Why Is Planetos So Poor?

It Really Shouldn’t Be, So Maybe Won’t Be

Adam Ozimek wrote an article laying out some theories of why Westeros has gone thousands of years without an industrial revolution. He has also asked me to weigh in:

Regular readers know that (1) I need no excuse to write a blog and (2) I like to write about Medieval Fantasy worlds like Planetos.

Adam argues that Westeros should have experienced an industrial revolution. He lays out two possible theories for what causes industrial revolutions (scarce labor alongside abundant energy vs. scientific culture) and then explores whether these might drive an industrial revolution in Westeros.

I will weigh in. Let’s think about some things that probably existed in early industrialization, whether they’re necessary or not:

  1. Growing cities, especially with proximity to energy sources like rivers or coal (which doesn’t seem to exist in Westeros, thou peat does, which suggests really coal ought to, but I digress: perhaps Planetos is a weirdly young planet. Maybe its core cooled quickly and it has a bad magnetic shield which also explains the magic somehow. I dunno)
  2. A mercantile-financial class that can operate relatively freely within a wide range of sectors and regions
  3. Competitive polities causing pressure to adopt new ideas
  4. A relative abundance of capital compared to labor
  5. Social norms allowing for the adoption of new ideas and technologies
  6. Scientific and business norms with an emphasis on applying new ideas and technologies
  7. The existence of private property and the ability to accumulate large amounts of it
  8. A monetary system
  9. Broadly late-medieval technologies to begin with
  10. No alternative means of achieving the advantages that industrialism provides
  11. Non-super-abundance of resources; i.e. some reason to innovate

There Are Big Cities

Let’s start with cities. As I’ve argued before, Westeros has a lot of cities and they are very big compared to Medieval cities. They only way its urbanization makes sense is if it is (1) very recent or (2) proto-industrialization has already begun. Consider that we actually see very few ruined cities in Westeros and that most cities appear to be near-capacity; there are not Constantinople-in-1300 type cities anywhere in Westeros. Essos definitely has a clearer sense that there’s been decline, but in Westeros there’s no particular sense of this. Oldtown, possibly the largest city in Westeros, was hit by Gray Plague in Pycelle’s youth, perhaps 30 or 40 years previously, yet nonetheless seems like it has recovered by the events of GoT, and indeed GRRM has indicated it probably has a quarter of a million people or more. That’s remarkable.

Now, of course, Westeros is enjoying a long summer. Most regions should have very high populations relative to history. But the point is, as of the Baratheon period, it is almost certain that Westeros is more heavily urbanized that Medieval Europe was, probably on par with early-industrial Western Europe, though this may be fleeting. Urbanization should militate in favor of social dynamism, rapid change of power, acceptance of new ideas, weakening feudal system, and more wage labor. It should also cause more capital formation, more up-scaling of institutions, and more formalization of institutions, all of which should militate in favor of industrialization.

A Mercantile Class Sort Of Exists

We do see merchants. They are discriminated against and looked down upon, however. That is, Westerosi merchants are less prestigious than British merchants were, partly due to elite scruples towards businesses, but partly due to religious scruples. In this case, it seems like a Protestant Reformation could help unlock latent Westerosi potential for industrialization.

In terms of a financial elite, the only real financial sector of note is the Iron Bank of Bravos, where clearly a more egalitarian, less traditionally-dominated urban center has enabled the rise of a financial-mercantile elite. Bravos, in fact, is probably a more likely candidate for industrialization. No surprise that Bravosi individuals appear to have more familiarity with crossbows and use rapiers, weapons that make more sense in a slightly more technologically advanced society.

But Westeros has no serious financial elite. This is a major problem. Capital-pooling in Westeros is rare, and the Iron Bank’s loans mainly finance unproductive consumption via war rather than investments in productive assets. The Iron Bank almost seems more like a state-lender than a true private enterprise, truth be told.

