Now that Season 7 of the popular ‘Game of Thrones’ has started, it will be amusing to spend a few moments in a brown study about the historical accuracy of the path the series has taken.
Of course, it’s bracing, no doubt, to see Daenerys finally start sailing to Westeros after SIX long seasons of playing the Bush-in-the-Iraq, but for a historian to see all those ships packed with men and horses sailing off into the horizon might serve to break immersion even more than our friendly neighbourhood teleporting eunuch just a tad little bit.
You see — as Martin himself repeats dozens of times in his books — Gold wins Wars.
The more gold you have the more men you can hire. The more men you can hire, the more men you can throw away in battle. The more men you can afford to throw away in battle, the more the chance you’re the last man — or woman — standing when the dust settles.
It is not rocket science; we’ve known this longer than they’ve learnt to write. Hell, I’d wager we’ve known this longer than humans have been around in the first place!
In any case, this does give us a good base to reflect on the economics of militaries in Westeros. Of course this is a pretty difficult question — partly because we don’t really have much economic data from Martinverse and partly because the nature of the seasons would throw normal economic cycles out of whack every time. But we have two major advantages:
- The sheer volume and scope of Martin’s writings.
- The fact that Martin based his works on a very real period of history — the English Civil War.
The government of Westeros has often been described as Feudal. With the long lineages proudly claimed by lords, the magnificent castles dotting the entire continent, the opulence of the nobility contrasted with the inhuman poverty of the peasants and serfs, it does seem a fair representation of the period.
However, Westeros doesn’t seem to be under Feudalism as much as it seems to be following a system of governance known as ‘Bastard Feudalism’.
Classical Feudalism is based on the idea of land trusteeship. A knight ties himself to his lord in return for a grant of territory called a ‘fief’ which — in theory — serves to sustain him and his family. We know that the term ‘standing’ armies don’t actually mean anything in a feudal sense — especially if the World in question is a souped-up, hyper-violent approximation such as Westeros. The knights are called upon to fulfil their oaths when their lords go to war; they stay in their fiefs in the rest of the time. This is what we often see in Martinverse as well, but in a slightly ‘corrupted’ fashion. (At least in Westeros. The rest of the World follows a variety of governance systems though surprisingly, absolutely none seem to practice feudal systems.)
And this ‘corruption’ is what is known as ‘Bastard Feudalism’.
To be brief, affluent medieval societies allowed wealthy magnates to raise private armies through payments instead of through granting fiefs and other capital assets. Increasingly, raising forces shifted from being the responsibility of individual lords to that of appointed generals. Thus, land was often less important than ‘assets’ — such as ships, mills, and even control over tax rights.
This shift in focus from an Agrarian system of raising forces to a Semi-Centralized (for weaker, primarily rural/semi-urban economies) or Centralized (for larger, primarily urban ones) system lead to the beginning of professional armies instead of the older system of raising peasant/feudal rabble.
This system, interestingly, wasn’t an innovation as it was a throwback to earlier times where Classical Empires such as the Guptas or the Mauryas raised professional, standing Armies thanks to their superior bureaucracy and Administration compared to their Dark Age successors. (The Classical style of raising professional armies was retained till late in the Medieval era by various States such as Orissa in India or the Eastern Roman Empire of Greece-Turkey).
We can observe such a system in Westeros easily.
Firstly, Classical feudal armies were simply that — feudal armies.
In medieval Europe, they mostly comprised of bands of knights, each accompanied by their personal retainers or more experienced trackers and hunters. There wasn’t any concept of ‘professional’ militaries — unless one counted free companies of Vikings who came from an entirely different culture. Training was poor, discipline worse. In effective terms, such armies were far inferior not only to the armies of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople but also the armies of the Roman Republic from more than a millennium ago.
This is not the case with Westeros. The armies we see are well-organized, ably-led, even professional to some extent.
Martin, unlike Tolkien and the other greats of High Fantasy, doesn’t describe organized battles exhaustively but when he does, such as the clash between Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton on the Green Fork or the Siege of King’s Landing by Stannis Baratheon or Euron Greyjoy’s assault upon the Shield islands, we observe very sophisticated use of tactics and geography by competent, disciplined troops. Martinverse’s people in Westeros take ridiculous amounts of punishment in battle, stand firm against tremendous odds, and give as good as they get at all times even when heavily outnumbered.
