Christoph Bezemek on The Men of the Night’s Watch: What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Asceticism, Cenobite Monasticism, and Equality @UniGraz @graz_innov_law

The Men of the Night’s Watch:

What Game of Thrones can teach us about Asceticism, Cenobite Monasticism, and Equality

Christoph Bezemek


Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

§ 1

The Watchers on the Wall

Remember the infamous court room speech at the end of the 1990s hit movie A Few Good Men? When Jack Nicholson barks at Tom Cruise, “Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.”

Nicholson’s opening sentence is as revealing as it is lucid. Indeed: we do live in a world that has walls. And these walls serve a variety of purposes.[1] If they are, however, to pose more than a mere obstacle, if they are to provide effective protection whatever threat lurks beyond, these walls have to be guarded; if not by men with guns, in any case by men willing and able to fend off those who are not supposed to enter. In the far north of Westeros, the scenery of HBO’s hit franchise ‘’Game of Thrones’ these men are the “Men of the Night’s Watch.”

The Night’s Watch looks back on a long and proud tradition. For more than 8000 years, we learn in the episode  “The Kingsroad,” they have wielded “the sword in the darkness,” fending off wildlings and keeping an eye out for White Walkers. Once an impressive force, several thousand strong, the membership has dwindled as we enter the series, and it continues to do so as the plot unfolds. A failed expedition (that ended in a mutiny), ever-more frequent raids and an episode-long attack on the Watch’s main stronghold, Castle Black, led by the “King beyond the Wall” leaves the task to serve as ‘the shield that guards the realms of men’ to no more than a couple of hundred “Brothers.”

Making matters worse, the reduced quantity of “Watchers on the Wall” is not necessarily compensated by their quality; or so it may be argued if a man’s quality was to be assessed by such features as his birth, upbringing, and repute: In the past the Watch used to recruit many of its members from noble houses (bastards, second, third or otherwise unwanted sons). Their service on the wall was regarded to be an honorable path to be pursued outside the structure of one’s ‘house’ and the responsibilities that comes along with it; in particular if the house has not (in some cases: has no longer) anything to offer to the male member in question: no estate to be managed, no title to be inherited, no smallfolk to be ruled.

While some of the characters serving on the Wall still match this profile as we enter the show (main characters such as Jon Snow and Samwell Tarley, of course, but also other important characters such as Jeor Mormont or Alliser Thorne), the overwhelming majority of the ‘Brothers’ does not. Of course, some may join the Watch because they are too poor to support themselves and serving on the Wall might seem better to them than starving somewhere else in the realm. Still: Most of the men guarding the wall are felons who chose the Wall over suffering the punishment for their crimes: Joining the Watch comes with the advantage of providing absolution for crimes committed in the past. In an age that not only lacks the infrastructure but also the acceptance for imprisonment as primary punishment for criminal offenses the choice thus presented seems to be on easy one: Joining the Watch may often (if not typically) be considered the lesser of two evils when the alternative is to lose life or limb.

And so, the headcount a Night’s Watch officer conducts out loud upon inspecting a group of new recruits in “Breaker of Chains” is quite telling as to the current composition of the force:

‘Raper, raper, horse thief, ninth-born son, raper, thief, thief and: raper…’

The (to say the very least:) ‘colorful’ background of its members, seems to suggest so see the Watch as a band of fortune hunters, quite similar to the popular image of military units such as the French Foreign Legion:[2] a bunch of men from all walks of life, looking for a fresh start by offering their service to a force that, in return, offers just that. Such an assessment is far from implausible. Still, it would miss out on various key characteristics of what a membership in the Watch entails, such as: service for life or renunciation of worldly goods and ties, to name just the more obvious ones. These key characteristics make it more tempting (even if still not that obvious) to contrast the Night’s Watch with core features of another institution that offers a fresh start to its members: monasticism.


§ 2


To turn to monasticism as a role model for the life in ‘the Watch’ may seem far-fetched at first glance. After all, hardly any members of the watch engage in hour-long prayer only to spend the rest of their day in the library copying manuscripts (of course: Samwell Tarley and Measter Aemon spend a good deal of their time there [even if not copying anything]. And Jon steps by from time to time, once even Stannis pays a brief visit to the library, only to conclude his brief encounter with Samwell by ordering him to ‘keep reading’). Still, to focus only on the differences would mean to overlook significant similarities, chief among them a vow of celibacy; something that has to strike us as odd from the very outset.

