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Tyrion1991

Why “small folk” and not peasant?

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I never really understood the status of the common people in Westeros. The term smallfolk is really ambivalent and seems to apply to anything below the nobility.

I do recall Tyrion dropping the word peasant when he compares the conditions back home to those of the Slaves in Essos. But he doesn’t elaborate much on what about their condition is onerous. Must they give up a portion of their goods? Can the lord demand labour of them? Are they packed onto tiny strips of land like cattle? Are the Lords pushing them off common ground for more cattle? Also this is well into ADWD before this relatively emphatic statement gets made.

Because the series is so focused on the cruelties of medieval war it never really established what the normal burdens were for the common people. Are they labourers and craftspeople paid a wage to work? Are they serfs bound to the land where the Lord can demand labour and goods from them? I get that Westeros is huge and these things must vary hugely but still.

George does convey a few times that there’s almost no legal protection and nothing stopping a Lord doing whatever he wants. Tywin and Tyhsa. Roose and Ramsey. These events are related as being cruel and sadistic, but never actually illegal.  However they could still be wage labourers or Tsarist serfs for all I know.

See I feel that’s quite important in terms of understanding the morality of the characters. If Ned Stark is running a protection racket by monopolising land ownership and threatening violence on anyone who disputes that then he is not a nice man. Never mind the right to tithes and labour. Is it realistic that Ned could be a good man if he is born into that system and has to live off his peasants; using violence and intimidation to do so. 

Our noble POV are quite silent on this. They don’t seem self aware that they exist on the backs of other people. There’s a silence about it that’s a little untrue. I think real life medieval Lords would dwell on coercing their peasants and feel quite just in doing so. But George can’t say “Ned did that all the time” without us losing sympathy for him?

 

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This is probably better for the general ASoIaF section. The TV show, from my recollection of the seasons I watched, had generally very little to say about such things.

In the novels, the peasants of Westeros are not serfs -- they are no bound to the land. They are free men and women. They can purchase their own land (as evidenced by Jack-Be-Lucky saying that Anguy should have used his money to that end), start their own businesses, move to other places if they desire. 

It is true that the lords of Westeros have a monopoly of justice and protection over land, and extract fees for this. I think you have to judge Ned by the standards and understanding of that society. He is a kinder and more even-handed and just lord than most. But he is a lord, and part of a status quo.

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Lords possess the right of "pit and gallows" on their territories.  That makes them a lot more powerful than, say, English lords of the manor.  Justice was far more of a Royal, rather than lordly, prerogative in England, and felonies were mostly tried by Royal judges, before juries.  Manorial courts were pretty small beer, on the whole.  

There are no such limitations in Westeros, so the lower classes are much more at the mercy of their lords. 

 

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1 hour ago, Ran said:

In the novels, the peasants of Westeros are not serfs -- they are no bound to the land. They are free men and women. They can purchase their own land (as evidenced by Jack-Be-Lucky saying that Anguy should have used his money to that end), start their own businesses, move to other places if they desire. 

I'd say some of them are free in that sense, but not all of them. What we learn about the rather barbaric customs of pre-Conquest Westeros (First Night, arbitrary justice, power of the lords to tax everybody on their lands at a whim, etc.) strongly imply that the majority of the commoners are not free in any meaningful sense of the word.

If Anguy were a serf (which I don't think he is) and he won the tourney he could most definitely use that money to buy both his freedom and some land. The way nobles created/kept their serfs in check was, especially in those lands where serfdom was never properly established, was by means of interest slavery. Anguy's great fortune should immediately end that.

The fact that land can be bought and sold in Westeros doesn't even remotely mean all the peasants own their land.

If they did own their land then this society would even make less sense because no self-respecting peasant or yeoman actually owning the land he works on would take the shit the smallfolk of Westeros has taken from their lords since time immemorial. They would have their own militia and in times of war they would raise their own troops, and they would only fight in the wars of the great houses if they met their demands.

