X-Posted from Tumblr: Why is the Faith of the Seven weaker than the Medieval Catholic Church?

hiddenhistoryofwesteros  asked:

Why is the Faith so weak in comparison to the RL Catholic Church?

Different paths of historical development, basically.

The IRL Medieval Catholic Church benefited from a number of factors:

  • It was the only pan-Western European (pan-European, when Rome and Constantinople could agree that I + I = δύο) institution when the Roman Empire fell and the first medieval kingdoms of the Franks, the Lombards, etc. were forming. Not only did that give it a certain amount of prestige, but it also meant that it was the only institution that could coordinate across borders, the only common authority that feuding kingdoms might appeal to.
  • It was the largest landowner in Europe at a time when land was the major source of political, economic, social, and military power. And because it was a corporate landowner, unlike with feudal lords, land wasn’t given away as dowries or split between sons or sold off to pay for ransoms, and there were no cases of the land falling into escheat because the only heir died intestate. The corporate entity kept growing and growing, century after century, and so the estates consolidated and could take advantage of economies of scale and do really long-range investments, making the Church a real economic engine of the Middle Ages.
  • It was also almost exclusively the source of literacy, learning, and communication. Churchmen were the literate class, especially early on, so in every court in Europe there were clergy serving as officials of state, bureaucrats, scribes and secretaries, as well as their religious duties. Since Church Latin was the only common tongue in Europe – the lingua franca well before diplomats started speaking French – the Church was immensely important in international communication. Up until the invention of the printing press, monks copying out manuscripts was basically the only source of books.

The Faith had none of these advantages.

When the first fair-haired Andal pirates landed on the shores of Westeros, they brought the Faith of the Seven with them, but no institutions – there was no High Septon and no council of the Most Devout to exercise managerial control, no network of septs and septries dotted across the continent for the Faith to draw revenue and manpower from. Instead, the warlords and adventurers very much followed their own truth, carving the seven-pointed star on their chests and letting the Seven speak to them (and surprisingly, the Seven told them to go forth and carve themselves kingdoms). While holy men no doubt would have influence on religious matters, as long as the Andals were smiting the heathen and cutting down their weirwoods, there’s not a lot they could say to shape the actions of the warrior caste they were dependent on.

For a brief period, the Faith could exercise some influence through the Arryn Kings’ patronage, but once the tide of Andals spilled out into the Riverlands, the petty kings and warlords and adventurers had no reason to listen to the King of the Mountains and Vale. And so the Faith would have to follow in their wake, building as they went.


And then the Andal tide broke, first on the rocks of Moat Cailin and the equally stony shores of the North, and then again on the stable, powerful, and dynamic kingdoms of the West. Here were these foreign power structures, thousands of years old, who were assimilating into the Faith to be sure, but on their own terms and following their own interests, rather than the Faith’s terms and the Faith’s interests. So the Kings of the Rock and the Reach would become patrons of the Faith, but there would be no “Donation” of “Constantine”, no independent state.

Moreover, the Faith would also have to deal with competition from another pan-continental corporate institution, one which had been operating for thousands of years, which controlled access to literacy, learning, and communication, and which had advisors whispering into the ears of every lord in Westeros: the Citadel of Maesters. Now, I believe that there was a compromise between the Faith and the Citadel (incidentally, if someone could send me an ask to remind me to explain why I think the Andal language was key to this compromise…), but it was one where the Citadel’s monopolies and jurisdictions would be respected. Septons and septas could teach basic literacy and the tenets of the Faith, but the rest would be the domain of the maesters.


So when I talked about the Dictatus Papae and the Walk to Canossa in previous asks, it’s actually a good example of how the two institutions were different. Here was Gregory VII, one of the most important Popes in history, laying down the law to cement the authority of the Catholic Church vis-a-vis the Holy Roman Emperor:

  1. The Church is autonomous. Bishoprics and other offices belong to the Church alone, even if these positions had become mighty feudal states, Imperial Electors even. Only the Pope had jurisdiction over Church officials and lands, legal disputes involving the Church had to be settled by him in Rome, and so on.
  2. The Pope is supreme over secular officials. Here Gregory really ran wild, stating that “all princes shall kiss the feet of the Pope alone,” and “it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.“ This, when Emperors had previously appointed and deposed Popes.
  3. The Pope can dissolve the bonds of feudalism itself, through proclamations of excommunication, interdictionn, anethema, and so on. As Gregory put it, “He may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.” And Gregory would do so, punishing Emperor Henry IV for attempting to assert authority over the Prince-Bishoprics of the Holy Roman Empire.
  4. “The Roman Church has never erred. Nor will it err, to all eternity–Scripture being witness.“  That’s the origin of Papal infallibility, although less immediately relevant to the crisis.

This was somewhat controversial, to say the least. Henry IV responded by declaring Gregory “at present not pope but false monk,” calling for a new election of the Papacy, and challenging Gregory: “I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down!” And while the Papally-sponsored rebellions in 1073-1075, and then again from 1077-1088 did force Henry IV to do penance in the snow at Canossa, in 1080 Henry IV was ready to fight back.

In 1080, Henry IV proclaimed Clement III to be the true Pope, reasserting Imperial authority to name the Pope, after Gregory had blessed Rudolf von Rheinfeld, the elected Emperor of the rebels. The next year, Henry invaded Rome and when Gregory VII called upon his Norman allies from southern Italy, they promptly sacked the city and Gregory was forced to flee when the citizens of Rome rose up against him, and died in exile.

