Technology depends a lot on population density. Without enough people, there will not be enough concentration of resources for certain societal and thus technological developments. And in Westeros, that is a problem.
Seven Kingdoms have 40 million people at maybe 3 600 000 square miles. If North is removed, that is some 1,2 million square miles and 4 million people, remaining are 36 million people and 2,4 million square miles, for 15 people per square mile. England in 1500 had population of 3 million at 50 345 square miles, for 60 people per square mile. Hungary in 1500 had population density of 30 people per square mile – and it was one of the countries which imported plate armour from abroad. In fact, Croatian nobles imported it from Italy and Austria, while Hungarian nobles imported from Austria and Germany. Ottoman Empire, similar in density to Hungary, did not have either feudalism or plate armour to begin with. Even at smaller size of 3 000 000 square miles, Seven Kingdoms without North still have population density of 18 people per square mile, which is similar to medieval Byzantine Empire – which had been facing constant plagues, invasions and territorial losses.
What does this mean for Westeros? It means that Martin’s military and technological level is not appropriate. Nobody should be marching around laid in full plate, organized in feudal banderies. When it comes to technology and societal organization, Westeros is in fact an early Modern society, yet its population density is closer to Dark Ages.
Fact that plate armour exists means that Westeros is a relatively high-technology society. This means cities and high urbanization, which simply does not fit with the Dark Age population densities of Westeros. Yet urban population is unlikely to be above 3 million, which is below 10% (7,5% actually). This urbanization level is below 10th century Byzantine Empire, which was between 10% and 15%. Yet King’s Landing may have population of around 500 000, which is only achievable with either a) extremely high population density or b) extremely high political centralization. This can be addressed by assuming that most castles mentioned in the books in fact have adjacent towns.
If Westeros is similar to England of 1500, then total population should be 144 million people in the south, or 72 million if we take Hungary (which is too low). North should then have 16 million people (or 8 million for Hungary estimate), for total Westeros population of either 160 million or 80 million. This means that standing, professional forces of Westeros should be at least 800 000 for whole of Westeros, possibly much more. Or else Martin should be writing about fryd militia fighting against Vikings, not about Wars of the Roses. For comparison, populaton of Europe was 25 million in 800, 56 million in 1 000 and 78 million in 1300.
Westeros also has too few ethnicities. In the Antiquity and Middle Ages, people did not travel, and there was little option for assimilation. The “cosmopolitan, multicultural” Roman Empire was neither cosmopolitan nor multicultural in the ways that modern people understand it. Empire did indeed contain many different peoples – but except for the cities (where only a minority of populace lived), these lived largely the same way they did before the conquest, and did not mix any more than before their incorporation into Roman state. Most people in pre-modern times simply did not migrate. As such, ethnic makeup remained largely unchanged. In Western Roman Empire, Italy alone had ten different ethnic groups (Celts, Etruscans, Umbrians, Latins, Samnites, Messapians, Italiotes, Sardinians, Carthaginians and Greeks – see link for visual map) at area of cca 300 000 square kilometers. Ancient Britain was solidly Celtic, though even Celts were not exactly homogenous, and could be divided into Britons, Picts and Hibernians (Irish). That will change in Migration Period and Middle Ages with invasions first by Angles and Saxons, then Vikings and finally Normans. By Roman rule there were three ethnic groups, increasing to five by 5th century and nine by 10th century. Even so, local communities had stayed solidly put for 1 500 years, with next to no mixing, which would have caused genetic, linguistic and cultural differences. Today there are 17 genetic clusters indicating different genetic groups among indigenous peoples. In ancient Iberia, there were close to thirty major ethno-geographic groups under Roman rule.
In Westeros, there are four ethnic groups, but of those Valyrians are statistically insignificant, reducing number to essentially three ethnicities – the First Men, Andals and Rhoynar. These are spread over 3 600 000 square miles (9,3 million square kilometers), which is 31 times the area of Italy, and 91% of area of Europe. According to its size, Westeros should have at least twenty to thirty major ethnic groups – unless it is run by a Borg Collective. First Men arrived to Westeros 12 000 years before “present”, and should have diversified into many ethnicites simply through natural processes of evolution, leading to cultural, social, linguistic and biological differences between different areas. Yet three original groups remain essentially unchanged in Westeros, with two kingdoms – First Men’s North and Rhoynish Dorne – showing significant differences from the rest of Westeros, and remaining (culturally Andal) mainland kingdoms forming an essentially homogenous block.
