The wealth of the North
Hi! I’m wondering, why are the Starks so frugal? I mean even House Martell, which has a lesser income, is more ostentatious. Is it just because the northerners are so frugal, or are they (and everyone else) so aware of their status that they don’t deem it necessary to flaunt it like the other great houses?
Hi! A lot of this apparent difference has to do with the culture of the North, which is primarily due to their climate. The northerners tend to be frugal because their focus during the warm seasons is to prepare for winter, which will kill people who aren’t ready for it. (It will also kill people who are ready for it, such as the old men who’ve “lived too long”, who announce to their families that they’re “going hunting” and set off into the snows and never return, just so that other people can have more food to survive.) And even the warm seasons aren’t that warm compared to the south – summer snows are not unusual, for example. Where the south has winters (even years-long, though note snow is infrequent south of King’s Landing), the North has deathly mini-Ice Ages, where 10-foot blizzards and winds that freeze your nose and ears off are not uncommon.
And so, “Winter is coming”, say the Stark words. Also, “the north is hard and cold, and has no mercy,” as Ned told Catelyn when she first came to Winterfell, a soft southerner dealing with the culture shock of the austere north. And so the usual northern clothing is made of wool, and leather, with heavy wool or fur cloaks. And all the more so, the crown of the Kings of Winter: “of gold and silver and gemstones, it had none; bronze and iron were the metals of winter, dark and strong to fight against the cold.”
(Now, not only does Dorne almost never get snow, but in general they have a mediterranean or desert climate – so they grow dates and peppers and grapes and citrus fruit, and wear layers of silks and other light clothing. Their buildings are open, with courtyards and fountains. And that’s all because their focus is to survive the sun’s heat, but it appears ostentatious in comparison.)
But truly, the Starks aren’t that frugal? For example, the harvest feast:
Dancer was draped in bardings of snowy white wool emblazoned with the grey direwolf of House Stark, while Bran wore grey breeches and white doublet, his sleeves and collar trimmed with vair. Over his heart was his wolf’s-head brooch of silver and polished jet. […] Beyond the wide oak-and-iron doors, eight long rows of trestle tables filled Winterfell’s Great Hall, four on each side of the center aisle. Men crowded shoulder to shoulder on the benches. “Stark!” they called as Bran trotted past, rising to their feet. “Winterfell! Winterfell!”
He was old enough to know that it was not truly him they shouted for—it was the harvest they cheered, it was Robb and his victories, it was his lord father and his grandfather and all the Starks going back eight thousand years. Still, it made him swell with pride. […] He bid them welcome in the name of his brother, the King in the North, and asked them to thank the gods old and new for Robb’s victories and the bounty of the harvest. “May there be a hundred more,” he finished, raising his father’s silver goblet.
“A hundred more!” Pewter tankards, clay cups, and iron-banded drinking horns clashed together. Bran’s wine was sweetened with honey and fragrant with cinnamon and cloves, but stronger than he was used to. He could feel its hot snaky fingers wriggling through his chest as he swallowed. By the time he set down the goblet, his head was swimming.
“You did well, Bran,” Ser Rodrik told him. “Lord Eddard would have been most proud.” Down the table, Maester Luwin nodded his agreement as the servers began to carry in the food.
Such food Bran had never seen; course after course after course, so much that he could not manage more than a bite or two of each dish. There were great joints of aurochs roasted with leeks, venison pies chunky with carrots, bacon, and mushrooms, mutton chops sauced in honey and cloves, savory duck, peppered boar, goose, skewers of pigeon and capon, beef-and-barley stew, cold fruit soup. Lord Wyman had brought twenty casks of fish from White Harbor packed in salt and seaweed; whitefish and winkles, crabs and mussels, clams, herring, cod, salmon, lobster and lampreys. There was black bread and honeycakes and oaten biscuits; there were turnips and pease and beets, beans and squash and huge red onions; there were baked apples and berry tarts and pears poached in strongwine. Wheels of white cheese were set at every table, above and below the salt, and flagons of hot spice wine and chilled autumn ale were passed up and down the tables.
[…] Much later, after all the sweets had been served and washed down with gallons of summerwine, the food was cleared and the tables shoved back against the walls to make room for the dancing. The music grew wilder, the drummers joined in, and Hother Umber brought forth a huge curved warhorn banded in silver. When the singer reached the part in “The Night That Ended” where the Night’s Watch rode forth to meet the Others in the Battle for the Dawn, he blew a blast that set all the dogs to barking.
–ACOK, Bran III
At this feast (which would have been the first of several in a years-long autumn, if not for the war), the Starks are “flaunting it”. Bran is dressed unusually extravagantly, and there’s food (so much food) and wine, music and dancing. But this ostentatiousness and luxury, this performance of generosity, it’s all done for a purpose. It’s not a careless, casual waste of food and wealth (compare Joffrey’s wedding) – it’s to share the Starks’ resources with that of their bannermen, to build morale, to conflate the Stark legacy with the bounty of the harvest. The wealth of the north is not in art and gold and gems and silk and shiny things – it’s in food, and the gifts of the land, furs and fish and oak and iron, friendship and camaraderie and loyalty, everything needed for survival.
And there’s the richness of Winterfell itself – ok, so it’s not ostentatiously decorated and filled with knickknacks – but it does have hot springs, and thick stone walls heated by the hot springs, to stay warm even in the depth of the coldest winter. It has the glass gardens, greenhouses that grow food and flowers that could normally never survive in the cold climate of the north, and can grow food in the middle of winter. And outside the castle is the winter town, which is 4/5 empty during the other seasons, but in winter takes in hundreds, thousands of northmen from all over, even clansmen from the mountains. That too is not frugality, it’s pure generosity… but again, saved for the winter when it’s really needed.
And all this is why “the north remembers”, why the Manderlys “know about the promise” made after “the
wolves took us in and nourished us and protected us against our enemies”. It’s why
the “faith of Greywater” is pledged, “hearth and heart and harvest”. It’s why, even though they don’t appear to be as wealthy or ostentatious as other great houses, everyone wants to be a Stark.