Also, and more importantly, it is imperative to realize that the view of ‘monastic life’ as ‘learned life’ shaped by Umberto Eco’s grand novel The Name of the Rose is hardly representative for monastic life in general and it surely is not representative for early monasticism in particular. To realize that, it is important to turn to the origins of the monastic movement.

In doing so, let’s start with the fundamental question: What is a monk? Of course: given the rich history of monasticism and the various phenomena associated with it, there is no clear-cut answer to that. Still, in a first step, it may prove to be useful to turn to the etymological roots of the concept: A monk (monos) is somebody who is alone; somebody who lives in solitude, outside the community of others.

The idea of seeking isolation and (thereby) finding oneself is deeply intertwined with the idea of ascetic (deriving from the Greek word ‘áskesis’ – ‘exercise’) self-abnegation; the path pursued by those individuals who would leave their families and communities, basically the life as they have known it, behind to find spiritual shelter in renouncing worldly goods, ties and pleasures. While this (fundamental) concept of monasticism has precursors in the old testament (think about the Prophet Elijah or John the Baptist), the movement gained notoriety (and a certain followership) in early Christianity when ascetics such as St. Simeon (~390-459 CE) who lived nearly 40 years on a pillar near Aleppo, Syria, (thus often referred to as ‘Stylites’, derived from the Greek word ‘style’ – ‘pillar’) started to withdraw from the world in order to pursue spiritual perfection in various parts of the Mediterranean.[3]

Typically, these ascetics would retreat to places just outside human civilization (often, they would retreat into the desert, ‘eremos’, thus the contemporary expression ‘hermit’) – close enough to be supplied with the necessary means of sustenance by those who would come to ask their advice in worldly or their intercession in spiritual matters, but far enough to be uninhibited by the daily concerns (and longings) of the members of the community.

Thus, borrowing a concept developed by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, we may describe these early monks as living outside-the-world while still being-in-the-world.[4] They do not (and cannot) flee the world, even if they live on the edge of the world, oftentimes occupying abandoned infrastructure used to guard the frontiers of the realm: St. Anthony (251-356! CE), for example, would spend years in a deserted fortress, practicing self-denial and resisting the devil’s various temptations.

Of course: To compare the men of the Night’s Watch to those world-renouncing ascetics who fight their inner demons in abandoned strongholds on the edge of the realm works to a certain extent. After all: The Men of the Night’s Watch do spend their days fighting demon-like creatures on the edge of the realm (oftentimes in fortresses that are not permanently manned due to a lack of manpower).

Still, it works only to a certain extent. Most importantly, because the Men of the Night’s Watch don’t fight these demons on their own. They are not monos in the sense that they are alone outside-the-world. They are a community of watchmen; a sworn brotherhood the members of which are alone together at best. The appropriate point of reference for our endeavor, it thus seems, is not the ascetic movement that initially shaped the idea of the ‘monk’ but what is commonly referred to as communal or ‘cenobite’ (‘koinos’ and ‘bios’ ‘living together’) monasticism: a community of monks united in the endeavor of withdrawal and renunciation.  



§ 3

Form-Of -Life

Cenobite monasticism is defined by its hierarchical structure and a strict adherence to a rule governing the life of the monastic community. The archetypical example of such a community is the network of monasteries founded by Pachomius in Egypt in the 4th Century CE. Pachomius originally set out to become a hermit when a voice ordered him to build a larger dwelling so that others seeking spiritual perfection could join him in his quest. When soon after that he indeed had found a substantial followership that accepted him as its ‘abba’ (father; the word from which ‘abbot’ derives), he united his followers under a system of ‘rules’ that would govern the admission to the monastery as well as the prerequisites and daily routines of monastic life.