At 3 600 000 square miles, Westeros is much larger than any medieval kingdom, and is about the size of Xiongnu Empire (3 470 000 sq mi) or some of Chinese empires (Eastern Han, 2 510 000 sq mi). It is also twice the size of Roman Empire at its peak (1 900 000 sq mi). These empires had multiple language groups spoken. In Roman Empire, most important languages were Latin and Greek. However, there were also multiple major languages with “unofficial” status, some of which survived to modern days. In the West, spoken were Celtic, Gallic, Iberian and Lybian languages. In Eastern Empire these were Illyrian, Thracian, Coptic, Aramaic, Armenian and Caucasian languages. This makes for at least twelve distinct language groups. For example, Iberian languages were themselves distinct, with six different linguistic groups (Turdetanian, Tartessian, Celtic, Iberian, Aquitanian and ancient Indo-European). In Iberia and France – area the size of Dorne – there were two language families and ten major dialect groups. Modern-day China, which at 3 700 000 square miles is almost the exact physical size as Westeros (albeit with much different geography) has a total of nine language families and around thirty written languages; for a medieval society, number would have been much greater. As noted, First Men arrived to Westeros 12 000 years before “present”, which is more than enough time for linguistical evolution.
Westeros however is much poorer language-wise. It only has the Old Tongue, Common Tongue and Valyrian, but only the Common Tongue is widely spoken – other two are nearly nonexistent (Rhoynar was also presumably used at some point). Further, people from completely opposite ends of Westeros have no trouble communicating with each others – Martin himself has only noted “regional accents” as regional linguistical differences. In real world, situation was significantly different: pre-19th century Croatian and Serbian languages were mutually unintelligible, despite their close relation, and even today various dialects within Croatian language are difficult to understand for speakers of other dialects. In Medieval France, there existed two mutually unintelligible languages: Old French (langue d’oil) in northern France and Occitan language (langue d’oc) in the south of France; three if Franco-Provencal was also unintelligible (map here). Yet Westerosi Common Tongue, despite covering area nearly the size of Europe, seems to have developed no significant differentiation over its significant geographic area. While a common tongue could well have appeared among the learned classes, much like Latin and Greek were used in the Roman Empire, and Latin was used in Medieval Europe, what is unrealistic is that there is no indication of either significant regional variation or different languages existing in a day-to-day speech (as noted, GRRM only mentions “regional accents”). The only differences noted are between classes – as nobles have different pronounciation than peasants (instead of, say, speaking a completely different tongue – as English royalty and much of nobility did post-(Norman) Conquest by speaking French, or nobility in much of Europe by speaking Latin). Overall, a much better choice would have been leaving out any attempt at linguistical differentiation. This is made worse by the fact that such an attempt – and a successful one – was made in Essos.
CULTURES AND POLITICS
Westeros has remained united for 300 years after Targaryen conquest. But in reality it should have fallen apart as soon as all the dragons died out due to geography. Reason why Europe has developed into many nation-states (with only intermittent conquests creating empires, such as Roman Empire) is that it has many isolated river basins (whereas US have only one huge basin – Mississipi-Missouri basin); this means that there are many areas communicatively relatively isolated from each other. One can in fact see how river basin boundaries roughly correspond to national, and even more closely to ethnic and linguistic, borders. Westeros is similar: it has many rivers, and river basins but these are isolated from each another. This means that there should have been many different languages, and different kingdoms which would be – at best – united in a loose affiliation similar to Holy Roman Empire. At a rough estimate going by river basins, Westeros should have ten or so kingdoms on the mainland, almost the twice of the six mainland kingdoms it does have. This number could easily rise to as high as sixteen different kingdoms. And each of these kingdoms would have one, maybe more, ethnic-linguistic groups. This number of rivers, which often bisect large areas, also means that Westerosi should have invested massively – on a private level – into sea and river based transportation. Sea-transportation investment can be assumed to exist, as it has some direct evidence, but indirect evidence – size of Royal Fleet and its ships – is even clearer as to the importance of seaborne commerce. For river transport, however, there is not much evidence.
