On the Westerosi Economy: A Response to “More Darkness than Light”

Ok, a while back, madeinmyr responded to my rebuttal of their critique of A Laboratory of Politics Part III. I had been intending to reply for some time, but a half-finished version of this got eaten by a browser crash, and I got delayed.

So here goes. Putting this under the cut because it’s huge.

On the Nature of the Westerosi Economy

To begin with, I think madeinmyr’s perspective on the nature of the Westerosi economy is not realistic. It is claimed that: “Westeros is an economically integrated continent and the Riverlands are at the center of a major transport hub.”

To begin with, I strongly question the extent of economic integration. Continent-wide economic integration in historical Europe took a long time to accomplish – long after the Industrial Revolution began in England, large parts of Europe were still primarily based on local subsistence agriculture. While the expansion of railroad networks were a huge push towards genuine economic integration during the 19th and early 20thcentury, it’s important to note that as late as the 1990s, you had large pockets of subsistence agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe.[1]

One of the major things holding back economic integration was transportation technology. Prior to the invention of the steam engine, all travel takes place at the speed that the wind, waves, cart animals, and human feet can muster – as the eminent historian Fernand Braudel reminds us:

“The Mediterranean was certainly not within the measure of sixteenth century man; it was only at the cost of much effort that he mastered its immense area, much as twentieth century man has found it difficult to master the Pacific…the fastest speeds, 200 kilometres or more per day, were hardly ever attained except by sea, in fair weather and preferably in well-manned galleys…on land, record speeds fell short of those achieved by sea…the fastest speeds at in Europe were probably reached by the couriers…at about 139 kilometers a day…the essential point to note here is that very variety, the wide range of times taken to travel the same journey: it is a structural feature of the century. The modern transport revolution has not only increased the speed of travel to an extraordinary degree; it has eliminated (and this is also important) the uncertainty imposed in the past by the elements…

The sum of the average time taken [to send a letter between Madrid and Constantinople]…gives us a Mediterranean world either eighty or sixty-six days long…But the essential point to bear in mind is that both average and record speeds remained sensibly the same before and after the sixteenth century. Goods, boats, and people travelled as fast, or as slowly, in the days of the Avignon Popes or to Venice during the first half of the fifteenth century, as they did in the age of Louis XIV. Major change and advance did not occur before the end of the eighteenth century.”[2]

This distance limited markets – not only do perishable goods suffer both spoilage (damp, mold, vermin, rot) and shrinkage (theft, goods simply falling off the wagon), but the longer a voyage took, the more transport costs (whether in shipping fees, the cost of feeding cart animals, lodging and food for the journey, warehousing fees, and tolls) ate into the potential profit that could be realized, especially from staple crops. Hence why it took the steam engine and the railroad to begin the task of economic integration within the boundaries of a single nation, let alone a continent.

And that’s Europe – Westeros is far, far larger than Europe, on the order of South America, that distance exacerbates the difficulties of economic integration, and Westeros has not experienced a transportation revolution. Longer distances means higher travel costs and more product lost during the journey, more uncertainty about what price goods will fetch when they get to their destination. All it takes is a few simple calculations to show that it’s not possible for Westeros to be genuinely economically integrated when it comes to staple crops: an order for food from White Harbor to the Reach would take a week to get there by raven, and then a ship would take around 43 days to make the journey from Oldtown to White Harbor.[3] But that’s the best-case scenario – put those goods on a cart instead of a ship, and you’re talking anywhere from seven months to a year and a half. Simply put, if there’s a famine in the North, they’re all going to starve to death before Highgarden can save them.

Moreover, Westerosi transportation mechanisms are incredibly crude. There’s no canal linking the Manderly to the Blackwater or the Blue Fork to Ironman’s Bay, so that there’s no way to travel by boat across the continent rather than around it. There are incredibly few bridges (thus the existence of the Freys), and major intersections lack bridges – there’s no bridge at the intersection of the Kingsroad and the Trident, despite the fact that all road travel between the North, the northern Riverlands, the Vale, and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms goes through that point. There’s no mention of any bridges over the Blackwater Rush, despite the fact that said river intersects the Gold Road, the Roseroad, and the Stormlands’ section of the Kingsroad. The North has no ports on its western coast, Seagard barely exists as a port for the Riverlands, and there are no ports anywhere on the southern coast of Dorne.

Thus, at best, Westeros is regionally integrated. The North could probably draw supplies from the Riverlands or the Vale, but not the Reach; King’s Landing is supplied by the Crownlands, the Riverlands, and the Reach for the most part, but the Vale isn’t mentioned when it comes to food. Even then, a calculation of distance suggests that most likely, we’re talking about the most proximate of other regions to the point in question – a farmer from Bitterbridge would take anywhere between a month and three and a half months to get to King’s Landing; a farmer from Highgarden would take 2.5 to 6 months to make the same trip.

