by Ken Mondschein
(k e n [at] k e n m o n d s c h e i n [dot] c o m)
George R.R. Martin’s Westeros seems to have an unreasonably large number of battles compared to the real Middle Ages. In A Clash of Kings there are no less than five field actions during the course of Robb Stark’s one-year campaign in the South (the Green Fork, the Whispering Woods, the Battle of the Camps, Oxcross, and the Crag). In our world, though, these sorts of encounters were quite rare: Robb’s annus mirabilis was quite intense compared to the mere three battles in the entire real-life career of Edward the Black Prince, who was arguably the greatest English commander of the fourteenth century.
Of course, all this fighting makes for more dramatic storytelling—no one wants to read thrilling tales about adventurous drinking and dicing in an army camped out for months around a castle wall, or the epic quest of the heroic protagonist to find new and exciting ways to keep his soldiers from dying of dysentery and/or knifing one another. Martin is nothing if not a skilled writer, and so those sieges that do take place in Ice and Fire either tend be recounted in the past tense or quickly resolved once a viewpoint character shows up. Witness Jaime wrapping up the badly mismanaged siege of Riverrun and the interminable Bracken/Blackwood war in A Feast for Crows, or how Dany is described as cleverly capturing Meereen in A Storm of Swords. But how realistic is this?
At first, it seems as if Martin has sacrificed authenticity for action. Let’s use the Black Prince’s career, which spanned the first part of the Hundred Years’ War, as a counterpoint to that of Robb Stark. During the Hundred Years’ War — which was, to simplify a very complicated story, a multi-generational struggle to decide whether the king of England would also be the king of France — the first battle Edward participated in, Crécy, was fought in 1346 when Edward was only sixteen (Robb Stark’s age at the Red Wedding); the second, Poitiers, was not fought until ten years later in 1356; the last, Nájera, eleven years after that in 1367.
This does not mean that Edward spent the rest of his time playing croquet and eating tiny watercress sandwiches. Rather, like most of his peers, the majority of this consummate fourteenth-century military man’s career was spent besieging cities (in one case, the 1346–47 siege of Calais, for nearly a year) and wreaking havoc through the countryside. Rather than battle, siege and armed raid (the chevauchée) were the default modes of medieval warfare. It was not the clash of knights in plate and mail and striving of equal against equal that decided the fate of kingdoms in the Middle Ages, but rather the ignoble digging of latrine pits, burning of crops, and raping and murdering of peasants.
The reason why was simple: castles.
In this essay, we’ll look at the medieval fortress, how it affected the economies and realities of war, how and why this changed in the late Middle Ages, and the effects this had on society. Then we’ll compare what happened in the real world to Westerosi history and see if Martin gets this detail so wrong, after all.
Come into my Castle
A castle or fortified town is, to an invading medieval commander, best conceptualized as a large stone container containing various nasty things that can hurt you. The first and most obvious thing it contains are implements such as arrows, hot oil, and rocks that can be shot at, dropped on, or otherwise lobbed at your men. This makes a castle somewhat like a porcupine: A frontal assault is likely to hurt you more than it.
However, if you decide to leave the castle alone, the second thing a castle contains are soldiers. An unreduced fortress can be a major pain in the rear echelons, particularly when its garrison sallies forth to cut your supply lines. Stannis is behaving as methodically and realistically as any real-life medieval commander in A Clash of Kings when he realizes he cannot leave Storm’s End unsubdued and press on to King’s Landing. Fortunately for him, Melisandre of Asshai is there to make a quick end to the siege and move the plot along. (Of course, in the real Middle Ages, there were fewer priestesses of R’hllor running around to conjure up shadow-assassins to do away with recalcitrant garrison commanders.)
The third thing a castle contains is prestige—a weapon more abstract than a rock hurled from a trebuchet, but no less harmful in the long run. A castle was not just a fortified dwelling, it was also a seat of government and justice. It was, in other words, a symbol of authority. If your aim is to embarrass your foe, to overthrow his power and take over his lands, than leaving him in possession of his castles is tantamount to saying you’re no real threat at all. This is the other reason Stannis had to take Storm’s End: as a loyalist stronghold that still served the cause of his dead brother Renly, as well as the ancestral seat of House Baratheon, it was an important symbol of legitimacy.
From a defender’s standpoint, however, castles are a win-win situation. For one, they’re a surprisingly cost-effective way to control territory. Sure, they are expensive to build, but that is a one-time layout, and it’s not like your serfs are able to ask for overtime pay if you ask them to do the grunt work. Rather, paying your soldiers is the problem. Medieval lords financed their lifestyles and paid for their wars by milking off the surplus from a subsistence-level agricultural society. A field army is very expensive, since troops need to be fed, armed, and paid. Tax systems were inefficient, and it was also hard to convert the cows, grain, and forced labor that your peasants are paying you into armor, horses, and coin. This is why the feudal system sprang up in the early Middle Ages: In return for their loyalty, your supporters and allies get their own lands and peasants to support them and pay for their equipment.