Second reason why Westeros should not have remained united is the climate. Historically, empires usually spread West-East, as they maintain conditions that are required for their technology (specifically food production) to work properly. While there were empires that stretched north-south (in Southern America and China), these usually maintained similar climatic conditions throughout – early Chinese empires covered areas with monsoon climate, and sea also worked as climate equalizer. As a result, it is Essos that should have seen the emergence of powerful empires (as did indeed happen with Yi-Ti or Empire of the Dawn) – not Westeros which is explicitly noted to have wildly differing climates.
Despite its reputation for intricate political intrigue, actual political intrigue displayed in Westeros is less than that of real-life Eastern Roman Empire, even in 9th century when it was reduced to area of less than 900 000 square kilometers. This is not to say that Martin does not deserve recognition for effort put into it, but Westeros is internally far too stable. Targaryens lasted 283 years on the Iron Throne, with 17 rulers and average of 17 years per ruler. In Roman Empire, longest-lasting dynasties were Macedonian dynasty (16 rulers, 189 years, 12 years per ruler) and Palaiologan dynasty (12 rulers, 192 years, 16 years per ruler). But these dynasties were unusually long-lasting, due to both relatively small size of the Empire and widespread usage of adoption. In Classical Empire, much closer in size to Westeros, longest-lived dynasties were Julio-Claudians and Nerva-Antonines, both lasting less than 100 years (95 and 96 years, with 19 and 14 year average reigns per ruler). Holy Roman Empire, much closer in structure to Westeros than either Byzantine or Classical Roman Empire, had only one dynasty ever that lasted for more than a single-digit number of rulers. This shows that entire Westeros should have been smaller than real-life Byzantine Empire – the size of Britain, actually – though if one accepts the low level of ethnic and cultural diversity of the continent, then dynastic stability actually makes sense.
Deepwood Motte and Torrhen Square are apparently the biggest settlements in the North for a radius of 300 miles. With such a sparsity of significant urban centres, North could not have survived as a single kingdom, but rather should have broken up into several – if not dozens of – kingdoms.
Ironborn culture is based on raiding – they are essentially Vikings. Problem is, only a minority of Norsemen were ever Vikings (word meant “raider”), and Vikings themselves were not just raiders but also traders. And many were not even professional sailors, but were also craftsmen, farmers or similar. Viking culture was part of Norse culture, but Viking culture alone could never have existed. Yet the Ironborn appear to be Vikings, without the necessary underlying social support that would enable them to live as raiders.
There is one serious problem with Westeros: too few religious wars. While Andals did devastate heart trees and forcibly convert people, all wars after the Andal conquest of Westeros were civic wars. Yet in history, many wars – regardless of whether started for civic or religious reasons – had religious backdrop, at least as part of justification. Byzantine-Persian wars were often framed in terms of religious conflict, and basically every war muslim states ever launched was “in service of Allah”, even if goals of war’s leaders were not religious in nature. Attempts at peaceful coexistence of Christianity and Islam are imploding even today, and imploded spectacularly in Al-Andalus (Spain). Teutonic knights carried out essentially a genocide while attempting to convert at the time pagan Poles. Essos is somewhat better in that regard, with Dothraki destroying sedantary civilizations for endangering “holy grass”, but there is still not enough of it. Almost nobody seems to use religion as primary motivator of war, though that may be changing, with Aeron Greyjoy being on a divine mission and Faith gaining power.
