Down and Out in Westeros, or: Economy and Society in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire
By Ken Mondschein
Published Online (2013)
Introduction: If you tell me your economy, I’ll tell you who you are. Supply and demand, inflation, and interest on loans are all products of logic and human nature. Likewise, whether in our world or in a fantasy world such as George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, natural resources, transportation, and hierarchies of power and money will all affect how a society develops. For instance, the Middle Ages were fortunate in that Europe has ample supplies of iron, waterways for trade and transportation, and winters cold enough to kill malarial mosquitos. On the other hand, West Africa, while fertile and rich in gold, also harbored parasitic diseases that drained away the supply of available labor.
The economy also affects warfare. Fighting wars costs money—a lot of money—and the procurement of funds was a major concern of medieval monarchs. The usual method of doing this was to skim off part of the money going around in the economy—in other words, to collect taxes, duties, and other revenues. In a pre-industrial society, the health of the economy, and thus the amount of cash available to rulers, will always be closely tied to the land and agricultural production.
Does Martin realistically model these relationships? At first, it appears that he is absolutely inconsistent. Prices in A Song of Ice and Fire seemingly have no rhyme or reason. The prices of basic commodities fluctuate widely between books, and what characters consider to be a lot of money also varies greatly. However, if we take a closer look at the underpinnings of the Westerosi economy, we find that these seeming contradictions come from the fact that Martin, ever the consummate world-builder, realistically models the effect that Westeros’ unique political, social, and climatic conditions have on the economy (or, at least, that I know enough medieval history to make up a convincing cover story for him).
First, we’ll talk about trade in Westeros and the effect that ten-year-long winters might have on a pre-modern economy. Then we’ll look at prices, and, finally, the world of medieval high finance and how it relates to the Game of Thrones. This might all seem kind of scary, but remember that we’re talking about a relatively unsophisticated agrarian economy: You don’t need to be a Wall Street whiz kid to understand the relationship between corn in the granary and gold in the treasury.