But no nobleman in Westeros we have met so far has ever bothered to negotiate with some kind of wealthy commoner. The only places where commoners have a little bit of power are in the cities.

Another problem is that there are no lordly estates and manors throughout the Seven Kingdoms. If peasants owned their land and did not, for the most part, rent it, resulting in them sending chunks of their goods to their lords, then we cannot really explain where the hell the lords actually get their food and incomes.

And guys like the Osgrey folk and Littlefinger's people on the Fingers do not exactly look as if they were 'free' in any meaningful sense of the word.

The feudal yoke should be different in different places, both within the various kingdoms as well as in comparison to each other (there should be regions in the North where there is essentially no difference between nobility and peasantry - the clansmen lands, for instance; not to mention that life in the Sands of Dorne away from whatever castles and keeps there are should be much more egalitarian), but it is certainly there. A free man would be under no obligation to fight for or send aid to some lord in war aside from, perhaps, the king. But even that could be questioned if the man didn't hold the land in the king's name as a fief - which seems to be the basis of all the feudal relationships in Westeros. Allodial property has yet to be mentioned in Westeros as far as I know.

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16 hours ago, SeanF said:

 

There are no such limitations in Westeros, so the lower classes are much more at the mercy of their lords. 

 

I think that's a good point. George's deliberate under-development of a legal apparatus in Westeros is due to his intending that the nobility have far more control of that than they did in, say, 15th century England. So their martial and legal powers are what the smallfolk have to deal with.

To reiterate my earlier point, though, they are free in the sense that they are not property nor bound to the land. They are not serfs, nor thralls. The term "serf" has never appeared in anything by GRRM (not even SSM commentary). This is why the smallfolk are a large part of the levy -- in general in our history, serfs in Western Europe were expressly _not_ to be armed, but that is not the case in Westeros where free men who work the land protected by some lord are required to offer some military service. 

Of course, being free does not mean you automatically have the wherewithal to give up a plot of land you're renting to move you and your family to some other lord's demense if he mistreats you. The vast majority of smallfolk pay rent and do not own their own land. And if they are yeomen, who own their own land, that land is still within the sphere of protection of some lord.

 

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25 minutes ago, Ran said:

I think that's a good point. George's deliberate under-development of a legal apparatus in Westeros is due to his intending that the nobility have far more control of that than they did in, say, 15th century England. So their martial and legal powers are what the smallfolk have to deal with.

To reiterate my earlier point, though, they are free in the sense that they are not property nor bound to the land. They are not serfs, nor thralls. The term "serf" has never appeared in anything by GRRM (not even SSM commentary). This is why the smallfolk are a large part of the levy -- in general in our history, serfs in Western Europe were expressly _not_ to be armed, but that is not the case in Westeros where free men who work the land protected by some lord are required to offer some military service. 

Of course, being free does not mean you automatically have the wherewithal to give up a plot of land you're renting to move you and your family to some other lord's demense if he mistreats you. The vast majority of smallfolk pay rent and do not own their own land. And if they are yeomen, who own their own land, that land is still within the sphere of protection of some lord.

 

Would you say that Westeros is completely without serfs, or would some of the Smallfolk be serfs, and others, free tenants, most of whom are economically dependent on the lords?

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Posted (edited)

@SeanF,

 

I think there are no serfs de jure, but if one wants to say that peasants too poor to leave their rented lands are essentially serfs de facto, I suppose that's a possibility. But George has made much of how thralldom disappeared from the mainland and the Andals forbade slavery, and made too little of peasants as property or as being bound to land, for me to think that he imagines anything other than something like the post-Peasants' Revolt situation in England as being the norm in the Seven Kingdoms for the last couple of thousands of years.

Edited by Ran

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Well, if we compare things to the real middle ages then what we call 'feudalism' today is just a overly simplified construct. It is by no means clear whether our understanding of the relationship between kings and noblemen or knights and lords, etc. actually properly reflect the legal situations back then.