These kind of limitations mean that the Seven Kingdoms have to be moderately self-sufficient when it comes to basic staple crops, and thus primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture – although obviously the story is quite different when it comes to less perishable goods, luxury items, and other items that could bring a higher price for their weight.

Given this reality, the idea that a credit crisis is causing the famine is simply not realistic – no matter what the credit conditions, there’s a hard limit to how much trade in staple crops can be done imposed by the level of technology and the distances involved. So to get back to my original point – “There are huge hardships and starvation that the smallfolk are going to face, but they’re primarily the result of the war and the winter, not the Iron Bank.”

It’s absolutely true that there are large areas of Westeros facing food shortages: the Riverlands suffered extensive losses, although I’d note that the area inside the Trident escaped the devastation of the area south of the Red Fork, an important distinction. Some parts of the North lost part or most of their harvest – although the war doesn’t seem to have touched the Barrowlands or White Harbor’s lands, which make up a large part of the North and its more southerly and fertile part, or for that matter the hill country or Karstark or Bolton lands. However, as the worldbook clearly shows, winter brings famine in the North regardless of any economic policy – the six year winter of 130-136 AC led a “greater army of childless and homeless men, unwed men, old men, and younger sons…for a glorious death to spare their kin beyond the Neck one more mouth to feed,” and “during the hardest winters, it is customary for the oldest and most infirm amongst the northmen to claim they are going out hunting – knowing full well they will never return and thus leaving a little more food for those likelier to survive.”[4]

The Crownlands are largely undamaged – while Duskendale and Sow’s Horn are damaged, Stokeworth, Rosby, Antlers, Rook’s Rest, and Cracklaw Point aren’t touched by the war, nor is Massey’s Hook. The Westerlands took some damage, but other than the cattle taken by Lady Mormont, most of the damage was done to its mining infrastructure and castles, as opposed to food. The Reach is largely untouched as well, while the Ironborn have begun to raid up the Mander, they’ve been stopped at the Honeywine (so the area around Oldtown is untouched), and even up the Mander, there’s a limit to how far up and how far from the river the Ironborn can raid, especially given the presence of a large army near Highgarden. The damage simply isn’t enough to offset the huge productivity of the region. Add to this that the Vale, the Stormlands, and Dorne are all basically untouched.

Thus, when we’re talking about famine, I still contend that we’re talking about a famine largely concentrated in the Riverlands, parts of the North, perhaps parts of the Westerlands, and limited areas of the Reach. But out of nine administrative regions of Westeros, four regions are completely untouched (Dorne, Stormlands, the Vale, and the Iron Islands), three are largely untouched (the Reach, the Crownlands), one is moderately damaged (the Westerlands), and two are greatly damaged (the North, the Riverlands).

However, the point still stands: the Iron Bank did not cause this devastation. The destruction of crops was done by the Westerosi – in large part because of the actions of the current government in King’s Landing in starting the war in the Riverlands between the Starks and the Lannisters, and to a lesser degree because of the actions of the Ironborn in the North and the Reach.

The Refugee Crisis:

I take a somewhat different view regarding the refugee crisis than madeinmyr – the refugee crisis of 299/300 AC is largely caused by war rather than economic conditions, in sharp contrast to the mass migrations of 210 AC, which were caused by the combination of plague and drought causing a collapse in agriculture throughout most of the south. The basic problem is that the war is forcing people from their homes and they need military protection to create the minimum level of security needed to get people back on the land, producing the food that they need to survive. Hence, the Sparrows’ primary demand is for knights to patrol the highways and guard religious centers, or at least to allow the poor to arm themselves, not for food.

More importantly, it’s a profoundly regional crisis – disorder in the Riverlands forces peasants from that region into King’s Landing. We don’t see large movements of refugees in the Reach, or the Vale, or the Stormlands, or Dorne.

It’s also a crisis profoundly shaped if not outright created by the government in King’s Landing. It was Littlefinger’s taxes and Joffrey’s psychotic hatred of the poor that touched off riots in favor of “King Bread,” to begin with.[5] (Notably, we don’t see a joining of the urban poor with the rural Sparrows when they arrive in the city) When Cersei takes over as Regent following Tywin’s death, she does nothing about the refugee crisis.[6] Nor does she intend to restore the peace and order necessary for resolving the refugee crisis – as she puts it, “Cersei did not intend to squander Tommen’s strength playing wet nurse to sparrows, or guarding the wrinkled cunts of a thousand sour septas.”[7]

How is Credit Used:

Madeinmyr posits that “Jon Snow’s solution to the Night Watch’s crisis provides a model, the only model, for how Southern communities could deal with theirs. If anything this solution is even more suited to the rest of Westeros.” The problem here is that there’s an enormous gap between what ought to be and what is, and much of the textual evidence presented actually bolsters my argument that loans and credit affect only a small minority of the population.