It should be noted that in many ways, the first “nation-states” of Europe were the Italian city-states. While Britain was early to industrialize, the Netherlands and the city-states of Germany followed quicker than mere proximity would suggest, while France was slower than proximity would suggest. Mercantile city-states are ideal environments for the kind of nation-state formation that is fertile ground for industrialization. Northern Italy, of course, industrialized much faster than less-city-state-dominated southern Italy.

But Westeros is clearly dominated by less-urban political elites operating in traditional polities, not city states, and it clearly has no domestic financial elite. Bad news for industrialization.

Westeros Lacks Competitive Polities

This one may seem weird. People imagine Westeros as very conflict-torn. But in reality, it was united under the Targaryens for a very long time. The Andals definitely introduced serious state competition, and we do indeed see some reasons to think the Andal period saw rapid advancement in wealth, technology, and development versus the time of the First Men. The arrival of the Rhoynar introduced another such period, and I’ll note below I suspect Dorne is more advanced than we may think. But the reality is Westeros is geographically split in neat ways that create natural fiefdoms that make defense easy, and it is actually marked by extended periods of low interstate competition, especially the period before the Baratheons.

Without competition between polities, there’s little incentive to adopt new technologies. Consider the dragon-killing crossbow: ballistae are a known technology from the Roman period on. They have many uses besides killing dragons. A battery of ballistae firing into a massed infantry or cavalry formation has its own uses, and they’re also useful for sieges. Ballistae and springalds were known to Medievals and, while not extremely popular, did see use even without dragons. The fact that such a weapon was presented as innovative is surprising given that societies far less advanced than Westeros seems to be had long figured out the mechanics behind this kind of lethality.

The point is that Westerosi conflict has not been very serious for a long time. Annexing territory was very hard, reasons for conflict were sparse (i.e. low degree of ethnic/religious difference), defense was very easy given geography, and political centralization was the norm. This is a recipe for low innovation. Now that competitive politics are returning, we are seeing innovation: a ballista! A cure for greyscale! The rediscovery of the properties of dragonglass and Valyrian steel! It seems possible that these wars could create conditions more appropriate for industrialization (note, for example, the ascendance of the mercantile Littlefinger).

Westeros Lacks Capital

Nobody has any money and everyone depends on the Iron Bank of Bravos. Meanwhile, Westeros has a large population: the cities are huge by medieval standards, and they’re fairly close to one another. They’ve enjoyed decades without the attrition of serious winter, a major mortality-trigger in preindustrial societies (and even modern societies to some extent). The armies fielded on short notice are large by medieval standards, and the navies even larger. Indeed, from all appearances, Westeros has an abundance of labor and a shortage of capital. Note that the Westerosi ban on slavery suggests elites have an easy time finding wage labor that is affordable enough to make slavery not compelling. There is an illegal slave trade, but it doesn’t seem economically significant.

If anywhere in Westeros has capital, it should be Dorne or the Lannisters. The Lannisters have mines except, whoops, the mines suck. So Dorne.

Why Dorne? Simple: Westerosi people can be seen time and again wearing cotton garments. Even common people can be spotted wearing what appears to be cotton. This suggests that there is a very large domestic supply of cotton. Here’s a map where I’ve doodled places that would be ideal for cotton cultivation (red) and where it’d be suitable but not ideal (orange):

Now, in theory, during Summer, you could grow cotton all the way up in the North. But your yields would be very bad; it would not be the optimal crop to grow. My theory is that in Summer, Dorne converts a lot of cropland into non-staple crops such as cotton. They sell it abroad, probably especially to the richer and more industrialized Free Cities across the Narrow Sea, suggesting Dorne probably has a mercantile class. During Winter, Dorne probably converts more land for food production (of course Dorne is probably always a wheat exporter to some degree), resulting in more imports from Essos. Or, rather, results in the Free Cities importing more cotton from the old Valyrian peninsula, or all the way in Southoryos. Probably some homespun cotton production occurs throughout Westeros, and of course as you go further north woolen production and linens should predominate.

