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Books in the Seven Kingdoms: The Palaeography of Westeros
« on: September 15, 2017, 11:07:04 PM »
Books in the Seven Kingdoms: The Palaeography of Westeros
By Brigid Ehrmantraut (Leborcham)

While we read of letters, documents, and a number of books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), the television adaptation Game of Thrones (GoT) allows us to peruse their physical incarnations. We know that in a pseudo-Medieval setting books are important for a number of reasons, not the least being their expense and effort to produce; however, they also play crucial roles in the ASOIAF/GoT storyline. We know that Tyrion is a voracious reader (especially of dragon-related material), that Samwell Tarly is sent to the Citadel partly because Castle Black’s library is minimal at best, and that whatever Prince Rhaegar Targaryen read in a certain ancient book from Asshai dramatically influenced his decision to pursue military prowess and statecraft. The show itself frames its events through a work of recent history being produced at the Citadel, where the gyroscopic chandeliers match the decorations around the sun in the opening credit sequence.

A closer look at the props used on the show and the study of their writing styles (the field of history known as palaeography) can provide valuable insights about the wider world, state of literacy, and dissemination of knowledge in Westeros. While any books, letters, or handwriting visible onscreen have an admitted narrative purpose to fulfill, their appearance and contexts also offer valuable background information. As Westeros is in many respects Western Medieval Europe (more specifically, the British Isles) with dragons, comparisons with real world Medieval and Early Modern scripts will help elucidate their fictional counterparts in a number of case studies. From this information we can draw conclusions regarding the contents and dates of the books and letters in the series and by extension, Westerosi awareness of the Others/White Walkers, dragons, and other often-scoffed at supernatural elements.

Books: High Status Productions

Legends of the Long Night storybook from the Citadel library (S7)

The illumination, use of colored ink, and illustrations along the bottom of the pages mark this volume as a relatively expensive, luxury production. The script is a variety of 'Gothic textura', typical of Western European Mid to Late Medieval manuscripts (c. 1150+ AD).

More Legends (S7)

The size of the hand, word and line spacing, and wide margins, along with the creamy, unblemished parchment further contribute to its high status, presumably intended to be read (possibly aloud given pre-modern reading practices, well marked sections and the size of the script), gifted, and/or flaunted by a wealthy patron.

Dragonglass book from the Citadel library (S7)

The frequent, detailed, and large in-set pictures in this manuscript also indicate a fairly high status production. The script is very readable to a modern audience, as it has much in common with a Renaissance or Early Modern 'humanistic minuscule' hand. Humanist minuscule emulated the Early Medieval 'Caroline minuscule' that was found in manuscripts containing Classical works. This represented a conscious (and anachronistic) attempt to reclaim the knowledge and aesthetics of ancient Rome, getting rid of the Gothic (sometimes called “blackletter” for the wide, well-inked strokes) letter forms of the mid to late Middle Ages. Assuming Westerosi palaeography even loosely follows that of Western Europe, this manuscript must therefore be a quite recent production, likely even more so than the copy of Legends.

More from the dragonglass book (S7)

Note the use of Arabic numeral 18. We have no idea what kind of number system is in use in Westeros or whether such a system, like Arabic numerals in early Renaissance Europe, was eventually adapted from other regions. Was there also an older, fustier system comparable to Roman numerals? If so, such numbering, like the Early Modern script of the manuscript, suggests a recent origin or at least recent copying.

Astronomy book—an outlier (S7)

How much do the characters in GoT/ASOIAF know about the physics that govern their world? Are the seasons really due to the planet’s astronomical orbit, or are they the result of something more mystical? We simply don’t know at this point in the series, but we do know that someone is willing to devote quite a bit of gold leaf and colored ink to finding out!

Documents and Chronicles

Robert Baratheon’s will (dictated to Ned Stark) (S1)

Ned’s handwriting has more in common with the Humanist minuscule from the dragonglass book Sam finds at the citadel than the stiffer textura of Legends. Given that and the subsequent scripts, we can assume these humanistic tendencies represent a later script development in Westeros as well as our world.