This ‘regulated’ (‘regula’ – ‘rule’; until today clerics living under such a ‘rule’ are referred to as ‘regular clergy’) manner of living together outside-the-world while in-the-world proved to be formative for cenobitic monasticism as such. The idea quickly spread: By the 5th Century CE cenobitic communities emerge in Asia Minor, North Africa and Gaul. The most important ‘rulegiver’ to follow in Pachomius’ footsteps, however, proved to be St. Benedict of Nursia (~ 480 ­– ~ 550 CE).

The rule he devised in Monte Cassino around 535 CE would become the backbone of medieval monasticism in the West. By the 8th Century his rule had spread to France, England and Germany. By the 9th century it had become the model for the rules imposed on all the monasteries in Charlemagne’s realm. Only from the 11th century onward the rise of other rules was to be witnessed, governing the life of cenobitic communities such as the Augustinians, the Dominicans and the Franciscans; movements which emphasized the importance of poverty in the face of the grandeur displayed by Benedictian monasteries such as Cluny and its “daughter-houses”in France.

The Rule of St. Benedict consists of 73 Chapters and a Prologue.[5] It shapes the idea of cenobitic life as life in a community of ‘brothers’ under the supervision of an elected abbot. When seeking admission to the monastery, the novice’s perseverance and aptitude is tested over the course of a year. Following this period of trial, the novice has to vow obedience, adherence to the rules of monastic life, to renounce all personal property and to remain a part of the community until the end of his life.

While we are unaware of a specific ‘rule’ the men of the Night’s Watch are subjected to, the marked similarities between the vow the novice has to make upon the community of ‘brothers’ and the oath the recruit has to take upon becoming a ‘brother’ of the Watch are hard to overlook. Just as the novice is asked to, the recruit has to vow that his watch ‘shall not end until [his] death’, that he ‘shall take no wife, hold no lands and father no children’ that he shall ‘wear no crowns and win no glory [but rather] live and die at [his] post’.

Obedience, humility, world-renunciation and service for life are the cornerstones of cenobite monastic life and of the life in the Nights Watch alike. As a whole, the values thus represented provide guidance for the life in the Watch even absent a rule that would spell out specific implications in further detail. Indeed: Following a period of trial, the recruit’s life would be strictly regulated if he was to become a regular member of the Night’s Watch upon taking the oath.

In distinctly shaping the life of the members of the Watch, the oath and the system of rules it represents are inextricably intertwined with the life thus lead. In his insightful discussion of monastic rules, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben referred to this as the construction of a ‘form-of-life:[6] a life that is linked so closely to its form that it proves to be inseparable from it. The rule and the life under the rule become one and to submit oneself to the rule means to become someone else as the very result of said submission. It is, thus, not just pathos underlying Othell Yarwyck’s declaration right after Jon and Sam took their oath that they

‘knelt as boys; [and] rise now, as men of the Night’s Watch’.

Much rather it addresses their fundamental change of status: They have become ‘Men of the Night’s Watch’; members of the community with all the duties and responsibilities that come along with it. Chapter 58 of the rule of St. Benedict reflects what happens in taking the vows in utmost clarity stating that once the novice has promised

‘to observe everything and to obey every command given to him, […] let him then be received into the community. But he must be well aware that, as the law of the rule establishes, from this day he is no longer free to leave the monastery, nor to shake from his neck the yoke of the rule which, in the course of […] a period of reflection, he was free either to reject or to accept’


§ 4

A Matter of Habit

The change thus brought about is displayed outwardly by a change in attire for monks just as well as for the men of the ‘Watch’. On the one hand this expresses the resocialization novices as recruits underwent by entering into the community they are part of now. Already the rule of St. Pachomius indicates as much, emphasizing that those initiated Already the rule of St. Pachomius indicates as much, emphasizing those in initiated

‘have to remove [their] worldly garments and [be] clothe[d…] with those of the monks; [which] consists of two undergarments and a covering and a shaggy cloak of leather and shoes and two hoods and a girdle and a staff.’[7]

The change in attire, thus, expresses a change in social affiliation while, at the same time, it strengthens a sense of belonging of those initiated.