If that’s what happened to a Catholic Church that was far more powerful than the Faith ever was, imagine what would have happened to a High Septon who tried to pull a stunt like that against the Lord of Oldtown and the King of the Reach. It wouldn’t have been the first time a High Septon was assassinated, and it wouldn’t be the last.


17 thoughts on “X-Posted from Tumblr: Why is the Faith of the Seven weaker than the Medieval Catholic Church?

  1. artihcus022 says:

    I would love to imagine what the Maesters might have been in the days of the Old Gods, before the Faith of the Seven? Did they have anti-magic leanings then? Was there something like the debate between the Sophists and Atomists challenging and euhemerizing traditional faith.

    I can imagine that one of the compact between the Maesters and the Faith is to double down on the anti-magic stuff because it suits their mutual interest. It makes the Maesters important and it makes the Faith important.

    • Grant says:

      They had a formal study of it, and that was back when magic was strong, the Citadel even had the glass candles for extended communications. My guess is that it was a sort of unnerving but respectable part of academic studies.

      Now the influence of the Faith might have pushed against magic, but given the clear power of it, the disorganized leadership of the Faith at the time and the location of the Citadel in Hightower territory I’d guess that it endured one way or another for quite some time until the weakening of magic and the Dance of Dragons made the entire field seem frivolous at best and horrific at worst.

    • I think the anti-magic thing was a lot more recent than people give it credit.

  2. devakikhanna says:

    Please explain why you think the Andal language was key to the conpromise between the Faith of the Seven and the Citadel.

  3. Steven Xue says:

    Besides being an economic engine the Catholic Church was also very rich. Besides collecting money from its bishopric fiefs as well as tithes from churches all over Christendom, a huge chunk of their revenue in the Middle Ages came from the selling of indulgences. I assume the Faith does collect tithes and donations from their parishioners which probably makes up the bulk of their fortune. Though I do wonder if like their real life counterpart if the Faith also isn’t above granting reprieves to rich and powerful sinners in exchange for money? They don’t seem nearly as corrupt and unscrupulous as the Catholic Church once was although they do have their moments.

    • Well, being rich does help with being an economic engine, it means you have the liquid capital to invest in improvements on your real estate.

      Oh, I’m sure the Faith at the very least has the whole thing about septries, etc. making prayers in peoples’ names.

  4. artihcus022 says:

    To me the Faith of the Seven seems very much inspired by the situation of the Avignon Papacy but magnified several times ever. Or maybe the whole Byzantine-Orthodox Schisms issues. The Accursed Kings was set in that time after all, and King Philip IV’s suzerainty on the Church seems to have determined the Targaryen-Faith status-quo.

    I think the Faith is the best example of GRRM “remixing” history than doing it 1:1…if you squint a little you can see parts of the Church history, but on the whole the Faith of the Seven is not the Catholic Church. And of course he was inspired by Catharism and the Albigensian Crusade for Rhllorism and part of me thinks, that GRRM is going to reverse history by end-game and make Rhllor displace the Faith in post-epilogue…

    • Well, he already had R’hllorism play the role of Christianity in the scene of Melisandre and Stannis burning the gods, which makes me think of Vladimir of Kiev after his conversion, publicly throwing the wooden statues of Slavic gods into the river, while the people wept, according to the account. (How’s that for GRRM remixing history.)

    • Really? Because we don’t have any antipopes or rival power centers at all.

      But yes, very re-mixing.

  5. Brett says:

    The deal with the Maesters might be why there even is a High Septon. It seems unlikely to me that there would be one before the Conquest and consolidation into a single regime, unless the Maesters were pushing it as well (which would also explain partially why the High Septon was seated in Oldtown).

    Either that, or it was more or less propaganda before Aegon showed up.

  6. Mr Fixit says:

    Speaking of maesters, I am very much not a fan of all the soft retcons introduced by the worldbook. I don’t like how the Andal conquest of the South turned out to have been Andal Peaceful Coexistence and I am especially irked by the Citadel apparently being the First Men institution that goes back into the mists of time. Somehow, maesters have developed a continent-spanning scientific and educational network without access to letters. Also, the much more advanced Andals hadn’t built a single large city before White Harbor.

    • Well, if you don’t like the info from the World Book, there’s always the chance that it’s not true. It’s a Citadel-approved official version of history, not an objective account that we have accept as fact. We know they’re wrong about the Others and a lot of the other magical stuff, we know they lied and misrepresented a lot of things about Robert’s Rebellion in order to suck up to the current regime in King’s Landing – who knows what else is not true?

    • Grant says:

      The Vale and Riverlands were largely overrun by Andals, the Stormlands only endured Andal invasions because the story needed them to, the North had more than a few wars against the Andals and it was only successful leadership and geography that kept it predominantly First Men, the Iron Islands stumbled against Andals and came under their influence more than once, Dorne saw some Andal migrations and only escaped more probably because they didn’t see profit in it, the Reach and Westerlands fought the Andals and only escaped the fate of the Vale and Riverlands because they were more unified and had time to coopt some powerful Andal lords (and they still ended up pretty Andal).

      Add in that at that period a lot of weirwoods were burned down and Children of the Forest killed and that doesn’t sound at all like peaceful coexistence to me, it sounds like waves of invasions that only turned into peaceful coexistence in some places much later on.

    • I would like a bit more variety, so making the change to the Stormlands as discussed earlier, or having the maesters be less universal due to increased fears about influence from Highgarden, so that what the Andals did was allow the common Faith to permit more regional institutions to expand.

  7. […] Another nice bit of of worlbuilding that I quite liked was the new information that Aegon the Conqueror had “exempt[ed] its wealth and property from taxation,” which makes the Faith move that much closer to the medieval Catholic Church in prosperity if not in political power. […]

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