Madeinmyr essentially proves my point when they state that “loans and credit are a regular part of Southron aristocratic life…The Lannisters are big on loaning out money and the Tyrells are apparently involved in it as well. There are moneychangers and moneylenders in Oldtown, Gulltown, and Kings Landing.” Loans and credit are a phenomenon of the nobility and the cities, not the rural smallfolk who make up 90%+ of the population. Moreover, look at the kinds of things being bought with loans – Jonah Mormont goes into debt buying luxury goods and entertainment services, the Waynwoods into living above their means. Not buying food for peasants.

It might be argued that it is moral for the lords of Westeros to do as Jon Snow does, but as we have seen throughout the series, noblesse oblige is not a value held by most lords of Westeros. Ned Stark believes that a lord ought to sit down to supper with all of his bannermen and servants to live their lives, but as we see in AGOT, such honor is not found in the South. Edmure Tully is practically the only example we get of a lord in the Riverlands who actually looks out for the interests of his smallfolk – and Catelyn’s stunned and disapproving response shows how genuinely out of character such behavior is.

In other words, simply because famine relief is possible does not mean it’s going to happen. In which case, it really doesn’t matter whether the Iron Bank extends credit or no, there’s no food going to the smallfolk in either case.

The Crown and Credit:

The best example of this comes from the government in King’s Landing – the entity primarily responsible for the default. In a time of plenty, the Iron Throne ran up a debt of more than six million dragons – three million is owed to the Lannisters, about a million of it is owed to the Faith, leaving upwards of two million owed to the Tyrells, the Iron Bank, and the Tyroshi. This money didn’t go to famine relief, or storing up grain, or badly needed infrastructure, or any system of welfare for the poor – it largely went to lavish entertainments and luxury goods (and massive embezzlement on Littlefinger’s part, but that’s a story for another day). The Iron Throne then suffers a huge increase in expenditure and a huge decrease of revenue during the War of Five Kings, as no less than four regions stop paying their taxes to King’s Landing.

So what policy does the Iron Throne adopt, following the end of the War of Five Kings? Rather than drop its debt costs by half by forgiving the debts owed to the Lannisters who now own the kingdom, it raises taxes by establishing the dwarf’s penny. Rather than curb expenditures, it throws royal weddings for seven hundred guests, with seventy-seven courses and lavish entertainments, triples the size of the Gold Cloaks (although notably it doesn’t use the Gold Cloaks to provide peace and order outside of the city), and decides to build a whole new navy (that it promptly loses to pirates). The default on the debt is not forced on it by circumstance but by choice:

“I have decided to defer our repayment of the sums owed the Holy Faith and the Iron Bank of Braavos until war’s end.” The new High Septon would doubtless wring his holy hands, and the Braavosi would squeak and squawk, but what of it? “The monies saved will be used for the building of our new fleet.”

“Your Grace,” Pycelle said in a quavering voice, “this will cause more trouble than you know, I fear. The Iron Bank…”

“…remains on Braaavos, far across the sea. They shall have their gold, master. A Lannister pays his debts.”

“The Braavosi have a saying too.” Pycelle’s jeweled chain clinked softly. “The Iron Bank will have its due, they say.”

“The Iron Bank will have its due when I say they will. Until such time, the Iron Bank will wait respectfully.”[8]

And this is the institution that madeinmyr suggests ought to be kept supplied with finance, whose debt is clearly still good.

The Iron Bank:

I think the Iron Bank’s actions thus have to be viewed in light of the actions of the Iron Throne: is it good business to continue to extend credit to an institution that racked up huge debts and then failed to make any payment on the principal and indeed took out new loans to pay the interest during times of plenty, then suffers a huge economic setback? Is it good practice to continue negotiating with an institution that’s been palming them off? Remember, Tyrion was denying the Iron Bank a royal audience back in Tyrion IV of A Clash of Kings, a year before Cersei flatly imposes terms on Noho Dimittis.[9]

Simply put, the Iron Bank has no reason to think that this debt is still good, when the cause of default is so blatantly a deliberate policy decision to prioritize war over sound finance, when the institution in question is deep underwater and increasing expenditure, and when the institution in question both fails to communicate and then seeks to impose terms.