The Book of Brothers (chronicle of the Kingsguard) (S4)

Again, an easy to read minuscule hand. If we believe that the entries in the Book of Brothers (which chronicles the members and deeds of the Kingsguard) are written by the Kingsguard's current commander, then Westerosi (noble) knights have unparalleled penmanship. That it is quite a bit neater and more regular than Ned’s handwriting above (or Theon’s scrawl below) suggests that King’s Landing and the general south of Westeros have access to more refined, up-to-date script practices.

Letters: Perhaps Handwriting Varies by Region?

Theon Greyjoy to Robb Stark (S2)

Theon gives us our most interesting and distinctive script. The many cursive (joined up) elements, vaguely crabbed letter heads, and expressively loose ascending and descending strokes and flourishes all put us in mind of Medieval chancery scripts, which were used for official documents. Real-world chancery scripts date primarily from the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries onward, depending on region; they indicate a growing, widespread, professional class of scribes and document writers. Does this mean that the Iron Islands (or even Winterfell, depending on where Theon learned his letters) see more documentary production than a bustling metropolis like King’s Landing, or has this merely been adopted as a less regular regional style?

Tywin Lannister’s handwriting (S3)

This is probably the closest to the fine writing in the Book of Brothers or the dragonglass book. More ligatures and irregularities (as well as curved-stroke d) suggest a slightly less formal and/or older style. This is a far more obvious product of a quill pen than the consistent, uniform thickness of strokes in the Book of Brothers.

Letters: Does handwriting vary with age?

Lyanna Mormont’s letter to Stannis Baratheon (S5)

Lyanna Mormont is just a child in season five (albeit feisty beyond belief!), and her handwriting certainly reflects her youth. Any modern five year old could produce similar letter forms. However, we therefore know that on top of her general badassery, little Lyanna also writes her own letters, instead of relying on an older councillor or a maester.

Sansa Stark’s letter to Robb Stark (S1/7)

Again, Sansa’s hand is a little less regular and spindlier than those of the adults we have seen. Given that this is Sansa in Season 1, we are not surprised at the idiosyncrasies. On the other hand, Sansa, under extreme pressure in the wake of her father’s arrest, still writes more in a standard southerner-style Humanist minuscule than her fellow northerners Lyanna or Theon.

Case studies from the show are wonderfully illuminating (pun intended), but what can we glean from the books’ in-universe history, and what does this mean in a greater Westerosi context? In A Feast for Crows, Samwell Tarley tells Jon Snow, “The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it” (Ch. 5). Using this as a basis for the rough history of literacy in Westeros, we can make the following conclusions about transmission of knowledge in the world of Ice and Fire…

All the manuscript scripts appear to essentially be the High Medieval Gothic textura or a later Humanist writing style. This means that even if records of the Dawn Age and the Long Night were first set to parchment thousands of years earlier, people (presumably maesters at the Citadel) are still reading and copying them in or near the present of the narrative. If they much predated the present, we might expect a script closer to that seen in Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages, in an uncial, half-uncial, or minuscule style. This could look like 'Caroline' minuscule (aspects of which survive in the Humanist minuscule of the show, as exemplified by the a with an upper top stroke), or 'English Square' minuscule (also represented to some degree in the series by the the curved top d). Even without the real world parallels, handwriting we see in the present in letters and documents indicates a messy but general progression towards late medieval and early modern Humanistic hands, with Ned and Tywin’s hands showing a few Gothic elements or older letter forms, and Sansa’s letter and the Kingsguard chronicle favoring more Humanistic styles. If longer texts did exist in an older script (or if any of the First Men’s “runes on rocks” were extant), it is possible that scribes can no longer read either the language or the scripts themselves, which would be in keeping with the general lack of belief expressed for anything supernatural/suitably ancient by the southern elites of Westeros at the beginning of the series. Nonetheless, this seems to contradict the fact that some manuscripts do exist in what must be relatively recent, expensively-produced copies, as well as the Archmaester’s credulous if disinterested response to Sam’s account of the Others.