Even later, after the economy was monetized and soldiers were working for cash, incomes were not very large compared to those in later, centralized nation-states with their armies of tax collectors and customs officials. Economically speaking, the king was just one lord of many, and wasn’t able to command significantly more cash than the great nobles. Accordingly, medieval armies tended to be assembled when needed, and then quickly dismissed.
Medieval armies also tended to be only a few thousand men strong, though a king or other great lord at least nominally commanded the loyalty (and military support) of his vassals and could assemble a much larger force when he needed to, just as a Westerosi lord could “call his banners.” Large standing armies were the creation of early modern nation-states, which have the advantage of one government structure instead of hundreds of petty lords, each with the right to collect their own taxes and assemble a private army. Nation-states also have a professional army of bureaucrats to collect the taxes. Compared to, say, King Louis XIV of France, the epitome of the absolutist early modern ruler who commanded upwards of 300,000 men, a medieval lord was cash-strapped and dependent on the goodwill of his vassals and allies.
This is why castles were such an economic advantage in the Middle Ages: A fortress and its associated territory could be held by a fraction of the men needed for a field army. For instance, following the spectacular success of the First Crusade in 1097, the Holy Land was held for almost 200 years with relatively few soldiers but many well-fortified castles, such as the famous Krak des Chevaliers. Similarly, the Reconquista of Spain from the twelfth to the fifteenth century was fought from castle to castle and fortified town to fortified town.
So what do you do if you’re an invader in the real-life Middle Ages? The answer is chevauchée. By burning the crops, killing the animals, and terrorizing the peasants, you not only get to feed and pay your soldiers from plunder, but you can shame your foe into giving you open battle on a field of your choosing. Historians have named this sort of strategy “Vegetian warfare” after the late Roman Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who discusses it in his De Re Militari (“On Military Matters”), which remained a much-thumbed handbook for military commanders throughout the Middle Ages. We can see Vegetian warfare as a sort of rational choice decision, a big game of “prisoner’s dilemma,” with many turns for each player so that everyone knows exactly what the score is:
Obviously, the most advantageous strategy for an attacker is to force the other side to seek battle. This is what the Black Prince did on his Poitiers campaign. Edward’s great chevauchées of 1355 and 1356 were designed to draw the French king, Jean II, into battle by showing that we was incapable of defending his lands and thus was no real king at all. Jean took the bait and chased Edward through central France, finally catching him near the town of Tours. Edward, who had only about 6,000 dismounted men against Jean’s 8,000 mounted men-at-arms and 3,000 infantry, was vastly outnumbered. However, he was able to choose an elevated position to give battle, with his front defended by hedges and his back and flanks defended by woods and a river. The French chivalry was forced to concentrate their strength on a few points in the hedges, where English longbowmen and dismounted men-at-arms could keep them at bay. The fate of the French army was sealed by the English cavalry reserve charging out of the woods and smashing into their center. It was a resounding English victory that resulted in Jean II’s capture and a massive setback to the French war effort, all thanks to the Black Prince’s strategy of not riding headlong into battle, but rather forcing his enemy to pursue so that he could choose his own ground.
Similarly, in A Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister opens the War of Five Kings by sending Gregor Clegane to wantonly raid, rape, and pillage in the Riverlands. In one of Martin’s more realistic touches, not only was it Ned Stark’s duty to keep the King’s Peace, but the Riverlands were ruled over by House Tully, his in-laws. A Hand of the King who couldn’t even defend his wife’s family lands was no Hand at all. Honor demanded a response, but unfortunately (or fortunately) Ned’s leg had been broken by a previous Lannister attack, and so he sent out Beric Dondarrion in his place. In the disastrous Battle of the Mummer’s Ford, the royal army was ambushed by Lannister forces and utterly destroyed. If Ned hadn’t suffered his accident, it would have been the Lord of Winterfell who was captured or killed, ending the war before it had even begun. One would have hoped that Ned would have been able to see through such an obvious stratagem, but his fatal flaw was that his honest, honorable, forthright nature made him incapable of seeing others’ true intentions—very bad qualities in a medieval battle commander indeed.
But as suggested above, Vegetian warfare doesn’t seem to be the rule in Westeros. Sieges do occur, but the commanders’ overall plan seems to be finding and destroying the enemy army. In this, it resembles the wars of the Renaissance and early modern period. So how did this new way of fighting come about, and does it have parallels in the history of Westeros?