On the other hand, the outward mode of dress is an expression of the inner submission to the rule. Setting aside matters of social affiliation, the clothes of those living under the rule, thus, are not just worn for functional reasons (even if those considerations must by no means be necessarily disregarded). Much rather, the garment of the monk just as the attire of the Watcher on the Wall carries distinct moral connotations; more sophisticatedly so, of course, when it comes to the ‘Habit’ (the clothes worn by members of a religious order) and its various parts than when it comes to the clothes worn by the members of the Watch. Still, these garments serve the same purpose: to make the status of the one wearing it as ‘outside-the-world while still being-in-the-world’ visible.

Accordingly, Pope John Paul II emphasized in the apostolic exhortation ‘Vita Consecrata’ that

[t]he Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs. In this regard the Church has a right to expect a significant contribution from consecrated persons, called as they are in every situation to bear clear witness that they belong to Christ.

Since the habit is a sign of consecration, poverty and membership in a particular Religious family, I […] strongly recommend[…] to men and women religious that they wear their proper habit, suitably adapted to the conditions of time and place.[8]

For the Men of the Night’s Watch, their status of being-outside-the-world while still being-in-the-world is being displayed by the color of their clothing; or rather the lack of any color: Black, the absorption of all colors, signifies that those who wear it have been absorbed by the community, no matter their past or their background: no sigils to display allegiance to this house or that one; rather the absence of any allegiance other than to the Watch itself.  And the Watch, of course, does not need a sigil of its own. Its absorption is all-encompassing – plain black.

The light on the interconnection between outward attire and inward submission is not shone more brightly than by the self-perception of those bound by the oath they took. Just as the novice ‘takes the cloth’, the recruit ‘takes the black’, both accepting the consequences of their vows and displaying them by the way they dress. The ‘habit’, as Giorgio Agamben would emphasize, as piece of clothing, thus, perfectly mirrors the ‘habit’ accepted by the subjection to the rule.[9] It is the inner acceptance of the form-of-life turned outside by those who cohabit as cenobites; an ever-closer union of dress and way of life expressed by the homonymous designation of both.

It is against that backdrop, that it is far from implausible to argue that the tongue-in-cheek innuendo in the subtitle of Whoopie Goldberg’s Sister Act II: Back in the Habit was indeed the funniest (or at least the most thoughtful) part of the whole movie.


§ 5

The Death of Duty

Of course: the display of a habit may be one thing. It still is another to make a habit out of living by the standards thus implied, to enter into a permanent state of renunciation, and in doing so, to follow the example of the early ascetics, even if in community with others.

The Men of the Night’s Watch, it seems, carry a lesser, even if still most significant, burden when it comes to private property than monks living under Benedict’s, or under Pachomius’ rule. While taking an oath not to ‘hold any lands’ would bind commoners and high born alike, it would first and foremost only apply to real property: the members of the Watch descending from noble houses would have to forgo any claims to their titles and their inheritance upon entering the community (Samwell Tarley being – if not the only, in any case – the most notable example for such cases in the series); those (like Grenn and others) who grew up as sons of farmers would have to give up any claim to own or to till their family’s land.

Pachomius and Benedict take it one step further, requiring their disciples to renounce not just real estate but all private property. “No one,” we read in Pachomius rule, “shall live in his house, indeed not at all, and no one shall at all accumulate anything whatever, except what is given to him by his superiors.”

All goods, this implies, are to held by the community and to be subject to communal use. Their distribution would be at the discretion of the select few administering community matters. Benedict’s Rule puts an even stronger emphasis on this, requiring novices to renounce all private possession upon entering the community of monks:

“If he has any possessions, he should either give them to the poor beforehand, or make a formal donation of them to the monastery, without keeping back a single thing for himself, well aware that from that day he will not even have his own body at his disposal.”

Property as extension of personality is not to be reconciled with the end of self-negation sought by an individual about to be absorbed by the community. It is to be discarded or formally offered to the community as such. These offerings (along with significant endowments by outside benefactors) made some of the monastical communities fabulously wealthy over the decades and centuries to come while its members, even if sometimes perceived to live in abundance, still had no possessions to call their own. It was this development that led to mendicant (from Latin mendicare: to beg) movement of the 13th Century with its particular focus on renunciation directed not only to the individual but to the community as such. Renunciation would thus become not only a means of self-negation but a means of a communal effort towards spiritual perfection.