But the point is, Dorne is the place that can probably really grow a cash crop. The migration patterns of the Andals and Rhoynar both suggest Dorne is more tied to Essos than elsewhere too. Dorne is extremely defensible too, and is totally riparian, enabling easier urbanization. Across all of these metrics, Dorne seems like the place for industrialization in Westeros… except of course Dornish urbanization is lots of mid-sized cities, not true urban centers like Oldtown or King’s Landing.

Westerosi Social Norms Are Not Hostile to Learning

Individual Westerosi people seem keen to learn and innovate, and stigmas on new ideas do not seem any stronger than in Medieval Europe. Some Essos cultural groups seem hostile to social change, but to be honest I think Westerosi social norms would allow for technological change without too much public revolt. Score this one in favor of an industrial revolution.

Westerosi Scientific Norms Are Hostile to Innovation

The Maesters are a very closed knowledge set, far more closed than Medieval universities were. The printing press does not appear to exist, but even if it did, given the Maesters’ treatment of Sam’s grayscale cure, do we think they’d promote it?

Indeed, the difference between Medieval priests and the Maesters is that Medieval priestly knowledge elites fundamentally did not exist for the purpose of hoarding knowledge. They existed to promote and propagate the church. Hoarding knowledge was ancillary. The church did try to suppress some kinds of learning, but vigorously promoted other kinds, apparently not realizing that if you promote any learning, it will eventually promote all learning. The Maesters, however, exist exclusively to control knowledge. They do not promote any form of popular learning or advancement of note.

The maesters are not the source of innovation, but the barrier to it. They’re never going to allow a rival knowledge source to exist, they’re never going to promote the scientific culture of openness necessary to advancement, and they have no purpose other than ruling the knowledge enterprises of Westeros. Where Westeros has essentially 1 true university, there were 15 medieval universities by 1300, and most had non-priestly curricula, that is, they were training people who weren’t just going to be working for directly university-associated organizations. This is a serious indicator against Westerosi industrialization, and it’s not clear if anywhere else in Westeros is that much better.

Certainly there’s no desire among the maesters to maintain and commercialize practical knowledge: consider the role of wildfire. It could certainly have many military and commercial uses, and yet it seems like practically a lost art.

Private Property Exists and Is Robust

Especially in the cities, we see thriving commercial enterprises. Norms probably vary place to place, but even peasants appear to have no-worse-than-medieval conditions, and Medieval European peasants had substantially stronger property rights than late-Byzantine peasants or Chinese peasants. As a result, we should see this as being an indicator that Westeros may have a good shot at industrialization.

Money Exists and Is Widespread

Barter systems don’t industrialize. ‘nuff said.

Technology Appears Late Medieval or Better

We see a lot of plat armor floating around. Valyrian steel suggests early discovery of crucible steelmaking, but then again we know in our own history isolated cases of steelmaking existed long before industrial mastery in the 1700s. The amount of plate armor on display suggests blacksmithing capacity at least on par with late 1300s or early 1400s Europe.

However, the clothing on display is clearly post-industrial revolution, particularly womens’ dresses. This slideshow highlighting some elite dresses shows 5 examples, not one of which could be produced with pre-industrial European workmanship. Look at Medieval artwork and see the stuff they imagine the very richest people wearing: it is not as precisely crafted as the stuff that is worn in Game of Thrones. Not even close.

Even in textile-rich faces famed for the quality of their pre-industrial garments like Inca-ruled Peru or late-Medieval India, industrialized garment production created a huge upward shift in fabric quality and garment complexity.