As I said, the way serfdom actually manifested itself in many medieval countries was not exactly as proper institutionalized serfdom (although that factually existed, too) but rather as interest slavery - i.e. lords slowly but surely turning free peasants into their serfs by giving them loans, etc. The fact that land was often distributed among the children of a man also helped to erode the economic basis of such peasants since a smaller tract of land meant lesser income, etc.

I think the type of proper thralldom we have on the Iron Islands can be loosely compared to the institutionalized serfdom in Russia. It is quite clear that this kind of thing no longer exist in the Seven Kingdoms.

That being said, the way George portrays his smallfolk makes it very unlikely they are in any way closely resembling the kind of free peasantry one had in certain regions in various lands in the middle ages. Because those people actually owned their lands, they were not obliged to pay any rent to some local lords, etc. nor were they beholden to support some local lord in war. To be forced to do that, you actually have to be in some sort of feudal/reciprocal contract with such a local lord, but if you don't hold your land in his name (i.e. as a fief giving to you by that lord) then you have nothing to do with that person.

If there were free peasants/yeomen in the North, say, they would show up riding side by side with the nobility (at least those on petty lord level) because they would be their own free men, with their own ancient ties to the Starks, and in no way beholden to their lordly neighbors. This is why I think the clansmen are basically just pretty rich peasants. They are not beholden to any lords but the Starks despite the fact that they themselves don't really count as nobility.

We know there are some yeomen in the Riverlands since they are mentioned, but I expect such to only exist in relevant numbers around the various market towns there.

The kind of rich/traveling smallfolk we find usually number among the upper class smallfolk - armorers, other craftsmen, sellswords, freeriders, and, especially, traders and merchants. Those are all different from the kind of folk we see on the Osgrey and Webber lands or at Littlefinger's tower on the Fingers.

The other issue is that George completely excluded the concept of peasant wars and the like from his world - and there would have been a pretty good chance to include some such in FaB or TWoIaF (and there still is such a chance for FaB II, one imagines). If the peasants in Westeros had any rights or powers of their own then the fact that they behave in the sheep-like fashion they do simply makes little sense.

One also wonders what kind of reforms Aegon V could have tried to implement if not to abolish de facto serfdom? I mean, sure, the other great injustice in Westerosi society is the arbitrary 'justice system' where lords can actually treat wrongs/crimes done to 'their smallfolk' as personal slights rather than grievances done to other individuals. The issue of Lady Rohanne actually not caring about the feelings and desires of the man harmed by Bennis very much exemplifies this.

And this also reveals another telltale fact - the man cut by Bennis doesn't have any rights of his own. He has no right demand satisfaction for what has been done to him, he is completely at the mercy of his lady. She will decide how this crime is dealt with (or if it is dealt with at all). That is not how an even remotely free man would be portrayed.

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Peasants are the labor force who till and farm the land.  The land does not belong to them.  They pay the lord owner and support his military cause in exchange for the right to live off the property.  But they are technically not property of the lord.  This is in sharp contrast to the slaves in Essos who are property of the slavers.  

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"Yeoman" could mean either a wealthy peasant who rents a lot of land from his Lord (30-100 acres) and has servants and farmhands of his own) or a small freeholder who (in England) would have had the right to vote.  I'm not sure how the term is used in Westeros, but presumably means a fairly wealthy peasant.

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On 5/24/2019 at 7:59 PM, Widowmaker 811 said:

Peasants are the labor force who till and farm the land.  The land does not belong to them.  They pay the lord owner and support his military cause in exchange for the right to live off the property.  But they are technically not property of the lord.  This is in sharp contrast to the slaves in Essos who are property of the slavers.  

What we describe as 'serfs' were people that were bound to the land they worked on. They could not be bought and sold as people, but would go where the land went - if a lord sold his land to another, they would now be bound to that lord, if the king granted lands to another lord, they would go with it, etc.