Of course, to renounce private property, is only half of the means employed in the struggle for complete abnegation. The other, maybe even more demanding, challenge posed by the oath to be taken upon entering the community of Brothers of the ‘Night’s in vowing to”‘take no wife […] and father no children.”

As Sam, at one point, correctly points out, strictly speaking, this does not amount to a vow of continence or chastity. Much rather, it is to be considered a vow of celibacy (from Latin caelebs: unmarried) strictly understood. Such a strict understanding follows the idea of the solitary man, not bound by ties to or responsibilities towards others and, thus, dedicated to his purpose only.

Still, the oath seems commonly to be understood to ask for continence (or at least for chastity). Otherwise, there would neither be a need to look the other way when it comes to the regular visits some of the men of the ‘Watch’ pay to the brothel in Mole’s Town, nor would there be any reason for Jon to be so upset after having spent several hours with Ygritte in that cave. Such a broader understanding of celibacy is shared, most prominently, by Canon Law which (in Can 277) determines that “[c]lerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy.”

Even if not necessarily clerics, monks would have to submit to a similar understanding of celibacy upon entering into the community in order to successfully participate in a struggle for spiritual perfection, in by particular overcoming the temptations of the flesh; to withstand the ‘desires of the flesh’ and ‘to love chastity’ being listed explicitly as ‘Instruments of Good Works’ in chapter 4 of St. Benedict’s rule.

This, of course, would concern also the way the members of the community had to conduct themselves with regard to one another. While the issue of homosexual conduct is not addressed directly when it comes to the ‘Watch’ on the one hand or when it comes to monastic rules on the other, the latter oftentimes indirectly take precautions that the sexual abstinence vowed would be observed among the monks. Chapter XXII of St. Benedict’s Rule, for example, provides for detailed sleeping arrangements, requiring the monks to “sleep in separate beds. […] If possible, all are to sleep in one place: but should the size of the community preclude this, they will sleep in groups of ten or twenty under the watchful care of seniors. A lamp must be kept burning in the room until morning. They sleep clothed and girded with belts or cords.”

Honi soit qui mal y pense…

Of course, given such strict demands, there would have to be some bumps on the road. After all, the Gospel itself tells us that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41). And so, traditionally, transgressions have been tolerated within the clergy and monastical communities (oftentimes irresponsibly so when it came to cases not just of consensual sexual intercourse but of outright sexual abuse; a dark chapter not suited for a brief and cavalier discussion in an essay on popular culture) just as they have been tolerated within the ‘Night’s Watch’. Oftentimes violations of a vow to celibacy were accepted out of institutional considerations, or simply to keep up appearances. Typically, however, they were accepted as a matter of course, from a practical point of view. After all, as Maester Aemon summarizes it for the purposes of the Watch: “If we beheaded every ranger who lay with a girl, the Wall would be manned by headless men.”

“To tolerate transgression” out of mere necessity does, however, emphatically not mean to dispose of the rule. Much rather, it would imply to give additional emphasis to a normative standard oftentimes practically disregarded. As a consequence, even open secrets, such as members of the clergy fathering children or the Men of the Watch sneaking off at night to   visit the local brothel would still have to remain (i.e. be treated as) secrets. Only this way the perception of the community as all-encompassing can remain intact; only this way it can be ensured that affection and relationships built on it would not foster; only this way, so the underlying rationale indicates, complete devotion to the community and its mission is safeguarded.

It is again Maester Aemon who highlights this when asking Jon Snow why the men of the Night’s Watch take no wives and father no children [answering himself:] “so they will not love. Love is the death of duty.”

§ 6


Duty, of course, is the essential consequence of the oath taken by a member of the Watch or the vow made by a monk. And, as this consequence, it is not to be perceived as an abstract moral concept such as the one famously described by the Roman philosopher statesman Cicero in his seminal tract De Officiis. Duty, in the context at hand, is to be understood as adherence either to the provisions of the rule or to the standards the oath entails. The question, who is to decide whether or not these standards and provisions have been met, how to meet them in the first place and how to punish those who fail to do so, is a question of the exercise of authority (see § 2).

