Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective Part IIA

Substantive Law

A: Slavery, thralldom and freedom

Personal freedom – or its absence – is a recurring theme in the Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Different territories have difference attitudes to, and laws concerning, slavery, and it is a particular concern of Daenerys Targaryen in her progress through various lands outside Westeros. Slavery is lawful in some realms and groups, such as Astapor, Volantis, and amongst the Dothraki.

Where slavery persists, slaves are essentially chattels, and can be ‘bought and sold, whipped and branded, used for the carnal pleasure of their owners, bred to make more slaves’ ’[V:870]. They are inherited when their master dies, unless explicitly freed [V:755-6]. Manumission appears to be possible, particularly on death of the owner, but the process is not described. Slaves can also buy their own freedom, which suggests that they are able to amass savings, rather than paying all incoming money over to their masters [V:443].

There is a variety of standards of treatment for the slaves. Some – such as the Unsullied – are mutilated, and may be made to kill and die for their masters. It is noted that the slaves of Volantis are assigned to a role – sweeping up dung, acting as prostitutes, fighting or other functions – and are tattooed to indicate this role [World: 7563]. Dothraki and some other slaves are obliged to wear collars, presumably to mark their status [I:32]. Ancillary laws are necessary to safeguard the institution – so in Volantis, it is forbidden to help a slave escape [V:371].

Slavery is not permitted in Braavos, a state founded by escaped slaves, [V:89], nor in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. [III:264]. A major feature of the progress of Daenerys Targaryen is her strong opposition to slavery, and her freeing of slaves wherever possible. Victarion Greyjoy also frees galley slaves, modelling himself on Daenerys [V:830].

So important a principle is the outlawry of slavery in Braavos that it is regarded as the First Law of Braavos that ‘no man, woman or child in Braavos should ever be a slave, a thrall or a bondsman’, and this rule is engraved on a prominent arch [World: 7635]. Slavery is described by those of Westeros as an evil, and an ‘abomination’ to all of the gods of the Seven Kingdoms.[III:264], and Ser Jorah Mornomt’s selling of some poachers to a Tyroshi slaver instead of giving them to the Night’s Watch’ was regarded as a capital offence [I:33].

Pentos does not maintain with any great enthusiasm the ban on slavery which it was forced by the Braavosi to enact [I:28; World: 7563; V:21] So, for example, those who were enslaved elsewhere seem to remain slaves there, [I:28] and although they are not technically slaves, there are those who are very close to such a status, so Magister Illyrio Mopatis tells Tyrion that his house servants will not refuse him sexual service, and makes it clear that he sees captives as the chattels of a captor [I:33].

A state of servitude which falls short of full chattel-slavery is traditional to the Iron Islands. The Ironborn use some captured on raids as thralls, to do things considered beneath the Ironborn themselves, in particular mining [World: 5035]. While the life of a thrall is very difficult, this does not amount to slavery, since the thrall is regarded as a man, not a chattel, and may not be bought and sold. Although the thrall owes his captor service and obedience, he may hold property, and may marry a spouse of his choice. What is more, the children of such a union would be regarded as free and Ironborn [World: 5041]. Some rulers of the Iron Islands disapproved of thralldom and sought to end the status, [World: 5248; 5478], but it was allowed by Balon Greyjoy, and so is legal at the time of the Song cycle [World: 5478]

Those who free slaves find themselves having to deal with the aftermath of abolishing the institution. They may offer compensation for the damage caused by escaping slaves. For example, the Iron Bank of Braavos compensated the successors of former slave-owners for the ships seized and sailed away by the original escaping slaves more than a century beforehand, though they would not restore the value of the slaves themselves [World: 7649].

Daenerys Targaryen faces claims by former slave owners, who have been, or say they have been, damaged by the process of abolition. A boy attempting to claim for offences of murder and rape by his family’s former slaves against his father, brother and mother, during the rising which led to the overthrow of Meereen and the abolition of slavery there, is sent away without the sentence of hanging which he had desired for the former slaves. Daenerys rejects his claim both because she had pardoned all crimes committed during the sack of the city, and also because she will not punish slaves ‘for rising up against their masters [V:42].

Some claims are for economic loss. A nobleman of Meereen, Grazdan zo Galare, makes a claim for a share in the profits of weaving done by his former slaves. These women had been taught the skill by another of his slaves, a woman now dead, whose name he was not able to remember. The nobleman’s claim is, however, unsuccessful, since it was the old woman, rather than the ex-master, who had taught them to weave. In addition, the noblemen is ordered to buy the women an expensive loom, as a punishment for forgetting the name of the old woman [V:42].

Daenerys is faced with the problem of retroactivity, and, whether as a matter of law or policy, decides that slave owners cannot be punished for conduct which, prior to the abolition of slavery in Meereen, was regarded as legitimate. So, when an ex-slave accuses a nobleman of rape for his actions towards the ex-slave’s wife, formerly the noble’s (slave) ‘bedwarmer’, the noble having ‘taken her maidenhood, used her for his pleasure, and gotten her with child’, this is unsuccessful. The ruling is that, at the time when the noble had sex with the ‘bedwarmer’, she was ‘his property, to do with as he would’, so that ‘By law, there was no rape’. The claimant does, however, obtain money to pay for ‘raising the noble’s bastard as his own’ [V:42].

Daenerys finds it impossible to maintain her absolute anti-slavery stance, due to political opposition. A peace deal struck between her city of Meereen and Yunka’i meant the partial acceptance of slavery. If a slave was brought into her realm by a Yunkish owner, he did not thus become free. This was the price she had to pay for the Yunkish promise to ‘respect the rights and liberties of the former slaves [she] had freed [V:664].

In addition, she is faced with the situation of some noble Meereenese wanting to sell themselves into slavery, because their lives have become squalid, and they think that they will be better off as slaves in the Free Cities: an interesting problem of present free will versus anti-slavery absolutism. In the end, she decides that she cannot or will not stop this, as long as it is actually voluntary: thus, ‘[a]ny man who wishes to sell himself into slavery may do so. Or woman.’ … But they may not sell their children, nor a man his wife’ [III:809]. Having accepted that such transactions are allowed, she imposes a tax on them [III:809].

Her freeing of the slaves of Astapor does not lead to a no-slavery area there either, since, once she has left, slavery is restored, albeit with a reversal in those who were masters and those who were slaves [V:39].

The issue of slavery in the Song of Ice and Fire is particularly interesting because characters (and particularly Daenerys Targaryen) have to negotiate a world in which the issue is contested, with contrasting rules and views in different countries. In many ways, the issues and views are more reminiscent of those prompted by African slavery in the New World, rather than medieval slavery. While there were strong voices condemning slavey in the medieval period (e.g. St Wulfstan), Daenerys’s attitude – and her solutions – are rathe more post-Enlightenment.

Gwen Seabourne



I:          George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

II:        George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

III:       George R.R. Martin: A Storm of Swords

IV:       George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

V:        George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

World: George R.R. Martin, E M Garcia Jr, L. Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire: the untold history of Westeros and the Game of Thrones