Free peasants - i.e. peasants actually owning the lands they work on - would not be touched by the fact that the lands around them pass from this lord to that lord. They would be beholden only the king - as they are all - or, perhaps, due to historical contracts and such to the former royal houses of the regions they live in (i.e. the Arryns, Lannisters, Starks, etc.) because they originally bought (or were granted) their lands from/by them.

This would also be different from Westerosi thralldom considering that those men and women effectively are slaves - the only thing that differentiates them from Essosi slaves is the fact that they cannot be bought and sold (being essentially prices a man has to win in war, paying the iron price) and that the children of thralls are born free.

But this tells us nothing about the status of the average peasant on the Iron Islands. The impression we have of thralls implies they are used as workers in mines and on whatever fields they have, but we have yet to see Iron Islanders who are also peasants/run a farm.

15 hours ago, SeanF said:

"Yeoman" could mean either a wealthy peasant who rents a lot of land from his Lord (30-100 acres) and has servants and farmhands of his own) or a small freeholder who (in England) would have had the right to vote.  I'm not sure how the term is used in Westeros, but presumably means a fairly wealthy peasant.

Well, it depends what we mean by the various terms. I'm just pointing out that a proper yeoman/freeholder actually owning the land he works would not be subject to a lord. And at this point we have no indication that such peasants do exist in Westeros. But only those would properly qualify as free men.

I'm sure that there are rich peasants (although we have yet to meet them; we only know about rich merchants and armorers at this point) but if they work land they rent or hold in the name of some lords, they are not really free.

But such rich lords definitely would be a completely different class of peasants than the peasants we have met to this point. The Osgrey smallfolk in TSS are not such people.

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If a serf would be good at some crafting profession he could leave his land and go to city. After being in a city for a year he would be free from the landlord. Problem was the guild structure that meant those serfs would have to be accepted into a guild to make money and survive. 

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Posted (edited)
28 minutes ago, Lord Varys said:

What we describe as 'serfs' were people that were bound to the land they worked on. They could not be bought and sold as people, but would go where the land went - if a lord sold his land to another, they would now be bound to that lord, if the king granted lands to another lord,.

 

I'm sure that there are rich peasants (although we have yet to meet them; we only know about rich merchants and armorers at this point) but if they work land they rent or hold in the name of some lords, they are not really free.

But such rich lords definitely would be a completely different class of peasants than the peasants we have met to this point. The Osgrey smallfolk in TSS are not such people.

In 14th century England, though, the distinction between free tenant and villein was crucial.  There really was not a class of small freeholders, and even lords of the manor were themselves tenants of greater landlords, up to the tenants in chief, who held directly from the King.  I don't think the modern concept of freehold came about till the 16th century, with yeoman farmers owning their land outright.

Free (14th century)  peasants had written leases, could leave the manor, could marry as they pleased, served as jurors, reeves, churchwardens,  although they were subject to manorial courts and feudal dues. Villeins were much more limited in their legal status.  

I don't know whether a free (in the sense of landowning) peasantry is meant to exist in Westeros - although they'd still be subject to the jurisdiction of the lords, or whether they're tenants.  

 

Edited by SeanF

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9 minutes ago, SeanF said:

In 14th century England, though, the distinction between free tenant and villein was crucial.  There really was not a class of small freeholders, and even lords of the manor were themselves tenants of greater landlords, up to the tenants in chief, who held directly from the King.  I don't think the modern concept of freehold came about till the 16th century, with yeoman farmers owning their land outright.

From what I know 'proper feudalism' was only introduced in England by the Normans, no? I know about the HRE and there certainly were regions where people were freer than elsewhere. The entire corporative state thing had first to develop and then be forced on the people who had enjoyed more freedoms back in more ancient days. Just as monogamy, clerical celibacy, and other things had to be enforced.

9 minutes ago, SeanF said:

I don't know whether a free (in the sense of landowning) peasantry is meant to exist in Westeros - although they'd still be subject to the jurisdiction of the lords, or whether they're tenants.  