These are professional soldiery — drilled, disciplined, dedicated — not feudal levies. The only significant bit of evidence we do have against such a hypothesis is the monologue by the wandering septon in AFoC and the rustics Ser Duncan the Tall tries to the train at one point. In both cases, the lords involved seem to no concern for the upkeep and equipment of their soldiery — something that can’t be said even for hard-headed Tywin Lannister. And in Ser Duncan’s case, the lord is explicitly described as little more than a noble beggar.
Secondly, we have mentions of knights being ‘hired’ to fight in wars utterly impersonal to themselves.
There are mentions of young men of noble families, second sons and others with few prospects, riding out to pledge themselves to several lords- best seen in the case of Renly where knights from as far as the Vale had ridden up to join his host. Yet there are also mentions of ‘hedge knights’ being paid to fight; Kevan Lannister boasting of how many men he could maintain with his incomes and multiple mentions of lords maintaining huge contingents of personal retainers.
Such examples were not unknown in feudal societies, but they were scarce. Also, the concept of individual knights being paid to fight in wars was seldom seen; in contrast, lords used to hire themselves and their knights out for war. Where such ideas did come into prominence was in the Late Medieval era in Europe, and they were classic traits of Bastard Feudalism.
Thirdly, what is often important is made evident not by its presence but by its absence.
The society of Westeros we, as readers, are most involved with is the North, the home of the Starks. However — and this is a very important point — the North can hardly be described as ‘Westerosi’ in the first place! Again and again, they are derided by others as ‘savages’ and ‘rustics’. They’re shown to be out-of-touch with how things are in the South, and are described as ill-equipped and innocent of the civilized ‘niceties’ from across the Narrow Sea.
Thus, oaths and honour are of paramount importance to the North, and we find that it is the North which has the deepest bonds between the lords and their Lord Paramount. The only other regions where we find personal charisma to be so important are the Iron Islands and the Stormlands, both very impoverished compared to the rest of the Realm. Ergo, Bastard Feudalism fails to be popular in such Kingdoms.
We also find that the numbers involved for armies in Westeros are gigantic.
Armies in the era Westeros is patterned upon — High Medieval Europe — were small, 10,000 to 20,000 at most. Instead in Martinverse, we routinely find armies totalling 50,000 soldiers — even 100,000 under Renly Baratheon at one point — marching around the place. These are astronomical numbers! No nation in Europe could manage to raise such vast, well-equipped armies after the destruction of the great Mediterranean Empires of the Classical Age. And armies were expensive. Henry V, who was using armies very similar to what lords in Westeros would be using, bankrupted himself paying 12000 men. The Tyrells seem to have no problem keeping 8 times that number on the field. (In real life, the only force in Europe that even came close to matching armies of Westeros in numbers and bearing was the Hungarian Black Army, and they numbered around 25,000 — about half of Tywin’s force).
So how much must they have been spending?
First, we must consider how the Medieval World must have seemed to the average workman or housewife.
This was a time when practically everything around one was made within a hundred miles of their home, a time when the average person owned little of value per se. However this is not to imply that medieval life was, as Monty Python would have us believe, only fit for a connoisseur for bad teeth and mud.
In many ways, medieval folk had things better off than even us. For one, inflation was, for most part, practically zero. The lack of central authority meant that government policies and borrowing did not interfere much in the day-to-day prices, unlike what was the case with Empires such as Rome or the Ottomans. Further, the prices of goods remained fairly stable as well outside periods of drought and famine, in which case religious organizations and feudal noblesse oblige guaranteed significant amount of help from the authorities.
Second, we must remember one key aspect of Martinverse: the seasons aren’t the same as ours in the slightest.
To be brief, the population of Westeros starts out low in spring as most of them have been killed off in the preceding winter. Ditto for cows, horses and other animals. Both goods and labor costs remains high until first harvest, when there is a collapse in goods prices. Thus, spring is a good time for commoners, but a terrible time for nobles and merchants due to still high labor costs but low goods costs.
Throughout summer, labor costs will normalize and go lower as the population increases. Costs for goods remain the same and costs of livestock also decrease, but labor costs collapse. This is a nightmare for the commoners, but nobles and merchants make merry during this period.
In autumn, things will be mostly the same — labor costs are low because people will hire themselves out for anything in order to save money for winter. Livestock prices crash as people start killing them and saving the meat for winter. Goods prices start increasing due to more saving. Littlefinger remarks upon this once in Sansa’s WoW chapter.