A Revolution in Warfare
In the real Middle Ages, the invention that ended the superiority of the castle or fortified town was the introduction of gunpowder in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries—not because it could shoot through plate armor (early handguns were far inferior to crossbows) but because cannon could subdue (though here again, not just “blast through”) even the strongest fortifications. Although itself a bit of the exception that proves the rule, when Sultan Mehmed II’s cannon destroyed the walls of Constantinople in 1453, it was more than just the fall of the last outpost of the Roman Empire—it was an announcement that warfare was forever changed.
Since castles and fortresses were no longer an effective means of controlling territory, a commander’s only alternative was to give battle. Now, the side with the larger army had a definite advantage. With the new larger armies and need for sophisticated artillery, warfare became much more expensive. Soon, only great lords could afford armies, and natural evolution favored those political organizations that could collect enough tax revenue to finance armies large enough to compete on the battlefield. Thus, the early modern state was born, with the king at the top of the social pyramid, assisted by his ministers. The minor nobility, for their part, became the officer class in these armies. Historians call this process the “the Military Revolution,” and it went like this:
In a case of parallel evolution, Westeros had a military revolution of its own, only instead of cannon it had dragons. Harren the Black, the vain, proud ruler of the Riverlands, serves as an object lesson of what happens to those who bring a castle to a dragon fight. Harren had just completed Harrenhal, the largest and grandest fortress in Westeros, when Aegon the Conqueror landed with a small army, his sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys, and their three dragons. “And King Harren learned that thick walls and high towers are small use against dragons,” as Old Nan told the Stark children, “For dragons fly.” Westeros seems to have skipped right over the Age of Gunpowder to The Age of Air Superiority [ed. note: it is interesting to note that many early cannon names were those of dragon: serpent, basilisk, etc.]. Seeing Harren’s fate, the kings of the Stormlands, Westerlands, and Reach chose to give open battle and were destroyed, while the North, the Vale, and Oldtown peacefully submitted. Only the Dornish successfully resisted through guerilla warfare and were later brought in through marriage and, much like Wales or Scotland, maintain a very distinct and nationalistic cultural identity.
The “Dragon Revolution” in Westeros had some of the same political effects that the Military Revolution had in Europe: Aegon the Conqueror unified the six of the Seven Kingdoms into one centralized nation-state and established a capital and proper government at King’s Landing, with offices such as Master of Coin, Master of Laws, Master of Ships, and Hand of the King. However things did not proceed exactly as they did in real life, where political organization progressed to centralized states with the nobility subjected to the king. One reason is probably because the Targaryens were Valyrians, which no doubt led to a certain comfort with enfranchising the stakeholders in the kingdom, as had been done in the ancient Freehold of Valyria. Of course, Westeros is also very large and it made sense to deputize the leading families to aid in rule—thus the traditional titles of Warden of the North, South, East, and West.
However, the real reason for Westeros’ political stagnation is probably the nature of their ultimate weapons. Dragons are unlike cannon in one important aspect: No amount of money can buy more. There is little point in assembling an enormous army if dragons can incinerate them all, and no way to make yourself even more powerful by buying more dragons. Thus, with no incentive to modernize, the economy and tax system remained locked in a medieval mode of production. So, in defense of the Westerosi, even the most capable finance minister is of only limited use when the basis for your power lies between the jaws of an enormous fire-breathing reptile.
Of course, during the time that A Song of Ice and Fire takes place, the last Targaryen dragon had been dead for 150 years. Why would outdated ways of fighting still persist? Why wouldn’t society revert back to siege warfare? How are we to account for the non-Vegetian nature of the War of the Five Kings?
Fools Rush In?
As the historian Stephen Morillo points out, Vegetian warfare arises from natural interactions of people, economies, and geography. It is certainly not exclusive to the West, as Sun Tzu advises the same thing as Vegetius: burn the crops, force the adversary to chase you, and then destroy him on your own terms. But there are also notable exceptions to the rule.
For starters, the Mongols, like other nomadic peoples, did not bother with Vegetian warfare. Vegetian warfare is fundamentally about control of territory in agricultural societies, and doesn’t fit the way steppe nomads make war. Jonah Mormont’s observation that the Dothraki would never be able to take a castle was completely accurate: There was absolutely no reason for the Dothraki to ever learn siegecraft, when their lifestyle revolved around following the herds across the grasslands.
Another example of non-Vegetian warfare is where the goals are not control of territory, but domination of a state as, for instance, in a civil war. In Kamakura Japan, where the nobility’s incomes were doled out by the ultimate central authority of the Emperor, who it was to no one’s advantage to overthrow, there was no point to burning anyone’s lands. Rather, war was about meeting and destroying the enemy faction in almost ritualized combat.