On a deeper level, I think madeinmyr’s argument about the Iron Bank is self-contradictory. On the one hand, the Iron Bank supposedly has a vast enough reserves to easily withstand a loss of one to two million gold, and should treat the Iron Throne’s credit as good despite all evidence to the contrary, such that Iron Bank’s policy of “maximum suffering” is nakedly malicious. On the other hand, the Iron Bank’s entire business model relies upon its “fearsome reputation for collecting debts.”[10] And yet there’s no consideration of what would happen to its fearsome reputation should it allow a major client to openly default against it, or what those economic consequences would be for the Braavosi economy and the working class of Braavos. The Iron Bank is not a charity set up for the interests of the Westerosi smallfolk; the government of King’s Landing is the institution that bears responsibility for their well-being, as Davos Seaworth so eloquently puts it.

Moreover, madeinmyr misrepresents the larger financial environment – it’s simply not the case that the Iron Bank can cut the Iron Throne off from all sources of finance. The Lannisters are potentially self-financing to the point where they could start up their own bank backed by the gold of Casterly Rock; the Tyrells are almost as wealthy, and the Faith of the Seven can clearly support a loan of a million gold dragons without grinding to a halt institutionally. Outside of Westeros, it’s clear that there are other financial institutions capable of fulfilling the role of the Iron Bank, collectively if not individually: Tyroshi trading cartels are mentioned as existing creditors of the Iron Throne, and Ser Harys Swyft reaches out to banks in Pentos and Myr for a new line of credit that could be used to buy out the Iron Throne’s Braavosi debt.


To sum up:

  1. Westeros is not an economically integrated continent, especially in the realm of staple crops. 90%+ of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture.
  2. Famine in Westeros is the result of war, not the Iron Bank’s policy.
  3. The famine and the refugee crisis are largely regional crises, and both are the result of Westerosi policy, not the Iron Bank.
  4. Credit is limited to the nobility and the cities, and is not used in rural areas or for the support of the smallfolk. It doesn’t matter what the Iron Bank’s policies are.
  5. The Iron Throne needlessly provoked a credit crisis through bad policy, and the Iron Bank has every reason to consider their debt bad, and a threat to the Iron Bank’s business model.
  6. There are alternatives to the Iron Bank.

[1] Steffen Abele and Klaus Frohberg ed, “Subsistence Agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe: How to Break the Vicious Circle?” 2003.http://www.iamo.de/dok/sr_vol22.pdf

[2] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II , p. 355-369.

[3] Calculations are based on figures from Errant Bard’s Global Timeline.

[4] George R.R Martin et al., The World of Ice and Fire, p. 82, 11.

[5] Tyrion V and of ACOK.

[6] Cersei IV of AFFC.

[7] Cersei VI of AFFC.

[8] Cersei IV, ACOK.

[9] Cersei V, ACOK.

[10] And indeed, the Iron Bank’s actions actually work. Following the credit shutoff, Kevan Lannister sends Ser Harys Swyft, the Master of Coin to Braavos to engage in negotiations with the Iron Bank, something the Throne refused to do under Cersei Lannister.


56 thoughts on “On the Westerosi Economy: A Response to “More Darkness than Light”

  1. jpmarchives says:

    Another hammer blow – excellent work Stephen. To me, madeinmyr’s position is untenable; to suggest that the Iron bank shares responsibility in the destruction of the Riverlands and the North alongside the Lannisters and Ironborn seems ridiculous when it’s burning crops which cause people to starve, not calling in loans. Waging economic war against westeros might slow the recovery process (leading to deaths in the end) but the Iron Bank isn’t obligated to help Westeros. The anger at the iron bank should be leveled tenfold and then some against the people who actually do have a duty of care to the people of Westeros; namely Cersei, with some Tywin thrown in.

    I’d also be very careful arguing with anyone who throws the word “evil” around in regard to an entire institution. An argument can be made that Ramsay Snow is evil. The Iron Bank? I don’t think so. If hurting others indirectly for personal gain is truly evil (rather than perhaps cold blooded and uncaring) then would Tyrion be deserving of that title for arming the hill tribes? In a fictional world filled with morally reprehensible characters, starting by calling the Iron bank “evil” is just baffling.

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, the evil thing is a bit weird, given that the original context was discussing Braavosi finance vs. Pentoshi slavery.

    • Jim B. says:

      Yeah, even making allowances for your point about Ramsay Snow, if your analysis of a person or institution in aSoIaF is that it is evil for the sake of evil a la Snidely Whiplash, then I think you need to go back to the drawing board. GRRM just isn’t that simplistic.

      At first I thought I must be misreading the argument and was unfairly missing some nuance. But no, that’s really a fair summary: “the intrinsic malevolence of the Iron Bank” which “launches an economic war against all of Westeros. They choose the course of action that will result of maximum suffering because this is what they always do.”

      “The essential character of the Iron Bank is that it is inflexibly violent and dangerous when it comes to collecting its debts.”