In organizations of a certain minimum complexity, these questions are answered by referring to a close-knit hierarchical structure with a single individual at the top.  For the early monastic movement this individual is the Abbot, for the Night’s Watch this individual is the Lord Commander. Just as the Lord Commander, the Abbot is not appointed by any outside authority, but elected by the community; tellingly, the rule (ch. 64) requires in this regard “[g]oodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one one to be made abbot, even if he is the last in community rank.”

Jon Snow, it seems, may well have had a chance to make his stunningly quick ascendance in the monastic hierarchy just the same as he did in the Night’s Watch.

The Abbott, just as the Lord Commander, upon election is free to fill all the other leading positions in the hierarchy of the organization. Thus, the provost and the deans of the monastery are appointed according to the Abbots sole discretion (ch. 65) just as the First Builder, the First Ranger and the First Steward are appointed according to the sole discretion of the Lord Commander; a system of personal dependence designed to build a resilient hierarchy in which orders are carried out effectively. The tenet supporting this structure is, again for the ‘Watch’ just as for monastic life according the St. Benedict’s rule: obedience.

Obedience (along with ‘stability’ and ‘conversion of life’) is an essential part of the vow the novice has to take upon entering the community of monks (ch. 58). Its importance as a building block of monastic life cannot be overrated: ‘the first step of humility is unhesitant obedience’ (ch. 5):

“[A] superior’s order [is to be carried out] as promptly as the command came from God himself. [Thus, the addressees] immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will what they are doing, desert their own will and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished. what they were about, proceed with the foot of ready obedience to carry out the order given. […] This very obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness. For the obedience shown to superiors is given to God.”

“[W]illing obedience,”, C.H. Lawrence, the great historian of medieval monasticism, concludes, thus, may be considered “the cardinal monastic virtue.”10]

Even if lacking either divine underpinning or any approximation to personal humility, an oath to “live and die at [one’s] post” presupposes to perceive oneself within the hierarchy of the Watch and to follow the commands issued by one’s superiors. Obedience, thus, is necessary entailed in the very rationale of service in a force such as the Night’s Watch. And, as we have seen in the series, it is a principle sincerely observed (think about Jon returning from Hardhome, unsure whether the gate to Castle Black would be opened upon his arrival: it would); even in the most extreme of circumstances: Jon is stabbed to death (“for the Watch”) by Thorne and his followers who choose rather to overthrow than to undermine their leader, rather to revolt than to disobey. Thorne’s apologetic in the aftermath of Jon’s death tells a lot about his (and the others’) obedience:

“We’ve committed treason, all of us. Jon Snow was my Lord Commander. I had no love for him, that was no secret, but I never once disobeyed an order. Loyalty is the foundation on which the Night’s Watch is built, and the Watch means everything to me. I’ve given my life, we’ve all given our lives to the Night’s Watch. Jon Snow was going to destroy the Night’s Watch. He led the wildlings through our gates as no Lord Commander has ever done before. He gave them the very land on which they reaved and raped and murdered. Lord Commander Snow did what he thought was right, I’ve no doubt about that, and what he thought was right would have been the end of us. He thrust a terrible choice upon us, and we made it.”


§ 7


Of course, Thorne’s argument invites a discussion as to whether Jon’s death was justified from the perspective of the conspirators, necessitated even by the danger brought about by his irresponsible actions? Were their hands forced by the greater good: the mission of the ‘Watch’, or even: the survival of the Westerosi civilization as a whole? Questions like these have occupied the minds of great thinkers from Plato to Thomas Aquinas and beyond. Commonly this line of reasoning (even if it may lead to different results, depending on the position taken) is summarized by the superordinate concept tyrannicide.[11] And it may well be asked against that background whether Jon indeed was to be considered a tyrant who (at the very least) willingly tolerated the destruction of what his men (or many of them) considered to be the prime enterprise of the force.

Still: Comparing the Watch and early monasticism another point of reference seems mandated: To kill the abbot means more than just to kill the leader, for whichever weighty reasons, more than plain tyrannicide. To kill the abba (see above § 3), to kill the father of the community, means to commit patricide. For the Watch, Jon makes this particularly clear in the aftermath of the mutiny that lead to the death of Lord Commander Mormont (the point when it all went south really) by stating that “[i]f the Night’s Watch are truly brothers, then Lord Commander Mormont was our father. He lived and died for the Watch and he was betrayed by his own men. Stabbed in the back by cowards. He deserved far better. All we can give him now is justice.”