My impression is that especially those peasants we see in TSS are not supposed to be more than serfs. They are utterly at the mercy of their noble masters. I don't think they are representative for all the peasants, but as I said - we have yet to meet peasants who have any political weight or enjoy semi-independence.

If either Osgrey's or Webber's smallfolk had had any rights they could have insisted that the issues are settled by Lord Rowan. After all, Lady Rohanne had no jurisdiction on the Osgrey lands, meaning that the man harmed by Bennis should have had a right to petition Lord Rowan himself. But apparently he had no such right. This means a man of his rank was utterly at the mercy of his lady - which means he was in any meaningful sense her property, not a free man with rights.

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Peasant sounds too Earth-specific.  I wouldn't have used it either.   And it sounds like piss ant, or pheasant, a less human pure appraisal term, to my ear anyway.  Whereas small folk sounds like the lords have more of a heart and are protecting people first, assets second.   

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In Riverlands, we have the mention of a village which had been ruined in Robellion - and the peasants stayed dead. And we have a lord who comes to Tyrion to complain of his smallfolk killed in war - and wanted new smallfolk.

 

If smallfolk had been free to move then over the 15 years of Robert´s peace, then a lord with empty village to refill could have found volunteers at slightly lowered taxes.

The inability to refill the village suggests that the smallfolk of neighbouring lords had difficulties moving to vacant village. The lord asking Iron Throne for new smallfolk suggests that in absence of Iron Throne intervention, simple invitation for volunteers would have been blocked by the status of potential volunteers as other lords´ serfs.

 

Also, the loyalty of smallfolk to lords who look like losing is a question of what their alternatives are. If smallfolk are free and mobile, they might desert a lord threatened by a superior force, like ser Eustace Osgrey.

What signs are inconsistent with widespread serfdom?

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Posted (edited)

The man attacked by Bennis was under Lady Rohanne's protection and was harmed on her property. She was both the law enforcement and judicial authority that they were supposed to turn to. Going to Rowan would be jumping the chain of legal authority. He reported the crime to her and she proceeded to deal with it as she saw fit. If she chose to ignore the issue, and made no restitution, we do not know what he might have done about it -- whether he'd leave her lands, turn to a septon to try and have the Faith intercede, attempt to seek help from someone higher up, etc. It's a novella, not a legal novel.

Just look at how Ser Eustace reasons with his "blood price" matter -- he intended to pay the injured man a silver stag. Why would he do that, if the man is property? And that's his using an antiquated notion of the law. The present law is more, not less, advanced than that.

Again, George never refers to serfs. He contrasts thralldom and slavery with the post-Andal idea of all men being free. He has characters referring to Westerosi armies being populated by free men. George's explanation for why a village might remain abandoned after it was razed or why a lord might seek the help of the crown in finding new smallfolk (in a time of war, when the protection of one's lord would make it unlikely you'd happily leave it to go to some other lord who couldn't protect his smallfolk) does not need to rely on serfdom. Are serfs needed to explain ghost towns that exist in the modern world? No. There can be many reasons why a ruined settlement is abandoned rather than repopulated.

 

It's worthwhile to consider George's use of the term "crofter" throughout the novels. Tysha was crofter's daughter, Stannis is camped as a crofter's village, etc. Crofters are often presented as being among the meanest of smallfolk in the novels. But it's actually a fairly late term. Crofting became widely spread in Scotland only after the Highland Clearances in the 18th century, well after serfdom had ended there around the 14th century. 

Edited by Ran

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Posted (edited)
On 5/23/2019 at 3:55 PM, Tyrion1991 said:

I never really understood the status of the common people in Westeros. The term smallfolk is really ambivalent and seems to apply to anything below the nobility.

...

Because the series is so focused on the cruelties of medieval war it never really established what the normal burdens were for the common people. ...

