes alongside the positive ones. We were taught in schools that Renaissance was a more enlightened era after the “dark” Middle Ages, but it brought about the beginnings of colonialism and the worst of European religious wars with the Reformation and counter-Reformation; the Enlightenment brought about scientific racism and racial theories that aimed to justify colonialism and slavery; 19th century creation of nation states led to the rise of nationalism; the Industrial Revolution led to harsh urban poverty and oppression, and the continuing technological development has been ruining the Earth’s environment – to name just a few things.

  9. […] the growing power of the politics of hunger, which is slowly but surely rousing the smallfolk from political slumber. Pity the poor Hand of the King who has to keep the smallfolk of King’s Landing loyal to a […]

  10. […] go beyond the norms of Westerosi warfare, and in this case it’s bound up by the tricky question of the nature of Westerosi feudalism: if the smallfolk of Westeros are chattel, as Viserys claims they are, then Tywin’s actions […]

  11. […] of glory only end in the death of thousands, the peasants are harnessing religious millenialism to inspire revolution, the only people who uphold the values of knighthood are the ones who refuse to become knights […]

  12. […] force. It’s not the only moment in the history of Westeros – as I discuss somewhat here and in more detail in my essay “Revolt From Below,” which you can (eventually) read in […]

  13. […] MightyIsobel’s comment on the Nature of Westerosi Feudalism […]

  14. […] the Riverlands. It’s my belief that this political activity shows the beginning of a tendency of persistent smallfolk resistance in the Riverlands that, while less dramatic than say that of the Dornish, does help to explain why […]

  15. […] Slaves in all but name, or property-owning free persons with legal rights? However, we can do some reasoning by comparison by using the World of Ice and Fire. For example, we know that the Iron Islands practice thralldom, […]

  16. […] the King’s better angels, only when absolutely necessary to ensure that the King upholds the social contract of defense of his subjects as opposed to out of self-interest, and even then should be ready to […]

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