In winter, little to do, low labour costs and very high goods costs. Nobility enjoy but the merchants suffer because of the lack of trade.
Thus we have the economic cycle of Westeros in a nutshell.
From a study of medieval price trends from Modern and Early Modern Bank Databases and Kenneth Hodge’s records, we find that summer and winter prices across most of the High Middle Ages had a differential of roughly 30%. Thus, upkeep of any army during the period of the War of the Five Kings would require at least a premium of 30% over nominal wages. Here, one might argue that the prices given in such databases is for income rather than expenses whereas there are contenders for the Iron Throne who do not pay their troops, instead preferring to go for a more slave army-like structure; mostly notably Daenerys Targaryen.
Fortunately for us, the databases also give a rough measure of how real wages compared with consumer basket price. In a nutshell, the average Master mason in early 14th century England before the Black Death could look at a very comfortable income of around 800 pence annually.
His apprentices would have to suffice with slightly less than half that sum. However the consumer basket price, for the bare essentials, would top at around 150 pence to 200 pence. Thus, we find that the medieval middle class could live fairly easily even after taxes and other necessary expenses.
The average feudal soldier in Westeros wouldn’t be given such a generous sum of course, but food, provender, and mere upkeep of arms — as well as logistical constraints — would entail a sum of at least twice the base consumer basket price being expended to keep him on the field. This goes for Daenerys’ slave soldiers as well. As for Tywin Lannister’s bastard feudal forces, the expenses would be even higher.
Until the decimalization of the British currency, the standard of exchange was at 120 pence for 1 pound. On the other hand in the Hedge Knight books, Ser Duncan the Tall is kind enough to inform us that 3 gold dragons would suffice to keep the average man well-fed and supplied for a year. However we must keep two things in mind here:
- Ser Duncan was quoting these prices keeping the time frame in mind — the period of a very bitter winter.
- Ser Duncan is a morally upright man, and not given to vices and waste. It is highly likely his Spartan and virtuous life style would be markedly cheaper than the norm in Westeros.
Thus, we will compare Ser Duncan’s prices using Real world winter prices and add in a surcharge of 25% to his estimate in order to compensate for unnecessary expenses, wastage, and losses a less morally upright man in Westeros and logistical difficulties would entail. Thus, we find that roughly 200 pence (150 pence plus a 30% surcharge) would be roughly equivalent to 4 gold dragons.
A soldier’s equipment in Westeros — again judging from Ser Duncan’s experiences — seem to require regular maintenance and replacement, which we can estimate to be roughly a third of his living wages. Rounding up, we can say that a feudal soldier on the eve of the War of the Five Kings would’ve demanded an expenditure of at least 300 pence every year.
(Interestingly the modern symbol for — d. — is a legacy not of any British custom but instead that of the Roman Empire. The d. stands for the Denarius.)
Thus, using decimal notations, we find that 1 gold dragon is roughly equivalent to 0.42 pounds (High Medieval England).
So, how much must Robb stark have been spending to keep his 20,000 men, drawn from feudal holdings across the North, in the field?
We know that the men were well-drilled and disciplined- or at least they’d have to be, given they stood up repeatedly to better equipped and larger forces under Tywin Lannister and Randyl Tarly. We also know that Robb Stark had a force of at least 6000 cavalry — out of whom around half can be taken as household and thus professional troops. Given he had at least 20 noble houses under his command, each of whom would’ve had 50 personal troops under them (since 50 seems to have the upper end of how many guards could’ve held the typical medieval English castle).
A rough back of the envelope calculation tells us, thus, that Robb Stark — if he’d been an (rather anachronistic) English baron during the English Civil War — would’ve been spending a total of 63,428 d. per day for his professional and mounted troops, in wages and equipment alone. (Since data for professional cavalry isn’t available for the 14th century, we have considered that of the 16th century and using Kenneth Hodge’s tables, calculated an inflation factor of 3.5 for the timeframe). The costs for his foot infantry come to around 12,000 d. per day, significantly less and a clear sign of the importance given to cavalry throughout the series.
In all, Robb Stark was spending an extraordinary 76,000 d — or £317 on his army EVERY day.
This is roughly equal to the entire annual income of the average English baron in the 14th century. And we have not even considered foraging expenses, scouting and communications, and other sundry expenditures.
Robb Stark’s annual expenditure on his troops come to an astronomical £114,120 — ten times the income of even the richest 14th century English earls — but possibly not unexpected considering that the Starks rule over an area half the size of South America.