See I feel that’s quite important in terms of understanding the morality of the characters. ...

Our noble POV are quite silent on this. They don’t seem self aware that they exist on the backs of other people. There’s a silence about it that’s a little untrue.

We do get a few glimpses of life for the lower classes: Arya describes her father inviting different Winterfell servants and tradespeople to dine with him so he can hear and discuss what they can tell him about their work. Jorah catches some poachers and sells them into slavery instead of sending them to the Night's Watch. Poor people join the Night's Watch in order to secure food and shelter, or to escape capital punishment. We read about street orphans and bowls of brown in Flea Bottom. Bread riots erupt when Cersei's taxes make life too hard for people streaming into King's Landing to seek safety from the war outside the gates. Tywin humiliates and sends away his father's lowborn mistress who dared to aspire to be lady of Casterly Rock. Catelyn remarks that Edmure allows small folk to crowd inside of Riverrun. The archaic practice of First Night and the horror of Tysha's treatment are plot elements for Ramsay / Roose and for Tyrion's stories. In Dany's arc, we hear about the lamb men, the shepherd's daughter eaten by Drogon and the shoemaker, weaver and brick layer who escape the bloody flux in Astapor. Theon has a brief affair with the daughter of a ship's captain who gets a few lines of dialogue.

It's true that GRRM is not trying to give us a balanced portrait of society in Westeros or Essos. For purposes of the novels, in fact, the lack of information about the smallfolk is deliberate: he wants us to think about these nearly-invisible victims of the "Game of Thrones" whose stories are never fully told. Davos is the only POV with a direct experience of life among the lower classes and we hear from him only because a king chose to elevate him above his humble origins.

Ser Duncan the Tall provides additional insights in the Dunk & Egg stories: the young men compelled to train as fighters for Standfast don't even have full names until they are needed as fighters. They gladly accept the names chosen for them by Dunk, Bennis and Egg. (Somewhat like Grey Worm being glad to keep the lowly name assigned to him on the lucky day that the Unsullied were bought by Dany.) Dunk's experience as a child in Flea Bottom and as squire to a humble hedge knight is a difference between the main ASOIAF novels and the Dunk & Egg narrative: part of the point of Aegon V's story is that he does not stay locked up in Maegor's Holdfast, but learns to be a king by traveling around the kingdom and meeting all kinds of people; experiencing their conflicts and understanding their hopes and dreams. Dunk tells Egg that he will have to help the small folk drafted as fighters. He resists at first, then realizes that they might be able to teach him about wild plants, so there could be mutual benefit in "stooping" to communicate.

I suspect the use of the term "smallfolk" (as opposed to "peasant" or "serf" or other choices to describe lower class people) is part of a larger motif around giants and Tyrion as a dwarf or half man. Tyrion befriends Tysha and Bronn and Shae and then the goddess of small folk, Penny, who agrees to teach him how to live more safely as a dwarf. Arya befriends Mycah and Lommy and Hot Pie. Jon makes fast friends with Grenn and Pyp and Satin and other lowborn people among the Night's Watch. In fact, he becomes their "brother," to use the Night's Watch term. He is also the rescuer and member of the Free Folk. Bran will meet the smallest folk of all, the singers or Children of the Forest. I'm not sure whether the smaller people are supposed to be closer to the earth, or what GRRM's purpose is in including small people of various kinds in the series. (I tentatively equate giants with Targaryens, but that complicates Tyrion's identity. He is a half man but Maester Aemon says he is a giant.)

In spite of the superficial claim that heraldry ends at the Wall, we see that the Night's Watch keeps track of who is highborn and who were small folk - the Old Bear, the Pomegranate, Lord Snow, Ser Waymar's fancy cloak are identified as nobles. Marks of status and birth are noticed and result in differing treatment for those who have them.

Highborn people take for granted that they are entitled to live off the work and service of lower born people, and GRRM makes this point by omitting most of the details of lives of the lower born people from the story.

Edited by Seams

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