What he mourns, evidently, is not (or at least: not only) the loss of a leader; what he mourns is the loss of the towering figure at the top of the family in its original understanding: The Latin term familia did not (at least: not necessarily) designate a relation of (close) kinship but the household and its affiliates under patriarchal authority (i.e. under the authority of a pater familas).

Still, as interesting as the position of the abbot or the Lord Commander as a father figure, is the self-perception of those living under their authority as brothers; not by kinship, of course (even if that wouldn’t hurt necessarily), but united in their common task, bound by oath and rule. Brothers: equals in pursuing their task of spiritual perfection or common defense, commended and promoted by the abbot or the Lord Commander solely on merit, and not because of personal traits or higher birth.

Chapter 2 of the Rule of St. Benedict, thus, orders the abbot explicitly to avoid “all favouritism in the monastery. [And] not to love one more than another unless he finds someone better in good actions and obedience. [And, finally, to l]et not one of gentle birth be placed higher than one who was recently a serf, unless there be some other and reasonable cause.” [12]

Under the abbot’s authority, the moral equality of the souls under his care was spelled out to a degree hitherto unknown to western societies; and its implications for a broader understanding of equality of individuals in their personal and political capacity should prove to be substantial.[13] It is hardy far-fetched to make the same argument for the Westerosi society and the unique perception of equality as distinctive feature of the ‘Brothers of the Watch’; an understanding expressed in an unsurpassed manner by Jeor Mormont in his welcome address to the new recruits under his command:

“You came to us as outlaws, poachers, rapers, killers, thieves. You came alone, in chains, without friends, nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses, others only bastard names or no names at all; it does not matter. All that is in the past. Here, on the Wall, are all one house… A man of the Night’s Watch lives his life for the realm. Not for a king, or a lord, or the honor of this house or that house. Not for gold, nor glory, nor a woman’s love. But for the realm! And all the people in it.”



[1] See Thomas Nail, ‘Theory of the Border’, Oxford University Press 2016, at 64-85.

[2] Not that this image is necessarily correct – see, for example, Nicola Cooper, The French Foreign Legion: Forging Transnational Identities and Meanings, 17 French Cultural Studies (2006) 269.

[3] For detailed references as to the origins and the history of the monastic movement outlined in this essay see I. Gregory Smith, ‘Christian Monasticism from the Fourth to the Ninth Century of the Christian Era’, A. D. Innes 1892 and C.H. Lawrence, ‘Medieval Monasticism’, 2nd edition, Longman 1989. For a concise Introduction to the topic Stephen Davis, ‘Monasticism’, Oxford University Press 2018.

[4] Just see Hubert Dreyfus, Being-In-the-World, MIT Press 1991, at 40-59.

[5] This essay relies on the translation by Timothy Fry (ed), ‘The Rule of St. Benedict in English’, The Liturgical Press 1982. For recent academic edition see Bruce Venarde (ed), ‘The Rule of Saint Benedict’, Harvard University Press 2011.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Highest Poverty’, Stanford University Press 2013.

[7] Translation according to G. H. Schodde, ‘The Rules of Pachomius’, T&T Clark 1885.

[8] Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation ‘Vita Consecrata’ of the Holy Father John Paul II to the Bishops and Clergy Religious Orders and Congregations Societies of Apostolic Life Secular Institutes and all the Faithful on the Consecrated Life and its Mission in the Church and in the World, 25 March 1996.

[9] Agamben supra n. 6, at 13- 16

[10] C.H. Lawrence, St. Benedict and his Rule, 67 History 185, 191 (1982).

[11] See, from a historical perspective, Franklin L. Ford, ‘Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism’, Harvard University Press 1985.

[12] The translation offered here relies in part on ‘The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English’, 1931 S.P.C.K.

[13] See Larry Siedentop, ‘Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism’, 2014 Harvard University Press, at 88-99.

Christoph Bezemek is Professor of Law and Dean of the Faculty of Law at University of Graz.