But rich as the Starks are, they don’t seem to have held a candle to Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, Lord Paramount of the Westerlands, and Warden of the West.
Over the course of the series, the Lannisters raise over 40,000 of the finest, best-equipped troops seen in Westeros (Stafford’s 20,000 men are described as ‘dregs’). Each of these hosts are raised and led by members of the Lannister family. Each of these hosts seems to be centrally organized and led by semi-professional, if not professional leaders, under the direct supervision and appointment of Tywin Lannister himself.
Even so, assuming a fourth of this force as cavalry and a fifth as archers, and the rest infantry, we find that Lord Tywin would’ve to be spending a huge sum of around 412,000 d. — or £1,716 per day. A single year’s campaign — and remember this would be during a winter year — would leave Tywin with a bill of £626,340, more than 20 times the peacetime income of the English crown in early 14th century.
Tywin was probably shitting gold bricks all day long to pay for this.
Thankfully for Tywin, Robb Stark’s genius does ensure that the bill for the expenses never reached Casterly Rock but we can clearly see the problem the Lannisters were facing in the later books. Their expensive armies had been torn apart, their mines and lands had been ravaged by the Starks, and the Iron throne was clearly on the road to default. In the show, it’s stated outright that their mines have run dry entirely.
Season 6 should’ve, more accurately, ended with Cersei melting down the Iron throne for the scrap metal to pay her creditors.
And this is where the show messes up with Daenerys.
At the end of season 6, we see a vast flotilla (from the shots we did see) larger than any Medieval Europe had seen since the glory days of the Roman Navy under the Republic sailing gallantly across the Narrow Sea, packed with Unsullied, Dothraki, Ironborn, and Daenerys and her council.(Why she simply didn’t ask Lord Varys to teleport them all is beyond me.)
If we take into account the only extant record of Daenerys’ military, it includes her 58,000 Dothraki, 8,000 odd Unsullied, her 3 dragons, and the relatively untouched forces of Dorne and the Tyrells, which number more than 100,000 in the shows. Even if we consider that Dorne has little in common with the rest of Westeros, and that Daenerys’ troops would require little ‘payment’ (as the term goes), the Tyrells are a typical army of Westeros, and from the descriptions in the books, have much in common with the semi-professional forces fielded by the Lannisters.
Even the most conservative estimates of the costs of maintaining such a host of such numbers comprising of even unarmed, untrained, unequipped men on foot would’ve been a mammoth 146,600 d. per day — twice that of Robb Stark’s expenditure. And this is before we start including the expenses for her massive navy. Ships in the days of wooden vessels and iron men cost a lot, especially because wood rots and requires constant repair and maintenance. Remember the Small Council has a Master of Ships, not a Master of War (despite what Cersei would have us believe).
And Daenerys, mind this, has no source of income, save what she captured from the Slavers when she sacked their cities. Needless to say, this is a very wasteful, brutal, and unsustainable source of income.
But wait, Daenerys’ pseudo-European troops, Dorne and Reach, have at least a fourth of their men ahorse. All the Dothraki are ahorse. Her troops are also well-equipped and well-armoured to a man. And the Reach forces among them would require compensation for their efforts as befits a bastard-feudal system. So, our estimate climbs from 146,600 d. per day to 803,095 d. per day.
And this is after the Tyrells, the richest member of her faction, have already been paying through their noses for over two years, not only for themselves but also for the bankrupt Lannister forces.
Daenerys is haemorrhaging money at the tune of around £3,500 per day. If this grand army she has built up has to remain a year in the field, she will rack up a bill of over £1.1 million or over 5.8 million dragons. For comparison, Tywin was losing sleep over a debt of merely 2 million dragons to the Iron Bank.
If a Roman general had presented such a bill to the Senate during even the glory days of Trajan’s Empire, the senators would’ve beaten him to death at the spot with their writing boards and scrolls.
And don’t forget, the Iron Bank hasn’t had its due yet. The Iron Throne is still over six million dragons in debt, the mines of the West have long run dry, and the Reach is likely gasping for breath after two constant years of warfare, which, considering they were Tywin’s match in resources, must’ve cost them at least a hundred times Medieval London’s peacetime incomes in the 14th century. This while the War of the Five kings hasn’t allowed tax collectors to do their work for over three years in the books.
Meanwhile half the Realm lies in ashes, and as always, Winter is coming.