HBO’s Game of Thrones is beginning its final season this week, bringing to a close one of the most successful series in HBO’s history. But before you get ready for some whitewalker doom, don’t you ever wonder how they always seem to have endless weapons, flawless armor, and beautiful dinnerware?
George RR Martin has said that his fantasy world of Westeros is based on medieval Europe, and probably the Wars of the Roses period of English history. While there are some distinctive differences between his world (dragons, almost entirely white) and our world’s history (no dragons, demonstrably diverse), there are still enough similarities to make some educated answers to our burning supply chain questions.
So let’s do what we do and take a look at how Westeros gets their goods.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
Longbows and the Battle of the Bastards
Let’s start with their weapons.
The Battle of the Bastards gives us a fine example of the importance of longbows to medieval armies. In perhaps the worst show of strategy in the entire series, Jon Snow just runs straight ahead with the bulk of his army to face a withering barrage of arrows, despite the fact that the whole plan was to make Ramsay Bolton come to him. Perhaps the most famous example of the effectiveness of longbows comes from the battle of Agincourt.
Henry V wanted to overwhelm the French army with superior force and material, so he spent considerable time preparing for the battle. Part of that was procuring a vast amount of bows and arrows.
Henry V implemented a strict, delegated sourcing strategy to make sure that each part of the chain flowed into the next. The bowyers made bows and arrows, sent them to their local sheriffs, who then shipped all the materials to their lords. The lords then shipped the final arsenal to the king. Each bowyer was responsible for 500 longbows and 12,000 arrows. That had led to around 20,000 bows and 500,000 arrows for the King’s army during that time.
So in Westeros, despite ravaging his people and terrorizing the countryside, Ramsay Bolton still needed to gain control of the North’s supply chain so he could produce the number of arrows necessary to wipe out Jon Snow’s infantry and cavalry. Thanks, Little Finger, for the rescue of our dumb-dumb hero, Jon Snow!
The Iron Bank of Braavos
In King’s Landing, Queen Cersei Lannister has taken a loan from the Iron Bank, Westeros’s central banking agency. Armies cost money (a lot of money), and she needs to raise an army to defend her realm against upstart Daenerys Targaryen.
Banks in medieval Europe played less of a role in daily life than they do in Westeros because the Catholic churches prohibited charging interest on loans. Once the church shifted its practices however, banks started to spread. The international banks serving Europe were mostly based in what we now call Italy in the 13th and 14th century.
But what the Iron Bank of Braavos and the banks of Europe had in common was the risk of lending to monarchs to finance wars. Just like Queen Cersei Lannister, medieval monarchs looked to mercenary armies to help defeat their enemies, and that cost money they didn’t have lying around. To finance their wars, they borrowed at interest from banks.
But often, if the monarchs couldn’t afford to pay back the bank (like, for example, if they lost their little war), they would flatly refuse to pay and claim “divine right.” That led to “most of the bank failures of the late Middle Ages” when rulers simply refused to pay.
Perhaps the Iron Bank is relying a little too heavily on the Lannister’s debt-paying motto, “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts.”
How does the Iron Islands furnish Galleys?
Queen Cersei doesn’t just rely on the Iron Bank though, she also makes a strategic alliance with Euron Greyjoy of the Iron Islands. One of the more improbable parts of the Game of Thrones universe is the tiny island nation of swashbuckling Greyjoys building massive fleets of wooden galleys. Multiple times throughout the series, the key players from the island nation mention how poor and barren their islands are, yet they’re somehow able to field the largest fleet Westeros has known.
How do they do it? Maybe the answer lies in the early innovations of the Venetian Arsenale. Without doubt, the Venetian Arsenale was the greatest industrial complex of the 16th century. They were turning out war galleys, ropes, sails, gunpowder, oars, weapons, and cannons hundreds of years ahead of their time. In fact, at the height of their production, the Venetian Arsenale could produce one complete ship a day, fully rigged out with ropes, weapons, and crew.
The Venetians kept their production in house and used a specialized production process. Each stage of production had its own workforce and flowed to the next stage. It was the medieval equivalent of a production line. And since Venice was a network of islands, the Venetians relied on the mainland to source their wood and shipped the logs down rivers into Venice’s islands.
Like the Venetians, it’s possible the Greyjoys relied on plundering the mainland for the wood necessary for their massive fleet, and used industrial innovations far ahead of the rest of Westeros to build them so quickly. Anything’s possible… it is just a fantasy, after all.
So where does that leave Westeros?
Well, the clear lesson learned here is that if you’re facing the twin threats of frozen zombies and an unnaturally long winter, you should probably plan ahead so that your supply chain has its means of production locked down, a healthy workforce in place, and a well-stocked larder prepared.
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