      “When we say the Iron Bank is evil we mean it in the sense that it behaves in a manner that is immoral, harmful and outright calamitous to the people of Westeros because this behavior is fundamental to its business model. This is a deeply malevolent institution.”

      • And this is the context that I was saying Pentoshi slave-trading is evil.

      • Brian says:

        Speaking as someone who works for a bank (in the corporate security/fraud investigations side), I think madeinmyr overlooks another important point: the Iron Bank has to look out for the interests of its shareholders -that is, other Braavosi. And as Steven has pointed out, monarchs were chronically bankrupt and generally poor credit risks. The IB is calling in loans to protect itself and its position. No bank in their right mind is going to extend further credit to a known unreliable client -in fact, depending on the circumstances, it could violate federal regulations.

        More broadly, the IB isn’t doing this out of spite; we know they have competition, so why alienate other clients or potential clients? Yes, they do fund uprisings, but that’s because there’s no way to take monarchs to court and have assets seized.

        And targeted microlending in Westeros would likely be a disaster when dealing with farmers -the 1930s were a mess, and that was after the movement away from subsistence farming.

        Just my two coppers.

        • Damn. I forgot to mention something really important in this essay. Namely that a lot of the banks who lent to the various factions of the Wars of the Roses lost their shirts in the process.

    • Carolyn says:

      I do not think, that the Iron Bank is evil, because the (largest part if not all of the) money would be spent on court-life and war anyway.
      Since the poor people are not customers of the Iron Bank anyway, calling in the loans would not hurt anyone but rich people like tradesmen, merchants, nobles etc. in the cities and not the population living in the countryside.
      To me, the Iron Bank rather behaves like a country, that cuts development aid for some developing country, because it knows, that most of it is going to be embezzled by the ruling class anyway. Sure, it hurts SOME poor people, but most of them are not off worse, since they would have received the money in the first case.

      Regarding Tyrion’s decision to arm the mountain clans:
      I think that Tyrion arming the mountain clans is a lot more evil than the Iron Bank’s, since

      -a major reason for him to arm them was his desire to get revenge on Lysa Arryn, the mountain clansmen probably would have protected him if he had only promised them gold as well
      -he knew, that they would use the weapons to kill and plunder mostly people that had done him no wrong (in the later books, it is said, that the main victims are members of the smallfolk rather than nobles), but did it anyway

  2. ajay says:

    “there’s no bridge at the intersection of the Kingsroad and the Trident, despite the fact that all road travel between the North, the northern Riverlands, the Vale, and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms goes through that point.”

    This has always puzzled me. The first thing I saw when I opened AGOT for the first time was the map, and I thought (not knowing anything at all about the plot) “Hmm. Crossing point of two major roads, highest crossing of a major river… I bet we get to hear a lot about Lord Harroway’s Town, because that’s basically the Stirling or Oxford, or even the London, of Westeros.” And since then, virtually nothing.

    • Yeah, really really weird.

      Lord Harroway’s Town should be really big – if not an outright city, because for some reason the Riverlands doesn’t get city charters, it should be a huge town that’s practically a city in its own right.

      The only explanation is that the flooding and shifting of the Trident keeps damaging the town, but that’s a bit unlikely.

      • David Hunt says:

        Your comment dredged up a stray thought. I have heard that no one knows where the famous spot where Caesar declared that the die was cast and cross the Rubicon is. This is because the Rubicon occasionally shifts its path and it’s thought/known that the river is not where it was in the First Century BCE. Now, I think that the Rubicon’s a fairly minor river and the acknowledge that the Trident is massive, but could some shifting of the rivers of Westeros account for the paucity of bridges? I’ve got no clue if that’s a reasonable or ludicrous suggestion for large rivers.


        Added: “dredged?” OMG. Goodness I’ve got a bad habit of going to pun-like word choices when I write comments. Last week I referred to something regarding one of the King Branden’s going “out the window.”

        • Grant says:

          I don’t think so, not unless those rivers get hit by such flooding and regular shifting as to make any maps unreliable for more than a few years*. I don’t know how recently it’s seen major shifts, but Caesar’s crossing was over two thousand years ago.

          Now of course humans are capable of causing pretty major changes to their environment in a short period of time today, but prior to such things as our population booms and big focus on industrialization (plus deliberate changes such as dams and canals) it would take a very long time for a river to be so impacted that a bridge would be ineffective.

          Really, I can’t figure out why the bridges aren’t there myself. It could be examples of lords not having the economic sense to put the money into it, it could be that in Westeros local economic initiatives have really been repressed, or it could just be that Martin decided they weren’t there.

          *Which might be theoretically possible in Westeros given how much magic can do things like impact their weather, but so far hasn’t been mentioned to do this.