Now, religious coexistence did happen in real world, Roman Empire being the prime example. But there is one issue with that: it only happened between polytheistic religions, which could easily assimilate or even trade gods. Monotheistic religions with significantly disparate gods – such as Faith of the Seven and R’h’llor – do not have such an option, either in dealing with each other or in dealing with other religions, and purpoted existence of another god automatically invalidates one’s own religion. First confirmed religious war in history happened between Christian Roman Empire and Zoroastran Persia – Khusro offered Heraclius peace only if the latter converted to Zoroastrism, and upon hearing that, Church gave Heraclius all its gold to teach Khusro what is what. First reported religious wars in history were carried out by monotheistic Jews (Bible).
Even on personal level, religion does not have enough importance. Catelyn Stark merely regards Northern gods as “your gods”; in reality, a follower of Seven (a Christianity ripoff) would have considered pagan beliefs a mortal danger to person’s soul, and would have attempted to convert her husband as soon as possible to save him.
Westerosi militaries are not typical medieval feudal militaries, despite references to “calling the banners”. Battles regularly have tens of thousands of combatants, sometimes on each side. Renly manages to mobilize an army of 80 000 in one place; Robb Stark marches South with 20 000 strong host. Large battles are also frequent. This is not medieval: only professional militaries such as those of Byzantine Empire, Caliphate, or Charles Martell’s Francia, could maintain large numbers of soldiers in the field – and even then, typical Byzantine field army was no more than 20 000 strong, while largest armies may have numbered up to 50 000. Strategikon has as the largest codified force an army of 35 000, and under Manuel I Komnenos field army numbered 40 000 men. Westerosi armies thus are not medieval – in Western European sense – any more than Gondorian army is; they are modern armies of late Middle Ages or early Renaissance. Yet references are made to “calling the banners”, which would have meant that every lord brings his soldiers with him. That however would make logistics impossible, as there would be no way for central supply system to calculate the supply requirements: some units would consequently be starving, while others would be awash in unnecessary supplies. Logistics simply demand structured, standardized and professionalized military.
These massive armies also have strategic implications. Much like Antiquity and Renaissance, and very unlike medieval Western Europe, castles are of limited value: despite the lack of gunpowder, very size of the armies running around opens up avenues of attack that would be unavailable to medieval armies. Because fortifications can only resist a siege for a limited amount of time – if at all – seeking out enemy army to destroy it becomes an imperative. Even if fortifications are powerful enough, sheer size of armies means that they cause extreme devastation to countryside: again forcing open battles (which was one of possible uses of chevauchee, though even then open battles were much less frequent). This is further reinforced by the nature of War of the Five Kings, which is a civil war with the aim of controlling the central government: thus the relative frequency of open field battles. Robb Stark fights five open-field battles in a single year.
Overall, Westerosi militaries are realistic – but not feudal, and there should be no banners involved, unless “banner” is actually a term for a standardized military unit (such as Roman centuria or Byzantine kentarchia). Tactically, they are also realistic – in 15th century. Northern troops significantly rely on pikes, much like the Scots, while Reach – being France equivalent – relies heavily on heavy cavalry.
The Wall is 700 feet tall, which should be impossible to maintain with ice – it will have melted under its own weight. Further south is Winterfell. Its inner wall is 100 feet tall, and outer wall is 80 feet tall – which is much taller than most real-life castle walls. Storm’s End also has curtain wall 100 feet tall and 40 – 80 feet thick. While individual turrets or keeps could be of that height, tallest castle or city walls I could find were 80 feet tall and 40 feet thick. Greater problem however is that George Martin describes interactions of people with these buildings as if the buildings are much smaller: Theon and his men do not have any problems scaling Winterfell’s enormous walls. The Wall itself is also scaled with ropes at least once.
War galleys also have 100 oars per deck as standard, and largest war galleys have 400 to 800 oars in total. Such large galleys could only ever be used in calm seas, and definitely not in likely-Atlantic conditions of seas surrounding Westeros (even the Narrow Sea is likely more alike to North Sea in weather conditions than it is to Mediterranean), simply due to construction. A galley, especially a war galley, has to have a minimum water resistance to achieve useful speeds under oar. This means long and narrow hull with very shallow draft – which in turn requires very light construction. Between necessities of construction and oceanic sea conditions, Westerosi galley would likely be torn apart soon after leaving the port (thanks to hull flexing).