Seeing this post reminds me that someone I’ve known for years, and who has a rather expensive college degree, said these exact words to me in regard to ASOIAF/Game of Thrones this past Tuesday at a gaming tournament:
"Things were just like that back then.”
There were not enough faces for me…
This is great. I think that the public reaction to ASOIAF is to applaud it for subverting more traditional, sanitized, fantasy worlds by going whole hog into brutality and grimdarkness, and there’s a certain value to that. The problem, as you point out, is that GRRM has thrown out the baby with the bathwater; by trying to avoid the simplistic and unrealistic virtues of traditional fantasyland societies, he’s avoided the realistic historical structures that they are based on.
In particular, I notice a complete lack of any judicial system. GRRM, like many fantasy writers, seems to think either that common people never got any justice, or that the only way for them to get it was to go begging on their knees directly to the king. Insofar as Westeros is based on Medieval England, however, that’s just patent nonsense. The common law courts, juries, lawyers, travelling sheriffs and justices of the peace, are all medieval inventions. The Court of Chancery was invented because when people went begging to the king for relief, it was because there were too many other courts to choose from, with too many conflicting and complicated rules of procedure. Medieval settings need not (indeed, should not) be devoid of legal process.
To be fair, of course, it’s not like the medieval judiciary was perfect; it developed in a lot of weird ways that look unjust to our modern eyes (fun fact: when jury trials started to be a thing, the accused had the choice to opt for one or not; but they were such a convenient and useful thing that the accused would basically be tortured until they agreed to it). It’s also true that if a poor person couldn’t afford the legal costs they probably didn’t get justice. But the default fantasy rule of “justice comes only through feudal relationships and basically not at all” is simply not based in reality, and the absence of any court system in Westeros is a prime example of how GRRM’s “brutally realistic” version of the middle ages is actually not at all.