        • zonaria says:

          The Yellow River in China, which is pretty massive river, has shifted its lower course in a big way on a fair few occasions during recorded history.

        • Yeah, that’s plausible. Still, it’s possible to bridge it – we know of a bridge at Fairmarket over the Blue Fork and then there’s the Twins over the Green.

          • I see the compelling reasons for a big city at Harroway, but I think, given the geography and a few of the specific quirks of Westeros, it’s absence becomes a bit more reasonable.
            First, high order rivers on flat landscapes move around a TON. Meanders, oxbow lakes, and sandbars and small islands are common. Look at these maps of historic and and prehistoric courses for the lower Mississippi:

            Second, the textual evidence supports the shifting landscape around Lord Harroway’s town. The town is flooded when the Hound and Arya pass through (although that’s not that surprising, considering the widespread flooding at the time.) And, although I had forgotten this, the wiki says that the river moved substantially 70-80yrs before Robert’s Rebellion, and previously the trident was crossed at the Inn at the Crossroads. So any economic boon from the strategic placement of Harroway would only be less than a century old.
            Weigh that against the monumental (and perhaps absurd) history that GRRM gives to the other cities on Westeros. Winterfell and Storm’s End are EIGHTY centuries old, (!?!) and even though Harrenhall and King’s Landing are much younger, they still have a few centuries on Harroway, and powerful residents to boot.

            Wow, this reply got super long. Sorry, river geomorphology is sorta my thing. Great post, great blog.

          • Thanks for your expertise!

          • ajay says:

            The argument that the river shifts around a lot is a good one… makes sense now. (Not coming from a flat country, I am unused to this sort of indecisiveness from my geography.)

      • Amestria says:

        Is it possible that transit points are just really spread out and decentralized? Jaime and Arya’s chapters pass through an inn with a dock for example. There seem to be a lot of villages. Maybe the absence of charters means every ambitious lord makes a grab for a share of the commerce? Sort of like the Freys did, only far less ambitious?

        btw, about the Frey bridge, its rather exceptional and intentionally so…given any thought as to why that is?

        • ajay says:

          “Is it possible that transit points are just really spread out and decentralized?”

          But there’s only one point where the kingsroad from KL to the north crosses the Trident, and that should be a massively important transit hub. Look how important the Twins is (are)? and that’s just a crossing over one branch of the Trident, going nowhere in particular. You have three vital highways meeting here: Vale-Casterly Rock, KL-The North, and the Trident itself, which connects all the settlements on all three branches of itself with the sea (which is probably a far quicker and more efficient way than the roads to get from the Trident to KL or Gulltown/the Vale, especially with cargo).

          From a strategic point of view, hold Lord Harroway’s Town and you split the country in two, and isolate most of the northern regions from the south and each other. Look at where Highgarden is in the south – LHT is in exactly the same position in the North.
          So why isn’t there a bloody great fortress at LHT?

        • That’s hugely inefficient, however, the more it’s spread out the further you are from any one point, and the less specialized transit can become.

          The Frey bridge is exceptional because it’s built out of stone, and because they probably burn the other bridges to maintain their monopoly.

          • Amestria says:

            Maybe bridges aren’t a thing for defensive reasons? The Riverlands have no other natural barriers.

          • 1. You can still have drawbridges and/or swivel bridges.

            2. You’d think over the last 300 years, with the Riverlands in the same polity as their neighbors, that that situation would change.

          • Amestria says:

            Just thinking out loud.

          • Julian says:

            “Burn the other bridges.” Wow. It just hit me. Not sure if intentional but this perfectly describes what the Freys (who thought their greatest asset was The Crossing) did with the Red Wedding–they burnt all of their figurative bridges in Westeros. Could be the new house words assuming they survive TWOW: “We Burned Our Bridges.”

    • Petyr Patter says:

      A very real world example of this is Cairo, IL, which sits at the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River AND an Interstate. Yet, a quick check of Wikipedia tells me Cairo has less than 3,000 people in it.

  3. MightyIsobel says:

    I agree with virtually all of this, Steven. Especially your points about the regionalism of the Westerosi economy, and how we could expect the Westerosi nobility to deploy Braavosi credit.

    Do the merchants in KL identify the allegedly “evil” Iron Bank as the source of the economic disruptions affecting their businesses? For example, I don’t remember them calling for the repudiation of the crown’s debts. If not, that suggests where local financiers understand the blame to lie for economic disruptions during a civil war.

    (Does TWOIAF provide an example of an overspent Targaryen administration?)

    • TWOIAF – well, Rhaenrya had the treasury emptied on her. And I imagine Aegon III would have dealt with severely declining revenues. Oh, Baelor emptied the treasury through oversized acts of charity and huge religious building programs. Probably Aegon IV, maybe Daeron I?