My point isn’t that you would never see anything nice worn, but just that (1) characters change outfits far too frequently unless we presume an extraordinary level of wealth not in keeping with the rest of the economy or (2) textile technology is relatively advanced in Westeros. This suggests that somebody has already invented the purl stitch, that relatively advanced cotton gins are widely adopted, and especially that essentially the modern spinning wheel has been invented; it didn’t historically come together until the 1600s. To be honest, the amount of textiles on display in Westeros to me suggests we’ve even got some early-industrial loom technology operating somewhere. But we never see it in the books or the show. One of the only really distinctive textiles discussed is “Myrish lace,” an import from Essos apparently, which lends credibility to the idea that Essos is where this early-industrialization is occurring.

Tellingly, Myr is located just across the narrow see from Dorne, along a river, at a latitude where cotton could grow. Recall that Medieval Europeans were so blown away by cotton textiles that they sometimes traded at prices at or above silk textiles. They called it the “fabric of the air” and sometimes imagined that it was actually a type of ultra-soft wool.

Given the climate factors, the more pro-industrial social environment in the Free Cities, the necessity of some booming textile sector somewhere, and the textual evidence of robust textile imports from Myr (including carpets; my guess is we’re talking cotton Turkish rugs here), I’m gonna go ahead and say the industrial revolution is underway in the Free Cities. Myr has a mercantile elite, is religiously diverse, enjoys access to Dothraki trade networks as well as Westerosi ones, are documented to use crossbows, and are engaged in constant interstate competition across the aptly-named “Disputed Lands.” This is an industrial revolution goldmine. They also are reported to have a large amount of exotic spices of varieties that would not grow in the Myrish climate, so must be imported from further east.

Myr even has basic optics technology and can construct telescopes, i.e. “Myrish eyes.” Jon Snow remarks that the best glass comes from Myr, suggesting an industrial base. Everything adds up: Myr is having an industrial revolution.

What Magic Does

If you have infinite magical potential, there will be no other kind of technological advancement. Insofar as magic is available, it should retard innovation because people don’t need to innovate. Simple enough. Magic does exist in many places.

But Myr is interesting. They have comparatively little magic in evidence, but definitely were exposed to the various powers of the Valyrians afar back in the past. As a likely Rhoynish-descended city, they waged a long war with the Valyrians, and held them off for a time without dragons, which suggests they compensated for magic with technology. Somewhere in the Myrish past probably lies Rhoynish technological competition, perhaps giving rise to a fairly durable culture of innovation still alive in Myr.

So why doesn’t Myr have a full industrial economy? Several reasons come to mind. First, Dothraki hordes impose heavy tributes and limit access to resource-rich hinterlands. Yes, profitable trade occurs as well, but this siphons off a substantial share of the capital surplus each year.

Next, Myr has inherited the Valyrian slave culture. There is a rich debate about whether slavery retards or facilitates industrialization, but I believe slavery retards it. A recent paper (as in, today) in NBER argues that even the developmental benefits of industrialization may be due to human capital formation as much as the raw machinery. Slavery requires a large amount of human capital be dedicated towards control of the slave population, and locks up much of the human potential in a non-innovative class; i.e. a class that can’t enjoy the fruits of innovation so is less likely to undertake it.

It may be that Myr’s 75% slave population forces the elites to invest heavily in avoiding civil disturbance by allowing only discrete process innovations, most people can’t enjoy the fruits of proto-industrialism, and the Dothraki siphon off what surpluses do accrue.


So why hasn’t Planetos had an industrial revolution? It’s hard to say and varies place by place. In some places, it may be due to the Maesters hoarding knowledge. In others, a slave society makes labor innovation less profitable and encourages a degree of societal rigidity. In others, tributary dynamics are at work. In others, it may be the effect of uncompetitive politics. The truth is, technological advancement on Earth came in uneven fits and starts and was far from linear. Long periods of technological stability in a given geography are possible, even probable. The more interesting question is a hypothetical about where an industrial revolution could begin.

The Free Cities are obvious candidates for an industrial revolution, especially Myr and Bravos. And whatever begins there would probably spread to Dorne and to King’s Landing. What that means for the Westerosi balance of power, I leave to the reader.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

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