In the same way, commanders in the fifteenth-century struggle for the English throne known as the Wars of the Roses, which Martin speaks of as inspiration for Ice and Fire, ignored fortifications and showed an eagerness to meet and destroy one another. There were six pitched battles from 1459 to 1461 alone, culminating with the massacre of Towton in which 50,000 men slaughtered one another in a snowstorm, leaving 28,000 dead on the field. Likewise, in 1471, Edward VI eagerly left London’s fortifications to march out and destroy the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. (Incidentally, the size of Westerosi armies closely matches those of the Wars of the Roses—Tywin Lannister and Renly Baratheon both fielded armies of 20,000 men, and Robb Stark was able to raise 18,000 troops from even the sparsely populated North.)
Vegetian warfare makes sense if you’re trying to take over enemy territory in the context of a medieval economy and political organization. However, England was different. The kingdom had been unified by King Æthelstan in the 920s and given a system of organization by later Anglo-Saxon kings which was inherited and strengthened by William the Conqueror in 1066. It enjoyed centuries of fairly competent monarchs who strengthened central authority while also allowing the great nobility their rights and liberties. Thus, in the fifteenth century, England resembled a modern nation-state much more than any other European country. The Wars of the Roses demonstrated this feature, where warfare was characterized not by the nobility trying to draw one another into battle, but mutual recognition that this was a fight for supreme dominance of an established political system. Castles played little part in this conflict and the war was about control of the central government and the mantle of authority it bestowed.
Westeros, unified by Aegon the Conqueror 300 years before the events of Ice and Fire, was in much the same situation as fifteenth-century England. The various claimants to the throne in the War of the Five Kings had much the same goals in mind as did the participants in the Wars of the Roses. Accordingly, their battles were fought to annihilate one another. Controlling territory was secondary to establishing legitimacy and neutralizing the opposition.
Medieval warfare was Vegetian in nature because the state was weak and power was tied to controlling land. Thus, Edward the Black Prince used chevauchée as an effective tactic when invading France in the fourteenth century. When a war becomes about control of a unified state—particularly in a civil war between rival factions—we instead find a strategy of seeking battle. A hundred years after the Black Prince, the combatants in the Wars of the Roses eagerly sought out and fought pitched battles for supreme dominance over a state. This is the sort of conflict we find in A Song of Ice and Fire.
While at first glance the conduct of war in A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be merely the stuff of heroic fantasy, if we delve into the realities of medieval and early modern warfare and political economy, we find that Martin handles military strategy in a deeply realistic manner. Leaving aside the use of magic to speed the plot along, Martin’s characters make war in rational ways that real-world medieval commanders would likely have agreed with. Furthermore, the backstory of the evolution of warfare in Westeros, from the initial period of disorder to the “military revolution” represented by the introduction of dragons, to that revolution’s effect on fortification and social organization to the development of the nation-state, is well thought-out and follows a realistic trajectory. Battle strategy is thus another example of how Martin firmly grounds his fantasy world in reality.
 A “nation-state” is more than just scholarly shorthand for “a modern country.” A state is a “sovereign political unit,” the “sovereign” meaning that it has a monopoly on violence within its borders. Medieval kingdoms, where every lord had a private army, were most definitely not states. A nation is an ethnic group, so Scotland and Wales are nations with their own cultures and languages, but are not states since they are subordinate units to the United Kingdom. A “nation-state” combines the two. For instance, France is a nation-state; it is a sovereign political unit composed of people who identify as French. On the other hand, the multi-ethnic pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire was a state, but not a nation. Modern Somalia, where the government cannot rein in warlords, is neither (or, as we say now, a “failed state.”)
In Westeros, Dorne and the North originally conceived of themselves as nations and have a great deal of nationalistic feeling, but they are not states. With the failure of central control, both areas took back a degree of independence, and the North even rose in open revolt. This is why Stannis would not deal with Robb as an equal monarch: To cede control over the North to the boy-king would be to admit that he could not keep the Seven Kingdoms together and restore the power of the Iron Throne, and would be a step down the slippery slope to the Seven Kingdoms becoming a failed state.
Ken Mondschein holds an MA from Boston University, a PhD in medieval history from Fordham University, and a Prévôt certification from the US Fencing Coaches’ Association. He teaches history at several Massachusetts colleges and historical fencing at the Higgins Armory Museum, where he is a Research Fellow. Besides interests in medieval border societies and technology and society, his special area of expertise is in medieval and early modern fencing treatises, on which he has published several books and articles. In his spare time, he enjoys jousting. His Web site is kenmondschein.com. Ken is actively seeking a full-time academic position.