    • Amestria says:

      “Do the merchants in KL identify the allegedly “evil” Iron Bank as the source of the economic disruptions affecting their businesses?”

      They do exactly that actually:

      ‘A group of merchants appeared before her to beg the throne to intercede for them with the Iron Bank of Braavos. The Braavosi were demanding repayment of their outstanding debts, it seemed, and refusing all new loans. We need our own bank, Cersei decided, the Golden Bank of Lannisport. Perhaps when Tommen’s throne was secure, she could make that happen. For the nonce, all she could do was tell the merchants to pay the Braavosi usurers their due.’

      I think the treasury was full during King Aerys II reign, which is kind of hilarious. The last fiscally sound administration was totally insane.

      • MightyIsobel says:

        Sorry, I wasn’t clear. The merchants acknowledge their debts to the Iron Bank. If they thought the IB was “evil” and a primary cause of Westeros’s financial upheaval, they would repudiate their debts, not seek government influence to bolster that commercial relationship.

        My point is that they are blaming the Iron Throne for the financial problems. If Cersei was pursuing a rational fiscal policy, the IB would not be calling their business loans.

        • Amestria says:

          Well, if this commercial relationship was a necessity for the merchants then they wouldn’t have the space to repudiate their debts even if they felt the Iron Bank was behaving badly. And the merchants are demanding relief from the throne, they are asking for it to serve as an intermediary between them and the bank.

          • Amestria says:

            I mean “are not demanding…” Damn typos.

            Anyway, I don’t think its clear who the merchants are blaming in that scene as they don’t blame anyone. Genna Lannister and Ser Harys later blame Cersei.

      • But that’s not blaming the Iron Bank – they’re going to the Crown and asking them to fix the situation, because the Crown made the problem.

        And the full treasury was largely Tywin’s work.

        • Amestria says:

          Well, if Robert had listened to Jon Arryn and spent within his means, would the resulting surplus or lack of debt have been all Jon Arryn’s work?

          • Amestria says:

            But if Robert doesn’t listen its all Robert’s fault?

          • Mostly Robert’s fault.

          • Jim B. says:

            Yes. And if that sounds “unfair” to you, remember that it’s expressly stated or heavily implied that:

            1) Robert left pretty much everything to Jon Arryn, except
            2) Robert insisted on his expensive feasts, tourneys, etc.

            and ultimately, the King has the power to overrule (or dismiss) the Hand, but the converse is not true.

            So it’s fairly clear that:
            (a) But for Robert’s insistence on his toys, the realm would have had a healthy fiscal situation; and
            (b) this would have been because of Arryn’s prudent budgeting. You can, if you like, give this hypothetical Robert credit for appointing a good Hand and letting him have his way. But the hard work and hard choices in that scenario are being made by Arryn, not Robert.

            Now, if you like, I guess you can blame Jon Arryn for not finding another way to finance Robert’s demands: cutting the budget elsewhere, or raising taxes. But that seems to fall under the label of “easier said than done.”

          • And remember, Aerys’ style as king was grandiose plans that he abandoned almost immediately, whereas Tywin was the fiscally-minded one.

          • Amestria says:

            All good points.

            Where I’m coming from is that King Aerys II could have messed up the fiscal situation like King Robert did anytime he wanted…but he didn’t. He messed up a lot of other stuff, but the realm didn’t go bankrupt even with the rebellions. He also could have kicked out the very capable Tywin anytime he wanted but he didn’t, for his own demented Aerys reasons. So the last fiscally sound administration was completely insane. I guess I made a mistake in framing it as credit when it’s really more a cause thing. Credit goes to Tywin for the treasury, cause goes to Aerys being a not all that expensive maniac. I just find something darkly funny there.

            btw, have you thought about any hypotheticals as to what might have happened if the Royalist forces had defeated the Rebellion?

          • I think he was genuinely cowed by Tywin.

            And then the war broke out too soon for him to do any damage.

            Depends on when it happens – but eventually, I think someone pulls an Aegon II with Aerys. He’s too damn unstable.

            The Stormlands and Riverlands are probably screwed, but I imagine the Arryns have to be negotiated with lest they turtle behind the Bloody Gate. It’s quite possible the Starks declare independence and blockade the Neck, and there’s a long bloody series of wars to try to bring them back into the kingdom. Think the Dornish wars, but colder.

        • Grant says:

          There’s also Baelsh and his little number games to blame on this, but Robert really didn’t help.

  4. Grant says:

    Micro-lending to areas of Westeros could try to replace loans to lords that get spent on luxuries, but that kind of thinking is a very long way away from the Iron Bank and Westeros and honestly what bank would risk giving loans, even small ones, to the communities in Westeros that need it the most?