On the level of the study of the physical documents (codicology), the cleanliness of manuscripts and lack of bookworm holes or other signs of vermin also attest to their quite recent production. Given the vibrant colors and illustrations, it is not unreasonable to assume that the books Sam sees at the Citadel were produced for some noble patron, who must have shared this interest. If we were in a charitable mindset, we might suggest said patron was Rhaegar, following up on his literary discovery from Asshai. Perhaps he died before the copies were delivered. If they were intended for anyone else, we must wonder why their knowledge (or belief in the knowledge they convey) seems not to have spread beyond the Citadel library, and even there, not to have inspired much more than vague apathy in the minds of the maesters.

Handwriting in letters is wildly inconsistent though it appears that most of the nobility are literate from a young age. Cursive elements appear in ligatures joining letters, but text entirely in cursive seems unknown (Theon’s chancery-esque hand and Sansa’s letter to Robb come by far the closest). If writing were concentrated in secluded septs around Westeros, it would not be surprising if each location had developed its own house style. However, it is the maesters at the Citadel in Old Town who are responsible for the production of the books we see in the series. This disparity between hands is odd given that all maesters train in the same, single location and are predominantly tasked with education, particularly education of the noble classes. If Westeros followed the model of Western Europe (more specifically the British Isles and Ireland, which generally emerge as clear real-world analogues of the fictional people, places, and events), we might expect more uniformity in letter forms. On the other hand, the level of overall literacy represented is perhaps closer to that associated with the Renaissance or Early Modern Period: most characters in Westeros and Essos can read (Ser Davos and Gilly, who both learn to read in the course of the series, are interlopers from other social classes or regions/cultures). Literacy is common enough that copies of The Seven-Pointed Star (the biblical stand-in gospel of the widespread Faith of the Seven) are mentioned and passages known by heart, and lords and ladies tend to write their own letters and even wills rather than relying on the resident maester (more so in the show than in the books). Perhaps, adjusted for this ubiquity of literacy, the proliferation of personal handwriting styles makes a bit more sense; the value placed on individuality, be it personal acclaim, agency, or distinct authorship seems to have more in common with later periods of European history than Medieval norms.

If we are to take any conclusion from this evidence, it should be incredulity at the overall ignorance and disbelief in the Others/White Walkers, dragons, and the supernatural in general given the obvious interest attested by recent manuscript copies and amazingly high level of (at least noble) literacy. Yes, we may call some manuscripts that deal with supernatural themes literature, as seems to be the case with Legends of the Long Night, but literature that matters to someone in a position to expensively rewrite or recopy it nonetheless. The dragonglass book on the other hand is a far more historical text, and also exists in what seems to be a very modern copy, complete with pictures of weapons apparently made by the Children of the Forest. Again, if that much is accepted as fact and attested in such an expensive, recent manuscript, why the greater disinterest in and disbelief in rumors and first-hand accounts of the supernatural? Westeros has not forgotten its past, and neither is it illiterate; it merely fails to connect the two with any critical thinking abilities. Or, of course, we can just blame HBO’s research skills.

Further Reading

On calligraphy in Game of Thrones:

On general Western European script history:
Latin Palaeography by Bernhard Bischoff, trans. Daibhm O. Cróinin and David Ganz, 1979.

On the history of Westeros:
The World of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García Jr. and Linda Antonsson, 2014.


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Re: Books in the Seven Kingdoms: The Palaeography of Westeros
« Reply #1 on: September 16, 2017, 11:01:22 PM »
Editor's note: any problems with quotes or italicisation are probably mine, not the author's.

I definitely learned a lot of technical terms whilst editing this one! :)
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...