    They need it desperately because they are starving, one bad month away from losing everything and at risk from bandits. They are bad investments because they are starving, one bad month away from losing everything and at risk from bandits. Now admittedly the bandits might not last too much longer with local lords returning and reasserting themselves, but that’s making the sizable bet that the post-Kevan Iron Throne doesn’t manage to start yet another civil war or another destabilizing one isn’t caused by Aegon’s arrival. And to top it all off, winter’s come and there’s no more time for farming.

    So even the best suggestion of lending targeted at poor communities isn’t viable.

    • Right. The problem is micro-finance is a long-term investment, whereas the crisis is a short-term one. Microfinance probably would improve productivity – more barns, more granaries, more livestock, more seed corn, new plows, more mills, etc. But it can’t make food magically appear.

  5. I would also question the large-scale effect of the harrying and destruction of crops in the Riverlands and other areas.

    I believe Tywin Lannister’s “dogs” (Clegane, Lorch and Hoat) only amounted for about 1500 men, focused as much on generating terror as actual destruction, while Theon and Asha had fairly small contingents of Ironmen as well. In the Reach, so far we’ve seen major actions in the Shield Islands, but then Victarion sailed East with the Iron Fleet, and the remaining Ironmen I think have to be assumed to be raiding within a couple miles of the coast and rivers, within range of their longships. Likewise, Robb went into the Westerlands with essentially just the mounted portion of his Northern host, and was actually in the area only a short time, mostly storming small and relatively inconsequential castles before coming back for the Red Wedding.

    Victor Hansen’s Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (http://www.amazon.com/Warfare-Agriculture-Classical-Revised-Biblioteca/dp/0520215966) illustrates the relative ineffectiveness of “razing” agricultural land. That is considering the issue in the context of ancient Greek agriculture and technology, but extrapolating to the medieval/early renaissance level of technology and agriculture, it seems unlikely that serious lasting damage could be done over a wide area – it’s simply too labor-intensive for the raiders. Perhaps Balerion on the rampage could be the equivalent of air-dropping Agent Orange, but that is a far cry from a couple hundred riders with torches, trying to burn and trample green crops.

    • Grant says:

      Terror could be at least a semi-plausible explanation. People fleeing means that the crops quickly disappear to whoever’s hungry plus the wildlife. After that the absence of law enforcement and the presence of hungry ex-soldiers turned bandits is a very good incentive to not go back and grow things. Then there’s the wolf pack, which has somehow grown into something truly insane, under Nymeria that’s threatening anyone not well protected.

      Anyone have any good sources for food production in areas hit by war in France and England in the 14th-16th centuries? Warfare in the time of the Hellene city-states could arguably have changed enough that the devastation would be worse.

    • That’s an excellent point. I had the same problem with the Disputed Lands. They should be fertile. Fallow, maybe, but still fertile.

      Realistically – even if you burn everything and there’s bodies everywhere, it’s all carbon and good for the soil.

      • ajay says:

        Maybe they’re arid, and war and depopulation meant no one was maintaining the qanats and wells and irrigation ditches?

        • I highly doubt that, for several reasons.

          1. The disputed lands are colored green on the maps, indeed a darker green than nearby areas – which is usually an indicator of a more temperate climate. All other arid areas are colored sage or red or some other color to indicate desert.

          2. The text describes them as having been rich and fertile lands.

  6. Carolyn says:

    That’s a really good article. I just wanted to add some points regarding the “moral obligation to fund the Westerosi government” the other poster talked about:

    Why should the Iron Bank lend money to the IT in order for the IT to buy grain etc. when

    -the Lannisters and the Tyrells (the two ruling! families during the time the IB calls in their loans) have a few million gold dragons between them and could easily buy grain for their populace, if they wanted to do it

    -the IT squanders most of its money on luxury items and needless wars. When Harys Swyft goes to Braavos, he employs the services of the Black Pearl, one of the most expensive of Braavos’s courtesans. These courtesans are so expensive, that “tradesmen beggared themselves to go out with them one evening” and yet, Harys Swyft, a representative from an institution, who is six million in debts and who does not even come from a rich house himself (House Swyft is only a knightly house and Dorna Swyft was considered a bad match for Kevan) supposedly pays one to visit a play with him. If I were a representative of the Iron Bank and got to know, that a defaulted creditor still has enough money to spend on expensive courtesans, I would not lend him money either.

  7. Would the Barrowlands really be relatively untouched? Didn’t Vicatarion spend a decent few months at Moat Cailin, with his fleet nearby, leeching of the surrounding lands as Robb and Catelyn said the North couldn’t really afford doing in AGOT?

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